by Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, December 2003
(published in Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith)
By nine o’clock I thought I had gone insane. I was consumed by my desire to consume. Orange juice, cafe con leche, bread, water. Fucking water. Who in this country fantasizes about water? But there I was, four hours into a month long fast and I was fantasizing about streams of cool clear fluid moving through my body like raindrops flowing through soil to the roots.
I wasn’t even hungry, not really. The hunger I was feeling wasn’t the result of an empty stomach—it was desire. And it was obvious, even to me, that I felt it so strongly only because I knew I wasn’t going to eat again until after the sun had set that night. It must be so much worse when Ramadan is in the summer. But knowing that didn’t matter.
That morning I’d woken up at five. As far as I could remember, I hadn’t been up that early in years. Maybe for some road trip or something—I liked to think that if I had to get up before dawn then it should be for devilment, mischievousness. Instead, there I was in the cold darkness of my mother’s house preparing for an act of religious piety, of submission to God, of profound internal discipline: things completely foreign to me. And yet there I was, making my breakfast in the dark.
When I first stumbled into the kitchen, I decided against my usual habit of turning on the radio. The silence felt encouraging. Instead, I turned up the dial on the thermostat and, as I heard the furnace pop on, I felt instantly warmer even without the warmth— the anticipation of heat was enough.
Click click click whooomp: The burner on the stove flowered a thick blue flame. I filled a metal saucer with milk, put it on the burner and watched beads of water form on the outside as the flames wrapped around the cool aluminum. Quickly, they evaporated. I placed a pot of water on another burner to boil. As I put two slices of bread in the toaster I stopped to look at the stars outside through my kitchen window. It was still legitimately nighttime.
After a few minutes the water came to a boil and I dropped two eggs into the pot. One cracked a little as it hit the bottom and thin streams of egg-white swirled around in the boiling water like heavy smoke. I sat and waited for them to cook.
I could get into this, I thought to myself. It was peaceful. I rarely paid much attention to my breakfast. It felt good to be so mindful. When the eggs were done I brought them to the sink, cracked them gently on the tile and pealed them under cold running water. As I went to grab my toast I noticed the sky was changing color. There was a bright shot of blue behind the houses across the street and it moved slowly through the treetops. Time had been moving faster than me. Still, I ate slowly. Mixed my coffee into the hot milk. I only eat hard-boiled eggs on Easter, I realized. They’re dope. I should eat them more often. My breakfast was simple and perfect. After eating, I drank a glass of OJ and downed three more glasses of water. Once the sun came up, that was it: There would be no food or water until the sun had set.
Each night at work I broke fast with a glass of water. I had come to look forward to the feeling of the coldness rushing down my throat and into my stomach, where it was instantly absorbed into my body. As I stood there in the dark appreciating the sensation, my supervisor came into the kitchen and, realizing that my fast was over for the day, clasped her hands and graced me with a gentle bow. She asked me how it was going, how I was processing the fast spiritually, where I was orienting myself in relation to the Divine.
I could barely even fucking think straight never mind start talking spirituality and metaphysics. She talked about my spirit as if it were a tool I had some idea how to use. I just listened and poured myself another glass. I recognized the disconnect, but I didn’t understand it. It was about the water and it was about my soul. There was a relationship between them that I was trying to bring into focus. I was honest with her. I had very little sense of the Divine or of what my spirit consisted, never mind in what direction it was oriented. This path that I had found myself on was new to me, and I was learning how to walk.
She told me about a three week long fast she had done once in Holland or Austria or somewhere. The first week was just water. The second week, she was allowed to drink goat’s milk. The third week she could eat yogurt. It sounded intense. There were a few obvious ways in which it was a lot different from what I was doing. First, she could relax all day in nature and just chill and meditate and read and write. Plus, she wasn’t starting and stopping everyday—it was a prolonged, slow fast that began severely but gradually brought her back.
There is something about the flux of Ramadan that might make it more psychologically debilitating than a straight fast. At least different. As my supervisor explained it, in a complete fast your subconscious has time to catch up with your mind. Your whole being slows down. You start to become more aware of and in tune with your inner clock, your internal way of understanding time that seems so foreign to us as we measure our days and weeks by mechanical devices. For her, the sensation was deeply moving. It must be pretty amazing, I thought, to reconnect with this lost sense of time, our innate sense of “real time.”
But Ramadan didn’t seem to be about that. The fast during Ramadan begins and ends according to completely external factors. It reminds me of that game you play in gym class in elementary school: red-light, green-light. You run towards the teacher when she yells “Green light!” and you stop when she turns around and yells “Red light!” If you don’t stop at that instant you’re fucking out of the game. It’s all about someone else’s clock.
Now, Allah is thought to be a lot more merciful and forgiving than your gym teacher, but the point is the same: Ramadan messes with you. There’s something about the stop-and-go of it that’s just debilitating to the psyche. The fast gets physically easier as the month goes on, but for me it became more difficult to commit to.
After a few more glasses of water, I left work and it was completely dark. Though I was exhausted, the air was cold and energizing. I didn’t feel hungry, just calm. As I waited for the cars to pass before crossing the street, I happened to look up to the sky. There was the moon right above me, dangling, half-glowing, half-invisible. As I watched it I got hit with this wild realization. I realized I could follow the progress of my fast by keeping an eye on the moon every night. Ramadan starts when the first sliver of moon is seen and ends at the first sign of the next sliver. Here I could see I was about a quarter of the way through. For one of the only times in my life, I felt connected to the Big Clock. Not the internal clock that my supervisor was telling me about, but the kind of time that moves in giant tectonic sweeps, manifested in the impenetrable mechanics of gravity and light, of space and stars. And not only did I notice it, I was connected to it. I was doing something I had never consciously done before: basing my actions on the motions of planetary objects, on the motions of the heavens. How sad, I thought, that this was the first time.
