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September 4, 2008 Fasting, Day 3

Day 1 of fasting was pretty easy. I ate a big breakfast before dawn and then spent the rest of the day traveling, so busy bustling from connection to connection that I didn’t really notice I hadn’t eaten. A woman sitting next to me on one of the buses was smuggling food into her mouth, and apologetically explained to me that she was en congĂ©, getting the vacation from fasting that all women get once in the month.* Why Moroccan custom ignores the provision for travelers, I don’t know. Maybe because traveling these days is so much easier than in times past? Riding planes, trains, buses, automobiles, etc burns fewer calories than mastering a camel or horse, let alone walking. But regardless, we were on a bus and she was hiding her food from everyone except me.

When it was time to break the fast, the bus pulled into a town filled with restaurants. We were close to our destination, but apparently letting people eat now was more important than getting us to where we were going. So I ate some of the traditional fast-breaking foods, harira, eggs, and juice, and bought some peaches to enjoy later in the evening.

So Day 1 of fasting was over before I even really much noticed it.

Day 2 of fasting, I slept late, socialized through the morning, kept busy through the afternoon, and cheerfully broke my fast with my host family, munching on fat bread, harira (soup), helawa (cookies), juice, eggs, olives, another bowl of harira, some more bread, zmita, and tea. Coffee is more traditional, but Ama had made both, so I gratefully accepted the tea. (I’m not fond of either, but I *really* dislike coffee.) After I got home, I ate a couple peaches and made popcorn.

Day 3 of fasting is hard. I’ve had less to do today, and the time is inching by. Also, I have more ready access to food today than I did yesterday or the day before, and it’s taunting me. I’ve thought of all sorts of reasons to eat: I’m hungry. I’m not Muslim. I’m not feeling well. Nobody would know.

They all sound as weak to me as they must to you, and have forced me to confront the fact that I tend to be a pretty self-indulgent person. Maybe this is one of the reasons the Prophet Mohammad instigated a month of fasting: self-knowledge. I’m a generally good person, I’ve always thought, and therefore I’m pretty easy-going about indulging myself when I feel like it. I work hard, so why not drop into a movie theater on a Saturday afternoon? I eat healthy, most of the time, so why not finish off a pint of Ben & Jerry’s once in a blue moon?

The rationalizations always make sense, and this is the first time I can think of when I really want something I’m not letting myself have. I don’t tend to want bad things, so my self-indulgence has always seemed quite harmless, but I see now that it has bred within me a sorry lack of self-discipline.

And the minutes continue to drag by.

I ate this morning; Ama warned me last night that I should have breakfast at 3, because there’s no eating after 3:30. I set my alarm so that I wouldn’t sleep through breakfast, but happened to wake up naturally at 2:45, so I ate some bread then, before falling back asleep. Maybe fasting would be easier if I skipped breakfast. I’ve noticed before that I get hungry for lunch on days I eat breakfast, but can otherwise go till dinnertime without eating anything. (This habit of skipping meals effortlessly is one of the reasons I’d thought fasting would be easy.) Or maybe there’s an important difference between missing a meal, ie letting it go past without noticing, like landscape when I’m reading on a bus, and fasting, the deliberate choice to not eat.

But why am I fasting? I’m not Muslim, so why am I subjecting myself to this? Out of respect for my community? They don’t ask me to wear a head scarf, and I’m sure they’d understand if I chose not to fast. Everyone I’ve spoken to has been surprised – happily surprised – to hear that I am fasting. It would be disrespectful to walk through the streets on a hot afternoon while chugging water in front of my fasting neighbors, but eating and drinking in the privacy of my apartment wouldn’t directly upset anyone. Many Peace Corps Volunteers do just that.

But it would change my answer to the question, “Is da-ttazumt?” from a yes to a no. Or else it would make my yes a lie.

And I find that I’m not yet ready to do that. I’m fasting because my community is fasting, and I want to be a part of this community, not just a visitor to it. I’m fasting because I want to better understand the religion of submission, which is what Islam means. I’m fasting because I said I would, and I don’t want to make a liar of myself. (Rationalization kicks in: I did say I’d fast inshallah, which is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. It wasn’t a promise, it was an expressed hope. And then I respond to my inner rationalizer: Oh, shut up.)

* Exceptions to fasting: Children, the dying, the gravely ill, travelers, new mothers (but only for the first 40 days after childbirth), and menstruating women. Some women have referred to the days where they don’t fast as conge, from the French word for vacation; others just pat their lower bellies and say “I have a problem.” All of these exceptions are only temporary; you’re supposed to fast for a solid month, so if you eat on a fasting day, because you fall under one of these exempt categories, you need to make it up sometime later.

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