Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Ramadan Chronicles, Part II: Religion

What is the spirit of Ramadan? What is up with all this fasting and praying for a month?

Ramadan prayers outside of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca,

the world's 3rd largest mosque, after Mecca and Medina

FIRST OF ALL, let me preface this post by saying that I am in no way a religious scholar. I haven’t studied Islam or the Qu’ran in depth (though I have read it in its entirety). What I am writing comes from personal observations and experiences, as well as parallels drawn from my own spiritual practice.

As in every religious community, there are those who get a lot of meaning from their spiritual practices, and there are those who are just “going through the motions”. Doing "as they ought” for the sake of their reputation, or societal pressures. This is also the case in Morocco during Ramadan.

“Are you going to fast this year?” I asked my friend Mustapha.

“Of course.” He replied.

“Why?” I couldn’t help it. I’m a researcher by nature.

He paused and had to think about it. “Because it’s Ramadan. It’s what we do. It’s our religion.”

So interesting that he used the plural “we” in his response. In Morocco, there is a group mentality that pushes/encourages everyone to fast and pray this month. In one sense this is good, because everyone can stand in solidarity through a difficult month. But on the other hand, it’s almost as if you have no choice. You must practice according to the letter of the law, no matter what. In fact, Muslims in Morocco DON’T have a choice. Article 222 of Morocco's penal code states, "A person commonly known to be Muslim who violates the fast in a public place during Ramadan, without having one of the justifications allowed by Islam, shall be punished by one to six months of prison and a fine”. Morocco's non-Muslim minorities - Jews and non-Muslim foreigners – are exempted from the ban on public eating during Ramadan.

This was demonstrated last September, when a group or Moroccans advocating religious freedom were arrested and fined for organizing a public picnic during the holy month. Some organizers even received death threats.**

Special Ramadan meals at a KFC in Malaysia

“This is the month for renewing our commitment and re-establishing our relationship with our Creator.” explains Khalid Baig. Besides fasting during daylight hours, the religious practices of Ramadan include 5 daily prayers, plus a few extra on certain days. At some mosques, 1/30th of the Qu’ran is read every night, so that the whole book is completed by the Eid al-Fitr, or End-of-Ramadan Celebration.

Most importantly, Ramadan is the moment to re-evaluate your heart, and re-connect with God.

“Islam does not approve of monasticism.” Says Baig. “It does not ask us to permanently isolate ourselves from this world, since our test is in living here according to the Commands of our Creator. But it does ask us to take periodic breaks from it. The mandatory Salat (five daily prayers) is one example. For a few minutes every so many hours throughout the day, we leave the affairs of this world and appear before Allah to remind ourselves that none but He is worthy of worship and of our unfaltering obedience. Ramadan takes this to the next higher plane, providing intense training for a whole month.”

The practice of fasting is a great way to increase consciousness, intentionality, and thankfulness for God’s provision and especially to realize how much we are blessed, and thus how much we can bless others. The other day, when we prepared a beautiful iftar (break-fast) meal (American-style, complete with pancakes and omlettes) for our friends and our Arabic teachers, Sam commented to me how fasting all day makes iftar that much more meaningful. Like exercise, I hate it when I’m doing it, but afterwards I feel great.

Nowdays, one could say that Ramadan fasting has taken on a Hallmark life of its own. Interestingly enough, In Egypt national statistics have pointed to substantial increase in consumption of food, electricity, and medications related to digestive disorders during the month of Ramadan as compared with the monthly average in the rest of the year. For a veeery interesting commentary on this phenomenon, read “Wasting Ramadan” by Abdel-Moneim Said***

And certainly not everybody who fasts is achieving a zen-like state of self-denial and liberation from vices. People are crabby and tired during the day. People stress out about food and income and which iftars are the most important to attend (to see and be seen, that is). For the best example of the negative aspect of Ramadan, just look at the insanity that is traffic in the city when everyone has been fasting.

In Moroccan Arabic, there is even a verb, “t’rrumden”, which can be loosely translated as “being crabby because you’ve been fasting for Ramadan”. Thus the phrase, “Ma t’trrumdensh maaya” basically means, “Don’t you go all Ramadan on me!”

