Hena Zakir is training to be an EMT: checking vital signs, running medical tests, talking to patients and assessing them for trauma – all the while, going nearly 17 hours without food.
And Tuesday was just Day 1 of her 30-day Ramadan fast.
Zakir is Muslim. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, requires the faithful to abstain from food and drink, along with sexual activity and habits like smoking, from sunrise to sunset each day.
The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which varies from the solar calendar. That means the start date of Ramadan moves up roughly 11 days each year, so while about a dozen years ago it was in December — when sunset, when fasters can eat again, is before 5 p.m. — it’s now in the summer, where the sun doesn’t set till about 8:30 p.m.\
Sounds bad, but for Zakir, fasting gives her extra awareness.
“It puts me into a position where I really am comfortable with myself, I like the way that I’m thinking,” she said. “I’m very cautious of the way I act and I talk. Especially if I feel like I’m about to get mad, I’ll control myself because that’s one of things in Ramadan, you shouldn’t be getting mad or angry.”
Adeel Zeb, 31, of Hartford, works as an Imam, or spiritual leader, and a Muslim chaplain at both Trinity College and Wesleyan University. He fasts once a week throughout the year, which makes him more accustomed to the longer days.
“It’s a lot easier when the sun goes down at 4:30 p.m. as opposed to 8:30 p.m. because you could still be at work and your fast breaks,” he said. “Obviously the weather’s cooler in December, so when the weather’s cooler there is less impetus to get more water and hydrate yourself. You can also do more activities because you break your fast at 4:30 so you have more time in the day to run around and do your errands as opposed to waiting till 8:30 when offices are closed.”
Zeb usually feels his energy level drop around 3 or 4 p.m., along with his productivity at work.
He tries to get big projects done before Ramadan starts, and during the month, saves studying and exercising for after sunset.
The fast begins not when the sun breaks the horizon but at the first rays of dawn, which, these days, is about 3:45 a.m. Muslims must wake up beforehand to eat breakfast that’ll give them energy for the day, though it’s hard to have an appetite so early.
“Usually I don’t even feel like eating at that time because it’s really early in the morning and all I really want to do is sleep,” she said.
Fortunately for Zakir, she’s never felt ill while fasting. It’s the thirst and dry mouth that get to her.
“I can go a long time without food but usually getting a drink of water is something I look forward to when breaking the fast,” she says.
There are about 6 million Muslims in the U.S. and almost 2,000 mosques, Muslim schools and Islamic centers, according to the Council of American-Islamic Relations. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey found that 77 percent of all U.S. Muslims said fasting during Ramadan is “very important.”
Sarah Amer, a New York-based registered dietitian and former chair of the Muslims in Dietetics and Nutrition, said the longer fasts do mean a much higher risk of dehydration or hypoglycemia.
“We created a tool kit for this purpose, educating the Muslim community on how to eat healthy during the month of Ramadan,” she said. “There can be a risk of heatstroke and things like that if they’re not hydrating properly at night.”
Amer also said people tend to stop exercising during Ramadan, but without food for such a long time, the metabolism can slow down and, without exercise, can cause you to lose muscle weight rather than fat.
Reza Mansoor, a cardiologist and president of the Islamic Association of Greater Hartford, said the way the community comes together for nightly prayers is one of his favorite parts of Ramadan.
“The love of God is what keeps you fasting,” he said. “You do it because of that connection with God, and you want to be a better person.”
For Zeb, as hard as a 17-hour fast might be, he traveled to Poland last month and found out that the fast there is 19 to 20 hours.
“I was so shocked by that, and I was like OK, I can’t complain anymore,” he said. “Fasting in the summer, it is difficult, it’s really hard. But it’s also like, the harder you have to work at something the better it feels.”
For Zakir, it’s a time of gratitude, and empathizing with the poor.
“We go through a month of not being able to eat during the day and we’re like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I had to do that,'” she said. “For some people that’s their whole life. So it kind of puts everything in perspective.”
By Sameea Kamal, Hartford Courant