Three Ramadans (or how I learned what it means to be an ex-pat during the holy month in Morocco)

This year is my third Ramadan in Morocco. Ramadan is the holy month that marks the time when the Muslim Prophet Mohammad received God’s message while living as an ascetic in a cave. For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of piety, self-control, generosity, and family. For the month-long celebration, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, at which point they break their fast with what is called Iftar (ftour in the Moroccan Arabic dialect), or literally, breakfast. The maghrib (sunset) call to prayer marks the end of the daylong fast and the start of ftour and evenings spent with friends and family. Later in the evening around 2:30 or 3 in the morning there is another call to prayer to indicate the start of suhoor, or dinner, which families have as their final meal before the sun comes up.

Every family does ftour a little different. From my experience, ftour is usually served as usually a series of small dishes that are placed communally around a table. Traditional French and Moroccan pastries such as croissants, light and crispy mille feuilles, chebakiyya, and breads like melaoui and harcha are main staples to this meal. Small saucers of olive oil, honey, goat cheese, and jams are interspersed as condiments. There is also always a dish or two of dates and figs. There are often omelets and/or hard-boiled eggs, and a ftour is never complete without piping bowls of harira, which is a tomato-based soup with lentils, chickpeas, and pasta that I find to be similar to Italian minestrone. Like any breakfast meal, Moroccans generally sip fresh squeezed fruit juices and finish the meal off with a dainty cup of espresso or a glass of mint tea. Suhoor items vary depending on the family, but it usually consists of more savory fare, such as tajines.

Our own multicultural "friend ftour".

Our own multicultural “friend ftour”.

As a Muslim country, Morocco takes certain steps to make Ramadan easier for its citizens. The clocks are turned back an hour the Sunday prior to the week of Ramadan to shorten daylight hours. This is especially vital now, when for the past three years Ramadan has fallen during the long hot days of summer, making abstaining from food and water during the day a particularly trying endeavor. Work hours are also adjusted to the new rhythm of the month-long religious holiday. Rather than keeping their lunch breaks, most offices work from 9 am to 3 or 4 pm straight and then return home to relax before breaking the fast with their families. As a mark of piety and modesty, many of the more religious women opt to abstain from wearing makeup and even their normal perfume to the office and the standard western suit or skirt is replaced with leather sandals and more traditional robes. Many men also refrain from wearing deodorant (as trying as it can be for those in their presence), and many do not even brush their teeth once the sun comes up, for fear of swallowing water or toothpaste. Bad breath is very common: the lack of brushing paired with the fasting makes speaking to others in close proximity rather unpleasant.

The runners and walkers that I used to see along the beach road in the morning are now non-existent, aside from the occasional ex-pat. They have changed their schedules so instead they come out for exercise and recreation as a final push before sunset and the breaking of the fast. In the hours leading up to sunset, the markets fill with dazed shoppers gathering their final ingredients for their evening meals.

Auto traffic becomes even more congested and tense as the patience of commuters and taxi drivers runs gravely low with everyone just trying to make it through the few final hours before returning home to their family. In the last hour before sunset, it becomes particularly intense. The streets begin to empty and it becomes increasingly difficult to find a taxi that will pick you up. If your destination isn’t en route to his home, he will most likely decline your patronage. Fights are also common at this time, as the tempers of everyone are running high and it is easy to get worked up over petty frustrations. These altercations generally do not last very long, as usually there are a few people involved that manage to separate the parties to keep the peace until their heads cool and they can finally smoke a cigarette.

In the minutes leading up to the ftour, shops begin to close their shutters and cafés and restaurants start dragging out tables, turning on their televisions, and men and women gradually take their seats and stare out as they quietly await the call to prayer. At the moment of the call, the streets empty and the only sound to be heard is the clinking of plates and pans from neighboring buildings. Within an hour shops open up again and people fill the streets. Outdoor activity lasts well into the night, which can be difficult for someone who works a full-time job. Children are off on summer break and play boisterous pick-up games of soccer under streetlights until suhoor, making goals out of bags of trash or cracked blocks of concrete from nearby abandoned construction sites.

