Farewell Ramadan

Ramadan has left us for another year…so sad to see it go, although it was a tough one.  For all of us in Marrakesh, having day upon day of intense heat, hardly ever dipping under 45 degrees, well let’s just say it was a Ramadan to separate the men from the boys.  When we go outside in that heat, simply breathing becomes a laborious task, struggling to draw a breath like one struggles to draw water from a well.  It made most of us do as little as possible.  And that is hard too.  Not only do you give up your food and your water, but also your sense of pride in any accomplishment.  I barely walked this Ramadan, let alone worked out.  I had high hopes of reorganizing parts of my home, re-stacking the books in the bookshelf, clearing out the little storage room, but had to just let all that go. It was a “being” month, not a “doing” month.  I’d never thought of Ramadan that way, but this one took me to a new place, a difficult place.

With Ramadan coming 11 days earlier every year, I’ve fasted short days in winter, cool fall days where we all say to each other “I don’t feel thirsty or hungry at all, it’s like I’m barely fasting”, and more recently, the relentless summer heat.  Whereas Ramadans before this were like a cool stream running over me, cleansing and calming, this one was like being in the pounding surf, with nothing to do but hold on.  And yet, this Ramadan had the most potential for transformation.  When else do we get a chance for everything in our life and world to change?  When else do we get a chance to explore our limitations in such a painfully real way?  Our city, Marrakesh, had record high temperatures this year, and yet the feeling of all of us fasting together made it all the more wonderful.  When you go out, you see people with wet towels on their heads, you see someone with a hose offering the service of drenching anyone who needs it, you read it in people’s faces.  There is such a feeling of camaraderie under these circumstances of duress.    It’s not the month of spiritual devotion I imagined for myself, the heat made it difficult to do as many prayers and reading of the Quran as I’d hoped, and yet I found goodness and blessing in the intensity of it, the bending of my every desire and hope into this giving up and letting go.

Ramadan is a month where Muslims are content to be fully Muslims.  We are reminded everywhere of our aspirations towards God; charity increases, mosques overflow with worshipers, even the radio stations start to play devotional music of all kinds: Berber, Gnawa, Andalusian, Nasheed.  The instruments and melodies vary greatly, but the words don’t, “La ilaha illa Allah… Mohamed habibullah… There is no god but God…Muhammad is a beloved of God”.

When I am fasting my thought process slows down, although often my thoughts are clearer and deeper.  But I become incapable of multi-tasking, especially right around the time of breaking fast.  One day my husband and I broke our fast with a date and water, and then went inside a mosque to pray the sunset prayer (maghrib).  As I was praying I became aware that my purse was not by my side.  As soon as the prayer ended, I started to look for it, and realized that I had taken off my shoes at the door, but instead of leaving my shoes on the doorstep and taking my purse inside, I’d done the opposite.  Of course, I don’t expect anyone to steal my purse from a mosque doorstep in Ramadan, yet I was relieved to see it there, because I had stashed both my husband’s wallet and my own, our phones and the keys to the car in it.  Honestly…

As I said before, I don’t feel like I “did” enough this Ramadan, but still I hung my hopes on the saying “A moment of sincerity can purify the heart” or something to that effect.  Luckily I wasn’t left to my own devices in this respect.  So blessed that in Marrakesh people really turn out for Laylat al Qadr, the Night of Power, which is the best night of Ramadan, maybe of the whole year.  This is the night when Archangel Gabriel spoke the first words of the blessed Quran to Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.  The Quran says that prayer during this night is better than a thousand months of worship.  We don’t know when this night is exactly, only that it’s one of the last ten nights of Ramadan.  The only real way to know is to sense it, and to stay in a quiet enough state that if it were that night, you could feel something different and special about it.

In Moroccan Islamic culture, most people generally accept the 27th night as Laylat al Qadr, and so it’s celebrated with special food and whatnot, which I don’t particularly care about¸ because really, it’s a night for prayer and I don’t care if I’m eating couscous or beldi chicken or whatever.  If you must know, I made lasagna that night and I can assure you that’s not traditional Moroccan.  What’s really great about that night is that the mosques don’t stop prayers all night long.  So it wasn’t that unusual that a friend of mine picked us up, me and my daughter, at 1:30 a.m. and we headed for the Koutoubia mosque, where we joined a good 50 000 people in prayer.  Every mosque was the same, full inside and out onto the streets, all night long.

The prayers were beautiful, as they always are there, and ended in a long, soulful supplication.  Among the words that stayed with me are these: “oh Lord here we are, among us are young and old, male and female, healthy and sick, obedient and transgressors, have mercy on us all…Don’t deny hands that are outstretched to You in supplication, don’t deny hearts that yearn for You”.  (Now I wish I had recorded it somehow to share with others that weren’t there but wanted to hear it).  At one point the Imam breaks down in tears and can barely speak, and I think, here is someone who has spent all of Ramadan leading thousands of people in prayer both at night and before dawn, he has spent his entire Ramadan in an amazing state, and here he is in tears imploring God to have mercy on his soul.  And what of me?  And that was the moment I had waited for all of Ramadan, the breaking point.  And I think that’s all I can say about that because my words aren’t sufficient.

