Intentions for a Healthy Ramadan

June 15th, 2015 5 comments

Ramadan

Ramadan is coming up fast. I’ve observed this month of fasting for the past two decades. As always, I anticipate the month with equal measures of joy and dread.

Yes, joy. I look forward to our nightly iftars, leisurely family meals where everyone is in a good mood, the food tastes twice as good, and my teenage kids linger at the table for more than five minutes. I also appreciate special gatherings with friends, as well as the time set aside for self-discipline and devotion.

Meanwhile, it’s not the fasting that I dread, but the decline in physical activity, the over-eating, the excess of desserts, the loss in fitness level, and the inevitable weight gain.

I admit, my eating habits generally sink to lower and lower levels as the weeks progress—the wrong foods and too much of them. Even worse, I typically stop exercising while fasting and become a Ramadan couch potato.

Yes, I realize this defeats the point of point of the holy month. What’s more, I used to be able to bounce back from this way of observing Ramadan, but no more. Besides, it just feels wrong. Ramadan is meant to be spiritual and self-reflective—not lazy and over-indulgent.

So, in light of all this, for the past several years I’ve been striving for a healthier Ramadan. Here are my intentions for this year:

Change up Habits

Since the whole schedule is turned upside down, Ramadan is a good time to discard bad habits. For example, many people try to give up smoking. As for me, I’m intending to make more vegetarian meals and eat as a pescetarian—opting for seafood over meat and poultry. As I plan iftars, I remind myself every evening need not be a feast. We can enjoy simple meals like mujaddara.

Quality over Quantity

Like many in this region, we start each iftar with lentil soup, which is a great way to break a day’s fast. However, it’s easy to slide downhill after that into a glut of fried foods and carbs galore. Instead, I intend to serve more vegetables, including in a big salad and my secret weapon: the raw veggie platter. When I have that Ramadan-urge to just graze, I’ll reach for raw veggies—snap peas, bell peppers strips, cucumbers, carrot sticks—the crunchier the better.

Count my Dates

Dates are the special food of Ramadan. Everyone I know breaks their fast with dates. At our house, we keep snacking on them into the evening. If that’s not enough, we eat desserts made from dates and more dates at suhour.

Despite the revered role of dates during Ramadan, they are sugar-loaded and calorie-dense. Therefore, this year I’m avoiding the date free-for-all. Two or three dates at iftar are enough.

Dodging Dessert

I used to promise my three fasting children a homemade dessert every night of Ramadan as a “reward” for their efforts. What a terrible habit! It’s bad for many reasons, including the fact that sugar is addictive, and, according to some sources, added sugar causes as much damage as alcohol and fat.

And yet….

It’s not Ramadan without traditional treats like qatief. It’s impossible to avoid desserts during Ramadan, and some treats I wouldn’t want to miss. However, I plan to indulge selectively. At home, I intend to prepare some fruit-based options, such as apple pie, blueberry crisp and fruit smoothies.

Keep Moving

This is going to be tough. There’s a big benefit to having a day job during Ramadan. When I was teaching English, my work ensured that I had a regular routine and moved around during Ramadan.

For the past two years, I’ve had my pedometer and set a daily Ramadan intention of 8,000 steps. It’s worked well, so I’m aiming for that again. However, I won’t be walking outdoors while fasting, as the temperature in Dubai will be soaring. Instead, I’ll stroll in the mall and do some gentle yoga. Some Muslims say their yoga practice is actually better when they’re fasting.

Evenings are a different story. Even though it’ll be hot and humid, the dog still needs to be walked. And I’m planning on midnight walks on the beach with my family, as the cool mist provides a small reprieve.

The malls in Dubai are a great place to walk in the evenings. Open until 1:00am during Ramadan, the malls are filled with Ramadan decorations and window displays, as well as a bustle of people. Of course, I intend to walk right past the pastry shops…

Drink Six Tall Ones

People ask how I stay hydrated when I can only eat and drink after the sun goes down. Actually, at our house we consume more water during Ramadan than other months. I commit myself to drinking six glasses of water after the sun goes down.

This is how I do it: I break my fast with a glass of water, and I drink another during iftar. I drink two more glasses during the evening. I drink a fifth glass before I go to bed. I drink another glass when I get up at 3:30am for suhour. It takes effort, but I feel so much better this way.

