Friday, August 15, 2014

City Ramadan, Country Ramadan

Picture a Peace Corps volunteer traveling the length of Morocco celebrating the holy month of Ramadan.

She starts in a little town in the Sahara Desert, in the July heat and summer sandstorms. The residents prepare herrera
 and hard-boiled eggs and delicious juices
for lftour, the breaking of the fast. As temperatures climb, the volunteer learns to follow the town's example and retreat inside to rest during the day; streets empty, stores close, not a soul is in sight. It is too hot, and everyone too thirsty to exert themselves when they aren't allowed to drink. Everyone would like to sleep, since most don't go to bed until 3 am, but the heat wakes them by 7:30 and makes it difficult to nap during the day. The volunteer has to fight to rein in her temper, knowing that the high temperature and the fasting and the lack of sleep are just as hard on everyone else.

An hour before lftour, everything changes, and the town comes to life. The street souk opens; the main square fills with bustling people. Vendors hawk their vegetables, and the stores' extra freezers filled with milk quickly sell out.

And then, by 7:25, the ghost town has re-appeared. The volunteer joins a family gathered around their table as they quiet all sound to ensure that they can hear the call from the mosque that means it is time to eat. When the notes ring out, everyone reaches for tall glasses of milk or water or juice or absolutely any liquid available and downs it. After three or four glasses, it's possible to eat a few dates or a piece of watermelon, but none of  them touch the herrera. Even sitting outside, there is little relief from the heat, and while there is laughter and happy moments sharing Ramadan meals, the moments are punctuated by the use of homemade fans to make the air move or the relief of pressing a cold glass against a hot forehead. 

Dinner has been prepared for later, to be eaten at 2 am, but it is still so hot that nobody wants to eat. They pull the volunteer up to go for a walk and enjoy the town. Boys play street soccer at midnight, and little girls chase in each other in gleeful games of tag. The benches in the square are packed, and people come in from surrounding villages to purchase food at the souq doing brisk business on the main street. While the town is small and many residents gone for the summer, there is still an air of camaraderie and revelry unique to Ramadan. Despite the heat, despite the potential for flaring tempers, despite the thirst that lasts all day, it is a special season.

When the time comes for the volunteer to leave the Sahara, she heads up north. Two days of travel later, she's in Rabat, Morocco's capital city. It is a far cry from the typical Rabat; many restaurants are closed until evening, and all public transportation shuts down for lftour. The volunteer forgets, the first day, and has to flag down what is possibly the last operating taxi in the entire city. She comes in expecting to have a quiet weekend alone in her hotel, but the discotheque below her that plays music until two a.m. changes that plan. Instead, she goes exploring, and ends up welcomed by multiple families who invite her to break fast and by another party of international friends who celebrate the World Cup final with her. She watches sunsets on the beach and finds herself hungry for the first time in weeks. She meets a group of twenty-somethings at a cafe, and they have a lively debate about international politics in a strange combination of Darija and English and even Spanish as they watch little children run around with balloons and ice cream, celebrating Ramadan the big city way.

Now she travels even further north, to a town nestled in the mountains, where every street is a slope and walking home leaves her breathless from the stairs and from the view.

She puts on a jacket here as she walks around town in the evenings with her friends, and when they kill the hours between lftour and dinner by watching a movie on the roof, they wrap themselves in blankets first. Fasting still makes tempers flare on occasion, but here where the weather is cooler, going to bed at 3 am is not such a hardship because everyone can sleep until noon. Herrera is a dinner staple now, but this table is packed full: milawi and harsha and briwats with chicken and with beef.

And, of course, there's chebakia, lots and lots of chebakia.
The volunteers eats until she is stuffed, and still, she is told to, "Kuli, kuli! Eat, eat!"

For the final days of Ramadan, the volunteer returns to the city where she originally studied Darija and where her host family welcomes her with open arms. Most of their Ramadan celebrations are close-knit celebrations, as the family sits on the floor around the little table and laugh their way through lftour, but some nights, company comes and even the big table overflows with food.

In the evenings, the volunteer's host mom and sisters take her out on the town, to walk through the market and the square, to buy cheap ice cream and listen to music and gossip as they take in the sounds of Ramadan nights. The city that usually shuts down by 10 pm is in full swing.

Eid L-Ftour arrives, the holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan and hints at the larger Eid celebration coming in the fall. Workers are given holidays, children new clothes. Family members visit one another in the morning and kiss each others cheeks with joyful, "Eid Mubarak Saeed!" (Happy Ramadan!) The volunteer's Ramadan journey ends here, gathered around the table with her Moroccan family, smiles on their faces.

Country or city, Morocco or any other country: Happy Ramadan, and Happy Eid!

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, Rachel! Though I'm sure the heat wasn't. I'm not getting much sleep this summer because it's hot, but nowhere near Sahara levels I'm sure!