by Cliff Morton
My mother is Muslim and my father is a seldom practicing Catholic. As a kid, I viewed my parents as people who followed religion but they weren’t going to go out of their way to practice it. It was kinda like any sitcom that was wedged between Friends and Seinfeld on Thursday nights. You wouldn’t change the channel, but now, twenty-something years later, you’re not endlessly searching Netflix for old episodes of Suddenly Susan. My parents were the same way; they’d put up a Christmas tree, we’d visit my grandmother’s house for Eid, we’d go out to brunch on Easter morning, and we’d fast and abstain from all Haram food during Ramadan.
Ramadan always felt like the playoffs for a Muslim. You waited your whole season for this moment to shine and waver between feeling habitually hungry and then overfed. Starting at point guard, number 11, Muhammed, at shooting guard, number 2, Mohammed, at small forward, number 25, Abdul, at power forward, number 33, Muhammad. Lots of variations of Muhammed growing up. And me, Cliff, the whitest looking Muslim in the Ramadan starting lineup.
Whereas other people prepared mentally for the many days of fasting ahead, I prepared physically. I knew that in the thirty days, I would crave nothing more than what I was not allowed to eat. That meant Jamaican patties, hamburgers, burritos, pretty much anything meat related that was ethnically different from the Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine that would make up my menu over the next month. I ate all of it. I shoved all of that Haram deliciousness into my mouth, savoring every last bit of sinful goodness.
When it came time to actually fast, I felt doomed from the start. My days of gorging on carbohydrate and fat laden foods did not prepare me for the Ramadan playoffs. If I didn’t take it seriously, I was going to be bounced within the first week. I first started fasting when I was eight years old. In the previous two years, I would fast for half the day, eventually progressing to full days on the weekends, but when I was allowed to do a full day fast, the first of thirty days in a row of eating and drinking only before sunrise and after sundown, I felt like I was being called up to the big leagues. My grandmother fasted, my mother fasted, my aunts and uncles fasted, my older cousins fasted, and now I was on their level.
Within the first five minutes of sitting at the lunch table on the first day of Ramadan, I begged to be demoted. My friends were all eating, because, of course I was the only Muslim kid growing up in a town in Connecticut. The usual suspects were tantalizing; hot lunch, which happened to be spaghetti and meatballs, sat across from me at the table, my friend, Sean, shoveling it in, bite after bite, barely allowing the steam to escape from the top of the tray before he moved onto the garlic bread. Sure, its consistency could have been cardboard, but the smell of buttery garlic was overpowering. I turned my gaze towards my friend Pete’s lunch. He brought lunch, and based on his history, I was expecting peanut butter and jelly or a sad looking bologna sandwich with Kraft singles American cheese on white bread. Even at my weakest and most vulnerable stage of hunger, I could resist those temptations.
Instead, he reached into his bag and pulled out something wrapped in tinfoil. What the hell was in that thing? He opened it up and there was half a hoagie roll, with tomato sauce pouring out of the side, with some kind of indistinguishable filling. Two ravioli looking things rested against the side of the bread. Are you fucking kidding me? I knew Pete since I moved into Trumbull, I went over to his house a bunch of times, and the one thing that was certain was that no one in his family cooked. They were a Stouffer’s or take out kind of family. Snacks at his house consisted of Fruit Roll Ups or bags of chips, that’s it.
“What is that?” I asked, conscious of holding the drool back from my mouth.
“Oh, it’s called Golabki and pierogi!” he said excitedly, “We went over to my gammy’s house for dinner last night. It’s so good. Do you want to try it?”
Damn you Pete! Damn you and your hospitable nature!
“No, I’m good,” I said sheepishly, my arms crossing my chest to muffle the sounds that echoed from the walls of my empty stomach.
“You sure? Did you forget your lunch?” he asked, genuinely concerned. Pete was a good friend, but I would have much preferred a tact similar to Sean’s Lord of the Flies, survive at all costs, at the moment.
I hadn’t completely thought out the whole Muslim thing yet. I was nervous about telling people that I was fasting because I didn’t want to come across as weird. I was already the only brown kid in the school, and I didn’t need any other non-cool distinguishing features to make me stand out. “No, my stomach was feeling kinda sick this morning, so I didn’t bring lunch today.”
“Got it,” he said, as I breathed a sigh of relief. He took a bite out of the sandwich and its juiciness poured out onto the tinfoil below. “The… only bad thing… it’s kinda messy… in a sandwich,” he said in between bites. He swallowed the entirety of his bite before adding, “Normally you just eat it with a fork without the bread, but my gammy makes it into sandwiches for us for lunch.”
Alright, alright, with the Polish food lesson and stories about your gammy, Pete. I’m starving to death over here and I’ve still got a few more hours to go until sundown. I looked at the clock, 12:05. I did the math in my head. It wasn’t dark until around six o’clock each night. I had six more hours to go of this torture! Noooooo!
