Ramadan: The Ultimate Exercise in Self-Control

As we near the final days of Ramadan (PHEW!) I suppose I should get around to finally writing this post. I’ve wanted to share my experiences as a non-Muslim fasting during this holy month in Jordan, but have been too weak with hunger to push down on the keyboard with enough force to type a complete sentence… (yes, I am exaggerating, but I’ve found I slip into self pity much faster when I’m hungry).


Ramadan is the holy month in Islam, which takes place during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. Since the calendar is determined by the moon, that month is not set each year. The observance of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, alongside daily confessions of faith, daily ritual prayer, paying the alms tax and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ramadan is observed by fasting from dawn until sunset, abstaining from food, drink, smoking and sex and is mandatory for healthy adults. Exceptions are made for children, those who are ill, those who are traveling, pregnant, breastfeeding, diabetic, and for women who have their period. Since the lunar calendar determines the month, some Ramadans are easier than others. My coworkers reminisce about winter fasting: daylight hours are shorter, and the cold temperatures don’t trigger thirst the way 90 degrees and sunny does. This particular year, Ramadan falls during hottest month, with the longest daylight hours (July 10 – August 8 or 9). Yay for me…..

Within Islam, there are several reasons for fasting (http://www.muslim.org/islam/ramadan.htm):

  1. To develop and strengthen our powers of self-control, so that we can resist wrongful desires and bad habits, and therefore “guard against evil.” In fasting, by refraining from the natural human urges to satisfy one’s appetite, we are exercising our ability of self-restraint, so that we can then apply it to our everyday life to bring about self-improvement.
  2. To attain nearness and closeness to God so that He becomes a reality in our lives. As we bear the rigours of fasting purely for the sake of following a Divine commandment, knowing and feeling that He can see all our actions however secret, it intensifies the consciousness of God in our hearts, resulting in a higher spiritual experience.
  3. To learn to refrain from usurping other’s rights and belongings. In fasting we voluntarily give up even what is rightfully ours; how can then we think of taking what is not ours but belongs to someone else?
  4. Charity and generosity is especially urged during Ramadan. We learn to give, and not to take. The deprivation of fasting makes us sympathise with the suffering of others, and desirous of alleviating it; and it makes us remember the blessings of life which we normally take for granted.

My Decision to Fast

I traveled to the West Bank from July 7-10 with our Deputy Director of Health and the four other American interns in the UNRWA Health Department. Because of the moon, the exact start and end date of Ramadan are not known until sometimes as little as 24 hours in advance. We thought Ramadan might start on Tuesday, but less than 10 hours before the fast would have begun, the moon rose, was apparently not full, and we heard that the month would not, in fact, start until Wednesday at dawn. The five of us decided that we would at least try to fast, and see how long we could go (one of the girls is Muslim, so she would be fasting no matter what). Our first casualty came about 12pm on Wednesday, while the second came Thursday morning at breakfast. That left me and one other girl (it wouldn’t be fair to count my roommate who has been doing this her whole life) who made it until last week when she returned to the states. And then there was one…

I can’t speak to the other girls’ reasons for fasting that first day, but for me, I had already planned to abstain from food and drink in the office, out of respect for my coworkers, so I figured, what’s another few hours each day? After realizing I was one of the only ones still successfully fasting, however, I decided to keep doing it to see how long I could last. After a while, it became easier to do, and harder to stop. My coworkers, upon learning that I was fasting, were so excited I was doing it with them, and would ask me every day how I was holding up. By that point, I didn’t want to disappoint them by failing to fast the whole month.

I’m not Muslim, and I’m not doing this for any sort of religious reason, however there is something so sweet about breaking fast with others who have not eaten or drank all day. Something to be said for the solidarity you have with 99% of the people around you. My coworkers can’t sneak a drink of water when they are thirsty, or eat a sandwich in the privacy of their office when they are hungry. I would feel like I was cheating if I did the same. Those first few days, I would head to the grocery store about an hour before Iftar to buy food for dinner. Everyone’s body language just screamed: “I am miserable right now!” To add insult to injury, people are shopping for and cooking huge feasts all day, yet can’t snack on anything they are cooking. Families loaded up grocery carts full of fruits, and sweets and juices, yet are forced to stand (sway?) there at the register, dry-mouthed and woozy, hours away from actually being able to indulge in any of the treats. As they say, misery loves company. Had anyone been seen tasting a sample of cheese or deli meat at the counter, I would not have been surprised to see them torn limb from limb by hungry fasters. Needless to say, even if one isn’t fasting, it’s best to abstain from eating or drinking anything in public… out of respect, yes, but also in the interest of self-preservation.

