Ramadan Diaries: Introduction

Ramadan Diaries takes you into the Ramadan experience of two students of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, Oguz Alyanak and Dick Powis. They will be fasting amongst Muslims in two Francophone contexts, Strasbourg, France and Dakar, Senegal, respectively. By sharing brief notes on the fasting experience, the aim is to provide a reflexive account of participant observation as it is undertaken by two scholars with distinct backgrounds and field sites.

During the holy month of Ramadan, the month when the Devil (Shaitan) is chained, many Muslims around the world undertake the practice of fasting. Fasting, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, is first and foremost a practice where Muslims rediscover the importance of self-restraint. As an individual is deprived of bodily intakes such as food, water, and cigarettes, the mind goes through a journey of self-discipline. The fasting individual is also asked to watch his/her manners, such as restrain from being foul-mouthed, gossiping or staring at the opposite sex with bad (i.e., sexual) intentions. One of the aims of this month, then, is to discover that one’s will can overcome his/her physical weaknesses, and to tame the ego (nefs). Another aim is to be reminded of the bounties that Allah provides year-long, to be thankful of His grace, and to help those who may not be as fortunate by sharing one’s wealth (a practice known as the sadaka-i fitr). Sharing is not only monetary. During this month, Muslims come together, attend communal dinners, after dinner prayers specific to Ramadan (known as the tarawih/teravih), Quran recitations (known as muqabala/mukabele) and other conversation circles. Another aim of Ramadan, then, is to teach Muslims the importance of fraternity and community (ummah/ummet).

The Structure
The Diaries will be updated weekly, but you can find out more about our daily experiences on Twitter with the hashtag #RamadanDiaries. The blog entries will be structured as follows:

The first section will share a brief account of what we do and feel as we fast. What was it like to endure the hunger and thirst, or nicotine depravation? Were there moments of weakness or strength? Thoughts of giving up? Moments of spiritual awakening?

The second section will share what we do and feel after the fasting is over. How did we break the fast? With whom? Eating what? Where? What did it feel like to have that first gulp of water, first piece of date or bread, or first smoke?

The third and final section will include thoughts about a new day of fasting to come. What motivates us to carry on? Why fast for another day? Why go hungry for another 17+ hours? Are there any fears of failure? Why fast, at all?

The Participants
Alyanak: Since I was born and raised in a secular Muslim Turkish family, the idea of fasting is nothing new. Yet, the experience somewhat is as fasting – despite its obligatory nature in Islam – has rarely been a practice that I closely followed. Although having fasted before, the very first time I fasted for the full month was when I was in Strasbourg, in 2013, for the purposes of exploratory fieldwork. What brings me back to Strasbourg, a Franco-German border town with a considerable Turkish population, is my dissertation research. In this border town, I look at how and where Muslim Turkish men spend their free time, and explore the anxieties pertaining to their habits of going out. I ask what it means for Muslim Turkish men to become subjects of moral inquiry, and investigate how it shapes their exploration of the urban landscape.

Powis: I was raised in an evangelical Christian family in the Midwestern United States and have been an atheist for at least ten years. Needless to say, fasting is an almost completely foreign concept to me. This, however, is not my first fast, as I fasted for a full 30 days during exploratory research in Dakar in 2015. My field site is the lower-working-class Medina neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal. My research interest is men’s reproductive health broadly, but my dissertation research is on the relationship between gendered spaces and men’s experiences of pregnancy.

Ramadan Timetable
In Strasbourg, the timetable for Ramadan 2016 is distributed (in the form of pamphlets) by major mosques, and can also be found online. First day of fasting is 6 June 2016, Monday. I will eat my last meal of the day (sahur, after which one stops eating and starts fasting) on Monday morning before 3:53 AM. The iftar (when fasting ends) is at 9:33 PM. On the first day, I will be fasting for a total of 17 hours and 40 minutes.

Last day of fasting is 4 July 2016, Monday. The sahur is at 3:58 AM, and the iftar at 9:40 PM. On the last day, I will be fasting for a total of 17 hours and 42 minutes.

In Dakar, the timetable is debatable. I can’t ever seem to find anyone that agrees on anything. We could begin 6 June or 7 June depending, I am told, on how the Sufi brotherhoods agree to agree. “If we start the 6th, we’ll find out it doesn’t start until the 7th. If we start the 7th, we’ll find out we were a day late,” one friend remarks. For the times, I can only tell you what we did in 2015, as we won’t learn the times for 2016 until we actually begin: Every morning, we finished the last meal (xëd, in Wolof) by somewhere between 5:25 AM and 5:35 AM. The iftar (rupture in French, ndogou in Wolof) happened each day at precisely 19:44:59.

Why are we doing this?
Powis: More than 90% of the Senegalese population and all of the men I work with are Muslim. Until last year when I began thinking about this project, it was my experience that all of my non-Muslim colleagues in anthropology, global health, and development remarked that they do not fast when in Muslim communities during Ramadan. Some have told me stories about how they find opportunities to sneak water, snacks, and cigarettes (which seems kind of rude). Many told me that I could kiss research goodbye for that month, as no one would want to talk to me while fasting. I took this as a challenge: if this were true, fasting would become the target of my research, and what better way than through the embodiment of participant-observation?

Alyanak: For me, Ramadan is a productive month research-wise as it provides me with greater access to my informants, Muslim Turkish men of various ages, who gather in mosques (usually in tents, known as iftar tents/iftar çadırı) to attend communal dinners (iftars), or invite me to their homes for the iftar. Sometimes, they take me out following the iftar. Usually during the weekends, that is, when my informants do not have to work the next day, the iftar conversations extend into the early hours of the next morning, and the communal iftar transforms into a communal sahur. While one does not need to fast to attend these dinners, attending these events while having fasted has a different feel to it. In addition to fasting, this month, I will also be reading the Qur’an daily (one fascicle/cüz per day), attending recitations (mukabele/mukabalah), and the post iftar teravih prayers.

Dick Powis

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.