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Ramadan Tests First-Timer's Willpower

Recent Muslim convert Camille Shoeib walks her three daughters--(from left) Mayda, Michaela and Stephanie--to the school bus stop.
Jamie Tarabay/NPR
Recent Muslim convert Camille Shoeib walks her three daughters--(from left) Mayda, Michaela and Stephanie--to the school bus stop.

It is the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and throughout the world, Muslims will fast, as well as abstain from drinking, smoking and sex during daylight hours.

This can be a real challenge for recent converts like Camille Shoeib, a Maryland resident who is observing her first Ramadan.

Shoeib's day begins before dawn. Her three daughters hover around the stove as she scrambles eggs and ices cinnamon rolls. This will be the only thing she eats until sundown. Likewise for her 11-year-old daughter, Michaela, who has decided to join her mother in enduring 30 days without food or drink--water included--during daylight.


For Shoeib, abstaining from eating is not the most difficult challenge.

"Going without food all day, not a problem," she says. "Drink on the other hand — I could drink a six-pack of Pepsi a day, easy, so the drinking part was a little bit tough, to go without the caffeine."

A Day Of Willpower

According to Islamic teachings, children as young as 8 can fast if they choose to do so. Younger children are exempt, as are the elderly, the sick, and pregnant women. Before she sends the girls to school, Shoeib remembers to write a letter to Michaela's teachers to make sure they don't get angry when she doesn't eat lunch.

Shoeib converted to Islam in February of 2008, on the same day she married her second husband, Khalid, an Egyptian.


"I insisted on being married in a mosque," she says. "I didn't belong to any church. Since I can remember, I always had a problem with some of the teachings of the Christians, so Islam ... just totally made sense. So I decided I wanted to convert the same day, made it a really special day."

Shoeib's husband is traveling in Egypt, and she is alone with her three daughters while he's gone. Five-year-old Stephanie follows her mother into the bedroom, where Shoeib prepares for dawn prayers. She hasn't memorized them in Arabic yet, so she consults a small prayer book for help. Throughout the room there are texts on the Quran, Islam's holy book. By 7 a.m., Michaela wants to eat again, and her sudden hunger pangs remind Shoeib of her own weakness.

"I need to get that Coke out of my room. It's already starting to feel like I'm thirsty and craving it!" she says, laughing.

After the girls go to school, Shoeib sleeps for several hours. Her day is much easier than that for Muslims who continue to work through Ramadan. Most keep the same hours they normally would, whether they work construction and thirst desperately or sit at a computer all day dying for coffee and a cigarette. In some Muslim countries, people are able to leave work early to get home in time to break their fast. Some workplaces even allow employees to go to mosque for noon prayers. Here in the U.S., many Muslims take quick breaks throughout the workday to pray. Shoeib completes her noon prayers at home, without that pressure.

"You see me, this is my life; it didn't really change much," she says. "Gas prices are too expensive to go to many places, so I just normally stay home."


The girls come home a couple of hours later. Michaela admits she faltered just a little in her fast and had a drink of water. "I had to," she says. "I was at the water fountain for five minutes."

She says it was hard to get through the day, especially at lunchtime with the other students. "They were eating in front of me. I put my head down so I wouldn't see the food because I was hungry."

By 6 p.m. Shoeib is making pasta, lamb chops and, despite the torture she says the aroma causes, a carrot cake for dessert. At one point she catches herself.

"Oooh that was close! It's so natural, you've got honey on your finger, you lick it!" she says, laughing. "Oooh that was close!"

At 7.40 p.m. sunset prayers are over, and Shoeib starts serving up the chops. Michaela digs in. "Hopefully tomorrow I won't drink anything," she says, spooning food into her mouth. "It was harder than I thought. Hopefully God can forgive me when I drank some water today."

As she finishes preparing the food, Shoeib takes a quick bite for herself, relishing the taste. She has survived one more day. "Tomorrow all over again, inshallah [God willing]," she says.

Shoeib hopes to make it the entire month.

"That would be just nothing short of a miracle; it would just be beautiful," she says. "They say completing all 30 days of Ramadan with good intentions is like coming out like a fresh new baby."

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