According to Baig, The Prophet Mohammed warned: "There are those who get nothing from their fast but hunger and thirst. There are those who get nothing from their nightly prayers but loss of sleep."

No matter what you get from it, Ramadan is a perfect time to do some real soul-searching. To ask some critical questions about religion and why we practice as we do. And to examine how we are living our values, year-round, to influence the world positively


Commander of the Faithful,

King Mohammed VI wishes everyone a

Ramadan Mabrook Saiid!

**Human Rights Watch. “Morocco: End Police Actions Against Persons Accused of Breaking Ramadan Fast” 19 September 2009.

***“Wasting Ramadan” Abdel -Moneim Said. “Wasting Ramadan”. Al-Ahram Weekly. 3 - 9 September 2009. Issue No. 963.

****PS, “The Meaning of Ramadan” by Khalid Baig of Al-Balagh helped a lot in this post. Access it here:

Photo credits:,,

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Ramadan Chronicles, Part 1: Rhythm

I’m alive! Forgive me for having dropped off the face of the earth this past month. In fact, I spent the last month back home. It was such a refreshing sejour, which included such epic events as:

-The marriage of my best friend Autumn. Much rejoicing.

-A visit to the State Fair. Gotta love the Midwest.

-A visit to the National Mustard Museum. Life’s To-Do List: check.

-Stateside wedding reception of my brother and his beautiful bride

-Visiting lots of friends and family

It was over all too soon, and I find myself back on my familiar balcony, watching the sunset. Anticipating the sunset. You know why? Because sundown signals the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

Yes indeed, friends, I arrived back in the Islamic Maghreb just in time for the start of the Ramadan season. I already wrote about Ramadan in previous posts, waaaaaaay back, last year when I arrived in Morocco. And way waaaaay back, a few years ago when I arrived in Senegal.

So I’ll be brief: Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It consists of a month of fasting, in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and sex from dawn until sunset. Muslims believe Ramadan to be the month in which the first verses of the Qur'ran were revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. The actual dates of Ramadan depend upon the cycle of the moon, so nobody really knows exactly when it will start or begin, except that is moves up about 14 days each year. This year it started on August 12, and will probably end around September 11. Likewise, the exact times for fasting depend on the ever-shifting schedule of sunrises and sunsets, with the days getting shorter during the month (alhamdoulilah!)

Muslims are to begin observing the fasting ritual upon reaching adolescence. The elderly, young children, the ill, people traveling long distances, and pregnant, menstruating, or nursing women are exempt from fasting, although the first two groups must endeavor to feed the poor in place of their missed fasting.**

Ramadan is celebrated differently around the Islamic world, but the spirit is the same in three essential areas that I will attempt to treat individually: the rhythm, the religion, and-- of course-- the recipes.

So first, what is the rhythm of life like in Morocco during Ramadan?

My grandpa once told me an old adage, “Never buy a car that was made on a Friday.” Why? Because workers are so burned out from the workweek and so eager for the weekend to begin, that you are more likely to get a lemon if it was assembled on a Friday.

Well, never buy anything during Ramadan. Period.

The pace of life slows down (ie, comes to a screeching halt) during the times people fast. Businesses are closed. Streets are deserted. Many people take extended vacations. Or extended naps. Shops are closed- except for the markets.

I went to Marjane (the Moroccan equivalent to Wal-mart) to try and find a fan, and barely escaped with my life. Then I went to the fruit & vegetable market near my apartment, and was almost crushed in the riot at the banana stand. Men, women, and children spend a good chunk of the day preparing the evening’s elaborate meals (more on this in a post to come), and have only a few hours during the day to shop. You’re not supposed to eat anything, but you have to pick out the most savory and ripe foods. The people I feel most sympathy towards during Ramadan? The food vendors. Sweating in the heat, dealing with irritable customers, staring at delicious goods all day long.

But away from the mob scene of the markets, the rest of the city is more peaceful than I’ve ever seen it. Despite the heat, the beach is mostly empty. As my friend Meryem explained, it is hashuma (shameful) to be seen enjoying yourself during the daylight hours, as Ramadan is supposed to be a month of self-discipline, repentance, and charity. Much like Lent. Don’t even think about holding your wedding during the holy month.

