Why a non-Muslim like me observes Ramadan

Ruth Medjber: During Ramadan, ‘my heart is emotional and happy. I spend the days being grateful for what I have’. Photograph: Roisín O’Doherty
'Ramadan feels familiar. I’ve grown up with it. In my family home it’s as normal as Christmas and it has always made sense for me to do both'
 

Growing up with two strong parents is great; they each impart their own wisdom and experiences. When those parents are from different backgrounds, cultures, countries even, that’s when things get really interesting. My dad is Muslim and my mam is Catholic. Me, I’m an atheist.

As I was born and raised in Dublin, it seemed very natural and convenient that we celebrate Christmas and Easter and everything in between. I went to a Catholic school but mainly because there wasn’t any other choice at the time.

When I announced in my teens that I was going to try to fast for Ramadan, it was a little bit of a shock to everyone. Ramadan is a big event in the Muslim calendar. It’s a very holy month, during which followers are supposed to fast during the day. So from sunrise to sunset for 30 days, nothing is allowed to pass your lips.

When I was a teenager I was curious about different religions, the ones that weren’t being taught in my school, including Islam. I wanted to see what my dad put himself through, and what over a billion people around the world were doing every day of that month. I’ve always been interested in my heritage and my dad’s culture. I’ve also always been fiercely stubborn and determined, so a challenge like this seemed perfect for me.

I carried on doing the annual fast into my 20s though my reasons had changed. I was living in town, having the typical college experience of nightclubs, pubs and surviving on nothing but cheap, greasy food. When Ramadan rolled around each year it was an excuse for me to get my act together. To refocus my priorities and almost have a little detox.

Now, in my 30s, my reasons are slightly different again. I’m now searching for some spiritual solace, a little bit of peace and maybe some control over my own life. Much like when I walked the Camino or spent some time in Japan chanting with Buddhist monks.

Ramadan feels familiar. I’ve grown up with it. In my family home it’s as normal as Christmas and it has always made sense for me to do both. I guess this comes with being mixed race, you always have a connection to both cultures, no matter how different they are or what part of the world you live in.

I spend a significant percentage of my fasting month just explaining what Ramadan is to people

Ireland can be a hard place to fast. In Muslim countries, things tend to slow down during Ramadan, people avoid eating in public, some offices have shorter working hours and there would be very few social events planned in daylight. Here, it’s business as usual. My emails start pouring in at 9am on the button. There are deadlines to meet and Zoom meetings to attend. Most people don’t know what Ramadan is. They’re always shocked when I say I can’t drink water, or the delicious looking mug of tea they’re offering me, no matter how much I want to snatch it from their hands.

I think I spend a significant percentage of my fasting month just explaining what Ramadan is to people, but it’s something I enjoy doing so I don’t mind. Most of the time I can schedule my work as a music and portrait photographer around Ramadan.

However, this hasn’t always been the case and there was a period in my adult life where I didn’t feel like I was physically capable of doing Ramadan.

The start date of Ramadan will change every year, moving 11 days or so backwards in the calendar. When I was a young child, it was mainly in the winter months. When it fell on Christmas day we simply scheduled dinner to be at sunset (about 4pm) so we could all eat together. In my 20s Ramadan fell during the height of summer, which is also the height of festival season for me.

I found myself tasked with the job of photographing some of the world’s biggest headline acts, right as they walked on stage at sunset. I hadn’t eaten or drank water in almost 20 hours. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. I collapsed one evening at Longitude festival and it became glaringly obvious that I had to choose between Ramadan and my career, and for a few years, I chose my career.

For the first time during the pandemic, I had something that
I could have full control over

This year is a year like no other. With Covid came the temporary hiatus of live music. Suddenly there were no stages for me to shoot at sunset, no festivals to faint at. Everything was shut down almost overnight. A full 12 months later and my career is still paused and I have no control over when it is coming back. I just sit and wait for the updates to leak.

When Ramadan came around, this time with a start date in April, I found the thought of doing it incredibly appealing. For the first time during the pandemic, I had something that I could have full control over. That no matter what Government restrictions were put in place or changed at the last minute, this was something I could set out to do and hopefully achieve.

When you’re fasting, you get an immense clarity of mind and you become a lot less anxious. Normally my brain goes a mile a minute and I’ve “to do lists” for my “to do lists”, but during the month of Ramadan I’m forced to slow down. I simply don’t have the energy to carry on working at my full, maniacal speed.

Ruth Medjber: Ramadan feels familiar. I’ve grown up with it. In my family home it’s as normal as Christmas and it has always made sense for me to do both. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
Ruth Medjber: Ramadan feels familiar. I’ve grown up with it. In my family home it’s as normal as Christmas and it has always made sense for me to do both. Photograph: Ruth Medjber

In the mornings I’m at my best, having gotten up just before dawn to have a cup of tea and force feed myself something carby like porridge (or Birdseye waffles in the toaster if I’m just not bothered being healthy at that ungodly hour). Then I’ll try to sleep for as long as possible to minimise my daylight hours. I’ll get the dog walked before the sun gets hot and starts to zap away all of my hydration and then it’s emails or photoshoots while I still have some ability to focus (figuratively and physically).

Soon, all the calories are burned up and my brain has turned into mash potato (mmm mash potato). I have a little disco nap, waking about two hours before sunset to get cooking. The thoughts of getting a takeaway disgust me. Me! The person who happily orders a pizza for lunch and a Chinese for dinner. My body is craving goodness and goodness it shall get. All I can think about is food. Petty emails, worrying texts, and the inane persecution of social media which usually sends my anxiety sky high, are all far from my mind. Replaced by a simple desire for broccoli.

You can’t help but have a heightened sense of empathy for those in your world who have less

One of the big practices of Ramadan (besides fasting) is charity. You’re saving money by not eating two meals a day, not to mention the snacks, coffees, etc and that money is supposed to be donated to those less fortunate. Now, here’s the thing, usually forced charity would be tough for me to swallow. I believe charity should come from the heart.

But during Ramadan, I believe that mine and other’s charitable donations are genuine.

You can’t help but have a heightened sense of empathy for those in your world who have less. When all you can think about is food, your heart breaks for those who don’t know when they’ll eat next. Here I am, happily preparing to indulge my most random and lavish cravings (today it’s Refresher bars) as soon as the sun sets, but my mind is with the people living in Direct Provision, who never have the option to splurge on delicious treats. Or to our homeless community, who eat their hot meals balanced on the curb outside the GPO. So while Ramadan does so much for me emotionally and spiritually, I’m glad that my little sacrifices might end up being some comfort to others.

My heart is emotional and happy. I spend the days being grateful for what I have and nearly burst into tears when anyone does anything nice for me. My will is stronger than ever, which in turn boosts my confidence. I feel great (if not a little bit famished). As I write this, at 1am (my best thinking hour), I have 14 days of fasting left. I’ve already started planning what my Eid feast will look like. My dad is cooking his famous Algerian stew, which Mam and I will probably pair with a glass of Guinness.