Keith Ellison’s mom, like every mother, worries about her son. Right now, she’s worried that he isn’t eating enough healthy food.
“Make sure you get some protein in the morning meal,” she told him recently. “Make some chicken the night before.”
The 51-year-old Democratic representative from Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, spends the holy month of Ramadan fasting from sunrise to sunset — more than 15 hours with no food or drink, not even water.
“I get tired during the day,” he says. “You really get a sense that food is fuel, because you know when you’re running low. I have to struggle to concentrate by the end of the day.”
Ellison is tired but cheerful, chipper even, during a late-afternoon call last week. The annual religious period is one of the busiest times of his year: In addition to his day job, he’s in hot demand at Iftar dinners, the nightly breaking of the fast. He attends more than 15 dinners as a speaker or in some official capacity, and most of them don’t start until almost 9 p.m.
Needless to say, he doesn’t get a lot of sleep.
Ramadan is challenging at any time of year, but especially so during the long, hot days of a Washington summer. It’s trickier when your high-profile job requires you to attend power breakfasts or luncheons where everyone else is guzzling a morning latte or devouring a juicy steak in front of you. Ellison sat through a campaign event last week where all the other guests ate lunch, but he didn’t. He was fine with that, and nobody really noticed because they were too busy talking.
Ellison converted to Islam when he was 19 and has been fasting during Ramadan for more than 30 years, so he knows exactly what to expect.
“I try to power through the day,” he says. His typical morning starts with prayers at 4 a.m., when he rolls out of bed, grabs some cereal, washes up, prays and goes back to bed for a couple of hours. He’s at the office by 7:30 a.m. and works out every day, because he’s afraid of getting out of shape: “I normally do 40 minutes of cardio, but I do 20 minutes during Ramadan.”
Colleagues invite him to breakfast and lunch, which he usually declines during this month, because it’s easier for everyone. The rest of his time is spent doing what every congressman does: meetings, votes, fundraising.
“I used to dread Ramadan, but I’ve come to really look forward to it and enjoy it while it’s going on,” he says. “It’s a time to really reflect, a time to contemplate your life and evaluate your values.”
The first de facto Iftar in Washington was held on Dec. 9, 1805, when Thomas Jefferson invited Tunisian diplomat Sidi Soliman Mellimelli to dinner. Because it was Ramadan, the president switched the traditional meal time of 3:30 p.m. to “precisely at sunset” for the first Muslim envoy to the United States.
In 1996, the Clintons threw a party for Eid al-Fitr, the three-day festival marking the end of Ramadan. George W. Bush began hosting Iftar dinners at the White House in 2001, an annual tradition that the Obamas have continued.
Ramadan is based on the lunar calendar and moves forward by 10 to 11 days every year. During the winter, the days are short and cool, which makes the month-long fast more manageable. This year, it began on June 18, just before the summer solstice, and ends July 17.
“Now, I know that these are the longest days of the year, which is why I’m so glad that they put the first course down right away,” Obama told his guests at this year’s White House dinner. “I know you’re hungry, and I promise to be brief.”
Presidents always promise to keep their speeches short, but an Iftar dinner may be the only place where guests hold them to it. “A lot of Muslims know exactly when the sun sets,” says Ellison, who attended the dinner with Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the only other Muslim serving in Congress, and dozens of ambassadors from around the world.
The point of fasting for Muslims is to reflect on their faith and the blessings they have in their lives. “It’s really designed to make people appreciate what they have and empathize with those less fortunate than us,” explains United Arab Emirates Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. Exemptions are made for children, pregnant women, travelers, the elderly and those in poor health; healthy adults are expected to fast and still do what they normally do the other 11 months of the year.
So Muslims in Alaska fast more than 19 hours, in Sweden 18, London 16. Ramadan falling in the summer caused a tragedy this year in Pakistan, where a devastating heat wave has claimed more than 1,250 lives so far. Religious leaders are imploring anyone at risk to break the fast, reports Britain’s Independent newspaper.
Even in Washington’s ubiquitous air-conditioning, 15 hours or so of daylight can be rough going. Most embassies from Muslim countries have shortened their hours, typically from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. — which leaves another five hours before sunset.
“I think this is the hardest year,” says Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah. “It takes a lot of discipline. In my job, we basically talk all day. You get thirsty. That, to me, is the biggest challenge of Ramadan.”
And, of course, caffeine withdrawal.
“It’s the first day that’s the most difficult,” says Hunaina Al Mughairy, ambassador of Oman. “You see people walking around with their cups of coffee or tea and it is tempting, especially in the morning.”
So there are little tricks and coping strategies. Al-Sabah does paperwork. Al Mughairy kills the last hour before sunset with a long walk. Al Otaiba goes to sleep a little later and gets up after sunrise. That means no breakfast as well as no lunch; last week, he reluctantly declined a luncheon invitation from a senior government official. “I’d be a very grumpy guest,” he told him. Upside? He loses about 10 pounds during Ramadan.
On a deeper level, there’s the sense of straddling two worlds. “You feel a little out of step,” Al Otaiba says. “My schedule has shifted, but no one else’s has. I’m fasting, but the rest of D.C. isn’t.”
Which is why most of the embassies from predominantly Muslim countries host Iftar dinners for staff members, friends and others far from home. In their countries, everyone is having the same experience; many Muslims abroad often schedule their vacations to travel home for part or all of the month.
And it’s fun: Ramadan is an intensely social, celebratory time not unlike the Christmas holiday season in the United States. Iftar dinners can be elaborate spreads; hosts compete for guests and throw impressive, sumptuous meals. Most Iftar dinners begin with dates and water, then can range from modest to magnificent.
“Imagine if you had Thanksgiving dinner every night for a month,” Al-Sabah says.
Emre Celik doesn’t have to imagine. The president of the Rumi Forum, a Turkish interfaith organization, attends an Iftar dinner almost every night during Ramadan. The group, along with the Turkic American Alliance, hosted a dinner for government officials, diplomats and other guests on June 18, the first night of Ramadan. Since then, Celik has either hosted or been a guest at interfaith Iftar dinners all over the Washington area.
“People love the food and the hospitality,” he says. “And the mix of people.”
Unlike those who sleep past dawn, Celik adheres to a stricter schedule: He ends his fast after sunset, then always wakes up in the middle of night to eat suhoor, a traditional meal served before the sun begins to rise.
A typical 24 hours for him looks like this: breaking the fast around 8:45 p.m. with dinner and conversation. If he’s lucky, he’s home by 10:30 p.m., then prayers. He gets about three hours of sleep, then leaves at 2:30 a.m. to attend a suhoor. “It’s a VIP breakfast, but at 3 a.m.,” he explains. Then he may get a couple more hours of sleep; all told, he gets four to five hours a night, then spends the day in the office until the cycle begins again.
“The first two or three days can be quite difficult,” Celik says. “But the rest of the month can be quite pleasant.” And the long days? “I’m being spiritually rewarded more.”
For all the challenges, it’s worth it, everyone says.
“You get to slow down and think a little more,” Ellison says. “I think that makes me a better person, and anything that makes me a better person makes me more effective representing other people.”