Let the hunger games begin

Boys hugging during Ramadan

Summertime and the living is easy—for those lucky enough to be sitting on a sun drenched beach while gentle ocean breezes waft serenely by and a handsome cabana boy brings a never ending supply of frozen drinks. For those of us cloistered at home with fasting children, not so much.

The crankiness meter in our house tends to rise during the Holy Month of Ramadan. So much so, that several years ago when I saw t-shirts at an Islamic fair with the Arabic words “Sabr and Shukr” and their translation “Patience and Gratitude” on the front I snapped them up for myself and my offspring. The hope was that a visual reminder, in bold italic script, splashed across our torsos would be a not so subtle hint to observe the true meaning of Ramadan.

Ramadan in the summer is hard on kids. They are sidelined from most of their usual summertime pursuits—tennis, swimming and Baskin-Robbins visits. Additionally, our brood has to follow the house rule that children have to remain awake and productive during the day. This means they can’t take the easy way out and stay awake all night only to fall asleep after the sunrise meal (sehri) and snore through two-thirds of the fast. However, awake and productive usually morphs into cranky and snappy. Hence, the t-shirts.

My husband and I wanted our three children to excitedly anticipate rather than dread the month of Ramadan. We wanted them to experience the discipline and struggle of going without food and water and to empathize with those who feel these hunger pains year-round but can’t rest assured that warm, heavy platefuls of food are waiting for them at the end of each day. Rather than cringe at the arrival of the ninth month on the Islamic calendar and the days devoid of snacks, pool parties and BBQ invitations, we hoped our kids would feel a sense of community with their fellow Muslims and cultivate a sense of gratitude for belonging to an upper-middle class Muslim family in the suburbs of America.

Any trial or test is better and easier when shared with friends. We are lucky to have Muslims in our neighborhood and larger community who, over the years, have started traditions that our children eagerly anticipate. Our cousin holds a Moon Sighting Party usually the night before Ramadan begins. The kids all bring flashlights and roam and ravage through her garden looking skyward for the crescent moon. Later the hostess organizes a craft the children can use and enjoy during Ramadan—one year everyone constructed laminated placemats decorated with supplications for opening and breaking the fast. She ends the evening with gooey marshmallows around a campfire where each child shares what he or she will aim to accomplish in the next 30 days; for some it is keeping their first full fast, for others the completion of all 30, and for others still the learning of a new chapter from the Holy Quran.

During the month the children in our community get together to prepare bagged lunches for the local food bank. Children of all ages are encouraged to join in the effort. Those too young to adhere peanut butter to jelly, decorate the brown paper bags with cheerful drawings and messages. Nothing teaches altruism, discipline and compassion better than making sandwiches, and packing cookies, chips and drinks when your mouth is parched and your stomach grumbling!

One intrepid friend hosts an all-night sleepover for both boys and girls. With many children in one home, sleep is a distant goal, but the children play organized games and snack until sunrise when the hostess feeds the brood a generous meal before the fast begins and then sends them home, happy and exhausted. My children also invite their non-Muslim friends to join us in the evenings as we break our fast, although I suspect most of these adolescents arrive at our door with big smiles, not at the prospect of spiritual fulfillment, but because of the table heaping with goodies.

That brings me to the all-important piece of Ramadan that brings together any and everyone—food. Some days we break our fasts by digging into Costco-size bags of salt and vinegar potato chips and scooping out peanut butter ice-cream. Other days we enjoy the whole host of traditional Indo-Pakistani dishes that my grandmother would have served at her table. The choice belongs to the kids, because one of the rewards of refraining from food and drink all day is that the children call the culinary shots at night. So dishes I moan about preparing during the other 11 months of the year (my ideal kitchen would house only a phone from which to order takeout), I labor over and happily serve to my family in Ramadan.

Parties, crafts and mouth-watering meals are certainly not the essence of Ramadan. But, kids are kids. They are usually incapable of appreciating all the finer points of fasting and the many myriad of opportunities this holy month brings. Until the epiphanies come, we will continue to try and celebrate Ramadan in the summer with our kids with both “sabr” and “shukr.”

Nausheena Ahmed was born in England, raised in Canada and is currently living in New Jersey. She is busy raising three kids whose names she never wants to see on a front page with the words “serial killer” or “psychopath” beside them.

(Photo Credit: Ingmar Zahorksy)

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