Downtown Rabat, 11AM

People even dress more conservatively this month. Moroccans wear traditional jelabas, and girls who don’t normally cover their hair will take up the hijab (veil), just for the season. I learned this the hard way when I wore a skirt on my first day venturing out to the market. An old man pointed to my shins and exclaimed, “Hashuma! C’est le Ramadan! Il faut faire le jelaba ou shi-haja.” Translation: Shame on you! It’s Ramadan! You should wear a jelaba or something. Then, because I was self-conscious, I started noticing that all the women were wearing such heavy (hot!), conservative clothing.

Left: Outside Parliament on a "normal" day, riots are a national pastime.

Right: During Ramadan, too tired to stick it to The Man.

If the days are languid and quiet, then the nights are just the opposite. Once the cannon signals the sunset, people are allowed to break their fasts. This usually happens en famille, with the iftar (break-fast) meal consisting of small, light foods like dates, juices, and soup. The ritual then goes that the whole family sits down in front of the TV to watch Ramadan-themed sitcoms, prepared especially for this month’s prime-time television. Most of these shows are pretty corny, I gotta admit, and show the quotidian hilarities of Ramadan. Two girls battling over who can make the best Jus de Panache to win over their eligible cousin’s heart. A woman trying to make healthy Ramadan foods for her husband, upon his doctor’s orders. He sneaks some shebakiyya and ends up sticking his head into the pot of soup. Like Laurel and Hardy, for Muslims.

After a few hours of television (with more food commercials than ever), the men go to the mosque for the evening Maghreb prayer. Maghreb. Sound familiar? Not only is it the Arabic word for “Morocco”, it literally means “sunset”. Morocco, on Africa’s western edge, eternally puts the sun to sleep for the “Arab World”. Well, after the Maghreb of the day, Morocco explodes.

Finally! Men, women, and children, amped up on high-glycemic foods, are released to enjoy themselves, binge more, and- alhamdoulilah- smoke! This is when the city comes alive. People fill the streets, visiting neighbors and friends. Carnival rides and toys materialize from nowhere. Couples holding hands lick ice cream cones. Shops re-open (in fact, I heard that stores always make their biggest profits during Ramadan). It’s a party until the wee hours of the morning.

Same streets in downtown Rabat, 11PM

Often, a bigger, heavier meal including some meats and dessert will be served around 1 or 2 am. Then a few hours of sleep. Then another cannon will signal the suhuur, or final meal before the next fast, around 5 am. Families wake up and eat suhuur quickly together, in their pajamas, before plopping down on pillows again for a few more hours of sleep.

The carnival below the Oudayas awaits the post-iftar madness.

As you can see, the rhythm of Ramadan disturbs “normal” life. It is especially difficult for children who have to go to school, and those who have regular workday schedules to respect. In fact, the official workday is shortened to about 9am-3pm. Banks keep half-days, and even the American Embassy closes early. In one Hadith, the Prophet Mohammed warns Muslims against becoming lazy during Ramadan, as this month is supposed to be a month of self-reflection and charity, when Muslims remember where all provision comes from and give back to the community. You’ll see more beggars out on the street now, especially outside of mosques. Like the Christmas season in the West, it is a time to visit family and friends and to give freely, but seems to be co-opted by the Ghosts of Corporate Indulgence.

I too have decided to fast during this Ramadan season. At least from food. I am still drinking during the day for a few reasons: 1. I exercise, and need to rehydrate. 2. It’s hot out. 3. It’s freakin’ hot out. My Moroccan friends seem delighted when I tell them I’m fasting in solidarity with them. No, I’m not converting, I explain. It’s just that I see Ramadan as a significant cultural and spiritual time to take advantage of.

Fasting is a regular and important part of my spiritual practice, and once you get past the first few days, it’s not too difficult to join in the solidarity of the community. But I am really trying to be intentional with my fasting, trying to remember the spirit of the season as it was meant to be. But what does that mean exactly?

Stay tuned. And in the meantime:

Ramadan Mabrook Saiid!

**PS, Wikipedia “Ramadan” helped a lot in this post