The Ramadhan Diaries

Fasting in London and beyond

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The optional extras you can’t resist – Taraweh prayers

When I was younger and first getting to grips with Islam and Ramadan I remember thinking how challenging the month long fast was. Not just the fasting itself but everything else that went with it. The thing that got me was the extra prayer after the last prayer of the day. There is a lot of praying going on. So not only do you not eat all day, but in the hours when you are allowed to eat, you then have an optional extra of set of prayers – called taraweh – to think about doing. Now these prayers are not compulsory, like the five times a day obligatory one but they are popular and people do flock to the mosques after eating to pray them.

It was whilst I was living in Edinburgh and immersing myself in the Ramadan experience fully – not just the detached ritual of not eating during daylight hours – that I began to partake in the extra night prayers. During this time, mosques scour the land and overseas for their favourite reciters, people who can recite huge chunks of the Qu’ran by heart and say it with the conviction, the stamina and the beauty that captivates the listener. In Edinburgh, two reciters from Saudi Arabia were annually brought in and they filled the mosque. I kid you not, it really was standing room only on any tiny spot of mosque ground you could find. I was amazed and then a bit embarrassed by how much of a light weight I had been in previous years of never making it to these extra prayers. During these thrifty days, the entire Qu’ran – all 30 chapters of it will be recited during these taraweh prayers. It’s quite a feat and becomes immensely moving.

Now I am going to a local little mosque near to where I am currently staying just outside east London. The mosque itself is in a house, which has expanded and is growing. It has become a hub. The men prayer outside in what would be the garden, under tarpaulin and some sort of temporary overhead cover. The women have the little semi-detached house, with an extra overspill outside under more tarpaulin. But praying outside is lovely – it’s refreshing. It reminds me of being out in Sarajevo, when I went to pray in the cutest little mosque I had ever seen. It dated back to Ottoman times and had a little balcony outside that we prayed on, with a gentle thunder storm rolling behind us. It was one of those moments imprinted and that I would love to repeat.

Praying under my little tarpaulin overhead cover in Essex is not quite Sarajevo but if I close my eyes, focus on the prayer being recited and feel the cool breeze in the night air on my skin, I could be anywhere.

If I am painting a very spiritually idyllic picture, let me bring in some realities. The crowd control can be a problem, the stampede for a space can result in the most unholiest of exchanges and in the years gone by this mosque also used to have it’s share of ‘hijabis in hoodies kind of groupies’ – the young ones that used to come for the chat and the hanging around. Used to annoy me beyond belief especially after having convinced my lazier self to drag myself there. I often ended up me telling them to shut up so that the women could focus on the prayers and not their chat about their day or their latest crush. One evening I stopped my prayer to stand with them, glowering over them to keep their voices down, as the other’s prayed. This year it’s quiet on the chat front but the space issue still exists. My mum, who is a little unsteady on her feet, uses a chair to prayer instead of standing all the way through and yet women around her kept hustling her to move over, even though it’s quite visibly obvious she is unsteady. Things like this make me wonder at the compassion, the charity and the peace that Ramadan is supposed to invoke. I then get angry and don’t engage with the community – live in my self imposed exile from it. A collection of these experiences has traditionally kept me away from group gatherings in prayer congregations, but for some reason this year I am embracing it again. I am trying a new approach to Ramadan and the night prayers are part of this. I always come back with a bit more of an appetite and a little less sluggish. So it is working for me.

It seems to be working. There are things I love about the taraweh prayer. I love when I am driving to the mosque, I can see individuals or small groups of people either walking to the mosques or leaving, in the surrounding streets leading. Men in white long robes called thobes and little caps. They don’t only wear just this, but when you see this outfit you kind of know where they are going or have been. For me it’s a peaceful image – someone who has just spent an hour in spiritual contemplation and prayer after a day of fasting and yet for many in the UK, the image of a Muslim ‘dressed as a Muslim’ has invoked fear and suspicion.

