Ramadan began last Monday. There had been talk at OHF of many less people attending the centre, as the forty minute walk to and fro, for those living in Moria, would be too much on an empty stomach. It was anticipated that the number of visiting refugees would drop from roughly 900 per day to 200. Those who came would be mainly Christians and a few Moslems who were either non-believers or had decided not to fast, for a variety of reasons. There is no requirement to fast if you’re pregnant or unwell; and some of the younger male refugees decided not to fast because they felt it would be too difficult given their demanding jobs.
I’d never really thought much about how hard it must be to fast during the hours of daylight for a whole month, particularly in summer, when the days are long. It’s merciful this year that the weather is relatively cool.
One friend who was planning to fast told me that the first week is by far the hardest. You get headaches and stomach cramps while your body adjusts to the new regime. You feel incredibly tired. But then it gets easier; and by the end of the month you feel an extraordinary sense of lightness and liberation. Your body and your mind and heart feel cleaned and refreshed.
When I saw this friend mid-week she was paler than usual and she seemed tired. That fitted with what I’ve heard elsewhere. At Bristol Refugee Rights, a quiet, pensive mood used to descend during Ramadan on what was during the rest of the year a noisy hall full of conversation and debate. By Saturday, my friend had visibly lost weight; but her spirits were rising again. It was all getting easier, she told me. I felt so much admiration for her strength and determination.
Of my three students, only one was fasting: the oldest of the three. When I arrived for an evening lesson mid-week, he was asleep on the balcony on a camp bed, covered from head to toe by a blanket. He’s not getting up for the lesson, the others told me: he’s exhausted. When we met again later in the week, I was a bit shocked to see how much thinner he looked, and how haggard. This is a man with a wiry frame, who works incredibly hard: the kind of person who never sits down. He’d spent Saturday morning scything a field for a friend, and had cut his finger quite badly. It was a warm day, and the exertion with no chance of drinking even a glass of water would have been tough on the body; then the shock of the accident. But he was uncomplaining, though in a hurry for our lesson to end, so that he could go and rest.
‘Islam’s hard,’ I remarked, meaning ‘Islam demands a lot of its adherents’.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘it’s not hard. People misunderstand it, all the time.’ He went on to say that very few people follow Islam correctly. For those who do, it’s a wonderful path. As to the impact of fasting, yes it’s hard, but by the end of the month, he knew from experience he would feel an intense happiness.
I felt moved by his courage. This man’s life in Lesbos is full of insecurity. He’s living in poverty, with only just enough to eat when he’s not fasting, and no money in his pocket. The future is full of risk. But he has the strength of character to hang onto what has always been important to him, and to know that he’ll come through the short term suffering.