Ramadan for the senses
This is our third Ramadan in Morocco.
Like the first two years, when we are in country we fast alongside our neighbors and friends, to be part of the community and to challenge ourselves. This year, the timing of Ramadan comes as we prepare to leave for the U.S., making our minds leap forward to the excitement that going home will bring.
However, I’m grateful the timing worked out as it did; I have always liked Ramadan, an entire month where daily routines change and a different energy fills the streets. It’s a good way to spend time with families and friends before we head home. There are certain nuances that are associated with Ramadan (one of the five pillars of Islam — the holy month of fasting from sun-up to sundown), and many of them may be universal where others are specific to Morocco and in our community.
Sunset and moonlight. If your eye isn’t periodically peering at the clock, you can look up to see where the sun is and how much longer you have to go. The setting sun signals when people break fast together. The sunset provides a peaceful calm over each town. The new moon sighting dictates when Ramadan will begin. And no, it doesn’t go by the calendar. Instead, the moon has to be seen by the naked eye. Morocco began Ramadan a day after most of the world this year.
Bare streets. The time leading up to breaking of the fast means an active last hour with lots of people going for a run or walk or playing a game of soccer. Fifteen minutes or so before sunset, the streets empty out and everyone is home with family sitting around the table waiting for the call to prayer that signifies the breaking of the fast. The fact that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time makes for a distinguished sense of community.
Modest dress. More men wear their djellabas, the long traditional prayer wear and women sometimes wear hijab during Ramadan even if they don’t typically wear it throughout the year. More modest dress coincides with more people going to and from the mosque during Ramadan. Makeup, cologne and perfume are not worn during the day.
The colors. In many parts of the country and the world, having Ramadan in the summer can be incredibly challenging. The heat and beating sun makes the inability to drink water downright dangerous for some people, especially those working outside or older. We’re lucky at our site with mild temperatures, a breeze, and the abundance of fruit! Melons, peaches, cherries, watermelon, apricots — you name it, it’s in season and the perfect way to hydrate.
Chebekia. The spicy and sweet cookie that is most popular during Ramadan is prepared in the house and on the street, making the smell of fried almonds and honey fill the air, no matter where you are. This smell is especially apparent the weeks and days leading up to Ramadan, as it’s then put into Tupperware and served each night.
Harira. A tomato-based, hearty soup full of lentils, chickpeas and celery, prepared and served daily. The aroma of harira fills the streets in the last hour or two before “Iftar” or break-fast, and it makes you hungrier than you thought you were, making the last leg of the day the most challenging.
Lack of strong spices. Strong spices such as garlic and fenugreek are not used in high quantities during Ramadan, for when Moroccans go to the mosque to pray they do not want to offend the person next to them with strong odors.
The siren. Making sure everyone knows it’s time, a siren sounds for the sunset call to prayer. The call to prayer, or the “adhan,” is called out by a “muezzin” from the minaret at the top of the mosque five times a day and due to the high number of mosques in even smaller towns, everyone and anyone can hear the call.
Honking. Drivers and people rush home to make it back to their houses or the mosque with an impatient mixture of hunger, thirst and possibly the need for the day's first cigarette.
Blenders. During the summer months, the heat can be the most challenging part of fasting. Water and juice can be the most sought after items on the table. The blenders churn, making fresh, thirst-quenching fruit smoothies.
Your mouth may water and your stomach growl throughout the day, but once the sun sets, it’s worth the wait. Traditional foods eaten during Ramadan are made with extra time and attention to every last detail. So much so, if you do not go for seconds or thirds, you may offend whoever prepared your meal. Harira, hard-boiled eggs, chebakia, dates and bread are staples, but for some, the Ramadan table has expanded to included bite-size pizzas and sandwiches, briwats and an assortment of Moroccan breads and pastries.
First grab. Traditionally, dates are the first thing to be eaten to break fast. Some people then go directly to pray and return to eat soup and the various breads and other foods available. For me, I go straight to the water.
Holding the Qu’ran. The holy book is read more so during Ramadan than other parts of the year. If the shopkeepers haven’t fallen asleep quite yet, they are likely to be holding and reading the Qu’ran during their downtime.
Greeting kisses. If greetings weren’t already an important part of Moroccan communication, they most certainly are during the month of Ramadan. Multiple kisses from cheek to cheek and a combination of “Ramadan Moubarak Awashir” or “Ramadan Kareem” are send back and forth. Said constantly and to everyone, it adds to the sense of community.
If you're interested in fasting for a day or two in solidarity with your Muslim friends, colleagues or neighbors, try it out. Outside of Muslim countries, gathering places such as community centers and mosques welcome everyone to break fast together. Celebrating our differences, instead of pinning them against each other, can lead to deeper understanding and more empathy. Our Ramadan memories are some we will cherish the most from our experience in Morocco.