The women’s entrance at the mosque led into the basement of the building. At the end of a short hall, I came to a rack filled with shoes outside a room where the women were sitting family style at long tables. This must be some sort of party, I thought. I bought a few minutes by very carefully removing my shoes and arranging them on the rack. I wondered if I should remove my head scarf too. By recognizing customs, was I being respectful or deceitful?

I decided to leave my shoes off and my scarf on. I would be as forthright as possible when I spoke to people. I couldn’t help what assumptions were made about me from across a room. I preferred this scenario to the risk of offending.

The women were sitting around the tables talking. I wondered if Mandisa was here yet. I had no idea what she looked like. I made my way to an opening across from two women, one older and one younger. Their faces appeared Asian.

“I’m looking for Mandisa,” I told them.

“From Egypt?” the older one asked. I nodded and she looked around the room. “I don’t think I’ve seen her yet.”

“It’s your first time here?” the younger of the two wanted to know.

I nodded and sat. “I’m not Muslim.”

They seemed not at all surprised.

Someone announced the food was ready; I’d had dinner at home, but I wanted to participate. We filled our paper plates buffet style with rice and chicken and returned to our places.

The two women and I exchanged some basic information while we ate. They were both from the Philippines. The younger was a student. The older was married to a professor and had lived in the states for 20 years. She pointed at the ceiling. “My husband’s upstairs.”

They wanted to know what brought me to the mosque and I explained my quest. I told them that, specifically, I was hoping to learn the daily prayers.

The older woman looked at me sheepishly. “I don’t do them. My husband does, but not me. Maybe when I get old I will do them all the time.” She shrugged. “Not right now.”

“Corinna?” A beautiful face framed by a hot pink scarf was peering down at me. “Mandisa?” She grasped the hand I had extended and wrapped her other arm around me. We hugged and shook hands simultaneously.

Like mine, her clothes were western style pieces that just happened to provide full coverage: an ankle-length skirt and a shirt with sleeves to the wrists. Many of the women wore long caftans, most in dark colors. Some topped off their outfits with regular-looking scarves while others used special wraps with a cut-out for the face. The ways in which the women presented themselves were surprisingly varied.

“Shall we go to the library?” Mandisa asked. Her accent had just a whisper of British; it spoke volumes about the history of colonialism in her country. She seemed sophisticated and fashionable and it suddenly made sense why my other would-be Muslim mentors had fallen through. All along, it was meant to be Mandisa.

The trial

The religions I’ve explored all have central figures that faced a period of deprivation. Jesus retreated to the Judean Desert for 40 days, consuming nothing but water. The Jews experienced 40 years of isolation and adversity in the desert. Guatama Siddartha sat for 49 days under a Bodhi tree. In each case, this time of hardship is an essential component of the story. It precedes a breakthrough, a vital step before a vision is clarified, the homeland is reached, or enlightenment is achieved. The suffering is designed to purify and to prove. It forges the key actors into who they are supposed to become: Christ, Israel, Buddha.

I didn’t go anywhere, but Ramadan had brought the trial to me. I had walked through a desert of my own creation for 30 days. I had spent hours with my cheek against the bathroom floor. I went days with dogs as my only company. I shed copious tears. I came face to face with despair. I emerged, several pounds lighter and a bit weary. But I was tougher and more fearless.

After Ramadan, I redoubled my efforts to find a mentor who could help me with the practical aspects of Muslim worship. This time, I emailed my appeal to the president of the Muslim Student Association on campus. I explained a little about myself, that I was exploring religion, and that I was looking for someone to teach me to perform the daily prayers. Then, just in case he wasn’t sure I meant business, I wrote that I had completed the most recent Ramadan. He wrote back immediately. Within a week, I had plans to meet a female graduate student from Egypt.

Via email, Mandisa suggested I come to the mosque at 8 pm on Saturday night. I wasn’t sure what to expect—if it would be just the two of us or if I was showing up for an already-planned event. Either way, I wasn’t about to quibble. I told her I’d be there.

I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes early. I had only ever seen one or two cars here and now it was full. People were also arriving on foot. I sat frozen watching for several minutes. I had dressed in what I hoped was appropriate attire: a skirt to my ankles and a long-sleeve shirt. It was the same outfit from my time spent among Orthodox Jews. I had also brought a plain white scarf big enough to cover my hair and hang past my shoulders. I tossed it into my bag just in case. I thought if the circumstances seemed to demand it, I’d drape it loosely over my head. Now I could see that all the women had their heads wrapped tightly. I pulled my scarf out and used my rear view mirror to put it in place. When I was done, I hardly recognized myself.

