Muslim Ultimate players deal with Ramadan at WUGC

Ravi Vasudevan looked into how several of the Muslim players at Worlds this year have been able to play during Ramadan.

Ramadan runs from June 5 to July 5 this year. For those who don’t know, Ramadan is a month of fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. During this month Muslims do not eat food or drink water from dawn to dusk, among other sacrifices. This presents a challenge when halfway through Ramadan is the most competitive Ultimate tournament of the year. It is basically impossible to play sports at this level without water or food, and there are a few players here at WUGC who are handling this situation in different ways. I interviewed a few of them throughout the tournament.

Bilal El Berquani is an O-line handler for the Belgian Men’s team. Belgium ended seventh in the final ranking. “This year is very special for me because we have the world championships,” he said. “For me it is really important to make these championships. I asked other muslims what I can do about these championships. They have told me that you can stop for some days but then after Ramadan you can make it up for the days you miss. For example in the European Championships for soccer there are some players who have to make similar exceptions. It is too important to respect the body at these high stakes, high intensity events.” When asked about whether there is any family or cultural pressure to keep his fast: “No, it is for myself. I chose this year to do it this way because when you are Muslim and when you do something it is for yourself and for your God. It is not for other people.” When asked about the lead up to WUGC, El Berquani responded, “I did Ramadan full on up until WUGC. When WUGC started I stopped Ramadan for the entire competition. It’s strange but I feel actually more ready for the World Championships because of this. When I started eating again normally after I stopped the fast, my body felt re-energized and ready to compete. It’s actually a positive for me.”

Bilal El Berquani with the disc against Austria. Photo by Daniel Ryle.
Bilal El Berquani with the disc against Austria. Photo by Daniel Ryle.

I also spoke with Saif Alserkal who plays for the United Arab Emirates Mixed team. He is a newcomer to Ultimate, having only played for a year, but he is thrilled to be here representing the UAE as the only natural born Emirati on a team full of expats. His team is now in the tie for 17th place in the Mixed division following the schedule changes due to rain. They made their debut on the world Ultimate stage last year at WCBU in Dubai. His experience has been a bit different than Bilal’s: “I tried to keep fasting for the first day but I got really dehydrated really quickly. So I had to break my fast. I can fast again after Ramadan ends.” I then asked how difficult it was for him to decide to break his fast: “It was very difficult for me because I come from a very religious family. I had to call my mom and I told her I had to play and she told me not to stress myself because I can just fast again when I come back after Ramadan ends.” When asked whether or not the pressure was internal or from his family he said: “It’s mainly internal as I tried my best and they were okay with my decision.” Though he is the only Emirati on the team and is not in the most comfortable situation to be celebrating Ramadan he says: “This is the best place in the world for me. I would rather be here than anywhere else in the world and I consider this team my family.”

Finally, I spoke with two players the Men’s Egypt team, Ezz Hassan and Mohamed Dahab. Egypt are at WUGC for the first time and the team lost all of their games and are using this as a learning experience to boost the level of Ultimate among the best players in Egypt. They also tried to keep their fast at the beginning of the tournament. “It is really tough here in London because we are actually supposed to be without water from around 2:45am (dawn) until 9:00pm (dusk),” said Hassan. “We had our breakfast on day one before dawn. Some of us tried to continue the fast on the first day. The first day felt okay since we only had one game. On the second day we basically all agreed to not fast because it would hurt the performance and health of the whole team.” I then asked how it is attempting to fast went in these conditions. “It is a bit easier here since the weather is not really as bad as in Egypt,” responded Dahab. “With the overcast conditions we were not very thirsty until around 7:00pm.” He claims that it isn’t too difficult to break the fast, because “God gave us a license to make an exception if it affects our health.” As for family or cultural pressure, Hassan said: “No, there is no cultural pressure whatsoever. It is all internal. We know that there is a license to break our fast if we need to for our health. In fact our families have been telling us to break our fast for our health.” The Egyptian Men’s team is 75% Muslim so this has an impact on the majority of their team.

Saif Alserkal goes high for a disc against Denmark. Photo by Graham Shellswell.

So it seems that the more experienced player in El Berquani knew ahead of time that trying to fast during this week was an impossibility, while some of the newer players attempted to keep the fast during the tournament. However, in the end, everyone has realized that it is too difficult to keep the fast going and have had to make exceptions in order to preserve their health. It seems that Islam allows for making an exception as long as they make up for it at the end of the month. It is great that these players have found a way to still compete at this level in a way that is respectful to their religion and it is saying a lot that Ultimate has reached the point internationally that various cultures can come together despite these non-trivial challenges to compete at the World’s stage.

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