I have to say, it is an absolute privilege to have experienced Ramadan in a Muslim majority country. Now don’t get me wrong, some aspects of it suck, like when you are wandering around Rabat looking for dinner but nothing is open because everyone is fasting. And then when you’re wandering around Rabat looking for dinner but everything is closed because everyone is home breaking fast with their families. Those frustrations are pretty minor though compared to the wonderful experience it normally is. So sit back, grab the popcorn, and let me tell you about my observations on Ramadan.
Before I get into too much detail, it might be good to explain a bit about what Ramadan is for anyone who doesn’t know. Ramadan is a month on the Islamic calendar (which follows lunar time). It marks the time when the prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of the Quran. During this time it is obligatory for all Muslims to fast from sun up to sun down (with a some exceptions such as for travelers, the sick, pregnant women, and people who live in places that have events like midnight sun (in this case they would follow a different time for sun up and sun down). At sunset everyone breaks their fast in a large meal called Iftar. People stay up throughout the night eating and socializing and then when the sun rises they begin to fast, many choosing to sleep for large portions of the day. Ramadan has many meanings. It shows that everyone is equal, because no matter who you are; rich or poor, Moroccan, Saudi or anywhere in between, everyone is fasting. It is also meant to help bring you closer to God by ignoring your worldly desires and instead focusing on the spiritual.
Ramadan, following the Islamic lunar calendar is marked by the crescent moon. Scholars observe the moon to determine when it starts. This year it started on May 27th. Myself and several students had been out the night before it started, exploring the old city (madina), and we could tell that excitement for Ramadan was building. Before heading back to our homes, we stopped at a place called Batha, a fountain just outside the madina. There was a large crowd gathered there chatting and waiting. Children ran around playing soccer and other games. Suddenly we heard cannons being fired, marking the start of Ramadan. People would cheer with each cannon shot. When we got back home, the neighborhood children where gathered outside, jumping around chanting ‘haloweyat’ which means sweets (after breaking fast at night, lots of sweets are eaten).
It’s interesting to observe the atmosphere of the city during Ramadan. During the day tensions can be high as hungry, nicotine/caffeine deprived people go about their work in the heat. As it gets closer to sundown though, people become more and more excited. Finally the sun sets, cannons sound, the call to prayer resounds from the minarets across the city, and then it is silent. Everyone is inside with their families eating Iftar and celebrating. Later the city begins to pick up and you can hear the noises in the street as the no-longer hungry people head out to go to cafes and children go to play in the streets.
Iftar itself is a very exciting moment. Living with a host family is a real treat as I get to enjoy delicious home cooked food. The meal is huge, and usually includes a tomato based soup called harira and a main course such as a tajine (a traditional Moroccan dished of slow cooked meat and vegetables). This is accompanied by many side dishes and plenty of sweats and deserts.
After Ramadan will be a multi-day holiday known as aed al-fitr where people partake in all the foods they couldn’t before.
Even though I am not fasting regularly, there is still something very rewarding about being in Morocco during this holy time. Fasting is a challenging but rewarding experience, and the joy people feel during this time is truly beautiful. I hope I have been able to transfer to you some of the appreciation I have gained by actually observing it first-hand.