I was 9 the first time I ever accidentally broke my fast for Ramadan. It was my first year fasting, and I was excited about it, pumped to be part of something my parents considered sacred and special. But in the midst of brushing my teeth, I swallowed the toothpaste water. I started crying. And while I laugh about it now, I never told anyone this cute little story until I was in my twenties. It’s not like I was keeping the story a secret...but still. I’ve always wanted to do Ramadan right.
Despite being generally undisciplined in Islam’s practices the other 11 months of the year, there’s something about Ramadan that always flicks a switch in my brain. I never “cheat.” I stop watching movies and listening to music. The stream of profanity that usually loops around my sentences disappears.
I am the type of person who will, any other month, have a coffee at 2 in the morning out of boredom. And all of a sudden, I’m giving up coffee two weeks before the beginning of Ramadan, to prevent caffeine withdrawal headaches. For one month, I force myself to be asleep by 9, so I wake up in time for suhoor. For one month, I’m different.
I can’t really explain it. It remains one of my great personal mysteries. Why is it that despite constantly, uneasily questioning God’s very existence, I feel so strongly about following the “rules” of Ramadan perfectly? Why do I revere this holy month, when reverence of anything is so unlike me?
When I was growing up in the empty Canadian prairies, my childhood seemed as long as the endless stretches of road that led in and out of the small city where I lived. I spent most of it feeling like a nobody.
My mother immigrated from Lebanon in 1987, and she understandably wanted me to spend as much time as possible in the one place she found familiar — the local mosque. A big chunk of my free time was spent at the Muslim school, or at community picnics. But I didn’t find much in common with the other kids at these things. I was not athletic, or witty, or personable, and I had a hard time making friends even outside the masjid’s bubble.
As soon as I was old enough to have some sort of say in the matter, around 12 or 13, I started to protest attending events at the mosque with fervor. My mom was disappointed, but I just couldn’t go anymore. My middle school years were a nightmare, both at school and at home, and removing the mosque from the equation made other anxious aspects of my life somewhat more bearable. This was a part of my anxiety I could control.
As time went on, my shyness transformed into prepubescent anger, so I did what many teens who have a lot of bottled-up intensity do: I became obsessed with heavy metal and punk. My bedroom was cluttered with posters of varying vulgarity, although there was only one that bothered my mom to the point of her ripping it down — a small, simple Misfits poster, with the iconic skull.
It was all pretty basic punk fare, until I stumbled upon a goddess who changed my image of what punk could be: the legendary Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex. I didn’t consciously understand, at the time, why I felt such a special connection to her. But in retrospect, all of the bands I had used to help define myself were made up of white men. I was not a white man. Looking at Poly Styrene, with her curly hair just like mine, and her long nose just like mine, I felt a spark I had never felt before.
Around the same time, right at the beginning of high school, I finally found what I then considered to be the perfect group of friends. I started to build a new image for myself: short hair, scowl, faux leather jacket. My transformation into a tomboy made my (beautiful, fashionable) mom distraught. I distinctly remember her wailing as she brandished childhood photos of 8-year-old me, my meticulously braided hair trailing all the way down my back.
Even though we all had the same interests (talking about music, quietly nodding along to music, and so on), I always had a nagging subconscious understanding that I was not like the people I had met in “the scene.” Most of the so-called punks I met in my small Canadian city were, more often than not, closed-minded when approached by people who looked like me. They had a standard for punk, and that standard was alarmingly white. Deep down, I was as lost as I had been before.
I tried to blend in. I laughed at Arab accents, Arab caricatures, despite coming home to an Arab home at the end of the day. I whined to my new friends about my mom forcing me to go with her back to the “old country” for a summer here and there, instead of thanking my mother for keeping me connected to my roots. I made “terrorist” jokes that pandered to these new people, my new friends.
One of my friends at the time, Megan, was very into screamo. Knowing that I still followed a Muslim diet that forbids pork, she once wrapped my phone in ham slices and threw it in a garbage can. I laughed off incidents like these, but a nagging sense of guilt kept me up for more than one night. Removing myself from the community I was born into hadn’t cured my deep-seated alienation, and inserting myself into a community I wanted to belong to made it even worse. My unease was beginning to reach a boiling point, and I needed something to pull me back from that darkness.
