Experiencing Ramadan in Morocco as a Non-Muslim

Last summer, the time I spent living and studying in Morocco also happened to coincide with a very important time for the country, and for many other people around the world.

What I’m referring to is the Islamic holiday of Ramadan.  Ramadan is not just a single day of celebration, but it is  the name for an entire month in the Islamic calendar, the last one.  The month happens at a different time each year, depending on how the Islamic calendar matches up with the Western calendar, and 2013 just happened to be one of the years when Ramadan happened right in the middle of the summer, so I was lucky enough to be able to experience it.

Iftar

For those who have not heard of Ramadan before, it is a month during which every day, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.  Beginning from sunrise with the first prayer calls of the muezzins in the minarets, they do not eat or drink until sunset.  They spend their days relaxing and praying and reading verses from the Quran.  Ramadan is considered a time of physical and spiritual cleansing, and this is why they both fast and spend more time doing religious activities.   During the days, they not only refrain from eating and drinking, but also from having sex.  The less strict Muslims who do drink alcohol occasionally the rest of the year tend to take Ramadan as a time to not drink as well. And each night during this month, after a long day of fasting, they break their fasts with big feasts, family gatherings, and celebration.  

Since I was living with a host family in Morocco, and they were fasting for the holiday, I decided to do as the Romans do and fast with them too.  Not for spiritual reasons of course, but just to get the experience, to respect my host family and the culture, and to get a better understanding as to what it’s like and also what it’s like for the millions of people around the globe who go hungry on a daily basis.

I enjoyed the experience a lot — it taught me a lot about this aspect of Moroccan and Islamic culture, and even about hunger.  However, living in the country during Ramadan also came with its struggles.

Ramadan cooking

First of all, the biggest struggle was that the Ramadan of 2013 occurred during midsummer, throughout July.  Midsummer in Morocco brings scorching heat and sun pretty much every day.  If the temperature stayed in the low 90s, we considered it to be a cooler day, as compared to the usual 100 degree temperatures we had gotten used to.

Due to the heat, the fact that all the Moroccans couldn’t even drink during the blazing heat of the day came as a problem.  I heard of many cases of dehydration and hospitalizations, especially among the elderly.  Even though I decided to fast, I still drank water throughout the day, but that was it.  I didn’t eat any food from sunrise to sunset.  I made this decision because I didn’t want to risk becoming dehydrated and sick during my experience, especially considering I had to wake up early and walk anywhere from a mile to 3 miles in the sun to either get a taxi or walk the whole way to my university, and then sit in class and concentrate all day.  I was there to focus on my studies.

tree-lined streets

Another struggle during Ramadan is traveling.  Trying to travel around in an Islamic country during Ramadan is very difficult because everything shuts down during the day.  Practically every restaurant and cafe is closed in the daytime, and no one is on the streets.  The exception is that in more touristy cities and areas, like the beach town of Asilah, or the cities of Fes and Marrakesh, most restaurants are still open.  And in every city, American restaurants like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut remain open, although you need to show your passport to prove that you’re a foreigner in order to get food.

Another thing to keep in mind is that trying to get anywhere around sunset is not going to happen. EVERYBODY is inside and ready to eat the breaking fast meal, called Fitour or Iftar, around that time, so nobody is going to be out to help you.  This time of day is also considered a little dangerous in some areas since not many people are out in the city, and it’s easier to get mugged without any chance to get help from people around you..

However, if you happen to be on a train (which still run regardless of Ramadan) at sunset when it’s time to break the fast, you’re in for a surprise.  The train actually hands out little packets of dates and water bottles to everyone on board if they can’t be home in time for Iftar, and the whole thing turns into a big show of hospitality.  In addition to the food and water the train workers give you, Moroccans all around start pulling out some of their own food and sharing it with the people around them and the foreigners on the train who are watching the whole scene in wonder.

Dates on a Train

Keeping all of that in mind, let’s take a look at what a typical Ramadan day in the city of Meknes looks like:

In the morning, between 7 and 10 am depending on when my first class is, I have to wake up and get ready to go to the university.  Before Ramadan, my host mother would greet me every morning with a big smile and breakfast for me, but not during this month.  While I have to get ready for school, my host family is still sound asleep with their shades closed, each and every one of them trying to spend as much of daylight as they can asleep to avoid the heat, hunger, and thirst.

Working hours are actually cut during Ramadan, so people are able to sleep in and come home early to avoid exhausting themselves.  Not everyone has this luxury though, including the taxi drivers, who I then find myself walking through the city towards in the morning, on my way to school.  All the restaurants are closed up; the normally busy outdoor cafes have taken their tables inside and remain empty and quiet.  Not many people are on the streets, and those who are often seem to be in a bad mood due to a combination of dehydration and hunger, most likely.

Empty cafes in Ramadan

I sit through my classes as the day drags on, dreaming about food and how good it will taste when I finally get to eat at sunset.  I do keep myself hydrated and often drink from my water bottle as I planned to, but I make sure to do this out of the sight of any professors or local students.  Blatantly drinking water in front of people who can’t drink despite the heat is incredibly rude during Ramadan.

