First-time fasters embrace Ramadan

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Anyone who has ever fasted knows the discipline required for going without food or drink from sunup to sun down. And those with devoted Muslim friends and family members have seen up close what it takes to make the daily sacrifice for 30 days during the holy month of Ramadan. 

Nevertheless, every year millions of people across the world take up fasting for the first time – be they children who have reached puberty, religious converts, Muslims who are newly embracing their faith or non-Muslims who are doing so as a symbolic gesture to people of a different faith.

“I’ll be fasting in solidarity with my Muslim friends this year for the first time so I can feel the meaning of sacrifice,” says Adriana Bou Diwan, a Christian who is part of an interfaith studies and solidarity organization called Adyan, Arabic for “religions.”

“When you put yourself in the place of someone else you understand them better,” she says. “I’m also doing it because we have a lot in common in our religious traditions.”

Bou Diwan grew up in a predominantly Christian area and was educated in Catholic schools through university. Until recently she had very little exposure to Islam. Although she will only fast for one day because there is no one at home to break the fast with, she will be taking part in all the traditions, including the predawn suhoor meal.

While Lebanon’s Dar al-Fatwa said it would watch for the Ramadan crescent Monday evening, the office of the late Shiite preacher Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah announced that the first day of Ramadan would be Tuesday.

The caretaker government said last week that state institutions and municipalities would run shifts between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. during the holy month of Ramadan.

Mohammad Anis al-Arwadi, a Beirut-based medical doctor with a PhD in Shariah law, cautions that first-time fasters should make sure they are in good medical condition before embarking on a month of no meals during the daytime. For children under the age of puberty (generally 13), fasting is advised for only a few days as a way of “training” for later in life.

Arwadi also suggests people who are new to fasting consider why they are doing it. He says they should be doing it out of religious conviction and sacrifice – not for social reasons. But he does support Christians fasting in solidarity with Muslims, especially in Lebanon, where sectarian tensions remain a lingering relic of the Civil War.

No matter people’s reasons for fasting, he says it’s important for it to be a genuine conviction.

“You’re obliging your body, in spite of its instincts, to go without food,” Arwadi says. “It teaches you to feel for poor people everywhere.”

For Garen Yepremian, a Lebanese account executive who arrived in Dubai three months ago, fasting will be a mandatory exercise throughout the 30 days of Ramadan – because in the United Arab Emirates it is forbidden to eat in public during daylight hours.

“Given I already had a heads up, I didn’t mind it much,” says Yepremian, an Armenian Christian from Beirut, who knew about the law before arriving for his latest stint in Dubai. “I just knew that if I was desperate for food, I’d have to smuggle it in my clothes and eat it in the bathroom stall without making noise.”

Still, he doesn’t seem to mind the inconvenience for one month given the wide ranging freedoms he is afforded the rest of the year in Dubai.

“Given the free lifestyle that people have in Dubai and seeing how open-minded the country [is], I find it fair to respect their beliefs in their most holy month and support them just as they have given everyone else the freedom of belief,” he says.

Even with the UAE’s strict laws regarding food consumption during the months of Ramadan, Yepremian believes people are generally fasting out of their own convictions: “I feel that they are doing so out of their own will rather than from peer pressure because it’s the month of giving for them.”

“Working on multiple marketing campaigns for different clients that revolve around messaging and wishing blessings to their customers, I’ve come to understand why it’s such a big deal for them and that makes me respect them more for being true to their beliefs and convictions.”

Rawad Abed, a Druze who never fasted but grew up with many friends who did, says he wants to try fasting this year – at least for one day – so that he can understand why people do it.

“I see my friends doing it every year, and they say they enjoy it,” he says. “I feel like I need to understand the spirit of their commitment.”

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