Rise and Shine with Suhoor

I don’t understand how people can skip suhour, the pre-dawn meal. It’s an important tradition at our house. I used to stuff myself at suhour out of fear of starving, and I would even have dessert. Those days are over.

Now I opt for a fiber-rich meal that will stay with me. My suhour of choice is steel-cut oats (cooked in advance) with some dried fruit and walnuts.

When my husband is charge, we’ll have hummus, foul or fatayer from the Lebanese bakery down the street (which has a queue at 3:00am).

Avoid Buffets like the Plague

I say this every year. Then I read the local magazines featuring “Best Ramadan Iftars.” Then we get an invite to some over-the-top buffet in a hotel. Next thing you know, there we are, heaping our plates. And then—the inevitable regret.

These buffets are wrought with problems: they are wasteful; they are against the spirit of Ramadan; they encourage over-eating, and we completely forget the concept of remembering those less fortunate.

And yet, if I do find myself at a buffet, I intend to follow the “dieter’s rule” of filling half my plate with vegetables, such as those delicious Arab mezza salads.

Ah, Sleep

In case you didn’t know, sleep is the secret key to wellness. Scientists are still discovering all the hidden benefits of sleep. Without enough, we are grumpy, less focused, forgetful, unmotivated, and more apt to get sick. What’s more, lack of sleep combined with fasting is a double-whammy to our well-being.

My intention this year is not to stay awake all night until suhour. So slovenly! It creates a jetlag-like stupor. Instead, I’m planning to keep regular hours—at least until the final week.

Easing Back

Regarding weight gain, I discovered last year that the real danger zone is actually the week after Ramadan. You know that holiday week of decadent breakfasts, non-stop ma’amoul, and big Eid lunches? Well, this is the time to be careful. After a month of fasting, our bodies have adjusted by slowing down and conserving energy. The week after Ramadan is a time to eat light and ease back into our regular meals.

* * *

Ramadan is a challenging month—spiritually, emotionally and physically. I always count down the days until it’s over. Sometimes I secretly wish for a “holy week” of fasting instead of a holy month. And yet, when the month is over, I feel a touch of remorse. I miss those family iftars when we come together in a meaningful way.

This year, I’m intending to have both: the spirit and joy of Ramadan, as well as physical wellness.

Question: How do you stay healthy during Ramadan? 

Jaipur Literature Festival 2015

February 19th, 2015 11 comments

Jaipur Literature  Festival

This was my second visit to Jaipur’s vibrant festival of literature. What brought me back a second time? In short, its colorful outdoor venue and upbeat vibe. It actually feels like a festival! Also, the fest’s big-name authors are another draw for me.

At last year’s event, I was thrilled to see Jumpha Lahiri, as well as Jonathon Frazen, Cheryl Strayed, and Reza Aslan. This year I saw Paul Theroux and William Dalrymple. V.P. Naipul was also there, but sadly, Elizabeth Gilbert cancelled due to health reasons.

Both this year and last, I traveled with my Dubai-based book club for the event. Last year we were six women and this year we were ten! It’s a wonderful thing to travel with a group of friends who share a common interest—in this case, a love of books.

Jaipur Literature  Festival - Book Club

About the Jaipur Lit Fest

Considered the “Pink City” and the gateway to Rajasthan, the flamboyant city of Jaipur hosts the fest. The mostly-outdoor event is set in the Diggi Palace Hotel. With greenery, colorful tents, intricate interiors, and structures draped with bunting, the event has a truly festive feel. With an ambiance like that, people are chatty and it’s a great place to interact with fellow readers.

Jaipur Literature  Festival

Jaipur Literature Festival

The largest free literary festival in the world, the Jaipur Lit Festival features both international and South Asian writers, including Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners and many celebrated Indian authors. The program includes talks, discussions, panels, debates, and music.

With a diverse showcase of writers, this year’s festival was a celebration of freedom of expression, religious tolerance, and diversity of thought—and occurring at a time when India faces various cultural and religious challenges.

I attended a variety of panels including “Writing Resistance: Of Battles and Skirmishes,” presented by UN Women as part of the Women Uninterrupted series (below).

Jaipur Literature Festival

I also attended the panel, “Matters of Faith,” which reflected the religious diversity of India (below).

