Thursday, December 22, 2011

This Body, the Extent of Eternity: A Review of Kazim Ali’s "Fasting for Ramadan" (Tupelo, 2011).

Fasting for Ramadan by Kazim Ali
This Body, the Extent of Eternity: A Review of Kazim Ali’s Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo, 2011).

Kazim Ali’s Fasting for Ramadan is a meditative journey through the experience of Ramadan fasting, ranging from nitty-gritty details about the writer’s daily diet and doings, to how the fast registers in the body and on its perception, to broader explorations of faith, identity, and tradition. Fasting is composed of two daily journals kept during the period of Ramadan fasting in 2007 and 2009—the latter of which was published online at the Kenyon Review, the former of which was written as a private diary.

Though he grew up in a Muslim household, Ali’s book marks his return to the devotional practices he shared with his mother during his youth. His private revelations, particularly in the earlier journal, broach his pain at his exclusion from the “ummah,” the community of faith of Muslims, because of his love for another man—a theme he explores with delicacy and poignant beauty in his book of poetic essays, Bright Felon (2009).

As an outsider to Islam, I found in Ali a bracing and delightful guide—one who admits to feeling both inside and outside the tradition of the faith of his parents—and by virtue of practicing the fast, enters into its question.

Ali brings his study of yoga to his experience of the fast, and creates all manner of philosophical interweaving between the yogic and Islamic traditions, in ways that illuminate the secret unity of the faith journey. In one passage, after Ali injures himself trying a yoga pose, he writes, “as a yoga teacher I have always viewed the limitations of my body as part of what I have to offer.” And later: “Maybe this body, this one, mine, yours, this fleshly thing, if this is the extent of eternity, is all there is of divinity, maybe there isn’t anything else.” Throughout, Ali proposes that we take the body—in all its limitations—as not a temple, but the temple, the place where we experience the divine, the infinite.

At times, I wondered why Ali chose to reveal certain prosaic facts of the fast—for example, that he’d eaten miso soup, or had drunk water too quickly in the pre-dawn morning. Yet, in such details, Ali reveals how the novice faster can make the fast harder than it needs to be; for example, drinking too quickly can cause the body to process the fluid quickly, and thus create more thirst. In such a revelation, we learn how fasting requires a patient and intentional consumption of food and drink, to savor it in order to let it last through the long day.

While I longed for a bit more research on fasting in general and on the Ramadan fast in particular, Fasting delivers its own unexpected wisdom, the wisdom of the body communing with an exquisite mind, the intelligence of observation of opening. As Ali writes, “we pray best by opening ourselves like a book.”

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