Boats on the river Gambia (ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

Springtime on the West African coast. Nights, pleasantly warm and close, give way to searing daylight. By ten o’clock, the sun presses down upon the earth like a thumb, grinding everything beneath it into the dust that rises from the roads and thickens the air. It is a heat that hurts. People hide in the shade of mango trees or within the dark caverns of roadside shops; movement encourages a torrent of sweat.

Into this climate came Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, during which the observant abstain from all food and drink between sunrise and sunset. Those who must move – the men busting their guts making bricks, the women hauling buckets of water to vegetable patches along the river Gambia – take no water to slake their thirst, no food to ease their rumbling bellies.

I do not write to make fun of fasting, which is undertaken in some variation by much of the world’s population. But as the month-long deprivation descended on The Gambia, I wondered whether there was something beyond religious zeal that compels millions to deprive themselves of food in what could already be considered conditions of want. Could fasting create a societal relationship to food that extended beyond not having enough of it?

I profess no religion, and stem from a heritage that perceives religious (or even non-spiritual) fasting as eccentric behaviour. Early on, I looked up fasting online. “See list of ineffective cancer treatments,” the internet told me. It seems that this is good advice for some. There are groups – “breatharians” and “sungazers” among them – for whom fasting is a kind of panacea, a way to eradicate so-called toxins from the body. The fasting I saw in The Gambia was far from this idiocy, but the dedication required to temporarily forgo the needs of the body was similar.

In the west, gluttony barely registers as a problem. Insofar as we among the well-fed have “an issue” with food, it exists in a binary form: on one hand celebrated to preoccupation; medicalised on the other via the food illnesses of anorexia, bulimia and obesity. The issue of need is not often broached in popular culture, only the question of whether one is willing to take more. Seeking a different perspective, I joined my friends in their fast, to pit myself against hunger and see what came out. It was effective; too stunned at four in the morning to wake for the suhur pre-dawn meal, my days were often an extended 22-hour fast.

Our Gambian Muslim neighbours were chuffed to discover my partner and I were joining them in abstaining. We were often invited to the evening iftar meal to break the fast, with neighbours, friends, strangers. These invitations became small celebrations; not only did they enjoy sharing their tradition, but the apparent pleasure of feeding us seemed to equal the pleasures of being fed.

I asked my neighbour Musa what Ramadan meant to him. “It’s about peace, you know? Peace in your heart, peace with your neighbour.” Who cannot agree with peace, even while ravenous? The author Shiva Naipaul, perhaps. In Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth, he noted that “Ramadan may bring men closer to Allah and Paradise but not, it would seem, to tolerance and compassion. It is a scarifying – not a softening – experience; it must entrench the association of religious purity with suffering and violence.”

Naipaul was writing of his experience in 1970s Morocco, where those caught imbibing or ingesting during daylight hours risked jail time or worse. The same might be said of modern-day Morocco, or Pakistan, or Algeria, where eating and drinking in public during Ramadan is still a punishable offence. The emotion that pervades a difficult experience can extend beyond that experience to become an entrenched view of life. The seeds of suffering can sow themselves deep within our minds. Shiva’s brother V. S. Naipaul wrote, rather more cheerfully, in Among the Believers, that “to be a devout Muslim was always to have distinctive things to do; it was to be guided constantly by rules; it was to live in a fever of the faith and always to be aware of the distinctiveness of the faith.” Ramadan imposed a rhythm on the pious, V. S. Naipaul said; a cadence of food, fast, sleep, food. Rhythm then, rather than violence. Even a heathen like me could feel a rhythm to fasting. It existed between people as a mutual understanding, the way a common affliction establishes affection.

Fasting establishes a continuity of practice across religions: Christianity’s Lent; Judaism’s Yom Kippur; the Bahá’í month of ’Ala; the Native American “vision quest”. There are many Biblical reasons to fast: to grieve, “to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home”, or to be as Jesus when he resisted temptation in the wilderness while fasting for 40 days and nights. There are legacy reasons, too, as in the Qur’an, where Muslims are reminded that “fasting is prescribed on you just as it was prescribed on the people before you.” Jains have a multitude of fasts, some lasting hours, others days or months. Jains wishing for death can embark on Sallekhana, a practice of gradually reducing one’s food and water intake until expiration. If there is a better evidence of willpower, I have not heard it.

Across religions, abstinence in its myriad forms is recognised as an important element of transcendence and self-control – the mastery over the self. As well as food, there is in most religious fasting also an abstention from sex, irreligious music and smoking. This is fasting in mind as well as body. I asked Lamin, a Gambian Muslim, about this. “It’s a way of becoming closer with God,” he said. “It’s a cleanse that lifts the senses.” Lamin couldn’t help me to understand religious fervency. For him it was enough to believe without wondering why.

But what about cravings? Do the fasting hordes daydream a banquet? No, Lamin told me: one who is fasting must think of those for whom hunger is not a choice. “To fixate on your own bodily desires would defeat the purpose of fasting, would sever the divine connection,” he said. Fasting as an ascetic practice, then. Not an elimination, but a replacement: food swapped with fervour.

Such restraint was beyond me. Midway through a day of fasting, stricken with hunger pangs, the searchlight of my memory would cast out over a sea of meals past. One day, it settled on a grilled heart I enjoyed years previous on a warm night in Bolivia. Thus began a daily memory-exercise. I thought back to the previous April, to a fine pasta primavera I’d cooked, the Parmigiano Reggiano melting into the roasted wild garlic and thick shreds of wild Scottish salmon. On and on it went. Waking from this reverie unable to even wash down my spit was far from ideal; it was, if anything, torturous.

To alleviate my hunger pangs, I took a stroll. But the afternoon sun was punishing, and I was forced to rest beside the road on a decaying concrete stoop. Men slumped in the shadows of trees and walls, thumbing their phones. Women worked their mortar and pestle with less muscle. The fact that fasting, unlike other religious or political behaviours (preaching, marching), rarely leads to belligerence or fighting may be down to its weakening powers.

There is a vein of self-sabotage running through fasting. Refuse to eat long enough and it becomes a hunger strike. Go further still, it is starvation. Extended over a population, famine. Because the solo non-eater treads the line of public alienation, collective fasting is a kind of joint effort, its pain alleviated by the pain of others; a glue bonding an in-group together.

Just as Christians commemorate the beginning of their Lent fast with a gluttonous party (Carnival, from Carnevale, or “farewell to meat”), so Muslims mark the end of Ramadan. Early in May, Eid al-Fitr arrived. Come dusk, the sky – pink and full of fruit bats – was electrified with expectant energy and the smell of charcoal and chicken afra. After an invitation, we went into our neighbour’s yard. In his home was a toppled three-legged chair, an empty room lit by a bare bulb, a doorless hallway. There seemed no doubt he was one of the many needy and hungry people that fasters throughout The Gambia had been thinking about in the past month. From a common plate, we drew fingerfuls of a stew-like ẹgúsí, spiced rice and fish. We talked, and laughed, and sang. All around, there was a palpable sense of relief.

This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.