The Experience

As with juice cleanses and other fasts (through which I’ve never made it even 12 hours), the first couple of days were the hardest. However, by day 3 or 4, I started to feel much better than I had in the beginning. I didn’t feel the need to nap the afternoon away, and I wasn’t plauged with terrible headaches that felt like massive hangovers. Several times a day however, I AM struck by intense pangs of hunger. The kind of growling that is loud, and makes you feel weak and nauseous. The pangs that you get if you haven’t yet eaten lunch by 2 or 3pm. But, I’ve found if I tough it out for 20 minutes or so, they pass, and I don’t feel that kind of hunger again until the next mealtime. Nevertheless, my roommates are now familiar with the term “hangry,” and know to give me a wide berth for the two to three hours before Iftar…

I have the perfect excuse not to work out, since doing that in 90 degree weather without water would be ridiculous. It’s a slight bummer, since I had gotten into a pretty good routine with my roommate pre-Ramadan, but who are we kidding, I’m not devastated…. I’ve actually adopted the opposite afternoon habits and have enjoyed having a legitimate reason to be lazy. I find that napping helps to pass the time, and since it’s too hot out to do much and most shops are closed, I don’t even feel that guilty. Plus, this is what Jordanians do, so I’m just immersing myself in the full experience!

The worst part by far has got to be the thirst. It’s not as marked as it was the first week, but on a particularly hot day, or after a more rigorous stroll outside than I might otherwise have planned, it can be brutal. Case in point: I was attending a training for my next project in Jordan in a new location. According to the map (which, I learned the hard way, was not to scale), the building I was looking for was just across from a mall I am familiar with. I was dropped off there, but ended up walking up and down hills in a long sleeved cardigan in what had to have been 90 degree weather for an hour before I finally found the place I was supposed to be. Needless to say, the thirst was nearly unbearable that day. But in general, as long as I don’t exert myself too much, I can make it to break fast – or “iftar.”

I’ve been too lazy to actually get up for “sohor” in the middle of the night (explanation below), but I do drink at least 2-3 liters of water before bed, which helps a lot with the dehydration and thirst during the day.

As I got into the groove of fasting, I had to admit that nothing tastes as sweet as that first sip of water or that first bite of food after almost 20 hours. It really makes me feel like I’ve earned my dinner. Normally, I often snack right up until dinner and end up feeling crappy for eating so much. Plus, I’ve lost at least a handful of pounds – maybe closer to two, and nothing makes a girl feel better quite like a loose waistband…

Jordan During Ramadan

The most interesting experience by far has been being here in Jordan, a predominately Muslim country, during Ramadan. Of course, we’d been warned that things would be different during Ramadan, but we were wholly unprepared for the extent to which life here changed this past month. I won’t make a sweeping generalization for all Middle Eastern countries, but I’d venture to guess that many of these things are similar.

Store hours: Stores open late in the day, if at all, and close around 6. Iftar takes place around 7:45 each evening, so employees will shut everything down, go home for the break fast and come back to open things back up around 8:30 or 9. However, things don’t really get going until 10 or 11pm, when the malls, shops, sheesha (hooka) bars, and coffee shops are teeming with people. As my apartment has adopted the sleeping habits of 75 year old women since arriving here, we tend to break the fast at home, watch a few episodes of Friday Night Lights, and head to bed by 10:30. However, on the handful of nights we have ventured out past 9pm, I’ve been shocked by the sheer number of people out and about. Young children, babies even, are wide-awake and running around at midnight; people are guzzling Turkish coffee (like espresso) and smoking sheesha as if there is no tomorrow. The malls are open for business and full of shoppers loaded down with bags of clothes and shoes. Grocery stores stay open, and “Ramadan specials” can be seen everywhere. It’s common for people to stay out until 3 or 4 or even 5am.

Which bring us to work hours: Working hours are different for everyone during Ramadan. We received several emails pre-Ramadan reminding us at UNRWA of the working hours during the month. Depending on your preference, you can get your 6 hours in first thing in the morning, and head home by 1pm, or you can sleep in a little later if you tend to stay out late, and stay a bit later in the afternoon. My roommates and I like to keep the same schedule we did earlier this summer, getting here by 8:30am, so that we can head home by 2 and have the whole afternoon open (in retrospect, this was probably a bad idea, considering nothing is open in the afternoons, and I can’t exert myself beyond moving from couch to bed, plus, I still have nearly six hours to kill before break fast). But its common for the offices in the Health Department to not fill up until 10 or 11am.

Pace of Work: Working hours, combined with everyone’s irregular sleeping and eating schedules during Ramadan, means that for researchers, Ramadan is not a good month to be collecting data. Since the data I needed for my project this summer has to do with the client flow, waiting times and crowdedness at our health centers, it needed to be collected on “normal working days,” which Ramadan is not. That meant that all of our data collection had to be completed prior to the start of Ramadan, as people would be visiting the clinics at different hours, potentially with different ailments, and the holiday hours for patients meant that client demographics could be different. In addition, the clinic itself had a shorter workday. The shortened workdays at the office, coupled with Ramadan being a popular time to take vacation time, means that we’re working with a skeleton staff on any given day, and inevitably, things like transcription and translation take longer than they might otherwise.

Random Sounds of Celebration: We’re inclined to label the loud bangs we hear starting around 8pm and lasting all night as fireworks. We’re not entirely sure, but we do know that at random times, and at varying proximity to our apartment, we hear exceptionally loud noises, and every so often will actually see legitimate fireworks in our street. Houses are adorned with lights and decorations, not unlike houses during Christmas in December.

