Children are allowed to tuck into food during Ramadan, but some Iraqi boys and girls who join the adults in fasting during the Muslim holy month are seen as young heroes in the war-ravaged nation.
Iraq's increasingly conservative society is seeing more children -- some as young as four -- refrain from food during the daylight hours and thus earn the respect of their parents and peers.
AdvertisementReligious scholars say girls should only start fasting from the age of nine and boys should wait until they are 15 before observing Ramadan.
But four-year-old Ahmed Mohammed has started 11 years ahead of his time. He said he was still asleep when his parents began Ramadan fasting this time, but when he woke up he told his mother that he too wanted to behave like a man.
"I told my mother I want to fast," Ahmed told AFP with a smile. "I refused to eat. I felt hungry and very, very thirsty at first, but I didn't eat or drink till iftar," the post-sunset meal that breaks the fast.
To his family, young Ahmed is already a shining example.
"My parents and grandmother said I am a hero because I completed fasting on the first day of Ramadan," he said.
His mother, Amna, 25, said the boy is too young to go without food for more than 12 hours, but he is making a great sacrifice and she is proud of his will power.
"I didn't force him to fast because I know he is still a child and can't go without food or water," she said.
She recalled how the boy began to cry because he was so thirsty, but he still refused water.
Many Iraqi parents try out what is known as "deer fasting", probably based on a belief that deer eat less during the summer, to get youngsters to go without food for shorter periods in preparation for full-blown fasting.
Ahmed's six-year-old sister Rand is on a deer fast.
"My mother and grandmother taught me this," the slim girl said while hastily adding that she felt like having an ice cream in the burning hot weather in Baghdad, where temperatures can still soar to around 40 degrees Celsius.
Most parts of the city of six million people have electricity supplies for only a few hours a day, making the heat difficult to bear even for the toughest adults.
Iraqi doctor Hussam Mohammed said fasting can have positive effects on children and young people, not to mention the adults.
"The children are better able to stand fasting because they have a lot of energy," he said. "But after breaking fast they should drink large amounts of water, especially in this hot weather."
Ten-year-old Gaith Mohammed is on his maiden fast this Ramadan and is thrilled to be following his parents. But he also admits that he cannot stop thinking about food.
"But my father encourages me all the time, so I am able to keep fasting like an adult," Gaith said.
In Iraq's once secular society, some adults still take a more lax attitude towards fasting. But roadside restaurants close during the day and the few that remain open do business from behind curtains for fear of attack from fanatics.
Sheikh Ali Bashir al-Najafi, a religious leader, said clerics encourage children to be weaned on fasting.
"Fasting tames the mind," he said, adding that Ramadan drills a sense of discipline into young children. "Fasting is also an obligation. It is one of Islam's basic practices."
Government offices close an hour earlier during Ramadan, allowing workers to return home in time for iftar. The fast is usually broken with a glass of water and a date, but for the children it can mean a feast of sweets.
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