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When the Non-Muslim World Flattens Me, I Run to Feel Human Again

Weeks before Ramadan begins, my friends and I talk Ramadan strategy. We obsess over the details in texts and voice notes, sometimes a phone call—though those are trickier with our different time zones. My community is scattered across the globe. My parents worked in Singapore, Taiwan, Qatar, and more throughout my childhood; wherever they went, I went too—including Palestine, where my father is from (though I’ve never been to Mexico, where my mother’s parents were born). I went to college in the U.S., but I’ve rarely stayed in the States for longer than seven months—until the pandemic.

Ramadan prep hasn’t changed much, though, because each Ramadan is different, and fasting must be tweaked accordingly. Everyone has their own approach. This year a friend boldly announced via voice note that she’d be drinking coffee at suhoor. Others reported they are easing their kids into Ramadan with half-day fasts—the beginning of a lifelong lesson in how giving up food from sunrise to sunset can be an act of divine love. And because they know me so well, my friends ask how I’m going to run this year. They know it grounds me and, with little exception, I cannot give up running for Ramadan. I enjoy these exchanges, but I wonder if they’re special because non-Muslims often don’t see me as a complex human being.

However open I am to my Muslim friends, I talk less and less about my personal life with many of the non-Muslims I know. I’ve learned to do this especially around colleagues. It’s ironic because we’re historians of Islam, but people who study Islam don’t necessarily understand Muslims. This comes up when they ask about my Ramadans. Once, while I was living in Cairo, another foreign historian invited me to talk shop in the gardens of a liberal arts university. I nodded blankly as she ran through the standard laundry list of complaints—particularly how ungrateful Egyptians were to her, a white woman, for writing their history. Then, maybe because she noticed she was the only one talking, she brought up Ramadan, which wasn’t for a few months. I could feel it coming, that expectation of what a Muslim is or isn’t; by now, I can see the signs like small tremors before an earthquake. So I wasn’t surprised when she asked, or rather stated, “Do you fast? You must. Do you break your fast on dates?”

In a split second, I processed the implications of this narrow question. There is no one way to fast, as there is no one way to be Muslim. I have prayed jumaa in mosques in Seoul, where the khutba was spoken in three languages. I know what it’s like to break my fast on olives and honey I harvested on my own land, in Palestine. And many are exempted from fasting: people who breastfeed, or those who have diabetes. I wanted to say this all to my fellow historian but instead chose to challenge her assumption.

“I break my fast after I finish running, on a sports drink,” I said.

I could practically see her brain stop working. She was silent for a moment, but soon proceeded to lecture me about dehydration and how I was damaging my body.

Even though I didn’t see her again, I’ve encountered many people like her, people who assume I’m as flat as a piece of paper, that upon the paper is a list of rules, and that I am those rules. Sometimes, they assume Islam is this otherworldly thing, transcendental and loose. When I was living in Istanbul, an acquaintance commented that I must have so much inner peace because I pray. An activist I know called a close Muslim friend of mine so “ethereal” she walked on air. I try to push back against these snap judgments. But when I do, especially in non-Muslim spaces, a crushing feeling overtakes my chest. I worry I won’t say the right thing. I am slowly realizing, for all my knowledge of Islam—be it lived, theological, or historical—I don’t know how to be a Muslim in non-Muslim spaces. Some days I am happy to engage, to tell stories of what Islam can be; others, I get angry. So I go for a run.

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