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

1 comment:

Lynda said...


Great post - thanks for writing it. Can't wait to tell Bob about the Mustard Museum! I can't believe there is more mustard there than in our refrigerator.