Every Ramadan I have spent here has provided me with different experiences that have helped me shape into my multi-faceted of what Ramadan feels like in Morocco. When we first moved here in August of 2011, we were unaware (until too late) that we’d be arriving during the holy month of Ramadan. Taking a grand taxi from the Casablanca airport back to our new apartment in Rabat was a particular test of faith, as our driver, like all others on the road at the minutes leading up to dusk during Ramadan, were driving like preoccupied maniacs. Before even getting on the highway, our driver swerved over to the side of the road, ran to a roadside hut convenience store, and returned to the car with his arms swaddling packages of cookies, yogurt, cigarettes, and water for when the sun finally set. In the days following as we tried to get our bearings to the many differences between our old and new lives, we also found ourselves with the particular challenge of finding food. Without understanding the altered rhythm of Ramadan days, we kept finding ourselves wandering the streets with empty stomachs and meeting only shuttered shop and restaurant windows. For our first week in our apartment, we cooked with no salt. This wasn’t because we were trying to cut back on our sodium, but rather because we had no clue where to even get it (!). During the day, the streets were scarce, but at the time when we would start getting ready for bed, it seemed as if everyone in our building woke up. Music would blare, cigarette smoke would waft through the vents, and children would scream and run around in the street below. The one thing we were able to catch onto quickly was alcohol. In Morocco, all liquor stores either close or close off the area where the liquor is sold and stay closed throughout the month of Ramadan. However, there are certain loopholes that ex-pats can take advantage of: international hotels. After a day of accidentally fasting while searching for groceries, there is truly nothing more rewarding than a icy mojito on a rooftop bar.

Last year, as a way to avoid repeating the year before, and with a year of immersing myself in Rabati culture, I took certain precautionary steps to ensure that as a non-muslim resident; I would still be able to enjoy my summer.

My “successful” steps to a successful American ex-pat Ramadan:

  1. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. The toughest thing to do during Ramadan is to resist the new rhythm that takes hold of local society. If you can embrace it, it will be to your advantage. This doesn’t mean you have to adhere to the fast, but it does mean that you can take advantage of this new slowed down lifestyle. Working as an English teacher, my work slowed to a halt during the holiday, and I was able to adjust my days to follow the schedule of many of the teens here, which is to sleep in, spend quiet days inside with friends or doing quiet activities like read, write, or in my case, do independent research. Later in the afternoon, I would meet with fellow ex-pats and get groceries for dinner. We would spend the rest of the afternoon cooking a ftour that we would later share with our Moroccan friends who had spent the day fasting. We would treat it as a potluck, where our friends were encouraged to bring special foods that they enjoyed eating with their families. After ftour we would spend the rest of the evening chatting, listening to music, and teaching each other card games that would last well into the early hours of the morning.
  2. Be prepared. In the weeks leading up to Ramadan, my fellow ex-pat friends and I would begin to stock up on alcohol that we could enjoy during the month-long dry spell. This doesn’t need much elaboration – as an American living here without any family, it was a small price to pay for a little bit of “American style” indulgence at the end of a long hot summer day. Plus, it helped maintain ex-pat social relations just as much as the ftours helped maintain our social network among our Moroccan friends.
  3. Get out and get in to the holiday spirit. It’s not necessary that you fast to feel the effects of Ramadan culture. It can be a really beautiful and pleasant time if you let yourself be a part of it. Along with hosting ftours, I made a habit of accepting invites from old and new Moroccan friends to meet at a café in the evening to nurse a glass of tea or have a fruit panaché smoothie and people watch, which is the activity of the season: the city fountains are lit up with beautiful colored displays, festive lights arch across major avenues, cultural centers and parks are lit up for special Ramadan concerts and other evening events, and families dressed in traditional silky robes stroll down the street together as children run ahead to snack and toy vendors sprinkled along the various promenades.
  4. Don’t be afraid to be a tourist. I consider the Morocco edition of the Lonely Planet travel guidebooks to be filled with some of the best tips out there. However, one element that I think they didn’t accurately cover was the topic of visiting Morocco during Ramadan. Rather than going into the detail that is needed to quell the nerves of uncertain travelers expecting incessant hardships, the writers of Lonely Planet could have done a lot of good by explaining some of the benefits. Last year my family came to visit me during Ramadan and we visited Essaouira, Agadir, Rabat, and Fez. At first I too was nervous about the potential difficulties that could arise from traveling during Ramadan, mainly in terms of finding food. From my experience last year, I can say that it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I anticipated. The hotels/guest houses we stayed at still provided lovely traditional breakfasts, shops were open and the shopkeepers themselves seemingly even more gracious than usual, perhaps just more subdued and less invested in tireless negotiations on account of their low blood sugar and the fact that tourism during Ramadan slows to nearly a halt, making it a quiet month for artisans who rely primarily on tourists’ income for their beautiful handcrafted items.
Sunset in L'Océan

