As a practicing Muslim, I found myself nodding as I read "Fasting for Ramadan: Notes From a Spiritual Practice," particularly at Kazim Ali's descriptions of the feeling one gets when going without food or drink. Like this: "One feels, at the end of a day of fasting, like a tree branch or a bone bleached in the sun." Reading these essays is about as close as you can get (short of doing it yourself) to experiencing the monthlong daylight fast that millions of Muslims worldwide keep each year. He paints a rare and intimate portrait of the faster's mind-set.
Searching, poetic and deeply personal, his essays reveal the mental and physical journey he undergoes during two fasting seasons.
In doing so, he manages to demystify the spiritual practice while inviting readers to share in his transformation.
Many books on Ramadan offer only encyclopedic information about the fast. They typically include a list of dos and don'ts, coupled with citations from the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book. In contrast, Ali's book weaves together Ramadan 101 facts -- "during the day one must abstain from: all food and water. But also from: cigarettes, gossip or slander, sexual activity" -- with personal reflections on what it all means.
Ramadan moves around the calendar, and this year it falls in August. Ali writes, in the first part of the book, about how grueling the daylight fasting schedule is in summertime, when the days are long. We learn about his efforts to continue exercising while keeping the fast. We also learn what he eats -- homemade dairy-free ice cream one morning, followed by oatmeal flavored with a pear, soy milk and brown rice powder. And what he drinks -- two glasses of water in one sitting.
His arrangement of the essays is unusual and deliberate.
The first part, "Ramadan Essays," contains passages he originally wrote as a series of blog entries, sharing insights about his own attempts at fasting and spiritual discipline. It covers one 30-day fasting season.
The second part of the book comprises daily meditations from a fasting journal he kept years earlier.
Why combine two seemingly disjointed experiences into one book?
Ali offers this explanation in the opening pages: "Because on Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebration at the end of the fasting month, when traveling to the mosque for special prayers you are supposed to take one route going and another, different route coming home." And so he took two routes to make his points.
"Fasting for Ramadan" manages to convey the essence of the fasting experience in a way that I have been unable to when asked by curious non-Muslim friends. People often seem to expect a simple explanation, one that can be easily digested in a short chat by the water cooler.
But much like the food consumed by the faster after dusk, the lessons of Ramadan are best absorbed in small bites over time.
Allie Shah is a news reporter at the Star Tribune.