By Fred Reed
Dear old friend!
I’m replying to your suggestion that I write about Ramadan in Morocco. After several days of hesitation and cogitation, I’ve decided to try. So here it goes!
Before diving into the “what,” I’d like to go back to the “why.” Nine months ago we decided to sell our condo in Outremont and our car, give away most of our belongings, and move permanently to Agadir, where we live today. We were looking for a warmer climate and that’s what we found. But we also wanted to be closer to the religious beliefs that we’d adopted more than fifteen years ago, and that was also what we found.
We’d heard, after spending four winters here, enthusiastic Moroccan friends telling us “wait till you have the Ramadan experience!” And when Zeki, the lad who carries our weekly souk shopping in his pushcart, learned we were coming for good, his eyes lit up. “Ah, then you’ll be able to do Ramadan along with us!”
Briefly put, the omens were good and the vibrations positive. There are few places in this town where a mosque is not visible or audible. It should be easy and pleasant we figured to join others in the daily fast-breaking meal, to attend the late night communal prayers that are so popular, and to participate in the celebrations that mark its end, after thirty days of self-imposed privation. We were ready, willing and — we hoped — able.
Then the corona virus hit.
Morocco, with a marginal health-care system, knew it couldn’t withstand a frontal onslaught. So the authorities, starting with the King, decreed early and strict confinement and curfew measures, closed the borders, harbours and airports, repatriated tourists to their home countries and banned all intercity travel. Regulations have been in force for two months now, and have just been extended for another three weeks. That means we must be prepared to flash an official permit for any essential outing, such as visits to the pharmacy, medical appointments or food shopping.
Sure, the impact on Ramadan à la marocaine has been devastating. But the fasting month embodies a paradox. Even though it’s celebrated as a time for intense socializing and community religious activities, voluntarily cutting off food, water and sexual activity is profoundly personal and quite invisible. Impossible to tell whether someone is fasting by looking at her or him, except perhaps at the end of the day when people step less smartly and glance frequently at their watches calculating how much time remains until they can enjoy their first drink of water after sixteen hours, pop a date into their mouths, lift the spoon from a steaming bowl of harira—the traditional soup made from a rich beef broth with onions, tomatoes and garlic, chick peas, lentils and vermicelli, plus the time-honoured Moroccan mix of spices — accompanied by shabakia, the traditional deep-fried curlicues dipped in honey.
From the religious point of view, Ramadan is strictly between you and the Creator. In fact the Qur’an enjoins fasting upon Muslims but it cannot be enforced nor supervised — and yet even non-practicing so-called "cultural" Muslims will find themselves fasting when the month rolls around.
Strict and pious as all that must seem, people have a way of adopting beliefs and duties to their culture and lives, and Morocco is no exception. Around the core of self-deprivation during the daylight hours, charity and seeking divine foregiveness, have sprung up layer upon layer of festivity and solidarity during the nighttime hours. Even though people should be eating a lot less, food expenditures soar. Vast amounts of sugar and flour are purchased and transformed into sweets; great quantities of tea are consumed; vats of soup are prepared.
We’d been looking forward to all this, the socializing and the family visits, the brightly-lit streets thronged with celebrants, cafés and restaurants humming, children playing, housewives gossiping while their husbands look on benevolently.
Now, none of it. When the siren atop the main fire station sounds to announce the end of the fasting day, the countrywide dusk to dawn curfew comes into effect. No gatherings of any size are permitted; the sidewalks empty of pedestrians, the streets of automobiles.
We retire to our salon marocain, with its overstuffed cushions and bolsters, and quickly eat a few dates stuffed with almonds washed down with a glass of water, perform the evening prayer and retire to the dining table. From our window we look out over the silent city, and on a certain kind of evening, watch the sea mist roll in over Agadir, its tendrils wafting up the street.
In four or five days the lunar month will end, when the country’s religious authorities declare that they have spotted the new moon. Then will come the Eid holiday that —normally — ushers in three days of intense socializing, family visits, gifts to the children and courtesy calls upon the aged, which we would have been delighted to receive.
The emotional climate is one of mirth and euphoria. And to tell you the truth, there’s nothing quite like emerging from the month-long fast to once again eat during the daylight hours. Floating on angels’ wings, maybe?
But all that is on hold. The mosques remain closed until further notice; all gatherings are banned—for our own protection, it’s understood. So on Eid day, which may be Sunday or Monday, our social interaction will take place by telephone or on the Internet.
Still, we’re counting our blessings. The epidemic has passed over us. We’re semi-ancient but healthy. Muslims are always thanking God for everything that comes their way, good or bad. Maybe what we thought was bad was, deep down, good. Perhaps this time of isolation made it easier for us to connect with the deeper meaning of the fast.
So now, as the season’s first heat wave settles over Agadir, we’re preparing to welcome the end of Ramadan with all due thanks. We made it!