Ramadan (رمضان) is the holiest month of the year for Muslims; a time of fasting where they will abstain from consuming anything between the hours of sunrise and sundown including food, drink and smoking. Fasting is obligatory for all Muslims except those who are ill, elderly, travelling, menstruating, pregnant or breastfeeding. Even children are encouraged to engage in a less intense form of fasting and you will usually find that those who are exempt will fast anyway.
I spent Ramadan this year in Morocco and it is in fact illegal for Moroccan nationals to eat in public. However, Ramadan isn’t only about fasting, it is also an important time of giving to charity, prayer, staying humble and refraining from negative behaviours such as lying or insulting others. Ramadan celebrates the initial revelation of the Quran to Muhammad (messenger of god) and fasting is one of the five foundational pillars of Islam. This period of fasting enables worshippers to focus on the Quran and their faith through gratitude, prayer, helping others and seeking forgiveness.
This year, Ramadan ran between the dates of 26th May until 24th June. The dates change every year in accordance with the first sighting of the crescent moon and this is usually calculated to give approximate predictions for the beginning and end of Ramadan. In Fes, at the time of sunset a cannon will be set off in the old medina (ancient part of the city), signifying the commencement of the first meal. This meal is called ‘iftar’ and every Arab country has their own traditions as to what food they break their fast with. In Morocco the traditional staples are dates, eggs, harira (a delicious tomato based soup with pasta noodles, chickpeas, lentils, various spices and sometimes meat) and chebbakia (Moroccan sweets eaten with harira) with a glass of orange juice. In Fes, a second cannon is let off to mark ‘suhur’ hours later which is the final meal eaten before sunrise and after this fasting resumes.
My first iftar – meloui bread, aubergine, tomato & pepper dishes, olives, pasta and a main fish dish
I decided to experience fasting for the first time myself, and fasted for the day that I was invited for iftar in the home of a local Moroccan friend. It was certainly interesting to get the full experience but as a non-muslim I don’t think it’s something I would try again as the lack of religious motivation made it even harder to make it through the day! I personally didn’t find the hunger hardest, the most difficult part for me was the sheer lack of energy. This was particularly as I had 4 hours of intensive Arabic lessons in the morning, the average temperature was around 35 degrees and I was sluggishly attempting to plough on through my mountain of homework. Having said this, the experience of breaking the fast was really special and I felt incredibly lucky to have been able to do so in a Moroccan family home, fasting certainly makes you appreciate the food a hell of a lot more! In this sense, it really helps you to understand what Ramadan is all about, knowing that there are impoverished people all over the world who have no choice but to experience this hunger and exhaustion every single day.
My second iftar – harira, chips, chebbakia (bottom right), aubergine, tomato, pepper and spinach dishes, potato, various breads, olives and a lemon chicken dish which was delicious but unfortunately isn’t in the photo! Home made fresh orange, beetroot & carrot and peach, nectarine and apricot juice – definitely the best juice I have ever had!
I personally wouldn’t recommend travelling to an Arab country during the time of Ramadan if you are a non-Muslim, unless you purposely want to go for the Ramadan experience. This is because it can be incredibly difficult to get food during the day and you have to become accustomed to the different timings that establishments will open. For example, some restaurants will be closed all day and won’t open until 9/10pm at night after iftar. The streets are packed with people during the nighttime after sunset, however if you wander out during or shortly before iftar you won’t find another person in sight! The roads are deader than the middle of the night and even western food chains will be closed so that the staff can break their fast. However, after the fast has been broken you’ll start to notice the city quickly comes back to a very bustling life, as if there is an on-off switch!
In addition to this, alcohol is strictly forbidden to all during this holy month, meaning that even westerners cannot buy alcohol as all alcohol-selling establishments are closed from the days leading up to, the duration of Ramadan, and up until three days afterward. You also don’t want the embarrassment of tripping up and accidentally eating or drinking in public without thinking! If you do decide to go, it’s best to avoid going outside after 4pm, as the day begins to draw to a close and accidents on the roads at this time, before iftar, are more likely as there are a lot of frustrated people about wanting food and water!
Eid, the celebrations at the end of Ramadan are a time where all the family will come together, and generally eat a lot of food! It’s a big relief for everyone to be able to go back to ordinary eating habits, not to mention sleeping habits! Everyone’s sleeping patterns get disturbed during Ramadan due to the unusual eating times, making daily activities even more difficult. There are definitely important lessons to be taken from the humbling experience of ramadan, in having gratitude even for routine activities such as being freely able to eat whatever, whenever. It’s easy to take such a simple necessity for granted when food is so abundantly available, and it is only when we are forced to go without that we realise we are truly grateful.