The mosque is heaving, and when the prayers are over people stream out. It seems bizarre to see such a large group of people coming out of a building, heading for their cars around midnight when the rest of the street are indoors and all the shops are closed. There is a quiet buzz – people are too tired to be boisterous and it’s not that kind of vibe. There is also a lovely smell of musk hanging in the air – people tend to use musk as a perfume including men. It smells so clean, so soft and just reminds me of taraweh prayers every time.

The other night when I was trying to find a place to park – I was late getting in to taraweh – a man who had just left the pub around the corner was weaving across the pavement and then decided to get into the road in front of my car. It was an awkward moment – the mosque with groups of men leaving, a drunk man staggering in the road wondering what on earth the crowds of people were all about. Was it a rave?  And who on earth where those people bowing and kneeling inside? Then there was me driving at 2 mph behind him – giving it some road rage. I am not sure who the men in white thobes were most amused by – me being angry or the staggering man.

 

 

Having my cake and eating it.

Settled down to understand more about the physiology related to fasting and fell asleep. Even with the Simpsons on Channel 4. I have felt rather fatigued today – I think that’s my body readjusting to what I am doing to it. It really is a mind of matter situation and at the moment it’s neck and neck. Matter kind of won today but I know I have to get the mind back into it. I think when I am working, out there and doing stuff things really do go a lot easier during the fasting day. Today I stayed in my room, read, slept and prayed. I feel more lethargic and the thought of heading out for the night prayer seems like a mammoth effort. Bigger than it did on the other days.

Drinking my cup of tea is rather wonderful though. It makes me appreciate that particular luxury amongst others. In fact as I was pouring out something to eat today, I felt an urge to keep the portion size small. I was just not able to consider eating or even looking at vast amounts of food. In that moment I wondered that if more people were to undertake abstinence from food, through fasting, would that mean less food waste? There was a program on BBC Radio 4 last night as I was driving home about the horrifying amounts of food that are thrown away around the world. Fasting certainly does without a shadow of a doubt make you appreciate the privilege of easy and ready access to food and water. It’s one that not everyone has.

I’m settling down to the BBC’s Newsnight and another cup of tea. Just had a delicious slice of home made fruit cake, complete with icing and marzipan. Now I feel a bit sick.

 

Day 3 – In Fasting Hibernation

I have not left my room today. I live in a flat with three others and my en suite room is my domain. I just wanted to stay put, do nothing but be still and quiet. It’s not something I am going to have much opportunity for later in Ramadan, starting tomorrow – so I thought I’d make the most of my downtime. I got home late last night after the excitement of the Algerian football match and the successful cooking session. By the time I had settled, had sehur (breakfast) and prayed Fajr it was around 3.30am. I slept in this morning and ever since have gorged myself on the unthinkable other than food – a diet of day time tv. Now I feel a little unclean!

As I write this an ice-cream van drives by. Funny how I never noticed this before. How long have we been getting ice-cream vans down here? Weird how you notice these things on a fast.

I had for the first time this Ramadan pangs of hunger, that made me feel a bit nauseous and so I tried to focus on the physiology going on in my body and what was causing it. I found myself looking up the hunger hormone, ghrelin. It is secreted when the stomach is empty and when the stomach is stretched as it receives content it’s secretion stops. I think I am a ghrelin secretion hater as I always feel more comfortable in a stretched stomach state. The fuzzy head right now isn’t that bad but I am fully aware that I am fasting and that reinforces my negative state that I find myself in. I know for example that my own health and well being allows for me to fast and that within my own body I have enough food reserves to keep me alive and functioning for more than just a day. I also know that cutting my calorie intake is good for me and that subjecting my body to this kind of stress is actually a form of repair. I also know that I can survive without water until 9.20pm this evening. I also know that right now my body is going into fat burning mode to gain it’s source of energy and that I have plenty of fat stores to draw from. So what is it that is making me feel so much slower today? And hungry? It was not like this yesterday. But then again I was rushing around, shopping, feeling the Ramadhan spirit and today I am alone in my room with the television. Maybe that’s it.

For a more informed answer I am turning to science to understand. I am actually going to go away for a bit and read Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer’s book ‘The Fast Diet’ and in particular the chapter about the science of fasting.

However I have gained some solace from the following, that Michael gives us from his and Mimi’s book:

‘…Once you have been really hungry you no longer fear it.

