Bangladesh / Cultural norms

Ramazan in Bangladesh (a blast from the past)

This is a post a wrote about fasting whilst I was working as a VSO volunteer in Bangladesh in 2009. Ramazan was both completely different and entirely the same in Bangladesh. This was the first time I’ve ever tried to fast, and as you’ll see, I had mixed success. I’m happy to report that my experiments with fasting since then have been much more successful!

Walking home from drinks with a friend this evening (non-alcoholic, of course), I happened to be passing my local mosque at the time of evening prayers. Usually, this is a pretty quotidian affair, nothing to shout about really, just a bunch of men praying. Today, however, on the third day of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, the mosque was so packed that worshippers spilled out onto the surrounding streets, kneeling to pray in the dust. Outside, the cafes and restaurants that had all day been churning out deep fried sweets and deep fried vegetables, were struggling to manage their hungry queues of people waiting to take iftar. Within minutes of the azan, the stalls had been stripped bare. After going almost sixteen hours without eating or drinking, they ate, they prayed, then they went home to their families to eat some more.

As white-capped men thronged onto the streets around me, carrying colorful packages and grease-stained packets, you could almost smell the relief and celebration in the air, mingling with the scent of frying aubergines and hot sugar. Everywhere I looked, men in their best were chowing down with their friends or hurrying home to their families.

And I was completely alone.

Until you experience a religious festival like Ramadan completely from the outside, it’s difficult to imagine how isolating it can feel. Sure, you see people observing Ramadan in the UK, but it’s a totally different story when everyone around you is fasting then enjoying iftar, and you are not. With the majority of my colleagues observing roza (fasting), I’d be feeling guilty at lunchtime as I ate my rice and dal. Walking home today, I decided that this combination of guilt and isolation really would not do, and thus my roza experiment was conceived.

3am Got up dutifully when my alarm went off. Reheated the khichuri I’d cooked the night before. Made some toast too, so it was a real carb fest. Had planned to have tomatoes on the toast, and an apple for vitamins, but at 3am it was all I could do to tip the khichuri into a pan and stir it.

3:35am Stumble back to bed feeling pretty dazed and confused.

4:10am Realise that my first attempt at fasting has been jeopardized by the confusion surrounding ‘digital’ and ‘old’ time. I’d set my alarm for 3am having been told by my Parbatipur neighbours that 3am was seheri (suhoor), the time for eating before morning prayers. Unfortunately, it transpired that they were referring to 3am OLD time (i.e. the time before the clocks went forward – the introduction of daylight saving time in Bangladesh caused endless confusion, which resulted in it being abolished), which is actually 4am digital time, and therefore the time by my watch. So just as I’m drifting off again, I hear the mosque begin to blare: “Time to eat, time to eat.” I think even in my addled state of mind, I managed to roll my eyes. Then later a while later, “Stop eating, stop eating.” I groaned. Then later still, the bloody call to prayer, which must be an extra-special bumper edition of the usual rendition, because it seemed to go on forever. Finally drifted off again, to have some very disturbed dreams, thanks to all the glucose that was by then haring around my system.

8:30am Roll out of bed. Feeling very disoriented. Stomach feels decidedly odd – maybe it’s as confused as my brain is at having eaten an unusually large meal in the middle of the night. I take a shower and feel a little more with it. Am lost for something to do, to fill the pre-work minutes. Breakfast so handily fills in this otherwise useless time. Decide to get down to some work to take my mind off food.

9.30am Just had a bout of what might well be called a ‘loose motion’. Great stuff. My experiment is going well so far.

9.53am First stomach rumblings. Oh dear. Still over nine hours to go…

10.15am Starting to get the shakes. Really can’t concentrate on data entry.

10.43am After four out of six data sets entered, need a little lie down.

11.15am It’s really hard to know what to do when data entry-related boredom sets in. Normally, I’d just eat!

1pm Have arrived at the office and can’t help myself but moan about how hungry I am. A good Muslim would never do this, of course, but food is all I can think about. When I tell my colleagues that I am also ‘in roza’, as they say, they first look at me like I’m a little crazy, then they all think it’s utterly hilarious. I smile weakly and go and have a little sit down.

3.30pm Feeling pretty spacey. Having spent quite a frantic afternoon in the office, sending emails, searching for missing data sets etc etc, I’m a little bit exhausted. Also, feeling very hot despite the AC. Is that to do with dehydration? My self-cooling system is no longer working because there’s no cooler left? Who knows. Should have listened harder in biology. Trying to explain the intricacies of data entry/data analysis to Tonni, I start to feel like I might pass out.

3.50pm I’ve given in. Had to go and get a covert glass of water. Within minutes, I’m feeling better, clearer-headed, cooler, calmer… Try to tell myself it’s okay, I’m not used to the Bangladeshi climate, so it’s alright for me to drink water. Not sure what Allah would think of that, though…

4.15pm Only three hours to go now. Not actually feeling too hungry. Still banging it out with the data entry.

6.40pm Miraculously, still not hungry! Need some bloody water though. Going to meet Mahaboub for iftar now. Roll on the fried goods and sugar!

7.10pm Searching for a restaurant that meets Mahaboub’s exacting standards. Despite not feeling hungry, I’m not too steady on my feet. Never thought twenty minutes could feel so long. Worryingly, all the hotels (as restaurants are oddly referred to in Bangladesh) seem to be full of people sitting in silence with full plates in front of them, waiting for 7.22pm, and the azan.

7.22pm At last, iftar! What a delight. Finally found a hotel that had two free chairs (admittedly, on opposite sides of the room, but who’s complaining when there’s food to be had?). The azan began playing on the radio as we stumble in and take our seats, and it’s quite a spectacle to behold. The hotel we (finally) lighted upon was a fast food shwarma café on Mirpur road, with tempting spit roasting chickens and kebabs outside, and strip lighting, plastic chairs and off-putting photographs of fast food inside. It was also packed to the gills, yet utterly silent, save for the sound of hungry people eating. We ordered shwarma, which is chicken kebab rolled up in a flat bread with salad and some unidentifiable sauce. I never knew shwarma could taste so good, but it did. Twice.

8.30pm Finally get back to my flat. Stomach is still a bit uncomfortably full, but I make myself tea, and crack open a packet of biscuits and curl up to watch ‘The English Patient’.

9.15pm Time for bed. I’m exhausted. As I drift off to sleep, I smile smugly that I won’t be getting up at 4am again. At least not tomorrow, anyway.


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