I finally got out of my car. I noticed an older woman standing nearby, staring at me. She must have watched me struggle with my scarf. She looked like someone’s sweet granny, her ample frame obscured by bundles of fabric, only the precious moon of her face exposed. She smiled and said, “You go this way.” Thank you, I responded and went in the direction she pointed.

The women were streaming toward the back of the building, and the men to the front. I got in line behind a few women and ahead of a couple more. I walked right in and no one said a word. I thought it must look like I belonged—that my attire was communicating the fact that I was a Muslim—and I was suddenly worried. I was donning this garb as a gesture of respect, but now I realized it might also function as misinformation. Were my clothes telling a lie? What I thought I was saying and what I was actually saying weren’t necessarily the same. It was problem I hadn’t considered until now.


Ramadan afforded me the opportunity to approach the precipice of starvation and look out. From this vantage, I could see how food is understood by our bodies as hope and joy; its absence can lead to despair and sorrow. At times I felt its abandonment as if it were an actual friend. It didn’t help that my human pals seemed to be steering clear of me, saying we’d catch up after my Ramadan experience was over, as if our friendships were based on cramming goodies into our mouths. One day I felt so lonely and depressed that I convinced myself a small snack was a medical necessity to cheer me up. I ate a few almonds hoping they might function in my system like Prozac.

Every evening, as the minutes ticked closer to the time for food, I found that my hunger—which had inevitably dissipated sometime in the late afternoon—would kick back in. Just knowing I’d eat soon seemed to reengage some vital link between my belly and my brain. I worried, then, about those for whom hunger is a real problem—the kind of challenge that recurs, persistent and corrosive. What would happen if I didn’t see an end in sight? How devastating to face hunger again and again without knowing if or when you’ll eat again. It’s not just a physical toll, it’s emotional too.

If this experience was designed to heighten my gratitude for food and drink, it did that in spades. I began to think of water as “beautiful, beautiful water.” I ran an errand one afternoon and the cashier was enjoying an icy beverage from a to-go cup—the clear kind with matching lid and a straw. The liquid inside was amber; I imagined it was an herbal tea of some sort. I made believe it was mint-flavored. I waited in her line, mesmerized by the sight of the frosty condensation gathered across the plastic. I could not look away as she picked up the drink. The spots where her fingers gripped displaced tiny beads of moisture causing larger droplets to snake down. Outside, the temperature was a bone dry 95 degrees and I was approaching my 13th hour with no water. I stared unabashedly as she lifted the straw to her lips and sucked. The sight caused a slight dampness to bloom at the back of my tongue, but it was too little to swallow.

After having been apart from water, my very first sip back offered instantaneous relief and pleasure. It was an uncomplicated homecoming. With food, the re-acquaintance process was more measured, as if the time away had somehow damaged my trust. Even though the last 30 minutes or so before the fast’s end were usually some of the most difficult mentally—a point at which my Willy Wonka fantasies often kicked into overdrive—when the hour finally struck, I approached my meals cautiously. I would start with something small like toast or dates and graduate to items with more substance. I would eat methodically, over the course of many hours, my satisfaction building gradually until, at last, I felt absolutely content.

I was so excited by my normal routine when Ramadan ended. No more middle of the night water chugging. I could hydrate whenever I wanted. I resumed drinking coffee, a ritual I hadn’t realized was so vital to my productivity and sense of wellbeing. My appreciation for lunch and mid-day snacks soared. To eat before one’s energy begins to flag struck me as a revelation. My thinking was sharper, my limbs more adept. I could take walks in the middle of the day. I was instantly more cheerful.


I had never given much thought to my stomach’s precise capacity. I suppose I considered it more or less bottomless. I put stuff in whenever I wanted. Every so often, I registered its being full as pain, and then I stopped putting stuff in for a while.

Now with Ramadan, I became extremely mindful of each item that entered and what purpose it served. With food vying for space with water, I learned through trial and error. One night early on I wolfed an enormous bowl of pasta and discovered, while gut-busting, its substance petered out too quickly. I came to see my stomach as valuable real estate; I had to select and pace wisely.

I was forced to acknowledge the wisdom of guidelines nutritional experts cram down our throats. I still daydreamed about downing an entire batch of cookie dough or a huge stack of pancakes dripping with syrup. But when the time came to eat, those options were no longer appealing. Perhaps I would have gone in for a bite or two, but filling up would have been reckless. I couldn’t afford to live out my Willy Wonka fantasies.

I needed a small amount of carbohydrates in conjunction with protein. I found that eggs and high-quality yogurt provided long-lasting hunger suppression. My body craved nutritional powerhouses. Black beans, walnuts, and spinach were good, as was whole grain toast smeared with peanut butter. I read that dates, which are rich source of vitamins and natural sugars, are a popular Ramadan treat. I began to eat them nightly, craving their compact goodness first thing after a long day of fasting.

