Here We Go Again.
It’s that time of year. Like the coming of winter in Alberta, you can feel it in the air. Things are changing and you might not even notice it if you didn’t already know. It’s time for Ramadan.
While Morocco made the (extraordinarily last minute) decision to stay on daylight savings time a few years back, they still shift the clocks around for the month of Ramadan. Various theories exist but mostly it’s to make the day shorter and iftar (the breaking of the fast) come sooner. We did that last night. Now I am 4 hours ahead of Toronto instead of 5. It will get darker early tonight. It’s March and it’s 22c. It’s always a little weird at first.
As the start approaches, I don’t know how to conduct myself or what to do. I am working through it all in my head and will explain the challenges of being in a Muslim country during this time. This is NOT an explanation of what tourists experience if they are here for a short time. That’s different. This is also not about the universal experience of Ramadan but about my own perspective and understanding. And it’s very much about my own personal habits and choices.
This is about living here, not being Muslim, but still being very much affected by it all. If I had written this in 2019, most people would not get it. What an odd experience in our lifetime to have an entire culture changes it’s behaviour en masse. But I think we are at a place in the collective where everyone gets it now. It can be super confusing for ones individual conduct.
Ramadan is a holy month that happens once a year in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is started when a human spots the right conditions around the crescent moon. Up until “it’s called”, no one knows exactly which day it starts, but it’s always at sundown and it’s likely to be around April 2. It lasts for 30 days.
The purpose of Ramadan is to celebrate when Allah passed down the first passages of the Qu’ran through the angel Gabriel to the caravan trader named Muhammed. (Sound familiar?) During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world focus on their relationship with their God. They prayer most regularly, they often attend the mosque more frequently, they read the Qu’ran again and often more thoroughly, and the last prayer of the day is longer and more ‘ceremonial’. In Marrakech you can go to the Koutoubia mosque for the last prayer and witness thousands of people that arrive there each night. The traffic is stopped, all remains silent, and the police surround the devout in their prayers. Onlookers are welcome to witness this absolutely beautiful sight, but from a distance. Trying to find your motorbike at the end is still a mystery I will never fully understand.
During Ramadan, all Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. And by fast I mean – all of it. They do not allow anything to cross their lips. Water, toothpaste, cigarettes. Nothing. They also are meant to fully focus on the Qu’ran even when they are not praying. They fast their eyes as well. That means no looking at the opposite sex, no touching or affection. Many will give up TV and social media for this time and only consume the Qu’ran. It is, by all accounts a remarkable and beautiful celebration of their religious conviction. It is a happy time, a time of rest, a time of healing and a time of deep reflection.
I am not Muslim. So for me to take part in anything related to Ramadan, I do so only as an observer and as such I want to tread carefully. Like anyone just walking on into a sweat lodge as an outsider, you have to be respectful of the participants. For me personally, I love to learn about Ramadan and to join an Iftar when the opportunity is offered for the joy of family and tradition and in pursuit of understanding and respecting the traditions of another religion and culture. But I’m not Muslim. I feel very hesitant to take on aspects of another’s tradition without having a genuine devotion to it. I believe that can sometimes be called cultural appropriation. Two sides to every coin there though. Many Moroccans are deeply touched when you choose to join them in the fast and see it as a way to understand and cross cultural barriers. Which is also true. Because two things can be true at the same time.
For me, this is my 7th year being connected to Ramadan. Here’s how I’ve done so far.
2016 – I was in Canada, missed it. Darn.
2017 – Kate and I did Ramadon’t for a month in Croatia and sundry
2018 – I was here
2019 – I witnessed the full scene, end to end to end. It was a lot of meat.
2020 – Ramawhat? It happened during lockdown
2021 – I spent Ramadan in Iron Mountain WI with my Moroccan American friends.
Here we are in 2022. I don’t know what to do. I do know that I will be here for most of it because I’m going to Canada at the start of June. Too early to leave now, but 30 days is a long time. I also know that Ryanair is offering flights to Gran Canaria for $13 Canadian each way and I have some thoughts about that.
