Observing the Holy Month, from a Safe Distance

Friday, September 4, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco

A typical gut-busting spread in Morocco mixes soups, pancakes, meats, and all manner of syrupy confections.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan (رمضان) began almost two weeks ago, and with it our tranquil routine of daily life in Rabat was flipped on its head.

On the first day, a Saturday, the normally busy streets of our neighborhood of Agdal were lifeless. Rabat had become a ghost town, as its residents waited out the daylight indoors, suffering through the start of their obligatory month of daytime fasting.

With the arrival of dusk, I knew, the streets would buzz with life—couples and families would stroll together, the cafés would stay full until the wee hours, and a carnival atmosphere would envelop the city.

But those public festivities are reserved for after iftar—the daily breaking of the fast. This ritual gorging begins in the family home each evening with the sunset call to prayer. Though Ramadan is
ostensibly grounded in a spirit of sacrifice, and intended to remind all Muslims of the importance of charity toward those who go without basic necessities throughout the year, Moroccan popular culture has twisted it into something else entirely. For many (though by no means all) Moroccans, it is instead the month of sweets—syrupy, honeyed, sugar-topped concoctions of a thousand varieties, gobbled alone or crammed into bursting mouthfuls of soups (the tomato-based harira is particularly popular during Ramadan), couscous, or meat dishes.

As elsewhere in the Muslim world, Ramadan is the season of gluttony in Morocco. Though undocumented, it's considered common knowledge by many here that, instead of shedding pounds, most Moroccans who fast actually gain weight. Nonetheless, I continue to hear the "fasting for Ramadan is good for your health" argument almost every day. It seems that if I sit in one place long enough, eventually some friendly elderly gentleman will sidle up to me, start a conversation, and steer it toward Ramadan and the fast's cleansing benefits.

Such are the hypocrisies of religion and its practice here; the resemblance between Ramadan and the Christmas season in America are unmistakeable.

* * *

Ramadan in Rabat is a very different experience than in Fes, a city more in touch with its traditional roots.

To start, back in Fes we received so many invitations to iftar every day that we had to turn them down as—at least for one month out of the year—the city's residents embraced the traditional ideal of Arab hospitality. Here in Rabat, by contrast, the only iftar invitations we've received have been for dinner at an American friends' down the street, and for a 200-dirham buffet at a posh French restaurant in centre ville. (Eating iftar at a restaurant? Back in Fes, they would have a laugh at that.)

In both Fes and Rabat, a celebratory cannon is fired each day at dusk, just as the call to prayer begins. The difference comes in the morning. In each neighborhood of Fes's old city, a man wanders the streets, beating a drum to wake the faithful so they have time to gobble a final meal before the sunrise. We have yet to hear this wakeup call here in Agdal, alhamdulillah. Nor do we now endure the hour-long morning prayer that used to keep us awake from 4:00 to 5:00 am each day in Fes. As a result, both our knowledge of the Qur'an and our daily crankiness levels have dropped noticeably.

Crankiness, of course, is a downside of Ramadan in any city. Another tidbit of common knowledge—though always recounted a bit sheepishly—is that petty crime and domestic abuse rates actually rise during the holy month—a phenomenon blamed on general irritability.

Just a day or two after we arrived in the country last year, Jacqueline and I were in the streets of Fes when dusk neared. A fight broke out in an outdoor café as we passed. Already, we had been told that late afternoon scuffles were commonplace in Ramadan; as blood sugar levels dwindled, even stabbings were not uncommon. The weapon of choice in this fight, however, was not a knife, but a nearby alley cat, which one of the assailants scooped up by the scruff of its mangy orange neck and shook violently in the face of his bewildered opponent. A crowd soon formed, obscuring our view, and preventing us from determining whether the introduction of the hissing-ball-of-orange-fury had served to defuse or to escalate the conflict.

Either way, the scene will always remain one of my most enduring mental images of Morocco, and of this undeniably special holiday season.

Update (Monday Sept. 7): A coworker came into the office this morning with a large bandage over his right elbow and forearm. I figured he had fallen on it or strained something in the joint. But when I asked, he told me that he had been attacked "sous la menace d'un sabre" (that's right, not at knife point but at saber point!) the previous evening right here in the streets of Rabat. The thief, going after my colleague's Blackberry, had sliced a large gash in his forearm. Later, another coworker explained that during Ramadan, people often carry more cash than normal for big holiday purchases, so the thieves come out in full force.


Jim March said...

Hi Andrew!
Very interesting!!! Thanks for writing; it gives great perspective...
Just wondering about your statement, "Such are the hypocrisies of religion and its practice here; the resemblance between Ramadan and the Christmas season in America are unmistakeable."
If you have a moment to expound on this (briefly), I'd like to hear what you're thinking...

Uncle Ted said...

Hi Andrew: As in many cultures, it comes down to FOOD ! Wonderful story of how other cultures experience their faith and directives. Thank you for these insights. Take care. Uncle Ted.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Hi Jim, thanks for your question.
On the surface, each year Ramadan definitely brings a festive atmosphere, which reminds me instantly of the buzzing Christmas season back home. That's the positive similarity.
The negative one is that Ramadan, like Christmas, has been contorted into something it was never intended to be. In the annual run-up to Christmas, Americans go overboard with shopping and consumption - something the holiday isn't supposed to be about. Similarly, many in the Muslim world get caught up in the all-night feasting, and appear to forget the holiday's original purpose, which was to promote charity.
(On a side note, though it's obviously just a linguistic coincidence, I nonetheless find it amusingly ironic that "knsoum" - which means "I'm fasting" in Moroccan Arabic - sounds so much like the English "consume".)
I'm no fundamentalist, and am not trying to call people out for hypocrisy. Just pointing out that, no matter the religion, some aspects of human nature are universal.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Uncle Ted - I hope that business takes you to the Gulf or elsewhere in the Muslim world during Ramadan one day - you'll be stuffed with food up to your eyeballs!
Thanks for reading, take care.

Jim March said...

Thanks Andrew for your thoughtful insights... very interesting. It puts my own feelings about Christmas into perspective because it so often makes me think we have way too many hypocrites! Buy, buy, buy...

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