A seasoned convert, Nicole Cunningham Zaghia writes about how her Ramadan schedule has changed over the years.
As a convert, I’ve been ‘doing’ Ramadan since 1999. The early years were fun – I was a student, it was winter and the days were short. I was able to spend a lot of time having dinner with friends and going for Tarawih prayers. However, as the years went by, I got married, I started working, the days got longer and it became more difficult to maintain the same rhythm I’d had as a student.
I was stretched too thin – I thought being a good Muslim meant going every night to the mosque, having as many guests over as possible and feeding them the largest and most extravagant meals. When I first converted, it was too easy for me to go with the flow and do what others expected of me. It took me years to understand that this was my Ramadan too.
The good thing is that I now know what I want from Ramadan, including things that I didn’t know of in the early years. As I have gotten older, Ramadan now for me means self-organisation and giving myself time to do my spiritual priorities while still meeting my personal and professional goals. Ramadan is a yearly timeout I take to re-centre myself, examine how I worship, identify my personal objectives for the month and for the coming year, and enjoy Ramadan for what it is: worship and celebration.
That being said, there are a lot of things I know now that I wish I had known as a new convert. First, I wish someone had told me that it is okay to not ‘do it all’. Especially after I got married, I spent several Ramadans going to the mosque, cooking for people, staying up all night and then sleeping an hour before going to work. That type of schedule is not tenable and just surviving meant I didn’t have the time to enjoy Ramadan. I felt like the days were slipping by while I was on autopilot.
For the past 10 years, I have been working full-time and I have only rarely had vacation during Ramadan. To make sure I am not completely wiped out at work, I only go to the mosque, accept one dinner invitation and invite guests over once a week (usually on a weekend). These are now my maximum limits, as some weeks I don’t do any of these things. The rest of the time I spend at home in prayer or studying.
Of course, I’m not saying that going to the mosque or visiting with fellow Muslims is bad. I’m saying that the biggest problem for some people – especially a convert experiencing their first Ramadan – is simply trying to make it through the day. Don’t overextend yourself, especially if you are working.
The other thing I wish I had known is that there is no such thing as ‘Ramadan food’ or a ‘Ramadan diet’. As my in-laws are Algerian, for a long time I thought I was somehow lax as a Muslimah and as a spouse if I didn’t have chorba soup and fresh galette (Algerian pancakes) every night during Ramadan with some homemade makroud after the mosque.
Quantity was also an issue. It was so easy in the early years to just eat everything in front of my face. The problem is that if you are running from the kitchen to the mosque to someone’s house, you never really have the time to think about what you want to eat, or what you need to eat.
Slowing down my Ramadan pace has allowed me to listen to my body and what it needs. Accepting that I cannot do it all as a working woman also means that I cannot cook it all. These days, I make a big pot of soup on the weekends and nurse that and salad on most Ramadan nights.
Taking the drama away from food and food preparation gives me time during Ramadan to spend in prayer and in learning. While I may not always go to the mosque, my mosque does offer live online sermons and classes during Ramadan. Enjoying these in my own home has given me more time to focus on my spiritual goals, even if that just means contemplating the qadr or majesty of Allah swt in my life.
Taking care of myself and slowing things down at Ramadan means I miss out on some of the community aspects of Ramadan, but the reality of living in a non-Muslim country means that a widespread festive spirit is simply not there. Like all things, getting into fasting takes time. Living in the 21st century and living in a non-Muslim country means that much of Ramadan is about trial and error and trying to make the most of it. Nevertheless, my habits during Ramadan are not static but a journey, and what I do this year may not be the same in the next 10 years.