One full week through my experimental Ramadan fast and I’m shattered after grazing through food half of last night. Today I was very close to caving. Almost snapped the fast closed for the cause of a cappuccino and later, a sunny-afternooned ice-cream cone. But I’m still in here. Still trying.
I realise today that, although I’m ‘doing’ Ramadan I will never really understand the reality of what it’s like for Muslims. I am an outsider. No matter how interested I am in either Islam or Ramadan I am not a Muslim.
Although I fast and feel thirst and hunger and even read the Quran daily I do not have either the background or knowledge, or the faith, that a Muslim has. And also, I’m doing it alone.
Whilst most Muslims share the breaking of the fast with friends or family, I have a solitary breaking of the fast (save an occasional night when husband has a bit of a hunger on him and the night I went to the mosque).
I was feeling lonely and hungry and thirsty and tired and sorry for myself and very tempted to crash out when I decided this evening to head to Dundrum shopping centre in the hopes I might bump into some Muslim women.
The first person I see in the centre is a young woman wearing a black hijab who is sitting on a bench with a little girl beside her. We start chatting. I notice her lips are chapped. She is from Libya. She is 20 and she is a student at Trinity College. Her name is Esra. She is with her little sister who is seven.
“It’s a very long day in Ireland” she says. “I want it to pass very fast. There’s no college and no studying so shopping is the best thing to do. It’s a very long day. I usually wake around nine” she tells me “and I read a little bit of the Quran. Around one o’clock I come shopping and around six I go home.”
That’s a long time to be shopping – “are you doing it to kill time or are you actually shopping?” I ask. “Well it’s a good time to go and shop and the sales are on. We are shopping for Eid clothes [Eid is the festival at the end of Ramadan]. We buy new clothes and new toys for Eid. It’s like Christmas”.
“Here in Ireland Eid is for one day but in our own countries it lasts three days” she explains. In Libya the father’s side of the family all gather together to celebrate for one day and the mother’s side of the family the next day.
Esra tells me that there are different customs for Ramadan in every country and there are many different routines. “When we invite friends over for a meal during Ramadan, the women are in a different room to the men but it’s not the same for every country. Tunisians for example are very open people – they can eat together – women with men.”
I ask her if there’s anything she’d like Irish people to know about Ramadan. “Irish people should try a day” she suggests, smiling.
When I suggest the possibility of taking a photograph she shyly says she’d rather not. But she gives me her phone number and tells me to call anytime if I’ve any other questions. We say goodbye.
I wander around Dundrum looking for other Muslim women and wondering what I’ll use for a photograph in today’s blog when I spot John Waters, the Irish Times journalist, sitting at a table with another man in Butler’s Chocolate café.
I go up to him. “John Waters?” I ask. “Yes” he says rather nervously. “I just wanted to say hello” I say. He visibly relaxes, we shake hands, he asks me if I like chocolate and hands me a tiny bag with two Butler’s chocolates.
He’s smiling so I get plucky “do you mind if I take your photograph?” He seems delighted. “Would you like one of both of us?” he asks me. “Okay” I say but I feel slightly embarrassed as I don’t know who is friend is and am guessing he is another famous journalist.
I turn to his friend “I’m sorry I don’t know you, what’s your name?” “Paddy” he says and then he asks me “do you want me to take the photograph?” I blush. “Both of us” means John Waters and me.
The photograph is taken. I walk away from Dundrum having met a lovely Muslim woman and her little sister. I also have yummy free chocolates and a picture for my blog. The fast is on.