And lastly, I’d like to thank all the new readers of this blog.  During Ramadan I had the honor of having this blog appear on the WordPress.com homepage.  This is referred to, among wordpress bloggers, as being “Freshly Pressed”: for a fleeting 24 hours or so, the blog is viewed by potentially thousands of other bloggers.  A lot of you “liked” the last post, commented on it and subscribed as new readers, and all I can say is, I’m humbled that you would take the time to read this blog.  On the internet, words are seemingly endless, and our time is limited, so I’m honored that you’d use precious minutes reading what I have to say.  I can only promise you that my intention is to bring sincerity and beauty to these pages.  And as a happy coincidence, one of my good friends and favorite bloggers got Freshly Pressed at the same time!  (It’s pretty rare to be FP, out of a good 400 000 blogs, only a handful are chosen, so it was doubly thrilling that it happened to both of us at the same time).  Her blog is called http://towardbeginnersmind.wordpress.com and she writes amazingly well.  Here she wrote about how the weather is changing irreversibly in her hometown, but does so in a very human, passionate and skilled way.  It struck a chord with me because we are both from hot, dry places and the trend is that they will continue to get hotter and drier.  Marrakesh certainly saw some record highs this summer (49C/ 122F).  Will this reverse the tide of people who are making Marrakesh their home?

Speaking of making Marrakesh your home, I was bemused to see that this article http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20120723-living-in-marrakesh/2 about moving to Marrakesh had linked to my blog as an additional reference.  Thank you, it’s nice to feel connected to others via my writing in this way.  Some of the article is devoted to buying land in Marrakesh¸ which is not something we have done, so sorry, I won’t be offering any help with that.  But I got a great idea for a BBC show: our family is given 100 000 pounds and tasked with buying land in Marrakesh…it’ll be quirky and human…will we buy land in the Ourika valley, the Palmeraie, the Medina?  Will we buy land and build on it, or restore an old ryad?  It will be so enlightening for viewers who have the same dilemma.   Where is best to raise kids?  What is land really worth in Marrakesh?  Don’t tell me you wouldn’t enjoy watching that show!

Traveling to Morocco during Ramadan: 10 do’s and don’ts

This year Ramadan runs from about July 20th to August 19th, so right in the middle of summer holidays.  Marrakesh is usually bursting with tourists at this time of year, despite the scorching heat.  I have seen groups of sunburned, dazed and confused looking tourists walking around, probably not too sure about what’s going on, except that Macdonalds seems to be the only restaurant open for lunch.

The new moon marks the beginning of the month of Ramadan.

What’s going on is that everyone is fasting from 4 a.m. to 7:35 p.m.  and that each individual is in a somewhat different state, and the whole country has collectively shifted gears.  I can only imagine what it must be like to experience this as an outsider, but I’ve tried to put together some points here that might help you make sense of it.

1-Don’t pity us.  Yes, I know it’s 47 C outside here in Marrakesh (that’s 118 F)  and you can about boil a pot of that famous mint tea on the sidewalk.  I know that this Ramadan has the longest daylight hours in the last 33 years.  It sure must seem like we are suffering terribly.  But here’s the thing: we like to fast.  We look forward to this all year long.  It’s like a beloved is returning to us.  My dear non-Muslim friends, I appreciate your sympathy.  “It must be really hard” you tell me.  And it is.  You apologize to me, wishing you could offer me a glass of water.  And I thank you sincerely.  But I wouldn’t trade a moment of this in for anything.  No need to apologize, I’ll drink that water later, for darn sure.  But right now I am emptying out, disengaging, and so is this whole country, all for a chance to come a little closer to the awesome and mysterious Divine.

2-Don’t call the ambulance just yet.  It’s not dangerous to fast.  Ok for some people it is, and they shouldn’t be fasting.  In Morocco diabetes is of epidemic proportions, so on average there is at least one person per family not fasting.  Pregnant or nursing women are excused from fasting.  But you’d never know that a good 10-20 percent of people aren’t fasting, because Muslims would feel weird eating in public.  For the rest of population, those blessed with good health, I’ve never heard of any risk or danger from fasting.  It does mean downing water all night long though.