Sunset in L’Océan

Ramadan 2013 has been a completely different experience than the previous two. The major reason for this is that my lifestyle has changed. Instead of being able to embrace the “teen Ramadan lifestyle” of sleeping through the heat of the day and staying up all night, I work “full-time”, which, during Ramadan means that I am at the office from 9 am until 3 or 3:30 pm. This work schedule is widely accepted in Morocco as standard Ramadan business hours. While it may seem like a lighter schedule, the lack of lunch break (or any break at all) makes it challenging. Furthermore, being in an office setting rather than in the privacy of a home makes it even more difficult to not adhere to the fasting ritual. While at work, I try to keep a water bottle tucked next to my desk and try to take sips when no one is in plain view. I know that my coworkers would understand, but I try to be discrete out of respect. In a way, staying busy at the office is an easy way to maintain the fast. Another element of my life that has changed in the past year is our neighborhood. Last year, I spent Ramadan in a more upscale cosmopolitan area of the city where it was easy to spend nearly an entire day in solitude. This year, we live in an apartment in a more “traditional” neighborhood filled with families, which makes the ritual surrounding Ramadan a more of a collective experience. During the heat of the day the streets are quiet except for people working and the market vendors place tarps over their bounty. As the afternoon winds down and the sun gets lower in the sky, the streets begin to fill up again with children playing games and the patisseries and corner stores set up tables outside with fresh juice, dates, and fresh breads and sweets for families to take home for ftour. The market fills up with people again getting their final ingredients for the evening meals. As we’re cooking in preparation for sundown, we can see, smell and hear the same things happening in the houses around us. Then, like clockwork, at the maghrib (sunset) call to prayer, the neighborhood falls silent. The streets empty once more, and you can start hearing the clinking of silverware and the buzz of televisions playing special Ramadan family dramas to watch while breaking the fast. Taking your first bite, though we aren’t usually eating with a Moroccan family, tastes even sweeter after the day of fasting together. It feels like a universal sigh of relief as the sky fades into definitive darkness. 

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4 thoughts on “Three Ramadans (or how I learned what it means to be an ex-pat during the holy month in Morocco)

  1. I knew you would excel as a writer Clara. This was so informative and enjoyable to read! Thank you and my best to you and yours…Peace to you, uncle Dino.

  2. I bet that most Westerners over emphasize the challenges of following Ramadan. Since the privations are shared by everyone, I imagine it could be a special time of bonding with your family and the people around you, especially when it comes to the ftour and early morning meals. When I was little, as a Catholic we were not able to eat anything after dinner on Saturday night up until we took Communion on Sunday morning. No one I know suggested that was weird.

    • I think you have a very valid point here. From what I observe, this is indeed a time for families to come together, let time slow down, and enjoy one another’s company. While I do think that it can sometimes be extreme to the point of dangerous (example: construction worker out in the direct sun with no food or water, or taking a ride in a taxi with a driver whose hunger has turned into blind rage and risky traffic decisions), I think that the basis for this holiday is nothing but well-intentioned. Like Christmas, it can sometimes be easy to get caught up in the day to day frenzy and forget what it is that you’re actually aspiring towards. However, for the most part, I am blown away by how poised, generous, and kind strangers, co-workers, and friends have been during Ramadan. It’s not an easy time, but I think everyone has caught the spirit of the season.

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