Boss was supportive but realistic when I told him I was going to fast for Ramadan.
“You know, Vega,” he told me, “maybe you should fast only the first two weeks. For your first time, one month is a lot. Even the toughest cannot go too much past one month. Even the toughest, they break. One month: It is the breaking point. You suffer and you suffer and you suffer, then at that last minute, right before you break, Allah lets you eat again and drink. Oh, He is merciful!”
He told me maybe I should not fast completely. Maybe I should drink water or even juice for the month. “This way you don’t suffer too much.”
He was fucking with me, but still his warnings made me feel good. I had no intention of drinking juice or water. If I was going to do it, I wanted to commit to the whole shebang.
Two weeks into the fast, though, I told him I was thinking about starting to drink water on the third week. It was getting pretty rough.
“Pussy,” he said, “only the pussies drink water during Ramadan. Vega, are you a pussy?”
Whoa, I thought, Boss called me a pussy. Boss was good at making you realize the tough things about yourself. I decided to stick with it, not just cause I didn’t want to be a pussy but because he made me realize I was tricking myself into quitting. Boss was good like that. The tough part is when his honesty isn’t consistent. His opinion changes all the time so one day he tells you to drink juice and the next day you’re a pussy for drinking water. But by now I’ve come to learn that’s what’s great about him: It’s not about the water, it’s about the honesty.
“To be totally honest, it seems kind of silly,” another friend was saying to me, “I mean, why are you doing it? Are you just trying to prove that you can?”
I was a little offended. I was also a little disturbed because I felt there was an element of truth in it. But no, I realized that wasn’t even true: I knew I could do it. I wanted to see if I would do it.
“No,” I said, “I’m doing it ’cause it’s a worthwhile spiritual endeavor.” That was becoming my line, and I was getting tired of repeating it. “Fasting makes sense to me and I’ve never done it and I’ve always wanted to. It’s pretty simple: Ever since I worked for Boss I wanted to fast during Ramadan but I wasn’t in a place where it seemed feasible. Now I’m in a position where I can. Plus —” I was feeling defensive “— there’s like more than a billion Muslims in the world, you know? One-fifth of the goddamn planet. And they’re all doing this. Why wouldn’t I, no—how couldn’t I try it once in my life?”
My friend wasn’t really hearing me, so I went on:
“People are willing to try all kinds of stupid shit all the time: crack, sky-diving, whatever. Trying to have new experiences. But those things don’t take any kind of commitment. You’re not making any sacrifices when you have those experiences. They’re easy. No effort. This is a commitment. Why is it strange that I would commit to an experience?”
“Why don’t you fast for Yom Kippur?” He asked sort of snidely. He was Jewish.
“Maybe I’ll do it next year.” I said. “Anyway, I got fucking circumcised . Isn’t that enough of a commitment to one religion for a lifetime?”
“Yom Kippur?!” Boss scoffed as I recounted the story to him that night, “One day! Big fucking deal! And the Christians are even worse,” he said. “Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead to save these fucking people, sacrificed his own life, and what do they do to celebrate? They go and buy all kinds of junk, they go and buy clothes and remote control cars and all this bullshit and then they eat and drink all day long till they’re drunk and fat and sick to their stomachs… Fucking cock-sucker motherfucking white people.”
“Well, you know they’re supposed to give up their favorite thing for Lent, that’s like forty days—”
“So what?” He wasn’t cutting them any slack. “Some fat old lady gives up chocolate for one month. Big deal. Americans don’t know about suffering. They don’t know about sacrifice.”
“Well, they don’t need to.”
“And you know why? You know why, Vega?”
“Because Allah loves America,” he said. I laughed, but he went on: “My wife tells me I’m crazy”—Boss’s wife is an American, non-Muslim—”but it even says so in the Q’uran.”
“It says ‘Allah loves America’ in the Q’uran?” I asked.
“It says: ‘Allah shall bless the people and the countries he loves.’ Look at America. How many jobs, how much opportunity. Allah loves America. Vega, go to Algeria, and ask anyone on the street if they have ever heard of a place where it rains in the summer! Do you understand that, Vega? Nowhere back home, in all of Africa or the Middle East, does it rain in the summer. All of Africa!” Of course, he was exaggerating. “Vega, do you know how people think about water back home? What they would do for water in the summer? Do you know what it means to them?”
I was thinking about my fast. That is, in fact, part of the point of Ramadan. Many feel that when we deprive ourselves of food and water we come to an understanding of the needy and live in allegiance with them for some time. We experience suffering by intention, and through that we come to better understand the nature of suffering. In general, Islam puts a great emphasis on alms and giving, respect and offerings for the poor. Here was another way to respect it—not through charity but through direct experience.
“I don’t know,” I answered, and I thought of the words of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him: Hunger is God’s food whereby He revives the bodies of the sincere ones.
“Maybe I have some idea,” I said.
“Aaaaaaaaahhhhh,” Boss whispered mischeviously. “Maybe now you know!”