When I get back to my host family’s apartment later in the day, I have time to relax and begin my homework but my mind is only on one thing: food.  Since we’re in the long days of summer, sunset normally wouldn’t be happening until 8 or after, but the king of Morocco changed put the time back one hour specifically for Ramadan to compensate for the long, weary summer days.  Can a king really just change time like that?  Well, he did, but I was definitely glad about it because it meant that sunset came an hour earlier, between 7 and 7:30 depending on the time of the month.

Sunset in Meknes

As the time for sunset nears, my mind drifts and I become distracted from my homework by the thought of food.  Instead of doing work, I find  myself hanging out the window and watching excitedly as the sun dips lower and lower behind the buildings and cars on the streets below rush to get home in time.

I wait in anticipation as the streets become quieter for one specific noise.  And then I hear it: a single cannon blast goes off in the nearby square, signaling that it’s time.  Directly after the cannon blast, the melodic voices of the muezzins begin their prayer calls in the minarets, which echo across the empty streets.  By this time, I am no longer sitting by the window.  I have already jumped up and dashed out to the kitchen and dining area, and helped my host family bring out the last few dishes to the table so that we can begin the feast.

And every night, it really is a feast.  An amazingly delicious feast.

Ramadan feast

Arab countries each have their own specific foods for Ramadan, and there are three specific foods which I find over and over again at each Ramadan feast I attend.  The first is dates:  the fruit grown from palm trees is always the first to be eaten.  Moroccans break their fast by eating a date and then moving on to the other foods at the table.

Dates

The second main Ramadan-specific food of Morocco is shebakia.  Shebakia is a sweet, delicious sesame honey pastry that is formed into different twisting shapes like a pretzel.

Harira, shebakia, and dates

And the third food is harira.  Harira is a tomato-based soup with other spices and most importantly, chickpeas.  In my opinion, it is the best soup in the world and my personal favorite, but maybe that’s just me.  When it’s made right, I could eat harira every day and that’s exactly what I did during Ramadan.  Along with dates and shebakia.

These three foods are at practically every Ramadan Iftar I attended.  Along with them, fresh juices and cold water are brought out to quench everybody’s dying thirsts, with other pastries, breads, eggs, and random foods.  There’s also always a main dish, whether that’s another soup along with harira, a rice dish, tajine, or couscous.

More Iftar food

Every night, I go into the feast ready to eat everything in site because I’m so hungry.  Being hungry makes all of the food taste a thousand times better too, so it’s all around a great time and I looked forward to Iftar so much every single day during Ramadan.  However, because of spending the whole day fasting, a weird thing happens where your stomach actually shrinks and you get full really fast once you start eating.  Because of this, participating in Ramadan is a great way to lose weight, but only if you can keep yourself from going overboard and stuffing your face during Iftar.  You’ve got to keep the breakfast feast to a normal-sized meal.

After everyone in the city has satisfied their hunger and thirst with family and friends, they spill out onto the streets.

Empty during the day, now that it is night the sidewalks are filled to the brim with people.  Everybody is out and about with their families, ice cream or a pastry in hand as they wander the city.  Cafe tables are now all filled up, like they are during the days of every other month of the year.  Festivals happen on a regular basis during Ramadan, bringing even more people out to the central squares and public areas of the city.  It’s a huge change from day to night.

DSC03212

Even families with young kids stay out until 1 or 2 in the morning, despite the fact that kids don’t takes part in fasting.  The whole city is a party until it gets closer to 3 or 4 am, when the streets start emptying out again.  Sunrise is coming soon, which means the last chance to have a meal before fasting again is also coming.

This last meal before sunrise is called Suhoor, or the pre-dawn meal, and is much smaller than Iftar.  Most of the locals just stay up all night until it is time for Suhoor, and then once the dawn prayer calls sound would go to sleep.  However, since I had to wake up early for school, I would go to sleep much earlier and then be woken up by my Moroccan host mom for the dawn meal.  I would stumble out of bed in a groggy, half-asleep stupor, eat my meal quickly and quietly to get some food into my stomach before the day began, and then stumble back to bed and immediately fall back into a deep sleep.

Then, I would wake up in the morning and the process would repeat itself again!

Like I said before, I really enjoyed the experience and I’m glad I fasted with my family.  It wasn’t always easy, especially since I wasn’t used to it and the locals had been doing it for years.  One of the days me and my roommate almost passed out while wandering a grocery store, but I attribute that to the fact that I didn’t drink any water that day.  The days I drank water to stay hydrated I was fine, and it was so satisfying to finally be able to take those first delicious bites of food once it was time for Iftar.  As the saying goes, hunger is the best sauce!

Iftar with the prof

One of the main reasons I enjoyed Ramadan so much was the hospitality of the locals I experienced during this time.  Not only from my host family, but from many others too.  I got invited to countless Iftars, from my professor who welcomed me and other students into his family’s home, to friends around the country, to even kind strangers.  One experience I will never forget was me and a few friends being invited by a friendly taxi driver in a beach town to go and enjoy Iftar with his family.  It was completely spontaneous and so heart-warming to bond with this man and his family over an Iftar feast, and I’ll never forget that show of hospitality.

Taxi Driver Iftar

Although traveling in an Islamic country during Ramadan can be difficult, it’s not impossible.  And if you happen to be staying with locals, then it could definitely be a cultural experience you’ll never forget, as this summer Ramadan in Morocco was for me.

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