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!

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Fasting in Ramadan: an altered state.

I pause to steady myself as blood rushes to my head.  My muscles are cramping, my head feels like a hot air balloon floating among the clouds, my stomach has shrunk from the size of my fist to the size of a walnut, and my mouth has forgotten what water tastes like.  No, I’m not crossing the Sahara on the back of a camel, I’m fasting Ramadan in the comfort of my own home.

“How are you?” my husband asks.

“Not great” I croak.

I’m not complaining though, I know that in a few hours, I will give my body a little of what it needs, a date or two, and several glasses of ice cold water, downed in a gulp.  Then, as the sugar hits my blood stream, I’ll go into a bit of shock, but things will even out, and pretty soon I’ll be in a completely different state than my current pitiful one.

Why am I having such a hard time with the physical challenges of fasting?  Every Muslim man, woman and child over the age of 12 is fasting with me here in Marrakesh, and all over the world.  I walk by construction sites and marvel at the workers fasting in the 100+ degree heat.  An old beggar woman walks by, she is small enough already, her back hunched over as she trudges by, and I know she too is fasting (although her normal diet is probably close to a fast anyway).  I see teenagers loitering in front of their apartment buildings in the late afternoon, wiling the hours away, and I know that they too are fasting.  My own 8 year old daughter surprised me by fasting 8 days of this month.   Why then am I so challenged today?

I look out over the city at sunset, and it’s turned into a ghost town, save a few speeding mopeds and cars zipping through red lights made irrelevant by the lack of traffic.  When I hear the call to prayer at sunset, I begin to weep.  I weep because it’s been a particularly hard day, and I feel weakened and humbled.  I weep because I now have a choice that thousands do not have, and that is to fill my belly.  I weep because I am feeling the joy described by the Prophet Muhamad, peace and blessings be upon him, when he said “the fasting person experiences two joys, one when he breaks his fast, and the other when he meets his Lord”.  And if this first joy is so intense, what about the next one?

Nothing in this world tastes as good as the first bite taken after fasting.  Never have I been so excited about water!  During the day, I pass through hunger to the next phase, where my appetite, puzzled by my not responding to it, decides to take a break.  I am no longer attracted to food, I see a plate of delicious fruit with the same amount of desire as I have for a plate of rocks.  For me, a usual snacker and a bit of a “gourmande”, this is such a relief.  I am excused from my mindless snacking, tasting of this and that, grabbing food “on the go”, refrigerator gazing and grazing, and all other forms of unhealthy consumption. Instead my meals for the day are carefully selected and prepared, eaten slowly and peacefully in the company of my family.

Not all days are as hard as today.  Most days I skip along with buoyant energy, keeping up with even my three year old.  I chalk it up to three days of international travel, a seven hour time difference (going east, the harder way) and our new clingy companion, the heat.  Tomorrow will, God willing, be easier, but in a way, I don’t want to forget today.  It’s these hardest moments that are the teaching moments, the moments of complete breaking and surrender.  I am reminded how weak I am, as a human, despite my illusion of control.  Take away food and water for 14 hours and I remember that I’m only a few breaths, a few bites, a few sips away from being, well, nothing.

“All of a humans actions are his, except for fasting, it is mine, and I reward it”.  These words are reported by the prophet Muhamad as God’s teaching about fasting.  Pondering them makes my fasting like climbing into a Zen Koan.  Why fasting, I wonder, why a whole month dedicated to this practice?  What are we to learn, and to experience?  The answers come in fragments.  Islam relies on pattern interruption to discipline the desires and re-orient the soul towards God.  On a daily basis, the five prayers call me away from the world, from my favorite distractions, from endless conversations, from my beloveds, from sleep, precious sleep!  Come to success! call the muedhins from the minarets, God is greater!  And I come, whether reluctant, elated, sleepy, distracted, reflective, no matter my state I do come and hold a few minutes of praise, of thanks, of remembrance of God’s blessings, and invariably, I leave feeling cleansed, subdued, centered.

