The first week of fasting for Ramadan is the toughest, they say. For me, it was the first day. I hadn't woken up at 4am the way everyone does for the meal and morning prayers before the sun comes up. Essentially my thought process was as follows..."There's no way in heck I'm waking up in the dark in the middle of the night and stuffing my face and then going back to sleep." Well, after that day of a severely growling stomach and throbbing head, I decided I would see about this 4am meal idea. So, the past few days, my Japanese roommate and I both have woken up at 4am and eaten together in the dead of night and then gone back to bed. To be honest, fasting presents a comforting feeling of solidarity, not only with my roommate, but also with the whole community, since we know that everyone is doing likewise in their respective homes. That's one of the reasons my roommate and I decided to fast. It's such an important part of the local culture here and we wanted to experience it.
The holy month of Ramadan extends from the day that you first see the moon, which was exactly last Saturday and will extend until the moon disappears again and re-appears. The purpose of the fast, so I've been told, is two-fold: to commiserate with the poor, who do not have enough to eat or drink--as in, to actually feel those pains yourself. And also, to fast, from all unholy thoughts and actions. So, while the sun is up, it is "haram" (forbidden) to drink or eat anything, to smoke, or technically, to even swallow your saliva (chewing gum also forbidden, or course.) You're also not allowed to show physical affection to a member of the opposite sex. It's supposed to be a purifying time, in which you pray more and fast from the senses, and of course, get closer to God. The typical saying people express during Ramadan expresses this sentiment. You say, "Ramadan kareem", (Ramadan is generous), and the person responds, "Allah akram" (God is more generous).
The best part of the day for me has been al Iftar (breaking of the fast) at about 5:30 pm, where we've been invited to our neighbors' houses to join them for the meal. It's a joyous occasion, where everyone is relieved to be able to eat and drink as much as they can after a day of want. The food has been delicious and I've been promised cooking lessons so I can learn how to do it as well. After the meal, it's customary to go for a walk afterwards, so you see everyone around town in the evening. (During the day, on the other hand, Birzeit has been much quieter. Everyone is probably home napping!)
Ramadan takes on a completely alternate schedule that everyone adapts too, whether fasting or not. Even our class schedule has changed, so that people can go home earlier since everyone is pretty much "out of it" by about 3pm. The pace all in all, slows down. People walk slower, talk slower, etc.
Also, no one eats or drinks or smokes in public, even the Christians, out of respect for those fasting. It's amazing to think of all these hard-core smokers going without cigarettes during the day. Indeed, everyone I've talked to says not smoking is by far the hardest part of the fast. My neighbor told me during the year, he smokes two packs a day, but during Ramadan, he ends up smoking three packs a day, just because he misses it so much during the day and so smokes continually during the night. (I'm quite sure, that's not the point of Ramadan...to go without during the day so you can indulge at night, but oh well!)
Apparently, women must not fast during their "time of the month", so there is an extra week after the big Eid celebration after the end of Ramadan for women who have to make up their week and for those who were sick or travelling during the month and have days to make up.
So, we'll see how long I can last. The only big problem I've found is this new schedule has wreaked havoc with any kind of gym schedule. The women's gym in Birzeit doesn't open until 5pm (and only 3 days a week incidentally!) and closes at 8pm. Well, at 5pm, I'm way too weak and thirsty to go run and work out and after the huge meal, there's also no way I could get on a treadmill. Hmmm.....
Best wishes to all and hopes for a worldwide fast from want, sorrow, pain, anger, and injustice. :-)