In 1986 Ramadan ran from the 10th of May to the 8th of June and I was born 10 days later on the 17th of June. The dates of Ramadan shift by eleven or so days every year on the Gregorian calendar. As a lunar month, it takes thirty-three years for Ramadan to circle through the solar year. Last year, in 2019, Ramadan ended on the 5th of June. I turned thirty-three twelve days later and so completing one Ramadan cycle.


I don’t remember that first Ramadan, in utero, but my mother fasted the full month. Sunset was at 21.15. I don’t know how she did it. She tells me she just got up every day to see if she could manage and every day she could. She made it through the month that way. She admits though, with hindsight, that a month of fasting had left her weak. It wasn’t the ideal physical state to be in when called to give birth less than two weeks later. Yet here I am, alive and well, and so is she.


The first Ramadan I do remember is not one that I fasted. In fact, the fasting part had no significance to me at all. What I remember is the independence and freedom of a self-serve breakfast.


I must have been five years old and my brother three. We had a little table and chair set where we’d sit to scribble in a colouring book or paint a childish masterpiece. During this Ramadan we went to sleep with a craft table but woke up with a breakfast bar.


We’d been prepped for this the night before. After waking up before dawn to eat, the last thing my mother wanted was two hungry children moaning for breakfast in the early hours of the day so she got creative with our arts and crafts table.


Firstly, it was moved to the kitchen. Bowls and spoons were laid out on it. A small jug of milk, easy for our little arms to lift, was placed at the centre and alongside it, a Kellogg’s multi-pack of mini cereal boxes, including the sugary ones we weren’t usually allowed, like Coco Pops. It was fun and exciting to have the kitchen to ourselves, to be trusted to prepare our own breakfast, to have an adult-free, unsupervised morning. It was the stuff of storybooks. True freedom.


I saw one of those multi-packs in the supermarket last week. I know the sugar would give me a headache, and my body doesn’t react all that well to milk either, but I was so tempted to buy it, to open up a little cardboard box and inner plastic lining before pouring the entire contents into a bowl with milk, to finish the bowl while staring at the characters of Snap, Crackle and Pop against the blue Rice Krispies background.


While the adult-free breakfasts were a great novelty, by the next year I’d realised there was a child-free breakfast happening in the middle of the night. Never one to be left out, I wanted in on that. I’d already started standing with my parents while they prayed. My eyes wandered and my arms fidgeted but I was included. This same year I was permitted to fast my first half-day and join in with suhoor [a pre-dawn meal eaten during Ramadan] too.


My parents woke my brother and I while it was pitch black outside, we experienced the exhilaration of eating breakfast before morning. Of course, there was no way we were going to sleep afterwards so we played together sweetly in the front room while the sun rose. Needless to say, we were grumpy and bickering by the time our midday fast-breaking came around.


By the time I started fasting in earnest, the days were ridiculously short. Ramadan had moved its way through the lunar year and my family had moved too. We were living in Scotland. The sun rose after 8am and set before 4pm, so my first full Ramadan was a gentle easing in. I remember packing a few dates into my schoolbag and pulling them out to quickly break my fast in a geography class. Maghrib was at 15.41 but school didn’t finish until 15.45. I wasn’t about to wait four minutes.


In 2004 I experienced my first Ramadan away from home. I was in London. I’d left for university a month before and was living in halls of residence. There were two other Muslim girls that shared my kitchen so we’d meet each other, bleary-eyed, to eat before dawn. The month ran from mid October to mid November. The days were still pretty short but I distinctly remember falling asleep in my late afternoon lectures or at the library while trying to study.


In 2006 my parents moved to Cape Town. Having left home, and being mid-way through my degree, I hadn’t intended to join them, but I did. I experienced the wonder of a Cape Town Ramadan first-hand. The city has an enormous Muslim population and there’s generally much more of a Ramadan-awareness than I ever experienced in the UK.


Ramadan Mubarak advertising greets you as you enter the supermarket. Colleagues wish you well over the fast. Hijabs pop up out of nowhere, on heads you’d least expect and I’ve even heard of people who stop drinking and smoking weed forty days before Ramadan begins to ensure their bodies are fully purified.


It’s a serious business, Ramadan in Cape Town.


Of course, when the fasting is taken this seriously, the eating must be too. Before Cape Town, I’d experienced the Pakistani iftars [a meal that Muslims end their daily fast with at sunset in Ramadan] of my own heritage and the occasional North African and Arab table when I’d been invited to friends but nothing had prepared me for the delight of a Cape Town iftar. You’ll find the standard dates and water but that is one plate among many. Alongside the dates, you will find any selection of soup, daltjies, bolas, pancakes, pies, samosas, half-moons or my personal favourite – pumpkin fritters.


The non-Muslims are wise to it. They know there’s no way we can get through all that food with our shrunken, fasting stomachs. “Bring me a barakat” they say, having learned the lingo that serves them, and lo and behold, the next day a paper plate, covered with foil appears at their desk full of leftover goodies from the night before.


In 2014 I returned to London and experienced my loneliest Ramadan. I was living in a house share where I was the only one fasting. The days were so long and I was so alone in it. At work, there was one Muslim guy on the sales team. The manager of the production team was Muslim too. He’d send me and the sales guy an email once a day with some mouthwatering image; a juicy burger with crisp lettuce or a spectacularly iced cake. It was his strange, torturous sense of humour but there was a camaraderie in it. I appreciated that.


A lonely London Ramadan was not something I wanted to repeat. I decided the next year that I’d leave my job, go to my family in Cape Town and deal with the fallout. Nobody knew my plan except Allah and it turns out He had a better solution.


A month or two before Ramadan my new manager learned that I had family in Cape Town. “How come you don’t spend more time at the office there, working remotely?” she asked.


It was a Ramadan Miracle. My drastic measures were unnecessary. I kept my job.


While the Northern hemisphere was experiencing the longest days of the thirty-three-year cycle, South Africa, in the Southern hemisphere, was experiencing it’s shortest. I spent the month in Cape Town, with family, friends and those pumpkin fritters. It was a great exchange.


It’s possible though, to have a truly wonderful Ramadan even with marathon days. I spent Ramadan 2016 in London. I had my thirtieth birthday early on in the month, having moved into a new house share a few days before. We were four Muslims together – a family of sorts. Ramadan was a shared experience again. It’s one of the best Ramadans I can remember. I felt clear-headed and light. I was productive at work. I ‘KonMaried’ my bedroom. For sure, some days were physically hard. Eating at around 9pm and then again at around 3am meant very interrupted sleep. There were days when all four of us slept through our alarms. We’d wake up thirsty, but well-rested.


This Ramadan is a Ramadan of firsts. I’m living in Italy, so that’s new. It’s my first Ramadan as a married woman and also my first pregnant Ramadan. I’m afraid to say, I don’t have the grit of my mother, to fast these long days while stores are being taken from me, minute by minute, by the being that grows within, so I’m taking the concession afforded to pregnant women and I’m skipping the fasting.


It’s also the ultimate first of a lockdown Ramadan. Many others have lived a Ramadan in Italy before me. Countless people have lived through their first Ramadan in a marriage and most Muslim mothers have experienced a Ramadan during pregnancy. We are all, however, experiencing our first Ramadan isolated in the midst of a global pandemic.


If you count the one in utero, this Ramadan is my thirty-fourth. A thirty-three-year cycle was completed last year and now a new cycle begins. Outside me the world is changing. Within me my daughter lives her first Ramadan. What will she know, what will she have witnessed when Ramadan comes around to May once more?