* * *
Eventually, I got over lusting after other people’s food, but when I had my first basketball game during the day, I nearly lost my shit over the fact that I couldn’t drink water.
“Remember, you can’t drink any water during the game, so load up now,” my mom advised me as we ate together in the wee hours of the morning. The worst part about eating so early in the morning was that I wasn’t truly hungry because I should’ve been sleeping, but I also knew that I had a full day ahead of me without food, so I better find a way to shovel in the food.
I took a bite of my egg and cheese sandwich on an English muffin, a meal that I thoroughly enjoyed during normal daytime breakfast, but found to be an arduous task at four thirty in the morning. My brain started to turn itself on and I began to process what my mom had just said, “Wait, what?” I asked, confused.
“You can’t eat or drink anything while you’re fasting. You know that,” she said, a little too chipper for my liking.
“Umm…” I began to say, trying to temper my annoyance, “But I have a game today.”
“And?” she asked.
“I’m gonna be thirsty! How am I supposed to play a game without drinking water?” my voice raised with each word, but the glare of my mother began to tamp down my volume by the time I reached my second question.
“You know, Hakeem Olajuwon is Muslim. He fasts during games,” my dad said, emerging from out of nowhere. Where did he even come from? I didn’t even think he was awake.
“What?” I asked, confused less about my dad’s information and more about his sudden appearance in the kitchen.
“Yup. Houston Rockets. He fasts during the games. There was an article about it in Sports Illustrated,” he said.
Nice. Real nice, dad. Use sports and one of my favorite magazines against me. My mom nodded towards me, encouragingly, “See?”
I quickly finished my breakfast and began guzzling water in preparation for the day ahead. As I walked out of the room, I said, “You know, I’m gonna play like crap now.”
“Watch your mouth!” my parents yelled in unison.
* * *
Years later, at a family barbecue, I was playing basketball with my cousins. A seldom seen relative who was visiting from Toronto chimed in from afar, “You know that Hakeem Olajuwon is Muslim, right? He even fasts during Ramadan! During the games!”
Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets had defeated my beloved Knicks in the NBA Finals a few years prior, “I hate that fasting sonofabitch,” I muttered underneath my breath.
* * *
By the time I entered college, I was already on the fence about fasting. I couldn’t imagine trying to work around my class schedule, my work study job, and absolutely necessary extracurricular activities, such as pickup basketball games and hanging out with the girls from the other end of our dorm.
The year prior, I learned about the newest downfall to fasting that was previously unbeknownst to me; no sexual relations during the daytime hours. No kissing… nothing. I tried explaining the concept to my girlfriend at the time and she gave me an odd look as if to say, “We can’t make out in this empty house because you’re fasting?” The devilish character on my shoulder was dressed ironically in an all white suit like he was in a Jagged Edge music video, while my moral compass was standing around in khakis and a polo shirt. It certainly seemed like the Jagged Edge version had better plans for the afternoon.
Fast forward a year, and I was about a month and a half away from Ramadan, with my mind still undecided about whether or not I would fast during the month. My friends wanted to go to a pizza place on Charles Street, a place for higher end fare that would be out of the price range of most college students, but we had a friend who waitressed there and she said that she could hook us up with a deal.
We ordered a couple of pizzas to share for the table. They all looked delicious, but there was one in particular that caught my eye. It had a thin crust, with pink strips crisscrossing the top of the oblong pie with a layer of thick, brown sauce underneath. It looked unlike any pizza that I’d ever had, especially considering that the full gamut of pizza flavors that my parents ordered ranged from cheese to, well, cheese.
I took a bite and there was an explosion of flavor in my mouth. I hate rats, but the scene in Ratatouille, where Remy describes the combination of flavors, with fireworks shooting through the air, intertwined with food, explained my feelings completely. The saltiness from the unknown pink substance combined with the sweet sauce, mixed with the bitterness from the arugula, and the creamy but sharp cheese made for the most delightful bite of food that I had ever eaten.
“What is this?” I asked, turning to one of my friends.
“Prusciutto fig pie,” he answered as he savored a bite as well, “It’s so good, right?”
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten,” I said, but I was still perplexed, “But what’s that?”
“Prusciutto? Oh, it’s like Italian bacon, but better,” he answered.
Bacon? My mind raced. I’d never eaten pork, and now that I had, I pretty much traded in my Muslim card. I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to ask, just in case, “So it’s pork?”
“Yup,” he said, nonchalantly.
I stared down at the pizza and pondered my choices, but in reality, there was no turning back. I took another bite and basked in the bliss of delicious swine.
Cliff Morton is a small business owner who lives in
Connecticut with his wife and three children. His poetry has been featured in
Alexandria Quarterly. When he’s not chasing after two dachshunds and seven
ducks, he is known to dabble in woodworking, baking, and sneaking away to the
quiet confines of his home to write.