“No food or drink for all the daylight hours? Not even water?”
“No, not even water” I replied.
“But don’t you get thirsty?”
“Yes, I often do.”
“I could never do that”
She could though. This colleague of mine does everything she puts her mind to. It occurs to me in that moment that the very beauty of the fast lies in that. The opportunity to achieve something you didn’t think you could, to attempt something difficult, to be patient through discomfort in order to achieve something that is meaningful.
Years before this day I worked with a man named John. We were content moderators; bouncers of the internet with the power to decide what would or would not be left visible for the vulnerable public. John was smart. Too smart for the work he was doing.
As a team of content moderators our workload could vary from day to day. Sometimes we had tasks queueing. We’d click away furiously approve, approve, reject, approve, scrabbling to keep up and no time to chat. Sometimes there was nothing. We’d find ourselves with time to joke and laugh, time to get to know each other, or in John’s case, time to throw insults and cause general offence.
When it all got too dull he would entertain himself by causing shock and outrage. It was sport for him and he was remarkably skilled at it. With his quick-wit and subtle awareness of people and their weaknesses he could land a blow where it would hurt the most. My religious beliefs were a target for him from the moment we started working together.
“Does God speak to you Rahma?” he asked one day, in front of the whole team. “What does He say?”
They weren’t questions that needed an answer. Their purpose, to shame and humiliate, was fulfilled as soon as they were asked. My skin prickled, I fell silent.
“Do you have to stay a virgin your whole life now to make up for it?” was another of those questions, muttered under his breath as I recounted the tale of accidentally taking a sip of wine at a friend’s house. Maybe I was never meant to hear the question. I pretended I hadn’t. It was a jab between the ribs though, an attack at the tender sides of my biggest insecurity.
They were questions that ridiculed my beliefs and my way of life, questions that demanded I justify the path I had chosen to walk. I wasn’t sure, back then, how to justify that choice to anyone else. I hadn’t realised, back then, that I didn’t have to.
Instead, I kept that area of my life as hidden as possible. I would sneak off to pray the midday prayer in my lunch break. I would edit the Saturday nights spent at the mosque out of my stories of the weekend. I would frame community events as gatherings with family friends. “Nothing much to notice over here” is the message I wanted to send. “Nothing special, unique or interesting. Move along.”
Over the years, despite the snake-tongued slicing designed to keep others at a safe distance, circumstances pushed me closer to John. When teams and desks were rearranged we ended up in neighbouring cubicles. We interacted daily. There were times we saw eye to eye. There were even times, on long quiet Sunday shifts, that we ended up having heart to hearts. It was a surprise, at first, to discover that he had a heart.
Somewhere along the line his desire to offend and insult me faded. God, generally, and Islam specifically was a topic we didn’t broach and we settled into a pleasant working relationship. Which is why his explosion one afternoon was all the more unexpected.
Struggling to make a judgement call on the post he was moderating John called me over for a second opinion. I wheeled my chair over to his desk to lend a hand. I was fasting that day. My thoughts were foggier than usual and my brain had a blip. I jumbled a couple of words as I was speaking.
“Sorry John, fasting brain” I explained laughing, and corrected my sentence.
“Why do you do this?!” he spat, tense and exasperated. “You’re an intelligent woman! I don’t get it!”
His reaction was disproportionate. It startled me. Was this really about my muddled sentence? My first thought was to promptly wheel back to my desk. My thoughts were impaired though, in my fasting state, and my heart took charge. In a moment of compassion I took a breath, gathered myself and chose to remain in the conversation.
“If you calm down I can try to explain why” I told him.
As his shoulders dropped and softened I realised, for the first time, that perhaps his questions did need answers.
“We are told to fast so that we may have taqwa,” I explained. “Taqwa means consciousness, awareness of God. Every moment I feel hungry, or muddle a sentence, I have an opportunity to centre myself and remember why I am doing this. Allah.
“But it’s about intention, John. There are also sayings that say people may fast and get nothing from it but hunger and thirst.”
“Does it say those people are called John?” he asked, looking sheepish.
My eyes widened. I was taken aback by his vulnerability; his willingness to hear me, his effort to understand and his acknowledgement that this might be something experiential that he didn’t know. It was a dramatic shift from the hostility he’d demonstrated just moments before.
“You know, it’s hard,” he began, “I come from my particular white guy perspective and your religion just seems really oppressive on the surface. Like, you have to starve yourself and cover your hair, but I see with you, that there’s a lot of benefit in it for you.”
I smiled silently and basked in the glow of what felt suspiciously close to approval and acceptance. Those sips of open and honest interaction seeped through me, as nourishing and hydrating as those first sips of water at the end of a day of fasting. In two years of working together I’d never shared my beliefs in such an honest way. Between him closing down the space, and me lacking the backbone to create my own, we’d been starving ourselves of a basic human understanding. This was the moment we broke the fast.
We worked together for two and a half years altogether. We must have had hundreds of conversations and four or five years have passed since this one, but this one I remember. I revealed something of my true identity – a difficult option in the face of aggressive exasperation – I allowed him to see me, to recognise my difference and to humbly admit that there are worlds outside of his own experience and understanding.
If you had asked me, in the years before that moment, to stand firm in the face of such an onslaught and calmly communicate a truth that is close to my heart, I would have told you I could never do that. But, I hadn’t taken the opportunity to try, to attempt something that seemed too difficult, to be patient through discomfort in order to achieve something meaningful. I surprised myself.