I have been living in Morocco for almost 15 years now and until recently I had avoided spending Ramadan in my adopted country of Morocco, a decision I had made due to generally circulating prejudices, especially from non-Moroccans, and which I regretted in retrospect.
I had unquestioningly accepted the prevailing clichés that one could not live in Morocco as a non-Muslim during Ramadan because nothing works properly, but I had to be taught otherwise.
Ramadan 2023 was an experience for me on a social, physical and psychological level that I would not want to miss. That’s why I have captured some of the things that have become important to me to share with my friends. I do not only mean my friends from Europe and the world, but also my Muslim friends, for whom my experience and reflections may well help them to appreciate their own traditions even more. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my Moroccan friends who have given me their wonderful hospitality and support during Ramadan.
As Europeans, we can hardly imagine that a country or a whole people lives according to a completely different rhythm for one month, that one neither eats nor drinks from sunrise to sunset, that the opening hours of banks, offices, museums etc. are shortened and that a holiday is introduced at short notice.
Imagine that in almost every family, Christmas Eve is celebrated 28 days in a row with a sumptuous menu. Imagine that well over 90% of all citizens turn intensively to religious practices during this time, visit the mosques more, listen to the entire Koran and the sermon in the Imams and honestly try to lead a more godly life and do good. The daily rhythm throughout the country takes on a dynamic all of its own. In the morning, it takes a long time for life on the streets to get going. You can never stroll through the cities as undisturbed by the noise and smoke of the scooters as you can during Ramadan. During the day, everything is much more leisurely than outside Ramadan and many shops open only irregularly. Then, about half an hour before sunset, chaos breaks out in the city. A rush hour like you hardly ever experience breaks out. You can’t get a taxi, and everyone tries to get to the family port somehow before the breaking of the fast. If at all possible, you should avoid rushing into the traffic, because the stress, coupled with the weakness caused by fasting and the lowered threshold of aggression before breaking the fast, often create dangerous situations on the roads. You have to expect everything all the time. It’s a miracle that more doesn’t happen. With the call of the muezzin after sunset, public life suddenly seems to come to a standstill and the city suddenly seems to be deserted. No cars drive on the large boulevards and for an hour it is dead silent. Families sit together for iftar. It gets all the louder and more turbulent 1 to 2 hours after sunset, after the last prayer. Now the shops open, the streets fill with people and often there is a traffic jam until four in the morning, until the call of the muezzin. No one seems to be asleep. After the morning prayer before sunrise, the whole spook is over again and the city falls back into a slumber.
It is a time of collective fasting and experiencing the same physical and psychological deprivations, especially hunger, thirst and headaches in the first three days. Every day, people eagerly await the breaking of the fast together, interacting intensively with friends and family members and trying to do as much good as possible. In my experience, Ramadan determines the social system and family structures to an extent that we as Europeans cannot even imagine. I have always found the people in my adopted country to be hospitable, generous and extremely warm-hearted. During Ramadan, I experienced that there is even more to it. Especially when my friends found out that I was seriously practising Ramadan, they showed me a lot of respect and even more love, warmth and care.
This time, I followed Ramadan consistently, i.e. I did not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset and also took time for meditation and prayer.
Since my youth, I have fasted completely at least once a year for one week to ten days. However, I always drink a lot and have so far rejected the practice of Ramadan with the “interval fast” without drinking for medical reasons, as I followed the general dogma of Western medicine that one should drink at least three and a half litres of water a day, especially if one lives in hot countries in order not to damage the kidneys. One of the most surprising experiences for me was that after three days, during which I had quite a headache – like almost all my friends, by the way – I was no longer thirsty and could go the whole day without water. For me, the experience of breaking the fast in the evening, the iftar, was also a very enlightening process. On the first few evenings, after the muezzin’s call, I would rush to eat and drink a lot of water, with the result that I couldn’t sleep at night because of the feeling of fullness. On the third day, a friend took me aside and explained to me that one has to be disciplined when breaking the fast. One or three dates and a glass of water or tea or some lemon juice signal to the body that it can now switch back to food intake. This is followed by the short evening prayer with the usual prostrations, which can also be regarded as a little gymnastics. Only then is the actual meal served, with harira, i.e. soup made from pulses and noodles, vegetables and sometimes a little meat, with dates and chabackiya, the sweet pastry, and silo, a granulate made from figs, dates, almonds, nuts and cereals. Afterwards, most families continue to serve plenty of food. The Berbers then eat huge quantities of “Berber pizza”, a kind of flat calzone filled with vegetables and meat, followed, of course, by main dishes, plenty of tea, life (buttermilk) fruit and often lemon juice.
