“No, not even water,” I explain to my friend, whose eyes grow wide at my description of fasting during Ramadan. We’re walking down Boulevard Raspail on the sixth arrondissement of Paris, past rows of people sitting out on café tables, past a noodle shop, a Pizzeria, a sandwicherie, and a Lebanese restaurant. It’s a hot summer afternoon. The air smells of cheese and caffeine, and I still have eight hours to go before I can eat or drink anything.
My friend, who has been brought up in the States, asks me what Ramadan is all about. I talk her through the basic rules and then launch into a description of what the month entails in Dhaka. I tell her about waking up in the middle of the night, dizzy with sleep and nauseated at the idea of eating a full meal in semi-consciousness. I tell her about the scent of butter and spices in the air. The flood of discounts, Iftar deals, fashion collections. The unanimous rush to get home at the same time, resulting in traffic that snarls and bites. I describe the excitement of deciding what to eat each day, and the way busy friends and families unite for at least an hour every sunset; the way our bodies deflate with exhaustion after Iftar, and how the city reawakens for 3am restaurant meals. My friend is awestruck. “It sounds like a month-long festival,” she tells me, and I feel like I’ve somehow failed to answer her question.
About 8,000 miles away from home, Ramadan feels drastically different to me this year. The sun sets after 9pm in my corner of Europe. The 17 hours during which I’m trying to be fasting are unmarked by the ringing of prayer calls, by any early end to classes and work. Unlike the communities that I’ve described to my friend, this city is in celebration for a different kind of festival—the arrival of summer and the promise of food and drinks in the sun. When I wake up to eat late at night, however, it is deep in sleep, with the stoves and microwaves in my dorm barred away behind padlocked kitchens.
It is the sense of community that you miss most under such circumstances. In the absence of an entire country following suit, you realise how much the decision to practise your religion and culture is entirely your own. You’re forced to find out if that practice is belief or mere habit. For every time you have to explain why you’re not eating or drinking, you’re reminded of how you’re different from those around you. For every time your non-Muslim friends wait for dinner until you can eat, you’re reminded of how much you belong.
I think, for a while, that these reflections should form my response to my friend. But my homesickness feels too simplistic, too self-centred an explanation for a practise so much bigger than the sum of my experiences. Still an unsatisfactory answer, I realise.
A key part of living in France is climbing steps. While some newer buildings and shopping malls might have elevators, most houses, libraries, and university campuses that have survived decades expect you to manoeuvre narrow, twisting flights of wooden stairs. If you can make the journey while balancing books, groceries, and cups of coffee in both hands without fearing for your life, know that you’ve truly assimilated. And if you’re fasting, the trip leaves you almost crying for a sip of water.
They say it gets easier after the first few days once your body gets used to the new dietary schedule. While that felt true in all my years in Bangladesh, climbing the harrowing stairs with a parched throat in France and trying to work on an empty stomach makes me feel more and more exhausted each day. By the time it’s 4 or 5pm, my brain has stopped working altogether, my stomach feels like a gaping hole, and I can see a good five more hours of the day wasting away in unproductive exhaustion. It’s the worst kind of dilemma for a grad student preparing for a thesis presentation approaching in two short weeks.
It is in these hours of starvation, though, that I notice more than my beautiful walk through Boulevard Raspail. Just a few paces away from the line of cafés and restaurants, a refugee family sits on the ground whose hopeful Bonjour!’s I’ve run past many a time in my rush to get to class every day. But as I pant after reaching the campus staircase landing, or hear my stomach grumbling as I try to concentrate on the page, I realise that I’m going through this experience out of choice. That food—good food—and drinks are a mere exchange of coins away, unlike for that family sitting out in the heat. I think back to my friend’s question about what Ramadan is all about. As clichéd as it sounds, I think I finally start to get it.
Sarah Anjum Bari is a member of the Star Weekend magazine team, The Daily Star. She was living and studying in Paris at the time of writing this article last year.