Jaipur Literature Festival

Wanderlust and the Art of Travel Writing

However, my favorite panel was “Wanderlust and the Art of Travel Writing.” Reading from their travel memoirs, the writers included Charles Glass, Paul Theroux, William Dalrymple, Brigid Keenan, Sam Miller and Samanth Subramanian (below).

Jaipur Literature  Festival - Wanderlust Panel

What a delight to see Paul Theroux! After reading so many of his travel memoirs and novels over the years, I was excited to see him on various panels, including this one where he read from his upcoming memoir about traveling stateside (below).

Jaipur Literature  Festival - Paul Theroux

At the time of the lit fest, our book club was reading White Mughals by the India-based historian William Dalrymple, so it was a lot of fun seeing him, too. Along with Namita Gokhale, Dalrymple is one of the directors and founders of the festival. A prolific writer, Dalrymple was an animated reader as he read from his travel memoir From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East (below).

Jaipur Literature  Festival - William Dalrymple

Of course, there were books to buy. This year the festival book store was sponsored by Amazon India, which meant (sadly) that there were fewer books for sale and more devices. I hope next year they bring back more actual books to the fest—as books are the soul of any literary event.

Jaipur Literature  Festival - reader

Jaipur Literature  Festival - Book Store

The event also had food outlets, stalls for shopping, including those wonderful Jaipur textiles, and my favorite—the tea wallahs selling masala chai in little clay cups.

Jaipur Literature  Festival - tea sellers

To find out more about this event, see the Lit Fest webpage or read my post from last year. I’m looking forward to next year’s festival, and I hope to be there for the full four days and I hope Elizabeth Gilbert makes it next time!

Question: What are your favorite literature festivals around the world? 

Reflections of India

January 20th, 2015 4 comments

Taj Mahal Reflections

As I prepare for a second trip to India, I’m reflecting back on memories from my last trip when five friends and I toured the “golden triangle”: Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. We visited palaces, forts, tombs, markets mosques, and temples.

Here are a few of my favorite photos—which unfortunately can’t quite capture the awe I felt.

2 Jaipur

Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and known as the “Pink City” of India. Above is the iconic Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds.

Jaipur Festival of Literature 2014

The Jaipur Festival of Literature was our primary purpose in Jaipur. We were six women from a Dubai-based book club, ready see Jhumpa Lahira, Reza Aslan, Cheryl Strayed and more. Here is my post on the Jaipur Lit Fest 2014.

 Jaipur Amber Fort

Jaipur offered much to see, including the gorgeous Amber fort.

Jaipur Elephant Ride Amber Fort

The ideal way to visit the Amber Fort is by elephant.

Agra Taj Mahal Archway

Next we drove overland to Agra to see the Taj Mahal—without a doubt, the most beautiful building in the world.

Agra ~ Oberoi Hotel, Room with a View

We stayed at the Oberi Hotel, which is possibly the most exquisite hotel I’ll ever stay in. This was the view from my balcony. Yes, that’s the Taj Mahal.

Agra Taj Mahal ~ Diana's Seat

I took hundreds of photos. Here’s one of me sitting on the so-called “Diana Seat” where Lady Diana famously posed. I’m trying to channel Lady Di. Is it working?

Delhi ~ Old Delhi

Delhi is the capital of India, where we experienced the bustle and color of Old Delhi, pictured above, as well as stately New Delhi.

Delhi ~ The Imperial Hotel

We stayed at the Imperial Hotel, which had a colonial, art deco, Raj-era vibe—basically amazing.

Delhi Jama Masjid

We toured the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India

Delhi ~ Jama Masjid

The Jama Masjid holds 25,000 worshipers for Friday Prayer and towers over Old Delhi.

Delhi ~ Gandhi Memorial

The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial was simple but poignant.

Delhi ~ Qutub Manar Archway

The Qutb Minar is the tallest brick minaret in the world. (You have to see it to fully appreciate it.) The complex where it stands dates from the onset of Islamic rule in India.

Delhi - Detail First Mosque

Above is a detail from the first mosque in India.

Delhi ~ Street rickshaws

Admittedly ours was a pampered tour of India. However, we did visit Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi where we shopped and rode rickshaws.

India

During this trip we traveled by bus from Jaipur to Agra and from Agra to Delhi. We saw sights of countryside, people, little towns and shops like this.Jaipur Amber Fort ~ The End

Question: What were your favorite sights of India?