The night during Ramadan is relatively short for Muslims because the muezzin calls for morning prayers at around 4:00 am. There is a small breakfast with tea, dates and messmen (Moroccan puff pastry crepes). After the morning prayer, when the sun rises, people continue to rest as much as they can afford. The daily routine is surprisingly different for Moroccans. I observed hard-working craftsmen and bricklayers at the construction site as well as taxi drivers who work normally without eating or drinking. But also people – especially in the rural areas – who approach the day rather quietly, hardly lifting a finger and rather lethargically “hanging out” in the shade of a palm tree. When I arrive at the desert camp with my group in the evening, people usually run to meet us waving and dragging their backpacks into the tents. During Ramadan, the staff at the bivouac are slow to get up from their blankets in the shade and sometimes let the arrivals carry their luggage themselves. They also wait much longer than usual for the welcome tea. An important experience for me was to grow in understanding and tolerance and to overlook and forgive the small mishaps that creep in when one is physically and mentally tired while fasting. Booking enquiries at hotels or email correspondence with tax advisors or insurance companies often go unanswered or disappear into “nirvana”. Personally, however, it was a good experience for me: not everything always has to be done immediately. Ramadan also slows down my own life if I allow myself to do so. Even more than at normal times, the “Inshallah” is valid now – God willing and which the Moroccans add to almost every statement anyway. Especially during Ramadan, Europeans only have the alternative of getting involved in the inshallah or lapsing into white heat. I opted for the former and did well. Europeans who have a business in Morocco or have to work with Moroccans would do well to participate in Ramadan themselves. I have repeatedly experienced good acquaintances during Ramadan who were very displeased and stressed, because the locals lived according to the Ramadan rhythm and were not available with their full working capacity and did not allow themselves to be disturbed. Through my active participation in fasting, however, I was able to develop a feeling for how people are and what can be expected of employees. So my own business ran smoothly and stress-free. I have started to postpone important things until after Eid (the fest of sugar at the end of Ramadan).
Fasting became easier for me from day to day and I felt that my need to eat and drink even decreased with time. I felt like my stomach was shrinking a little every day. By the end of Ramadan, I felt like I had been reborn and had actually lost some weight. During Ramadan, I worked every day and I lived like a nomad, because I was always on the road with guests. So I was allowed to share the breaking of the fast daily with the families and staff in the accommodation where we stayed. I was always invited to break my fast and my fellow travellers would often join me. In this way, I was able to experience the most diverse habits of breaking the fast. – From the very simple meal of dates, water, tea, egg, sweets and Berber pizza to the opulent feast.
My non-Moroccan friends keep asking me why people don’t eat or drink during Ramadan. Given the interval fasting that has become fashionable here in Europe, Europeans certainly understand the principle of Ramadan. But there are always concerns about the lack of hydration. Apart from my own experience that the feeling of thirst disappears after three days and that I can survive the day without drinking without physical damage, a look at the life of the Prophet Mohammed – may Allah bless him – gives a possible answer to the question of why people abstain from drinking.
Muhammad was a caravan leader between Medina and Damascus and thus a son of the desert. Ramadan is an ideal training that equips the body for extreme situations that can arise again and again in the desert. It can happen that you have to go without water or food for a long time. I am always amazed at the condition of my Moroccan drivers or guides, who even outside of Ramadan are not constantly on the water bottle and can adjust very well to the rhythm of the travellers, while the tourists are constantly thirsty and drink litres of water. Ramadan may well have been a psychophysical survival training for the desert peoples.
Besides the social, psychological and physical experiences, my participation in Ramadan also gave me spiritual insights. I was able to experience how even Moroccan friends, whom I had previously not considered to be particularly religious, suddenly changed very positively during Ramadan and showed themselves to be open to philosophical and religious topics. I often had profound conversations that would probably never have happened outside Ramadan. I had the impression that during Ramadan I was immersed in a resonating space that one cannot escape as a Muslim or Moroccan, which has a positive influence on people in many ways. I was particularly impressed by a common practice that takes place at the end of Ramadan: One of the five pillars of Islam is zakat, almsgiving. Since Ramadan ends with Eid, when no one is supposed to go hungry, it is an unwritten law for Moroccans, but everyone feels obligated to give the poor in the family or neighbourhood a sum of money in time before Eid to enable them to shop for Eid. This amount is even determined annually by a state committee. It depends on the price of grain and sugar. Last year, it was 14 dirhams per member of the needy family. Due to the enormous increases in food prices since the Ukraine war, the amount was set at 20 dirhams in 2023. For Moroccans, giving zakat is a matter of course. It is an impressive example of solidarity and of how a social system with religious roots still organises itself from the bottom up. I spent a year in India and experienced something completely different there: I often had to watch the rich Brahmin pass by a starving beggar and callously reply, “Its your Karma”. Because of zakat, which is deeply rooted in the Islamic self-image, no one would ever starve in Morocco. Social responsibility is not shifted to the state, as is increasingly the case in Europe, but is perceived and realised at the grassroots level.
Last but not least, a note for all those who are thinking of travelling to Morocco during Ramadan. Especially in the next few years, Ramadan falls in the spring season, which is the best time to travel. My experience and that of the groups I was allowed to accompany during Ramadan was consistently surprising and positive. There was by no means nothing to eat. You could find a restaurant everywhere and in the countryside we could occasionally help ourselves to a snack of bread, cheese, sausage and fresh fruit in beautiful landscapes. No one ever wanted for anything. During Ramadan, there are also far fewer tourists in the country, which of course has a positive effect on the quality of travel. It means fewer queues at the main sights and even greater openness, mindfulness and hospitality in the accommodation. Even the traders in the markets, such as in Marrakech, are much less pushy, if at all, and no one tries to rip you off. Even the taxi drivers are honest in most cases and don’t rip tourists off as usual. So my clear recommendation: travel to Morocco during Ramadan!
I myself am really looking forward to experiencing the next Ramadan with my friends in Morocco.