A message to you, Matthew
You asked me to impart any advice relating to Ramadan based on my experience fasting for two years during the Holy Month in Algeria. The irony of it does not escape me: I am living in Italy and working on a farm with my husband, a chef, and the celebration of food presents itself in every facet of our lives. We even have a blog that we've begun where all we do is talk about food, and I am now returning to the experience of Ramadan where the absence of food (though only one of many suggested absences) is its most recognizable characteristic. I have helped to butcher and cure and roast pigs since almost the first days I arrived here, and yet I have not eaten pork in more than 10 years; that I have an allergy to pork and all products always made living in Muslim countries a great respite for me and made many people think that perhaps there was some hope for the tattooed American girl after all. Indeed the more that I've considered your question the more unqualified I feel I have become yet the more completely I want to answer your question. Perhaps I should explain.
As I write you now I am sitting in our garden in Tuscania, myself and my husband the lucky recipients of a great kindness from the owners of the house in which we live who let us spend these afternoons here. In many ways my life here is the very opposite of the life I lived in Algeria and it is the very culmination of the kind of peace and security for which I had been searching (albeit ostensibly) for so many years. I spent more than two years trying to uncover some great truth that I thought was hiding underneath the surface, a great truth that I and only I was equipped to discover. I displayed the kind of arrogance that only comes through the insecurity of being thought an impostor (the kind of arrogance I display now is that of someone who feels loved and thus believes themselves to be invincible, and there is a marked difference in expression). I experienced cruelty and believed it to be a test of my resolve and it was some time before I understood that the damage I felt to be necessary to my growth was nothing more than damage, nothing more.
Of course there are things which have remained the same, for better or worse: I still talk too much and too often, and I still let my enthusiasm drive me though it has proven to be reckless in crucial and imprudent moments. I am still so curious about everything and I still wonder how it all works and more importantly how it all got that way, and how it will all end up. I still believe with Robert Capa that if your pictures aren't good enough, then you're not close enough. I suppose that now however, I am slightly more discerning per the subject of those images. But enough of the allegory, that was not your question.
When I came to Algeria I knew that I wanted to fast for Ramadan, and I had a number of reasons that seemed more or less logical at the time. First, I was a PhD student doing research and I thought that if I really wanted to understand the way that political life worked in the country I needed to be there during a month where every daily action was affected by the fact of the fast. Of course that only meant that I needed to be there, not that I needed to actually do it right? So that's really quite a superficial answer. I think I wanted to know what it felt like to be that thirsty and not drink, to control oneself in that way. I guess its kind of like when you're going for a run and all of a sudden you're racing against the other people going for a run even though they are completely unaware of it. I wanted to see if I could do it and I wanted to feel in control of my most basic needs. And then I wanted to beat them.
The first year was Oran 2010, and it was the middle of August on a particularly hot and humid day in a particularly hot and humid city. I will never forget the way my head pounded on that first day from the lack of coffee (it was always the lack of coffee that terrified me) and how a thin layer of sweat covered every inch of me. Time stood still and I mean it really stood still: when the entire substance of your day revolves around waiting for water to boil, you can do nothing but sit and watch the pot.
And then an incredible thing happened. It wasn't only that I 'got used to it'; I had done fasts of different kinds before (like that 48 day juice fast in the Hindu temple where I was living, but that is for another day) and I had felt the comfort of delirium in a hundred different ways. It wasn't that though. It was my neighbours, who lived upstairs and indeed owned the building in which I lived. They knew that I was alone and they had me over to their house every night, and I stayed with them and helped them cook and then later to eat. I was en famille, amongst family and the suffering that we may have individually felt became a deep expression of compassion because indeed, we suffered together. And then we celebrated together, laughed together and good god did we eat together. There was a sense of inclusion that surpassed any expectation I had and Ramadan was a wholly and profoundly moving experience for this alone. It operated in a cycle for me that first year, as most things do: the first week I spent with the weight of the decision looming, the second and third I felt almost that I never wanted it to end and the last was a bitter sweet recognition that this golden moment could not stay.
I thought at first that an incredible luck had come to me by being taken in by this family and while they were generous in a way that marks me still, I realized that in fact the opening of one's door during Ramadan is quite a natural and normal thing. I was invited to many people's home's for ftour and while yes, I am quite sure that the novelty of the American sitting at the table was to some extent the impetus for my invitation I was often surrounded by a menagerie of different misfits and outcasts who had all found their way together somehow. I shared the customary dates and petit lait with a group of strangers travelling on the highway in a taxi, as well as on the steps of the central Post Office with police officers and homeless people. And so absolutely yes I fell under the charm of this very exotic and seemingly mystic ritual of fasting and breakfasting and I ignored the banalities that those who have grown up in the context would find prohibitive. I make no apologies for my foreignness; I might as well apologize for my brown hair or my inability to whistle. It is this way.
When Ramadan came again in 2011, I knew that I wanted to be outside of a city for the month. Indeed the shine had worn off a good many things and I was finding it quite difficult to remain in Oran, Algiers or anywhere else for that matter. I was constantly in movement yet going nowhere, terrified of facing the reality that I had lost my way somewhere along the way and that I would not be able to find my way back. Ramadan was an oasis for me then, a feeling I felt I could chase and find again and I believed in it in a way I had not anticipated. As my luck had it, a friend put me into contact with a Sheikh living in Djanet, the extreme southern corner of Algeria, deep in the Sahara. I boarded a plane to Djanet with no idea what waited on the other side, having only spoken to this Sheikh once on the telephone over a very badly connected network. But when I arrived, oh but when I arrived.
It would take me forever to describe that month, but I hope it will suffice to say that what I felt there was at the same time the most real and the most impossible feeling that I had somehow been able to erase everything that had come before and step aside from anything that was coming after. There were no languages that I knew to help me, and nothing but my hands and feet to follow. I forgot what I was, who I was, and I didn't care at all to remember. That month changed me in a way that I can hardly explain and would never even try, because maybe you will be changed in some way that you won't care to explain either, and then we won't need to say any more about it.
So now I sit in this Italian garden and think back on those times and I remember the feeling of breaking a fast and how close I felt to everyone and more generally how it all felt, my only advice is to drown in the multitude, allow yourself to feel strange and out of place and then allow yourself to feel the very opposite of that and then know that it will not stay but enjoy it all the same. And eat everything you can, when you can and with whom you can, because even as I sit in this Italian garden and I am surrounded by every kind of delicacy I might imagine I still remember the taste of a date in my mouth as the call to prayer rang out and how wonderful it all tasted.
And maybe one day, come over and tell me all about it and by that time I will have learned to whistle and we'll whistle together.
Until then, Ginger