We’re currently in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan here in Morocco and we’ve had a lot of questions from friends and family about what that actually means.  The following is what we understand so far about the traditions and practices we’ve been fortunate to be a part of.

What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and fasting during this 30 day period (from new moon to new new moon) is one of the five pillars of Islam – meaning that it is obligatory for all Muslims.  Fasting means no food and no water, and even not using things like chapstick, from the first prayer of the day (several hours before sunrise) until the fourth (sunset).  In Azilal this means nothing can enter your body between about 3:40am and 7:45pm!  Ramadan also means fasting from smoking and bad thoughts (though I can’t imagine that ever actually works) and actions for the entire month.  Fasting is meant to allow Muslims to be closer to God as well as to make them more compassionate by better understanding how it feels to be poor.  As Ramadan is a holy month, a few of the other pillars of Islam increase in importance as well.  Specifically, prayer time is increased and giving charity is emphasized.

Fasting during the day is followed for many by lots of food and liquids at night.  The evening meal, breakfast, is often a family affair with a huge spread of food that often includes dates, harira (tomato soup but better), breads, eggs, tea, juices, and of course water.  Another meal follows around mid-night (dinner I guess) – often the traditional tajine or couscous.  Finally, some eat a small meal called suhoor at around 3am just before starting the next day of fasting.

Who fasts?
The short answer – EVERYONE! At least it seems that way…  In reality fasting is obligatory beginning at puberty.  However, there are many cases where fasting is not allowed or at least not recommended.  For example, pregnant or nursing women, people with health problems like diabetes, and elderly people are exempt.  Also, currently menstruating women are not allowed to fast.  This is not really a free pass though as any missed fasting days must be made up at some other time.

Despite all of those people who must be pregnant, nursing, sick, or elderly in Azilal we have only seen one person eating in public so far – a young kid who was eating a delicious looking ice cream bar – I was so jealous…

Since the entire country is fasting (Seemingly anyway) the hours of life change entirely.  Business hours shorten if they’re administrative and lengthen until midnight or later if they’re food related.  People change their sleep schedules and stay up late into the night.  The town is empty in the morning and early afternoon but then comes alive around 5pm when everyone goes out to buy whatever food is necessary for breaking the fast.  Then, about 5 minutes before sunset, Azilal becomes a ghost-town with everyone inside with their family for food.  After eating the town fills up with people walking and talking in the street until almost 1 or 2 in the morning.

Did you fast?  What did you think?
Yes! We decided to join in the tradition this year.  Our initial plan was to fast from the start of Ramadan (July 10th this year) until we left for Spain on the 26th.  With a complete change in our sleeping and eating schedules and a pretty sedentary lifestyle our Ramadan started out well.  We were both very thirsty and a little dizzy by the end of the first day but our bodies quickly adjusted and by the 3rd or 4th day we were having no problems making it to breakfast.  However, the monotony of energy conservation (read, no exercise or excessive movement) made us both pretty cranky and bored.  Without any spiritual reason to be fasting we decided to stop after day 10 – a successful completion of 1/3rd of the full experience.

We were both a little worried initially what our host community would think of our fasting. Would they be offended that we were trying out their religious tradition with little stress on the actual religious importance of the month?  Or would they just be happy that we were doing our best to assimilate into the culture and live the way they lived?  Turned out that the reactions we got were consistently good – people constantly asked us if we were fasting and were always very happy when we replied that we were.

All in all the month of Ramadan has been an excellent experience (aside from the constant boredom during the day).  Our daily evening walks along with the rest of Azilal have been great – almost every day we run into tons of people that we know. We’re also hoping that by being out night after night we are slowly showing others in our community that we aren’t tourists and that we’re here to stay.

Video: The call to prayer from the nearest mosque here in Azilal – this specific call indicated the end of fasting one of the days of Ramadan.  You can see little kids running home so they don’t miss the start of the meal.  The siren in the background also indicates that it’s breakfast time (this only happens during Ramadan).  At the end you can hear a number of other mosques.  The call happens 5 times a day, everyday here in Morocco.