I became familiar with the nuances of hunger. There’s the superficial discomfort when your belly growls. Most of us in the course of our normal lives will never get far beyond this feeling. But past it, await ever-intensifying shades of hunger. Eventually the burning want dulls and radiates out. Your limbs grow heavy and less adept. Several hours in, it reaches your brain and your thinking slows. In the late afternoon, putting my body in a horizontal position seemed like a good option; in fact, most days, it felt like the only option. I thought how difficult it must be for Muslims who had to work throughout Ramadan, especially those with manual labor jobs. I was fortunate to have the freedom to rest.

Muslims are known to spend extra time reading their Qurans during Ramadan. Religious leaders also emphasize that time spent in reflection and prayer can be particularly fruitful during this time of year. But on practical terms alone, I can see why these particular tasks are favored. There came a time in the late afternoon when reading was about as physically demanding an activity as I felt I could manage. I studied passages from the Quran and made my way through books about Muhammad’s life, the history of Islam, the political narratives of predominantly Muslim countries, and the significance of religious practices such as Ramadan. But eventually even reading felt too challenging. My eyes didn’t have the energy to track the lines; my brain didn’t want to process the words. I would fall asleep or just lay there lethargically, my thoughts meandering.

Ramadan showed me the complexity of hunger. It seems counterintuitive, but the more time that elapsed since the last time I ate, the easier it became to not eat. At some point each day, my belly ceased signaling it even wanted to be fed. It must be some sort of protective mechanism: your stomach stops bothering you. It’s pleasant to be free of the nagging, but this is when the mind/body connection starts playing tricks on you because you don’t realize how in need of nourishment your body is becoming. Of course, when hunger stops hurting the potential for real damage begins.


By far the hardest part for me of Ramadan’s guidelines of no eating and drinking during daylight hours was abstaining from fluids. Even in my normal life, I’m preoccupied with the importance of proper hydration. We live in an era of constant media reports that our bodies need at least eight glasses of water daily. I don’t know if all this sensationalism has made me more in tune with my thirst or if I’m just a particularly thirsty person but I like to keep a glass of water nearby. Even on a day that I’ve had free access to water, I wake up in the middle of the night for a few extra sips and then reach for my glass first thing in the morning.

I increased my middle-of the night fluid intake from two tall glasses to a container that holds 32 ounces. I used a jug given to me by my mom printed with the slogan “Life is Good.” I thought it might make the task more cheerful. A sip of water on a parched throat at 2 am can be a beautiful thing. Forcing 100 times that amount down your already satiated gullet is less so. I would lay back down, my belly like a balloon stretched to its limits. I shifted carefully, my gut sloshing its swollen girth. A series of trips to the bathroom fragmented the night’s remaining sleep.

As my Ramadan experience progressed, I found my decisions increasingly governed by physical need. I drank all that water at night not because I wanted it but because it was my hope to make it through the next day. I felt a little like a contestant on some survival-based reality show. I grew calculating. I avoided sun exposure and strenuous physical activity. I stopped going to the gym; my weekly yoga class was out of the question with no water. When the sun went down, I focused on the bare essentials: walking the dogs and replenishing my body.

Even with all the effort I put in, I struggled—especially with thirst. Each day was a test to see how long I could go with no water. The first few hours were never too difficult. At about noon, the dry spot at the back of my throat would begin to creep down my esophagus and I imagined cracks forming in its walls like a defunct pipe running through the desert. The saliva in my mouth would evaporate; my tongue was a rough seabed with no ocean. I became obsessed with the texture of my naked taste buds, wooly against my upper lip. At some point, my thirst would morph into a low-grade anxiety.

Still, I held tight as the first signs of panic prickled up my legs. But when the alarm bells in my chest caused my heart to race and my breathing to quicken, I drank. It was usually late afternoon or evening: 5 or 6 or 7. By then, I didn’t see water as a source of rehydration, but as an elixir to calm my nerves. Of all the days of Ramadan, I made it only one to the official end without a single sip of water—helped, I think, by a light summer rain that dampened the air.

Day one

Before the start of Ramadan, I searched the internet for tips on fasting. I downloaded an app to my smartphone that uses GPS to alert you when the fast begins and ends each day based on the precise rise and set of the sun where you are.

Two things I hadn’t thoroughly considered worried me. This Ramadan was falling smack in the middle of summer and I happen to live far north of the equator. The day light hours at this time of year are extremely long. They may not be as intense as summer days in Canada or Alaska, but they are much longer than places where day and night stay more evenly divided throughout the year. Here, we can have about 18 hours of light during the peak of summer. That this particular Ramadan would be my first was a bit like deciding to start my mountain-climbing with Everest. How would I make it so long without even a sip of water, especially as the sun blazed and temps climbed well into the 90s?