When I was 16, I had a conversation that turned out to be a turning point. I was goofing off loudly with my friends at lunch. My cousin, who I went to school with, would sometimes come and visit, but never really hung around. One day, she walked in and asked me with genuine innocence if I would be fasting for Ramadan that year.
I mumbled a quick “Yeah, duh,” but I was floored. I’d fasted last year. I’d been fasting for a lot of years. Why would she think I wasn’t fasting this year? I realized that she thought I had left Islam quietly, and she had probably thought this for a long time. I was suddenly distraught — more distraught than my self-imposed apathy had allowed me to be for a long time.
My cousin had unknowingly forced me to look at myself, and at who I was becoming: someone who laughed weakly and shrugged when a skinhead told me that “while not all Muslims are terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims,” but still counted down the days to Ramadan. I felt like a hypocrite, and I knew then that things had to change.
For me, the month of Ramadan was a chance to feel good, to feel like a person with an identity. But the embarrassment that burned in me after my cousin’s question made me wonder: What was the point in going through the motions so perfectly if I wasn’t willing to be open and proud about my identity for the rest of the year?
In my punk phase, I had reached a level of self-awareness where I understood that the way I wanted to present myself to the world was not feminine, and wasn’t necessarily friendly or inviting. And my Muslim community growing up told me that a good Muslim girl was nothing like me. A good girl didn’t like loud music, didn’t swear, didn’t talk back to boys, and didn’t do just about any of the things that I was doing.
People within the Muslim community, people who didn’t even know me, shook their heads disapprovingly at my hair or my outfit or even my tone of voice. Men three times my age asked me if I wanted to disappoint my mom and dad, and told me that if so, I was doing a good job.
I realized that maybe I had always kept some sort of hope that I would one day overcome my discomfort with the community, and I would return, and it would make my mom proud. But I was exhausted with this conflict between what I thought both communities wanted from me. I needed a compromise.
Eventually, I found that, and I found it through making Muslim friends my age. What once seemed so impossible — the idea of finding genuine friendships in this small community — slowly but surely became easier. Near the end of high school, I found myself drifting more and more toward the Muslim girls in my classes. I slowly realized that if I was willing to look, there were Muslim kids out there who weren’t so different from me. None of them were into punk music, but that wasn’t the point. Punk is a mentality, and all of my Muslim friends have a very punk mentality.
I guess, in a way, I still am what some people would call a “bad” Muslim — the kind who spends 11 months of the year doing whatever, whenever, and then suddenly becomes devout when Ramadan rolls around. But that’s a stereotype, not a real person.
Goodness is a state of mind, not a concrete set of rules and regulations. Goodness is a feeling, but I also believe that goodness is a feeling that’s hard to find. Ramadan provides that goodness to me, and I won’t apologize for it.
I often am told by fellow Muslims, when I talk about my personal religious journey, that I can’t pick and choose my own version of Islam. To me, that’s a fallacy. To simultaneously maintain body autonomy and be religious, I have to pick and choose. And the Muslim person who tells you that you can’t — they pick and choose, too, whether they know it or not.
That’s the most beautiful part about Islam: If you are a Muslim, if that’s how you identify, there is no human being alive with the authority to tell you that you aren’t. And that’s the connection I see between being a Muslim and being a punk — at least outside the constraints of the white faces that seem to define punk culture. Both are all about who you are, and what you practice, and how you find goodness. I think they can coexist within me peacefully, and no one can tell me otherwise.
I’m 23 now. I’ve left behind metal entirely, and punk unless it involves women of color. Weirdly enough, most of my music is pretty easy listening these days. I try to take it easy. Weezer, but not, like, ironically, you know?
Ramadan, for me, exists as a lighthouse. It’s a way for me to swim into calmer shores, no matter how rough the rest of the year is. A moment to breathe deeply. A chance to use discipline as a tool for self-reflection. And seeing Ramadan as a chance to pursue goodness has brought me to a much healthier place than I was as a teenager.
I still feel awkward at the masjid events, but it’s not a debilitating awkwardness. I have found my own way to Islam, and that brings me an inner relief that I am deeply grateful for. It was a long road, but I’m used to those.