Iftar: the break fast seems to be traditionally held within your home, with your family, however, there are price fixe dinners all over town. I believe it is traditional for Muslims to break their fast with a date and some water or juice, followed by something warm and liquid, like soup, to ease the stomach into food. The Iftar celebration is full of (DELICIOUS) food, and it’s easy to overeat. The abundance of food, coupled with the late nights of eating, drinking and smoking lead many people to actually GAIN weight during Ramadan, rather than losing it, as one might expect. We’ve been invited to a handful of Iftar dinners at people’s homes, and have never failed to be overwhelmed by the full tables of appetizers, meat, dessert, coffee, tea and fruit (pictures below).

[One of my favorite parts of Iftar is when we’re on the road during break fast (not where you want to be when you haven’t eaten all day) and as the call to prayer marking sunset sounds, young men/boys materialize on the streets, handing out dates and water to passengers in the cars who haven’t made it to, or can’t be with their families. It’s really a very lovely display of solidarity and community.]

Sohor: Many people wake around 3:30am for “sohor,” which is a pre-dawn meal. It can be anything from a deluxe meal to a few sips of water while still half sleeping, but it can help take the edge off of the major fast the following day. I have opted out of this particular part of Ramadan, as do many people I talk to. I like my bed too much.

Eid: This marks the last day of Ramadan – no more fasting, lots and lots of eating! Again, because of the moon, we don’t yet know if this will be Thursday or Friday of this week, but it can’t come soon enough! It’s a day of visiting with family and it is traditional to buy new clothes for everyone to wear. When hearing this holiday described, it sounds not unlike Easter. Lent is officially over, and whatever vices you surrendered for the past 40 days (30, in the case of Ramadan) can once again be enjoyed. You visit with family and friends, go to a service at church (or mosque, in this case, and eat until you can’t eat anymore. Yep, sounds very similar. We will get 2 days off for Eid, in addition to the weekend, so I’m hoping to take a last minute trip to the beach!

Deals at Hotels: One of the perks to being a non-Muslim during Ramadan is the deals at hotels and on travel packages. We have gotten discounted rates at the Dead Sea and the touristy places we have visited are often much less crowded [The fact that Ramadan is taking place during the hottest and longest days of the year is also a factor in the reduced crowds]. One of the benefits of traveling during Ramadan is that you are allowed to break your fast, if you’ve traveled more than 80 miles, or two days of walking, (technically, those days are supposed to be made up after Ramadan…), so traveling has been fun, as it’s given me a break for a few days. However, getting back INTO the swing of fasting after the trip has been brutal.


While I haven’t had any major breakthroughs this past month, there have definitely been some revelations.

Fasting has helped me to realize how much I eat for pleasure, not for nourishment. On the whole, I am a healthy eater, but I’ll snack more than I need to, eat lunch because of the time of day, not because I am hungry for it, etc… This exercise has helped me appreciate how little food and water my body needs to continue to function. Granted, I am not at my strongest, nor am I bursting with energy, but hopefully what I’ll take away from this is the self control to eat when I am hungry, and not because I want the taste of food in my mouth.

It’s been incredible to me to understand how my intense hunger and thirst can be satiated with a few sips of water and a piece of fruit. Like I said, this doesn’t make for a fully energetic, healthy person, but after 20 hours of intense hunger, to feel “full” after my first few sips of water is a strange sensation.

Overall, I’m very glad I was able to make it through this month. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget, and while I don’t imagine I’ll ever do this again, I am really proud of myself. I entered Ramadan thinking maybe I’d be able to make it a week. I’m glad my sense of both internal and external competition has prevailed, as I don’t think I would have been able to keep at it without some sort of internal pressure from myself. It’s that same pressure and self-control I had in high school when I diligently did hill sprints and long distance runs during the summer to get in shape for field hockey season. That trait of mine doesn’t rear its head as often as I would like in my late 20s, but I’m glad this month has helped me realize I do still have that inner motivation.

Ramadan Kareem to all, from Jordan.



Grocery stores are STOCKED with sweets during Ramadan. Prices are higher than usual, which is frustrating, but there is no government regulation here, so grocery stores can pretty much do what they want.


Me and my roommate Samia breaking fast after our first day with lots and lots of water!


The spread at a coworker’s house we were invited to.


Mmmm BBQ


Another coworker’s house!


Yes, we ate well…


mmmm tabouli!


2 thoughts on “Ramadan: The Ultimate Exercise in Self-Control

  1. Hannah- wow!!!!! This is such an amazing adventure of dedication! Congratulations for adopting this tradition for the whole month- so proud of you and thinking of nights in college where 3 hours without food would have been unbearable!!!! Miss you!

  2. I’m inspired. This really illustrated the reality of Ramadan for me, both on a spiritual sense and a social day-to-day experience. Part of the cultural immersion that you’ll not soon forget, I’d wager.

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