Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Keep Calm and Fast On

It's that time of year again – Ramadan in the summer heat! Fasting, part of the ritual of Ramadan, during the long and hot daylight hours takes strength, endurance, and strong faith. We respect and
admire those who must or choose to fast during this month-long Muslim holiday. And while some Peace Corps Volunteers will be joining their communities in the daytime fasting and the night time feasting, Arie and I have chosen not to fast for a second year in a row. Mainly it is the thought of enduring temperatures over 100 degrees indoors and over 120 degrees outdoors without ice cold water that has us shaking our fingers and saying “oho” (which means “no” in Tashelheit). Nonetheless, our immersion experience as Peace Corps Volunteers allows us to closely obverse and experience Ramadan more than we ever have before.

While living in America we heard about Ramadan and learned a little about it in school, at work, from friends, and maybe a little from the media, but it wasn't relevant to our daily lives. Now we are surrounded by 33 million Muslims in Morocco, and Ramadan has become very relevant. So let me share with you just what it is like to experience Ramadan...in the summer heat.

Some basics about Ramadan:
Ramadan is one whole month on the lunar calendar – the 9th month. The lunar and solar calendars do not line up exactly, so while September comes the same time every year, Ramadan moves each year – a new moon is what signifies a new month. Last year Ramadan began with the new moon in late July, this year it has shifted a few weeks forward and begins in early July (today), and next year it will shift a few more weeks and begin late June.

Once the sun rises, the fast begins, and all consumption stops. No drinking, no eating, no smoking. Some people will still have to work, while others will spend the day resting.

Once the sun sets iftar, or l'ftur in Moroccan Arabic, begins. Iftar, or l'ftur, is the breaking of the fast at sunset, although normally these words are used to describe “breakfast. During the night time hours people will eat small meals and sweets and visit with family and friends.

Ramadan is a spiritual experience. It is a time of worship and contemplation, a time to strengthen ties with family and community, and a time to focus on faith rather than everyday worldly concerns. It could be compared to the time of Lent in the Catholic faith – which during a six week period of time the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence and place more focus on a strengthening of faith.

What is Ramadan like through our eyes in Morocco?
We notice that during the time before Ramadan begins there is an excitement and an anticipation in the air. We would like to compare it to the buzz that happens before and during the “holiday time” in American culture – the time before Thanksgiving that spans a month over Christmas and
Hanukkah and ends on New Years Day. Just as women (and men and children) in the US prepare dinners of turkey and potatoes, hours d'ourves of cheese balls and crackers, frosted cookies and chex mix, etc... Arab women are busy preparing traditional Ramadan food. Last year Kate helped make a very large batch of the delicious sweet called chpekiya, and this year we observed our CBT host mom preparing large batches of Harira (the rich and tasty soup that is served at sundown) and zmita (or sliloo in some regions – a paste-like crumble that is sweet and nutty) and melawi (or msmen in some regions – a flaky buttery pancake ) to freeze a few weeks in advance. Tradition and culture always seem to have a strong relationship with food!

Here in the desert Ramadan is a challenge – the heat makes fasting very difficult, so approximately half the population of our town leaves for the month to spend in it cooler climates with family or friends. In our small Saharan town most all work and movement ceases during the day-light hours. Our post office is open (they have AC) as are a few government offices and the police station (again – they have AC). Otherwise the streets are empty. Imagine an old western cartoon where the sun is a-blazin', dust is blowing, the tumbleweed is rolling, and the town is deserted – that is every day during Ramadan in the desert.

In other parts of Morocco it is mostly business as usual. Work must go on, but the work day may be shortened for some so that there is still time for rest and contemplation. Imagine putting in a full regular day of work with no coffee or food to help you through!

A few hours before sundown the Hanuts (little shops around town that sell eggs, milk, flour, soap, candy, etc...) will open up so that people can stop by to purchase any last minute items needed to prepare their
iftar meal. And a few minutes before sundown there is a crazy rush as men and children (the women are at home cooking) try to buy a few more eggs or juice. There is no such thing as a line or a queue in Morocco, so whoever can push up to the shop counter gets served first.

iftar meal is wonderful and delicious. There are dates, hard boiled eggs, Harira soup, bread, honey, cookies, and sweets, coffee, tea, juice, and milk. Don't eat to much or you will be painfully stuffed!

Last year we were in the large costal city of Agadir for a weekend during Ramadan. We had a difficult time finding a place to have lunch, because all the cafes and restaurants were closed (who was going to eat there if everyone is fasting?). We could have headed towards the beach to eat overpriced food with the European tourists, but instead we opted to go to the grocery store to buy some snacks. As sundown neared, restaurants began to open up and seat people. All the tables were filled, but no one was eating, and everyone was waiting – waiting for the signal – the call to prayer that announces sundown. At that moment, the servers came out with large trays full of the plates with bowls of Harira, dates, eggs, and sweets and the breaking of fast began.  We happily joined in!

As non-Muslims and non-fasters we need to be culturally sensitive when we are out in public or traveling. It is rude to eat and drink in front of those who cannot, so we must be at home or be discreet.

At the end of Ramadan is Eid el Ftur – the conclusion of the month and a time to celebrate! This is the day to break the fast (hence the "Ftur"). Family and friends come together and feast all day long! It reminds us of Christmas day in the US where we gather as a family and eat a delicious brunch in the morning, snacks and sweets all day long, a large meal mid-afternoon, and a beautiful tray of Christmas cookies which are set out in the evening after all the Christmas gifts have been opened!

Even though we don't fast, we still celebrate and participate with our family and friends. We will visit their homes and break fast at sundown while enjoying some of our favorite traditional foods. This is a special experience for everyone because culture sharing happens, and that is half of why we are in Morocco!

                                        Ramadan Mubarak!

Some facts you might like to know about living in Arab Morocco:
The relationship between Morocco and the United States goes back to the very beginning of US history:
On December 20, 1777, Morocco formally recognized the US colonies as a unified sovereign nation. Morocco remains one of America's oldest and closest allies in the Middle East and North Africa...Formal U.S. relations with Morocco date from 1787 when the United States Congress ratified a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations. Renegotiated in 1836, the treaty is still in force, constituting the longest unbroken treaty relationship in U.S. history, and Tangier is home to the oldest U.S. diplomatic property in the world. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morocco%E2%80%93United_States_relations

US-Morocco relations have made Morocco a safe and welcoming country for Americans, and it allows many Americans, like Peace Corps Volunteers, the opportunity to be safely immersed in Arab culture and to experience Islam first-hand. Take a look at the map (http://www.peacecorps.gov/learn/wherepc/) of where Peace Corps Volunteers can serve, and you will see that of all the North African and Middle Eastern countries there are only three that are “operating” and only two that have current PCVs serving: Jordan (with only 59 current PCVs, and 538 cumulative PCVs), Tunisia – whose current “opening” has been delayed because of recent events (with 0 current PCVs, and 2,130 cumulative PCVs), and Morocco – which has been an operating Peace Corps country for 51 years straight (with 236 current PCVs, and 4,532 cumulative PCVs). Although we may be suffering in the desert heat, we are really thankful for this opportunity to experience such an important aspect of Islam – the Holy Month of Ramadan.