When we were young we were told that we fasted during the month of Ramadan so that we may know what it was like to be hungry. The idea was one of empathy, or so the heartfelt counsel averred. But that isn’t entirely true, for the poor do not on the whole wait till sunset for a lavish meal, as do those who fast and await their evening iftars. To not know when or how you will feed yourself (or your family) is a most debilitating affliction and one which, if Ramadan hopes to draw attention to, can do so only dimly.
Hunger is a strange thing. It depletes the body of energy, not only in a nutritional way as one may easily infer, but in the way a fire cools slowly; in the way that ice thaws and a flower fades. Hunger has stages, and at first it can even produce a flash of vitality – a strange surge of energy, quite surprising, as it seems entirely counter-intuitive that one’s body should become more active the less it takes in. One even feels a little liberated. The need to stop and think about food, about what to eat is lifted and one finds a hidden opportunity, a little more time to complete particular tasks. Hunger seems bearable, even overblown.
But soon, its insidious nature is revealed. It claws its way into one’s consciousness and settles – sometimes as a vague awareness, and at other times as a pressing, twisting urge. At this point, one is overtaken by its presence, where hunger is both in the mind as much as in the body. Divided in this way, it becomes a feeling of absence, a series of sensations, and an appreciation of what may otherwise be taken for granted. Here then is a moment able to generate gratitude for the blessings of Allah az wa jall and empathy with those less fortunate. So it is, that in this moment the more aware may whisper a prayer acknowledging Allah Ar-Razzaq.
But hunger moves on, becoming a dull thudding in our gut. It fragments the body into anatomical pieces even as it deepens a sense of the body’s brute corporal wholeness. A gurgle rises in your stomach; you think you can feel your kidneys, your spine; moving an arm makes you ware of your muscles – we all become somatists.
Hunger foregrounds the body and at its height, we become breathing cadavers, flesh and form. The mind is slow at times, dizzy at others and I realise that the hungry cannot think of ways to lift themselves out of hunger, that such a person loses the very power of imagination.
To look forlorn is not a tactic of the hungry, inviting the pity of others as if they were extras on some charity’s appeal advert. Hunger is enervating in more ways than one. It arrests an individual in a perpetual timelessness, as if he or she had stepped out of the here and now. But such a person cannot retreat into a past, except perhaps weak memories of a time gone by, nor can he or she conceive of a future, a catalogue of things to do or hope to achieve. Instead, it is the present one is locked into, but a present whose imperative is not action; not a present offering possibility, but a ‘now’ that has been reduced to a singularity: Hunger. Such a cathexis causes a loss of buoyancy, which may seem at first a rather flippant description, but there is something severely deflating about hunger – a kind of striking the air out of oneself. It is an emptiness in the most profound sense that hunger produces. A space, a hole, a lack.
When this experience is channelled through Ramadan it becomes something different though. For one thing, you know it is the consequence of an orchestration and it may never truly get so far, for no fast last for days. The body is also remarkably adaptive and knows itself that those fasting are only enacting a mimesis of hunger. But what Ramadan teaches us perhaps is to create a space within ourselves as does hunger itself. To look upon the emptiness as something from which to fashion something new. To struggle against the hunger and thirst one feels and free the soul from the body. To feel the hunger that rises out of the inner-self and is hungry for something altogether different, starved as it possibly has been of nourishment the whole of the rest of the year. And so it is, that in the end it is that ‘lack’ within Ramadan which is most revealing.
A final note…
A hole, I read once, may not be something you can put in your pocket, but a hole in the head is a very real thing indeed! So I smile as I wonder, whether it isn’t in the paradoxes of life that one finds Allah who is al-Batin even as He is az-Zahir. The ‘lack’ of hunger at its extreme is devastating for sure, but its simulation in Ramadan is a reminder to learn to see through the unseen – be that the pain of the poor, the mystery of Allah or the truth about ourselves.