3-Don’t feel like you’re torturing me by eating in front of me.  It’s really ok.  Go ahead, drink that glass of water.  No, I’m not drooling over you salad.  Fact is I’m around food a lot during the day.  The kids still need their breakfast, snack, lunch, snack and all that.  What I’ve noticed thought is that when I’m fasting, food is like dead to me.  I’m just in the zone.  I’m not attracted to it in the least, don’t crave or obsess over it as I do when I’m not fasting.  And I think this applies to most people.  So when I see non-Muslims eating during the day, it’s not a big deal for me.  The general rule is you don’t have to hide it, but you shouldn’t flaunt it either.  Seeing tourists sitting in restaurants eating lunch doesn’t bother anyone, but seeing someone walk down the street chugging an ice cold Pepsi, ouch, that does hurt a little.

4-Do try to get invited for ftour.  That would be of course the breaking fast meal around 7:40 p.m.  It’s such a family oriented event in Morocco, and there is always much care and love put into food preparation.  Moroccans eat a small meal at break fast and another dinner later on.  The ftour is almost the same for the whole country, dates and water, some kind of soup either harira or barley, boiled eggs with cumin, chebbakia and slilou which are some complicated sweets that I won’t bother describing, and a smoothie like avocado and milk and sugar.  It’s a shared ritual for sure.  If you want to have a very Moroccan experience this is definitely it.

Gathered for the ftour meal

5-Don’t smoke in public.  Yeah I’d put more emphasis on this one than on not eating/drinking, for several reasons.  One is that there are smokers all around you who are in some state of nicotine withdrawal and that’s more intense than mere food deprivation.  Two is that the actual smoke can break people’s fast.  Of all the cranky fasters, I’d say the deprived smokers can be the worst, so bad in fact that there is a specific term used to describe a smoker who is losing it during Ramadan “maqtou3”, literally “cut off”.  A blanket term used to explain the occasional flaring of tempers in the late afternoon.

6-Do appreciate the silence.  That last 30 minutes before the call to prayer that marks sundown.  The streets start to empty save for those last minute crazy drivers who know that traffic laws are not in effect at sunset. Then after the call to prayer, it’s a ghost town.  Not a soul is out and about.  In Marrakesh, a city of 1 million, there’s no other time where you could literally run down the street with your eyes closed and not get run over by anything.   Not by a bus, truck, taxi, horse-drawn carriage, mule cart, donkey, moped, bike or walker!  It adds to that special Ramadan “expect the unexpected” feeling.  One minute the streets are teeming with last minute shoppers buying baghrir, jben or avocados  for ftour, the next minute it’s like that dream where you are the last person on earth.  Savor the moment.

7-Don’t expect much.  In the daytime that is.  With the fasting day being 16 hours long, and it being August vacay mode, believe me there is no impetus for waking up early.  In our family we wake up between 9 and 10 a.m. and if you go out it’s like it’s dawn and you’re the early bird.  The shops around here don’t throw open their blinds til 11 or 12.  Cause they plan to open all day, close for ftour, and re-open at night.  As afternoon rolls by, you can expect some blank stares, people can just start to get spaced out.  Chapped lips, bad breath.  Crankiness.  Be compassionate.  Know that the fast is different for each person, they may be having a particularly difficult day.  Love them anyway.

8-Don’t be alarmed if you hear the canons roar.  The pirates are not attacking the coasts.  The city fires off canons to to mark the start and end of each fasting day, in case any doubt remained.  Some neighborhoods have air raid sirens that go off to mark the fast.  Where I live now I can only hear the canons.  This way even those who live far from a mosque can still know it’s time to break fast.

9-Do shake your head at the irony of it all.  Ramadan is a time of giving up food and drink for a certain time, but ironically we Moroccans consume a lot more food than usual.   There are always the special reports from the Ministry of Agriculture assuring everyone that there will be enough eggs and chickpeas to meet “the increase in demand”.   The shops totally cater to the frenzy as well.  This year maybe the heat slowed people down a little.  I do try to make the ftour meal special, but ours has lots of juice, fruit and salad.  Hard to resist this:

10-Do enjoy the nights.  Because in Ramadan, the nights are the real days.  There are night prayers in every major mosque that start about an hour after sunset and last for an hour and a half.  For Muslims, these prayers are the other half of the Ramadan equation.  After the emptying out all day, this is the replenishing.  I was interested to see a long line of tourists sitting near the Koutoubia mosque, enjoying the night breeze and watching the night prayers that are held in the open courtyard outside the mosque.  The courtyard fills with some 5000 people who stand, sit and prostrate as the imam recites passages from the Quran.  This is probably the most public prayer conducted year round so I can see why people would want to see what it’s like.  After the prayers, the streets, cafes and shops come to life all over again, and it’s a light, almost giddy feel.  After the inward breath and contraction of the day, this is the great expanse again.

Thousands of women in prayer at the Koutoubia mosque

For more advice on Moroccan culture and etiquette I recommend the book:
Cultureshock! Morocco (Cultureshock Morocco: A Survival Guide to Customs & Etiquette)

I wrote about Ramadan last year here.  Ramadan Mubarak!