Said Hamdi works as a handyman for a local property management firm, maintaining houses and small apartment buildings across East County — Spring Valley, El Cajon, Santee, Lakeside. For the last month or so he's been working to rehang windows, paint, and replace the flooring and kitchen in a four-bedroom Eucalyptus Hills house that he plans to move into once it's complete: $1500 a month for the rent.
For now, Hamdi, 42, shares a one-bedroom apartment with his wife, toddler son, and two elementary-age stepdaughters. On Friday (June 23), he's with coworkers who are on a lunch break at a 7-Eleven on Riverside and Palm Row in Lakeside. But Hamdi, like most days for the last month, is having nothing to eat, nothing to drink even as East County temperatures flirt with triple digits.
"The hardest thing is not drinking water," Hamdi says of his observation of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month in which the faithful abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. "After that, it's reminding people that you're not drinking water.
"It's not just the fasting, it's a chance to refocus spiritually, on living a pure life," Hamdi explains. "Like I won't smoke, I don't say bad words, I focus on being good to others – not just family but strangers, especially those who are less well off."
He says he didn't really grow up in a household that steered him toward religion, but came to the Islamic faith of his own accord.
"You see, my mom was Muslim, but my dad was a Christian — that was the big reason we had to get out, they don't stand for that over there," Hamdi tells me, explaining the family's emigration from his native Egypt to San Diego in the early 1980s. "So I read the holy books — both testaments of the Bible and the Quran, and Islam just made sense to me."
The fasting, though, is what he says helps him be mindful of these other purposes throughout the day. Before dawn, he'll rise to take a light meal of fruit, nuts, and as much as a half-gallon of water in order to sustain himself through often-challenging days of labor, made more intense by the fact that this year Ramadan falls on some of the longest days of the year (he groans when I point out June 21 is typically the lengthiest in the Northern Hemisphere) and the intense heat of the last week.
At the end of the day, faithful gather for iftar, or the breaking of one's fast. For many this involves communal feasts with gathered extended family and friends. Hamdi tells me his wife and children aren't Muslims, so he usually breaks his fast alone after his family has eaten, or with an aunt in Serra Mesa.
"There are some exceptions to the fast," Hamdi says. "For example, if you're sick, a young child, a mother nursing or pregnant — they all get a pass."
He's given himself a few passes along the way as well.
"One day last week I got up thinking it was like 4:30 and pounded about a half-gallon of water," he says. "Then I looked at my phone and it was after 6 — the sun was out and everything. So that day was shot."
Hamdi treated himself to the $2 hot dog and Big Gulp combo when his coworkers headed to 7-Eleven that day. He says he's taken his fair share of ribbing about his faith from coworkers on the job site, but that typical roughneck banter that's all in good-natured fun.
"They're always on me about not eating pork. My boss loves to go on and on about bacon this, bacon that. But I've been going through that my whole life, it's all good."
"There are other ways to make up for [not fasting]," he explains, getting back to his slip in fasting. "You can spend a day providing meals to the poor, or you can choose another day to fast if you couldn't do it one day for some reason. You only have until the beginning of Ramadan in next year's Islamic counter to get it done, though. I've got a few days to make up myself."
Ramadan ended on Saturday, June 25, with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, a holiday celebrating the (mostly) successful completion of an annual spiritual quest.