On Fasting


First Person

Image: Nadja Spiegelman

Emerson said, “If you go expressly to look at the moon it becomes tinsel.” He preached self-reliance—the importance of being with yourself in nature—but he also lived with his mother, who cooked for him and cleaned his muddy boots.

The new moon at the start of May this year signaled the beginning of Ramazan, which the rest of the world calls Ramadan, which I call Ramadan when I speak with my friends, but which I grew up calling Ramazan because that’s how we say it in Farsi. In Farsi there are four different letters that all make the same z sound and maybe we figured if we didn’t use them enough they’d disappear.

This year, for the first time in my life, I have fasted for all of Ramazan. The Quran says during Ramazan you’re supposed to “eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from the black thread of night.” And then fast until sunset—no food, no drink. The black thread/white thread part fascinates me, eating in the predawn morning until it’s light enough outside to tell the white thread from the black.

Nowadays there’s an app called Muslim Pro (a hilarious name) where you enter your location and it tells you exactly what time to stop eating. But I like to imagine a time when someone was sitting outside eating bread and cheese alone in the dark, checking and rechecking their two threads. They’d eat a bit more, yawn a bit, and then, suddenly, rubbing their eyes, they’d catch a gleam of light against the white thread and shout “Stop! Stop!” to their family inside.

That’s probably not how it ever worked.

I suppose I am looking for God, for a feeling of transformative belief. I am hoping that fasting might thin the membrane between me and a feeling of the divine. That it might open a channel between us, a tin-can telephone line. Prayer is a way of speaking to the divine. Meditation is a way of listening for it.  I’m not sure yet which one fasting is for me. Maybe both. But I figure, if I can talk to God, shouldn’t I?

Ramazan is based on the Islamic calendar, which every year moves backward about eleven days on the Gregorian calendar. When I was a kid, Ramazan was in the middle of winter, which meant fasting from dawn until sundown. My parents only ever let me “kiddy fast,” which is what they called waking up early for predawn breakfast, then drinking plenty of water and milk throughout the day, then eating a big dinner. And I could only do it on days off school, to ensure my elementary school academics wouldn’t suffer.

The short winter days in Wisconsin meant fasting was essentially a big brunch and then a big dinner around normal dinnertime, with plenty of Diet Pepsi and chocolate milk in between. And even then, I would cheat. I remember once sneaking stale chocolate chip cookies in the middle of the afternoon, then feeling so ashamed I went to the bathroom to vomit them back up. I remember the gold-black vomit in the toilet bowl looking almost beautiful, a mural of my penance.

I worry that fasting expressly to look for God will turn God into tinsel. I worry fasting is a piece of tinsel I am trying to pin to my spiritual lapel, a little kid showing off his participation ribbon. I worry I am already tinsel, flattened and ornamental, a cosmic nothing turning meaninglessly in the light.

Here in Marfa, Texas, fasting means not eating or drinking from about 5:45 A.M. each day to about 8:45 P.M. Most days I wake up around 5:20, snooze for ten minutes, then storm around the house, gulping down as much water as I can, eating spoonfuls of cereal and taking quick bites of banana, carrot, dry bread, nuts. I swig almond milk and grapefruit juice from their cartons, then brush my teeth. It all feels very animal, governed by bodily need.

Before I go back to sleep for a couple hours, though, I make my little ablutions and say a morning prayer. I pray in Arabic, a language I don’t speak or understand. It is a lifelong fascination of mine, the way parroting the sounds of devotion can become an incantatory act, the way the sonic textures of language itself, stripped of direct semantic meaning, can carry me to a place of communion with the divine.

Poetry works this way, too. Language organized mellifluously, delivered earnestly, can thin the partitions between worlds, whether or not we have a perfect denotative understanding of what is being spoken. Poets have invested themselves in this promise for millennia.

The prophet Muhammad said a full stomach was one that contained one-third food, one-third liquid, and one-third air. I am constantly messing this up.

Yesterday I went to the park to shoot hoops with my friend Natalie in the early afternoon. We took it easy, talking and laughing between baskets, dribbling slowly around, pausing to watch a roadrunner walk along the park fence with a lizard in its beak. But, even in our relative ease, the sun held hard above us and kept us dewy in hot light.

I read once that if outer space were filled with air, the sun, 93 million miles away, would be as loud to us on earth as a train whistle one foot away. I never think about sound in relation to the sun, but yesterday back home after playing basketball, my shirt drenched, my ears ringing with thirst, I thought about the volume of the sun, how loud its desiccation could be, how immutable. I could taste the furnace of it in my mouth.

Maybe this is meant to be a metaphor about hell, except I don’t really believe in hell, at least not in the eternal-lake-of-fire way. I believe in rehabilitation and reconciliation, spiritual and otherwise. I have trouble reconciling retributive, punitive justice with a rigorously compassionate faith.

Hell is a prison. Hell is separation from your divine, whether that divine is God or your children or your land. We’ve made enough of these hells on earth; our work now is to dismantle those, not to imagine more.

I spend a lot of my days fantasizing about how I’ll break my fast. I look in my fridge, imagine what sort of dishes I could make with what’s in there. I google the menus of local restaurants online—there are only a couple places here that stay open past nine—and I read each ingredient in each item: a citrus salad with toasted quinoa and rhubarb, roasted chili with red peppers and jalapeño cornbread. Even writing these words now, I can taste each sliver of fiery jalapeño, each crunch of quinoa against wet greens.

I wonder if part of the point of fasting is this: keeping the body enamored of the particular delights of nourishment. It is so wild, so unimaginably lucky, to live in a world where rhubarb grows, and in a world where I can eat it with ease. It could so easily be otherwise. For many people, it is. What responsibility does my luck, my ease, imply?

Or maybe the point of fasting is the way these wonders recede from my view the more I imagine them. The taste of the citrus is there, then it’s gone. It’s like a theological exercise. Take a second: picture a bladeless knife with no handle. Where’d it go? Now, with that same clumsy brain, imagine God.

The Muslim Pro app on my phone beeps when it’s time to eat at night. I build this moment up so much in my head, it’s hard for the reality to match. I immediately chug a giant 32-ounce Nalgene of water. Some nights I go out and reward myself with a fancy dinner planned out earlier in the day. Others I stay in and eat like a teenager—chicken tenders dipped in barbeque sauce and frozen mushroom pizza and cookie dough ice cream.

Now that Ramazan is almost over, I find myself surveying the month: lazy afternoons in bed slipping in and out of consciousness, trying to read and failing, counting down minutes until sunset. The long day hiking a national park with friends, desperately thirsty by nightfall but also deliriously happy.

One night my friend Carolina invited Natalie and me over for her homemade pozole. Embarrassed by my hunger and not wanting to show up ravenous, I surreptitiously ate a small dinner of fried potatoes and hot dogs before going over. Still, I remained hungry enough to eat two bowls of pozole on her porch. The three of us talked there and laughed. We spilled a bag of party mix onto the patio. We saw a fox lope slowly across the road. We watched the stars hang silent in the sky millions upon millions of miles away—like tinsel, or like little bits of white string.


Come see Kaveh Akbar perform at The Paris Review’s Poetry Rx Live event at the Bellhouse in Brooklyn this Saturday, June 8. 

Kaveh Akbar’s poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, the New York Times, the Nation, and elsewhere. His first book is Calling a Wolf a Wolf. Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency M.F.A. programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson.