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Podcast Hosts Answer Questions About Observing Ramadan At Work


Muslims all around the world began to observe Ramadan this past week. It's a holy month marked by prayer, acts of charity and fasting. No food, no drink during daylight hours. Here in Washington, for example, the fast can last over 16 hours. Though, if you're unlucky enough to be in Greenland, it can last a whopping 20-plus hours, which - let's face it - can be a challenge if you had to go to work. For some insight into what it's like to observe Ramadan in the American workplace, here are Makkah Ali and Ikhlas Saleem, co-hosts of the podcast Identity Politics, which deals with Muslim life in America. Hello, and welcome to the program.

IKHLAS SALEEM: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MAKKAH ALI: Thank you so much for having us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ramadan Mubarak to both of you, of course, or Ramadan Kareem. I want to start by asking you this. I worked in Muslim-majority countries where, during Ramadan, it seemed like everyone was sort of in it together. It was a time where people felt a lot of solidarity with everyone else. So I want to hear from both of you where you work and what your experience has been like. Let's start with you, Ikhlas.

SALEEM: Yes, so I had two work experiences where I was working in an environment with non-Muslim co-workers. And, of course, I was always asked the question that many Muslims are asked. Like, not even water (laughter)? And so for a lot of my co-workers, this was their first time encountering someone who is Muslim. And so I kind of was the test case of, like, OK, what did Muslims do? What's Ramadan? A lot of the times they would forget (laughter). They would be like, do you want to go to lunch?


SALEEM: I'm like, no.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No. No. I really don't.

SALEEM: And they're like, do you do you want to watch me eat? Yeah, I really don't.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Who, under any circumstances, wants to watch somebody else eat, frankly?


GARCIA-NAVARRO: But specifically, during Ramadan.


ALI: So I currently work for a nonprofit that actually works with a lot of American Muslims. And so in this interesting environment now where I'm actually surrounded by other people who are fasting - and it's been interesting to see all the ways in which I can relax, but I maybe wasn't relaxed before. I feel like there is this performative aspect to, I'm doing totally fine. You know, you don't want people to feel bad for you. So when you're working with people who aren't observing the fast or aren't familiar with it, I - at least I would kind of go out of my way to show that, you know, I would beat deadlines. I would be more energetic than usual. And then, of course, I'd go home and crash and be totally exhausted. And so it's been really nice working with other people who observe Ramadan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I will say this. I imagine there might be some people out there, non-Muslim, who think this might be a fabulous way to lose weight. But having lived in the Muslim-majority world before for many years, people always complained to me that they actually gained weight during Ramadan, that it was something that actually annoyed them. Can you just explain a little bit about what happens during Ramadan in terms of, like, the cadences of eating and then breaking the fast and the kind of meals you have?

ALI: Well, Ikhlas is much healthier than I am, so I can take a stab at it. But I think there's this tendency when you've been depriving yourself of something that you enjoy all day, like food, to then overdo it once it's time to eat. And so a lot of people will eat more than they would ordinarily. And so it really is a discipline and a restraint and knowing your body and knowing what you need and not going beyond that. You know, never go grocery shopping while you're fasting because you will just put everything into your cart and then get home and be like, I don't have any time to eat all of this food (laughter).


ALI: So yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about you?

SALEEM: I'm actually a part of this group called Muslimahs Endure. And so last Ramadan, we all agreed to start training for a 10K. And so we trained during Ramadan for it.


SALEEM: And it was great. Yeah (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's amazing.

SALEEM: Yeah, it was amazing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're fasting, and you're training?

SALEEM: Yes, fasting and training. And it was amazing. And it was just a great race. We would encourage each other throughout the month. We would meet up around the city to run together. And so, yeah. So it's nice to have a supportive network of other people who are fasting and training.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Makkah, what advice do you have for people who have Muslim colleagues who are observing but aren't Muslim themselves? And I'm assuming don't ask them to watch you eat lunch would be one of them.

ALI: (Laughter) That's definitely at the top of my list. But I think just generally approaching people out of curiosity and empathy can go a really long way. I've had people ask me questions that were based on judgment, that were based on assumptions of why I was doing what I was doing. That almost seemed to pity me for what they felt like I was forced to be doing. And that really is not something that makes me feel super welcomed in an office environment. But when people are really curious and open and want to understand more about my experiences and why this is meaningful for me, then that's a great place to start.


SALEEM: Yeah, I would say that Ramadan - like, anyone you can engage in this month - right? - if we're thinking beyond just, like, not eating and drinking. So one time when I was working in a workspace, I explained to my coworker, like, my goal of how I didn't want to talk bad about anyone. And she was like, that's actually a really good practice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All year round.

SALEEM: Yeah, all year around. And so just reminding people that Ramadan is beyond just eating or drinking, right? It's really improving who you are as a person. And when she committed to that goal, like, our office became way less toxic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I love that. The Ramadan message spreading throughout the office and creating peace. We can all use some of that. Makkah Ali and Ikhlas Saleem of Identity Politics. thank you so much for joining us. And, again, Ramadan Kareem.

SALEEM: Ramadan Kareem.

ALI: Ramadan Mubarak. Thanks for having us.