The Ramadhan Diaries

Fasting in London and beyond

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

Football and Fasting

The Match We Have All Been Waiting For

The Match We Have All Been Waiting For

The Algerian national team’s coach, Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic is angry with the constant questions regarding which players within his team will be fasting. I am curious as to why everyone is fixated with that. I am also surprised to hear that he has received criticisms against him personally. I was reading the post by David Ornstein on the BBC online Sport pages.

“Ramadan is here and I read in some Algerian newspapers criticisms about me, about my image, about my honour. They are trying to raise hatred against Vahid, against my family, and this is really disgusting.”

Of course it was one of the things we all anticipated if Algeria, the only Arab/North African country go forward at this years World Cup in Brazil. I was watching the last match with an Algerian friend where they drew with Russia, breaking through into the last-16.  “They will be playing in Ramadan – that’s huge.’ I was thinking about the symbolism of a predominantly Muslim country playing at the World Cup during Ramadan and less the practicalities of it. My friend pointed out that we will be having Iftar watching the match.

Fasting is very much a private matter and it is also one of those acts of worship that no one else has to even know about. If you are fasting you are not displaying an outward action – it’s internal and more personal. A struggle against your own desires, habits and enforcing will power.

It is interesting that everyone is keen to know if the players will be fasting. Is it because it is deemed such an enormous feat to undertake? Particularly if you are playing sport at world level in the heat the Brazilian climate promises? It does make you wonder about human abilities. But Algeria is a relatively conservative country and some if not all of the team are observing Muslims. One thing I noticed about Algerians through friends and networks is that despite other aspects of Islam that may not be adhered to as strictly, even the five times a day prayer – fasting is observed throughout Ramadan in a steadfast manner.

And yet it is still a matter between the individual and Allah (God) as eluded to by the coach in the BBC online piece.”This is a private matter and when you ask this you lack respect and ethics,” said their coach.

Although Ramadan is mandatory for Muslims and one of the five pillars of Islam, those that are sick, and elderly are exempt and those who are pregnant, travelling or going to war are permitted to avoid it until a later time. Athletes sometimes delay their fast according to these exemptions. Not being judgemental is key and sadly Muslims can be an extremely judgemental bunch.

The coach said that it is not the first time he has had Muslim players in his team and that he leaves them free to make up their own minds. He sees it as a private spiritual matter and I have to agree.

‘It has to do with private freedom of expression.’

“Those who continue criticising our team and my actions, I think it’s shameful. But I will continue [as coach], I will continue working with this team. I’m sorry that you continue criticising what I do.
“Stop asking me about Ramadan, otherwise I will get up and leave.”

We know though that the Algerian captain, Madjid Bougherra will be fasting during Ramadan and that does not surprise me. I met him in Glasgow in 2010 and interviewed him for a film I was making about the Algerian football team. He was striking in his humility, even bringing his two little daughters for us to meet.

I was also amazed to read that the Algerian squad have been accompanied by one of Fifa’s leading experts on fasting footballers! I never knew there was such a thing! But obviously then footballers fast whilst playing matches. And they survive. It is all to do with the preparation and being careful. Something I think expensive footballers and their managers will be most aware of.

1,2,3 Viva L’Algerie and Ramadan Kareem to the team.


Day Two

I dozed off watching some TV waiting for the morning prayer that falls just after 3am at the moment. It’s called Fajr and is just before sunrise.

As the title credits rolled to that iconic film Something’s Gotta Give , I stirred with the sound of birdsong. That’s twice in two days the pre- dawn chorus has got me up for the first prayer of the day. The birds are singing so loud.

The Dip Has Come

When I interviewed Dr Michael Mosely a couple of days ago for the Ramadhan program I am presenting for BBC 1 – he suggested keeping a diary of how I was feeling throughout the day. Prior to starting fasting I have also taken a set of bloods, weighed myself and recorded my BMI. I want to tackle this Ramadhan with a difference. It is supposed to be a period that develops you as a person for the better through the discipline of fasting and I want to measure that. Spiritual development will be recorded through reflection and the changes in terms of my own physiology and body through science! I have had a set of bloods taken prior to fasting and then will have a set taken after – the results of which I will reveal within the BBC programme.

