The challenges of Ramadan should be welcomed

Despite the favourable work conditions during the holy month, Ramadan is a time of worthy struggle

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES,  August 19, 2012. Worshippers gather and pray at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi for the Eid morning prayers that follows on the first morning of the end of the holy month of Ramadan. (ANTONIE ROBERTSON / The National)
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I can tell that Ramadan is drawing near by the audible sighs from close friends and colleagues around me. There are the witty asides about "enjoy the coffee while we can" and groans about a lack of energy ahead, and then there was the mini meltdown one of my fellow Muslim friends had this week upon realising that the holy month begins sometime next week.

“I am just not ready,” he moaned. “This is like giving the computer a hard reboot; it takes a long while for it to adjust.”

I have known this particular friend long enough to realise this is all part of his pre-Ramadan routine. It often begins with shock at the "sudden arrival" of the holy month, then moves on to a grumpy yet stoic attitude in the first week, and, by the time we roll into the second half of Ramadan, he becomes more reflective and tearful at how it is passing so quickly.

On the other hand, I have another friend whose trajectory last year was quite the opposite. He greeted the holy month with the fanfare of a wedding celebration, only to finish Ramadan satisfied yet bone-tired. It made me realise there is no sure-fire way of preparing for Ramadan.

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I am starting to wean myself off caffeine and unnecessary arguments – which I should do anyway – even so, that’s no guarantee for a successful fast. Instead, it depends on where I am at mentally when Ramadan arrives.

This reflects both the beauty and daunting nature of this period. The fasting process often acts as an X-ray to both my emotional and spiritual health, with the results arriving in spurts throughout the course of the four-week period.

Over the years, I have found that through the removal of liquids and the idle chatter that would often make me thirsty, I get a keen insight into my habits and ineffective use of my time, and through my concerted efforts to attend the nightly communal Taraweeh prayer – which is exclusive to Ramadan – at my local mosque, I also realise I am not as lonely.

One of the most interesting aspects of spending Ramadan in Abu Dhabi over the past seven years is the joy and challenges that come with fasting when being in a Muslim majority.

When it comes to the former, there is a special vibe to the month; it’s something of a team effort.

During my years in Australia, a lot of the strain came from the practical challenges and explanations that came with Ramadan. The lack of reduced working hours meant that each day needed to run like clockwork, so as to arrive home in time for iftar before jumping in the car again and driving a few suburbs away to make it to the night prayers at the local mosque.

Then there were the endless explanations at work regarding the restricted consumption of water during this period. While the questions were mostly good natured, by the two-week mark they became something of a grind.

Everybody here in Abu Dhabi and the broader UAE knows the score. While the fasting here is a more relaxed affair – with the exception of the scorching heat – it does present some unexpected trials.

Perhaps it is human nature, but we seem to value something less when it’s not laced with some effort. There are reduced working hours and a plethora of mosques that make the month go as smoothly as possible, but a sense of apathy has started to creep into this time of year for me. I fast and do my best to attend the prayers, but it remains an invisible grip that tightens and releases sporadically.

I once conveyed my worries to the imam of my then-local Khalidiya mosque and explained how I often worried that my Ramadan sometimes felt like chewing gum that had lost its flavour. “There are no shortcuts to Ramadan,” he said, with a chuckle. “The benefit comes from the struggle, and each one of us has our own. Just keep going and take it day by day, and as you know, some days are better than others.”

And with that in mind, I am approaching this year's Ramadan without worry or jubilance. I am sure it's going to feel like a slog at times, but the lessons and insights that inevitably come along with it are always worth it. With a week or so to go though, allow me to indulge in a few more cups of coffee, that's all I ask.


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