I set those concerns on the backburner to focus on the logistics of my coffee consumption. Normally, I drink two large mugs of coffee when I wake up in the morning. I usually sip them slowly, over the course of a few hours, as I’m working. With my new schedule, I had a couple options. Online, I learned that many Muslims change their days to wake up early during Ramadan and go about their morning routine before the sun comes up. I could see how this might be a nice alternative even if the sun rises as early as 5 in the morning. According to my app, my first day of fasting was to begin at 3:01 am. This meant I would have to start my day at about 2:30. I set my alarm to see how I felt at that hour. When I heard the beep, I turned on my light and sat up in bed. I guzzled a tall glass of water and downed a container of yogurt I had left on my nightstand. I snapped off the light. No way was I getting up at that hour and starting my day. For me, the only possibility was going cold turkey.

I suppose I have the raging headache to thank for distracting me from thirst and hunger on the first day of Ramadan. The morning started okay. I was able to work for a few hours at my laptop, though my thinking felt muddled. The pain set in at about noon and built over the next several hours. By 7 that evening, I was horizontal on the sofa, eyes shut and a hand at each temple, wondering if my brain was actually pulsating or if it just felt that way.

I had read that if one’s health is threatened, Muslims are permitted to relax the standards of fasting. Allah wants us challenged, not packed like sardines into local emergency rooms. After seeing that, I determined I must listen to my body throughout this experience and respond accordingly even if it meant bending the rules. I felt my headache was bad enough to do something about, so I choked down two aspirin with a tiny sip of water.

All day I had been focused on the exact moment my app said the fast could be broken: 8:43. I had fantasized about the foods I would consume when the time came. I was planning on making at least two grilled cheese sandwiches and letting my heart’s desire guide me in scooping out my ice cream. I’d chase it all with big bowl of granola before bed. Instead, 8:43 came and went with me sprawled on the bathroom floor, intermittently dry-heaving into the toilet. The situation I had created by taking aspirin on an empty stomach was worse than the original pain. As the waves of nausea reached a sickening crescendo, I moaned pathetically and wondered what purpose, if any, my suffering was serving and if this was anywhere near a typical Ramadan experience. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude as the queasiness subsided enough that I could eat a piece of toast. I was content to simply crawl into bed and say goodnight to day one.


As I plotted the start to the Muslim portion of my religious exploration, the holiest month in Islam, Ramadan, was quickly approaching. Ramadan is the four weeks out of each year when every adult Muslim who is healthy enough is expected to refrain from all eating and drinking from sun up to sun down. It falls according to the lunar calendar and, therefore, migrates a bit annually. This year, it would start in the second week of July and last through August.*

My goal was to participate.

The fasting of Ramadan is meant to shift the normal power dynamic between the two components of our dual natures: the physical side is stripped of dominance, and the spiritual side gains it. It is also intended to increase one’s compassion and gratitude. Having gone through such a trial, one’s consideration grows for hungry and thirsty people. Around this time of year, devout Muslims are expected to make extra charitable contributions, especially of food. The willingness to give is hopefully rooted in deep understanding.

Obviously, not consuming anything—not even water—during daylight hours is a difficult challenge. But in communities and countries where many are participating, it can also be festive. Maybe in part because of the demands of the task, fun elements are added in. The work day is shortened and restaurants open late, and people gather to feast after sunset.

Before Ramadan began, I hoped I might find a Muslim who would be willing to take me on as a friend—not just to offer a few pointers on the logistics of the fasting, but to help me feel less alone in the daunting endeavor. I imagined we could provide a bit of support for one another and, perhaps, celebrate together. I was on the lookout for a female roughly my age.

During a haircut, my hairdresser mentioned having another client who was Muslim, an unmarried woman who converted to the faith from Christianity several years earlier. I thought the universe was sending me a friend, the ideal person with a foot in both worlds who might even need a Ramadan friend herself. I jotted out a heartfelt note asking if she would meet me. I wanted her to feel safe, so I wrote out my cell phone, my email, and my street address. That same week, our mutual hairdresser passed the note along. I never heard back.

I put out feelers again. This time, I learned of a lady through one of Phil’s coworkers. She came from a Muslim family, but was born in the United States. Our mutual friends contacted her first, and she agreed to help me. They gave me the green light and I phoned her. She seemed really nice and I thanked her profusely. I had thought the previous woman from my hairdresser would be my perfect Muslim mentor, but now I realized I had been wrong. We set a place and time to meet. Just before our date, she texted saying she couldn’t make it. I tried a bunch of times to reschedule, but she grew more and more evasive.

It looked like I would be on my own for Ramadan, even more so since Phil would be on a work trip for the first two weeks.

*This is last summer’s Ramadan (2013).