So too is fasting a yearly type of pattern interruption.  Relinquish food for a while, relinquish even sleep, for this is a month in which you will enter an altered state.  Delve into the vast sea of the Quran, let the verses guide you, open secret chambers in your heart, remind you of things you knew once and have forgotten, turning faith into quiet certainty.  I see everyone around me in this altered state.  No matter their starting point, everyone is boosted up a notch in faith and practice.  I saw two men walk away from what could have been a heated argument.  “It’s Ramadan” they said, and went on their ways.  I see people giving up their addictions, the very disease that controls them, whether alchohol or addictions “of the flesh”, for a whole month.  I see whole families pouring out onto the streets, prayer mats in hand, headed for the mosques for Ramadan night prayers, Tarawih.  I know a man who sets an extra table for evening break fast, but never knows who is going to fill it until he goes to mosque, and invites a handful of poor people to come home with him.  I know friends who have given up, well, social networking for heaven’s sakes, because deep down, we don’t want to waste a single minute of this precious month on Facebook.  I know people who do not pray all year, but bank on going to the mosque Laylat al Qadr, a special and powerful night towards the end of Ramadan that is “better than a thousand months” of worship.

And while this may seem hypocritical, it is nontheless faith that pushes us all to try harder for God’s mercy and forgiveness this month.  Maybe some of it will rub off, and we won’t “lose it all” later on.  Maybe that is just our human state, that our faith and practice mark a certain fluctuation.  After all, a Saint, a friend of God, is one who is always in that spiritual high, and that is what distinguishes her from the rest of us aspirants.

With that said, my dearest readers, those of you who got through another long winded post, I will retire, for in a few hours, it’ll be time for 4 a.m. s’hour. If you are fasting as you read this, may your fast be amazing.  Ramadan Kareem!

Ramadan: moon sighting in Oakland, California

Our beloved guest is almost here.  I am talking about Ramadan, of course.  As I’m now in California, I joined a gathering of about 100 people in Berkeley to attempt to site the new moon, which would mark the beginning on the month of Ramadan.  Our gathering was more of a nod to tradition, an excuse to meet up with old friends, since any hopes of actually glimpsing the silver sliver had been dashed by scientific calculations.  The new moon was highly unlikely to be visible to the naked eye from our geographic location.  To top it off, a thick shroud of fog enveloped the Chabot Science Center, making it impossible to see anything beyond 50 feet.  No one bothered looking up at the sky, it was impossible to tell even where the sun had set (especially to directionally challenged old me).

However, we were sharing a common experience with Muslims all over the world, dating back to the beginning of Islam.   Lunar months are either 29 or 30 days long, and the only way to know when a new month starts is to look for the moon on the 29th day of the current month.  This is one example of how the rites of  Islam are interconnected with nature’s cycles.  I love the fact that, as a Muslim, I am encouraged to actually go outside, look up at the sky, and if I’m lucky, witness the miraculous birth of a new moon.

According to CrescentWatch there were no reported moonsightings from anywhere in North or South America.  Thus, the Ramadan fast is set to begin on Thursday, August 12th.  But wait, not everyone agrees that sighting the moon with the naked eye is the definitive way to mark the beginning of the lunar month.  Other organisations, such as ISNA, use astronomical calculations to determine, with scientific exactitude, the moment the new month starts, which is, to be so very technical, on Wednesday, August 13th.  I love the fact that there are two completely different ways of doing this.  Moonsighting, which relies on an organic, human, personal and communal experience, and astronomical calculation, which utilizes the latest technology (and so in a sense, is also a celebration of God’s gift of intelligence).  It seems fitting that in a religion that values personal reflection and understanding, and also values differences in opinion and methodology, that there should indeed be two approaches even in this case.

So, we will have a little gap of fasting tomorrow, some people will go with the traditional ways, and some will use the most advanced tools available, but in the end, one thing is clear, and that is that we are all going to embark on an amazing journey this month.  To all the Muslim readers of this humble blog: may this be the best Ramadan ever!  To all the readers who are followers of other paths: thank you for reading this, it makes the world a little cozier when we learn new things about each other, don’t you think?

On the way to the moon sighting event, my friend Cynthia and I and four out of our collective seven kids stopped by at the Lighthouse mosque in Oakland to say our afternoon prayers.  A sparse exterior in one of Oakland’s poorer neighborhoods:

Yet inside, this piece by Chinese Muslim calligrapher Haji Noureddine said it all, “Gathering of Beloveds”:

The holy Quran, which is the sea to dive into this Ramadan:

Above the community message board, a striking piece of calligraphy bears the name of God in Arabic, Allah:

Prayers are offered, as kids run and tumble:

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