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Why I chose to fast during Ramadan

dates, hardboiled eggs and other snacks on a table

Most people in my site know that I’m not Muslim.

Matt with photography and videography workshop students.
Matt with photography and videography workshop students.

Even so, during Ramadan I receive an inordinate number of questions involving exactly that. One specific conversation was with a teacher at my middle school.

It was my last day teaching there for the year. As I was about to climb the stairs to my classroom, the teacher greeted me with a big “Ramadan kareem!” (essentially, happy Ramadan). I responded back similarly and we quickly arrived to the big questions.

“Are you Muslim?”

“No. You know that!” We both laughed.

“Are you fasting?” she continued through a broad smile.

I shrugged and responded, “I am trying.”

Of the two words in Darija meaning “to try,” one means “to attempt” and the other means “to experience.” I meant the latter.

“Good luck!”

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic year. There are several features to Ramadan, including the complete abstinence from food, drink, sex and smoking from sunrise to sunset. Nearly every Muslim is required to fast once they reach puberty.

The idea of fasting is to bring Muslims closer to God and remind them of the suffering endured by the less fortunate. In addition, many Muslims give zakat, or donate money, to charities and feed the hungry and poor. Overall, it’s an exercise of self-restraint and charity.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. The others are the recital of the declaration of faith (shahada), praying five times a day (salat) almsgiving (zakat) and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).

Matt with the students in life skills class.
Matt with students in life skills class.

We start with breaking the fast in a meal called lftar around 7:30 p.m. (the time changes daily based on sunset). As soon as the fourth call to prayer rings across the oasis, we first dive into a small pile of dates on the table. My host dad and brother leave almost immediately to pray at the nearby mosque. I stay with the women to eat our way through shbekia (fried dough in the shape of roses, slathered in honey), khubz (two layers of flatbread with peppers, onions and spices between), hard-boiled eggs, harira (a soup with lentils, chickpeas, cilantro, parsley, noodles and a bunch of spices), zmita (a nutty, crumbly substance that I absolutely love), tea, coffee, laban (a sour buttermilk) and juice. Eventually the men of the family return and eat too.

Around 2:30 a.m. – again, based on sunset and sunrise times – suhur is served. This meal is like a normal Moroccan lunch, at least with my host family. We eat marka (meat, potatoes, carrots and turnips in a broth, sometimes with French fries, olives and/or tomatoes) and fruit one day, some more marka and fruit on another. The first call to prayer of the day (around 3:30 a.m.) marks the end of suhur. Then… it’s time to sleep, wake up and start the whole process again.

Some Moroccans understand why a non-Muslim does or doesn't fast here. Some Moroccans don’t understand why a non-Muslim does or doesn't fast here.

It all comes down to the individual. Among the non-Muslim Peace Corps Volunteers, as I’m sure is true of other non-Muslims living in or visiting Morocco, we each had our own reason for choosing to fast or not. Personally I fasted from food but not from liquids and even then, I was very careful about when and where I would drink in order to respect others’ fasting.

Waiting to eat until Iftar was a fantastic way to connect more deeply with my community. I spent many meals talking with several families and learning more about Moroccan culture as it relates to Islam.