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Of fasting and learning

12:07 AM May 30, 2017

One time I was walking and feeling ravenous for a ramen when I came across a man who was picking up something from the sidewalk. I stopped and stared at his hand for a while, trying to figure out what it was that had obliged him to stop and pick it up. Later I realized that it was a piece of barely eaten bread—probably a  pan de sal or monay, since it was round. My eyes followed the man until he went up to the overpass. Although now at a distance, I could tell that he had taken a bite from the bread. In that instant my craving for a ramen vanished. Soon I completely forgot about the incident.

And then Ramadan came—the month when Muslims all over the world engage in a daily fast from dawn to sunset. That means no eating and drinking during the day, among other things, for one whole month. I was reminded of the man and his piece of bread.

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It happened when I was at home with my brother. He was sleeping and I was in the living room reading an old newspaper. Suddenly, I smelled the aroma of freshly baked bread. I have been so used to that aroma because our home is just a stone’s throw away from a bakery, so normally, it does not compel me to crave bread. But that time it was different: I was fasting, and the realization that sunset was still hours away made my stomach grumble. The more I suppressed my mouth from salivating, the more I felt my tummy’s protests. My eyes started reading words that were not on the newspaper. “Take” turned into “cake,” “rise” looked like “rice.”

When the growling of my stomach became unbearable, I threw a glance at our kitchen where plenty of food and drink were waiting to satisfy my hunger. The only thing I had to do was to go there, grab a bite, and later pretend that I had not eaten anything. No one in my family would notice or learn about it.

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While contemplating whether I should secretly break my fast or not, I was reminded of that late afternoon when I saw the man pick up and eat a piece of stale bread. This time I was not merely craving a ramen; I was, like the man, very hungry. We were both presented with a dilemma. In my case, it was the question of whether or not my hunger would justify my act of furtively eating despite knowing that it would be a sin to do so. In the man’s case, although I was not aware of what he was thinking at that time, I believe he was

also considering whether to eat the bread or not. For some, the issue would be about the bread being dirty. But in my point of view, the real issue was whether or not a grumbling stomach could be sufficient reason to put in one’s mouth something lying on a sidewalk, something that has been at the same level as dirt, poop and pee.

My mother once said that the essence of Ramadan is for us to learn how to fight temptation and empathize with the less fortunate. For many years since it became obligatory for me to take part in the daily fast, I have tried to live that spirit of Ramadan in a personal manner. It was not enough that I often heard about it from the preaching of our scholars or read about it in the Koran. I had to feel its personal impact on me because honestly, it is hard to not eat and drink for more than eight straight hours if the only reason is that fasting during Ramadan is one important duty of a Muslim. Also during this month, I have an endless list of things that worry me, most of which are irrelevant: I cannot drink coffee in the afternoon; my breath will stink after a few hours of not eating anything; I cannot study properly, etc. Now, I am not sure if I should consider it shameful that it took one homeless person for me to be able to find the personal significance of fasting.

Yes, one essence of Ramadan could partly be about empathizing with the less fortunate, but the remembrance of my encounter with that man gave me another reason. It was less about feeling hungry and thirsty like them; it was more like being able to recognize an opportunity, ruminating whether you will take it or not, and entertaining any regret that might arise afterwards. The opportunity can be as simple as picking up a piece of food and deciding whether to eat it or not. But beyond fasting, it could be more than that. From the basic manner of deciding whether or not you will return the extra change you got from the grocery’s cashier to the more complex contemplation of whether or not you will accept that secret bribe in order to approve someone’s appointment. Afterwards, the consequence is yours for the taking.

As for the dilemma in which I found myself when the aroma of freshly baked bread wafted my way, I chose to disregard the summons of my stomach. I continued my fast until sunset mainly because I knew that I would only deceive myself if I grabbed a secret bite. As for the man, I would like to think that he ate the bread because he still had hope for the coming days and the only way to prove it was to eat so as not to die. He ate in order to be able to live with hope. I did not eat to be able to live without guilt.

We had different reasons but we were both looking forward to a better tomorrow, with more hope and less guilt.

Hafi Husain, 27, is a “psychology graduate of Manila, aspiring writer and committed teacher.”

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