For my part, I have a lot of issues with food. Not only what I can and can not eat, but also eating itself, variety, timing. It’s a lot. Changing the way I eat in any significant way is very challenging for me.
So here’s what the reality is here, and why I tend to stay home and out of the fray.
Day turns to night and night turns to day. For a lot of people. If you have the month off and can go from start to finish this way, it’s fine. If you have to work during the day, then it becomes exhausting. It’s hard to watch when people are working all day and fasting. In the middle its easier for them but in the first week and the last week – it’s a lot. Thanks Allah it won’t be too hot at this time of year and it makes the not drinking water part easier. Heaven help us when it’s 45 degrees in August and people want to visit the Sahara.
The first prayer often comes and goes. The second prayer comes and goes. People sleep as long as they can during the day. The streets are Covid quiet. There is no one out. Things open much later and sometimes not at all. The afternoons are hard because everyone is grumpy. Especially smokers. There can be a lot of fighting in the streets and harsh words, and a lot of side eye from the folks who don’t have the energy to fight. Women are out in the markets buying food for the night and then at home cooking most of the afternoon so that food is ready when it’s time.
Around 7 pm things get a little frenzied as everyone rushes to be in a place to break the fast. Women are setting out the Iftar. It’s fruit smoothies, dates, yogurt, special Moroccan sweet made of crushed nuts that I adore called sellou. Harira soup and chebekia (delicious fried honey coated cookies). Hard boiled eggs. There are all manner of croissants and pastry covered things. Every night. For 30 days. Every single night. Night after night. 30 times.
Then people have energy and go about doing the things that need doing. Meeting friends in the cafe to discuss business. Getting more food. Life. It all starts to get moving around 8 pm. And it goes on into the night. Day becomes night. The streets are alive and busy from 8 until around midnight. Then it’s time for tagine. People have their next meal of meat and vegetables and bread. And then they go to bed. (There is a surprising amount of effort put into food at this time of fasting.) Speaking of which I had better start planning my freezer fill.
But they have to wake up at around 3 am, just before sunrise, to have their last bit of food and water. It’s a hard balance because they will wake up and go right back to sleep (hopefully) but if you don’t do it, you’ve extended your fast and it’s not a good strategy. You will suffer for sure.
The part about waking up at 3 am to eat yogurt so you can make it for the rest of the time, that is a logistical deal breaker for me. Also, the part about eating dates, dairy, and gluten for Iftar (all things I can’t eat) and the part about eating a big meal right before bed. Also not things I’m willing to do. Not drink water all day? Oh no. Not on my list. I have been around this train of thought for a long time and there is nothing about fasting all day in this way that is of interest to me.
Also, I like to work during the day and I’m not a night person. So making that flip flop isn’t good. If I were to go all in and do it for the whole month, maybe. But you absolutely can not flip back and forth.
In Ramadan, YOU MUST CHOOSE A LANE.
So this year, like every year, I will choose to not fast. Which means life goes on as it does. I hope to enjoy a few Iftars in the month, for the social aspect of it. And I also hope to find a nice AirBnb to visit with a friend for a week. I won’t be ordering my lunch. In fact ordering in anything during Ramadan is a bust because most restaurants close or pare down to: harira, boiled egg and chebekia. Every night. Night after night. For 30 days. So there’s that.
But I LOVE listening to the calls to prayer right before Ramadan when the callers (mussein) get super excited and sing-songy and try to compete with their neighbours. I LOVE when the canon goes off at sunset in Marrakech announcing the end of another day. And I LOVE the giving aspect of helping the poor and creating meals for families that need. It’s a really lovely time.
And the other thing about Ramadan that is predictable as the dates at Iftar? In a few days the expats will be taking to Facebook to collectively work out which liquor stores or “caves” are open to those with a foreign passport because the liquor stores shut down the week before and everyone freaks out like it was a surprise they didn’t see coming. I counted on it every single year and I am never disappointed.
So that is my Ramadan story. It’s coming. I can’t stop it. But I will adjust my sails and count the days.