I thought fasting would make me distractible, unable to concentrate. What I’ve discovered is that it sharpens my senses and my  brain.

I feared it would be incredibly hard to do. It isn’t.’

 

Farewell to the Desert Foxes and their Fantastic Fans

Farewell to the Desert Foxes and their Fantastic Fans

The farewell from Algerian national football coach to the fans and the tearful hugs for his team. Vahid Halilhodzic did an amazing job and let’s hope he stays. Bravo team, bravo.

Iftar and the Algeria Germany match

Iftar and the Algeria Germany match

Iftar Day Two

This one was spent mostly with my hands over my eyes. I was watching the Algeria v Germany match at an Algerian friend’s house. I had the full DZ experience which included going to a local Algerian butchers to buy meat and then onto a fantastic Algerian cake shop to buy some delicate little pretty cakes, Algerian style. The shop was just a gallery of naughty sweet stuff made to look like little works of art. 

Algerian flags were out everywhere and in the Finsbury Park part of London, where Algerians are a small but concentrated community, the anticipation for the coming match hung in the air. Excited chatter over the counter as Iftar preps were being made.

It was then home to cook and I made shorba and some lamb with chickpeas. We cheated and bought the lamb borek – filo pastry with a filling of mince. 

For once it all turned out as it should in terms of the food and with time to spare but sadly the football didn’t. Algeria played well, the goal keeper was superb but the outcome of a 2:1 win to Germany in extra time has meant the end of Algeria’s 2014 World Cup journey. Interesting though that their presence here brought to the pundit discussions the topic of religion – Adrian Chiles from ITV referred to the fans’ hand gestures to the ‘face and the sky’ and the commentator mentioned the debate about whether the Algerian footballers should or should not be fasting. There was an update of what Ramadan actually means for those that might have missed that. 

I’m writing this sipping water as I am too full to eat but aware I need to hydrate, as I watch the news. BBC News’ Olly Foster in Brazil  describes the Algeria Germany match with evident respect. He says it was the most fantastic 0-0 match ever in the World Cup, where the Algerian’s took the Germans by storm in 90 mins. It really was quite something and they fought so well. The tears at the end from the coach, Valid Halilhodzic and the players were shared by many. I think the Algerians – both the players and the fans – have really won the hearts of many. They have earnt respect.

And now as the American team prepares for it’s match against Belgium – the US coach, Jurgen Klinsmann has expressed concern about the Algerian referee, Djamel Haimouidi assigned to their match. He says it’s because Haimoudi will be better able to communicate with Belgium and that the US knocked out Algeria in 2010. The Algerian world cup discourse continues.Image

Breaking Muscle article on fasting and it’s health benefits

Another article on fasting and it's health benefits.

BBC article on Olympic athletes fasting in Ramadhan

BBC article on Olympic athletes fasting – a lovely piece

BBC Horizon’s Michael Mosely looks at the health benefits of fasting

BBC Horizon programme on restricted and fasting diets and their health benefits –

Catching Up….

So the diary suffered a little over the last couple of weeks. There has been a lot going on and time has slipped. I have also learnt that keeping a blog requires discipline and I’m afraid I am not the most disciplined person I know. Far too much of a free spirit. But as the days rolled by unwritten I kept everything logged in my head – my thoughts were with the blog on a daily basis although I didn’t get to physically connect. 

What’s going to happen now is me filling in the gaps from the last time we met. There have been a variety of things going on such as fasting, making meals to break the fast for the family, massive huge family rows resulting in near dis-ownership – yes, I know it’s not what we are supposed to be doing in Ramadhan but family stuff happens despite ourselves – and lots and lots of tests for potential kidney donor screening for my brother. 

Oh I also moved to a room near to the hospital where I work. It took a few days to get used to the quiet and the routine of living on my own again but I have settled in now. Hence that’s me back to writing.

The Olympics have left London and the Paralympice have not yet bsgun. I totally loved how London became a cool friendly place to be. I am on the Underground tomorrow – I wonder if the fantastic atmosphere and the smiling policemen will still linger? Will let you know.

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