But today – in fact right now at about 7pm I am having a dip. I feel a little tired and a bit woolly around my head. Michael suggested that fasting is like putting the body under stress in a way that we ‘stress’ our bodies when exercising. It is during this time of stress that the body repairs itself. It does that by creating new cells. We do the same thing when we lift weights where our muscles rip – then we create a healing process to repair. Michael’s words of how this process happens in fasting are ringing through my head now. He said the process happens throughout the body including our brain. When I begin to feel a bit fuzzy minded, I should think of it as my brain ‘getting a polish’ as new brain cells form in response to the process.

So I think that’s where I am right now. My body is relying on my fat reserves right now to draw on the energy it needs. I have plenty of those and so the essential organs I need to keep functioning are certainly not in any shortage of what they need! It is more that I as a human being am a creature of habit and it would be around now that I would be drinking tea or coffee and also looking for the evening meal.

And I find that if I distract myself, mentally, I can overcome the dip. Michael described that within the 5:2 diet process he also used meditation and that mindfulness is an important reinforcement for helping to go through fasting. So for me the mindfulness and the ‘meditation’ process actually comes through the process of prayer. It’s the time to pray the afternoon prayer – Asr – and so I will use that as a time to reflect, to connect and to relish what I am doing and why.

In two hours I will be able to eat and drink again. Taking time to think of the entire process from both a spiritual and physical perspective has been a more meaningful way to approach Ramadhan.

I have the strongest desire to eat pasta – I hardly ever have it normally but how bizarre to experience the cravings our minds create for us.

Ramadhan Kareem 2014

So it’s here. Like most things that require a bit of work and may prove a bit of a challenge, I have been mentally prepping for this first day of Ramadhan since about May!  I have been worried about how fasting for 19 hours will work out, especially with the normal routine of work but reading back over my last two years of blog posts, has been quite helpful. Writing this blog again is really something I anticipate eagerly and look forward to every year. Thinking about the first few posts I have planned this year I know I have something different to offer.

This Ramadhan has already proven a bit different before it even began. I have never been to an Islamic Relief event but was invited to the Pre-Ramadhan Dinner the other night. It took place in the the Church House, near Westminster Abbey. A rather lovely setting and the food was delicious. Speakers included Minister for Justice and Civil Liberties Simon Hughes MP, Amir Khan and Jon Snow. The night was dedicated to launching the latest fund-raising announcement – DFID is to match pound for pound money raised by Islamic Relief. I’ll write more about this event in a piece later when armed with a post Iftar cup of tea.

Also I want to bring in some thoughts about the Algerian football team playing against Germany on Monday 30 July at the World Cup. I am a Les Verts fan – the Desert Foxes are back. I will actually be watching the match tomorrow evening around Iftar time with an Algerian friend and no doubt we will be heading to little Algiers in Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park, London to see the fans. Algerian football fans are a unique bunch and one can’t help but love them.

And then I have been given the rather unique and wonderful opportunity to make a film for the BBC about Ramadhan which will be screened on the 20th July. It has involved meeting and interviewing the London based imam, Ajmal Masroor. It was inspiringly hearing what Ramadhan means both to him personally and to the Muslim community. I also had the chance to sort the science of fasting out in my head with a really insightful meeting with the fasting expert Dr Michael Mosely. It was fantastic. After what I learnt from Michael and also the reassurance I gained from him about what was going on physiologically inside me I felt so much more ready for the challenge ahead in fulfilling my religious obligation of fasting through Ramadhan.  He told how the fat burning stage kicks in about 8 hours into the fast, which for me today at about 6pm I know I am well within. He talked through the dips and cravings we can experience and why. He also explained that over-coming habits is an important part of the process. Michael told me that I should be careful about what I eat in the evenings so that I avoid what normally happens to me every year – I put on weight. it’s because I anticipate the day ahead and eat the food I think will help. He advised lot’s or protein and fresh veg. Sounds rather sensible. Will I stick to it though?

Michael also talked about really taking time to savour the food and not to just gorge. It all makes perfect sense. It is a time of restraint and control and could provide lessons to learn that will remain after the last day of the 30 days.

I am also going to use this time to yet again sort my life out – both the spiritual, physical and the disorganised pile of stuff I keep under the desk.

So today is being spent taking it easy. No caffeine withdrawal headache thank goodness – the reduction in intake over the last few weeks has obviously paid off. I am however struck by how much food is thrust at us on the television. Most of the adverts are screaming at us to buy food, eat and drink all sorts of stuff.

Although I actually feel fine and full of the eagerness of spiritual awakening that fasting can bring, I am switching over from Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me.  I am human after all and have not eaten since 2.49am!!


Trying not to argue when the computor says no

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