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Ramadan in Morocco

Morocco is the only Muslim country I've been to. I spent three Ramadans there and was consistently amazed at the transformation that took place once Ramadan began.

First of all, all schedules change. Normal business hours are about 8am to 6:30pm, with a two-hour lunch break. During Ramadan, businesses don't open until 10am or so and then stay open straight through until 3 or 4. My gym, which normally opens at 8:30, now doesn't open until noon. Restaurants and cafés stay closed all day, opening only once the siren which signals the end of the fasting is sounded. Most nice restaurants, particularly those that cater to foreigners, are closed for the entire month, for two reasons: many foreigners dislike Ramadan and go on vacation during the entire month, and Moroccans eat at home throughout Ramadan. Thus the customer base for these restaurants is severely limited.

My husband's classes get completely changed around so that they don't interfere with the five daily prayer times, which normally are not followed so precisely. Outside of Ramadan, Moroccans pray at home (or not all all) more often than at the mosque, whereas during Ramadan they tend to go to the mosque religiously (no pun intended).

Outside of Ramadan, there are four rush hours: morning, evening, before lunch, and after lunch. Traffic is very bad then, but during Ramadan it is completely insane. At about 5pm, everyone starts rushing to get home in order to eat the moment the siren goes off. It is as if all of the cars from the four previous rush hours have combined into one huge rush hour. Hunger causes tempers to fray and fights to break out. When traffic stops for any reason, many people get out of their cars in order to yell at and once in a while even get into fistfights with the other drivers. (Ironically, one of the purposes of Ramadan is to foster goodwill.) We live on a fairly busy street, and I can tell you that it is total chaos.

My husband decided to fast for a week, and found that it really wasn't all that difficult: get up a little earlier to eat breakfast before sunrise, skip lunch, and sit down to a slightly larger-than-normal dinner. When our Moroccan friends and colleagues brag about how difficult it is to fast and how pure and holy they are for doing so, my husband shares his experiences. I don't know if they are shamed by his offhandedness or impressed that he is able to do something "so difficult," but they don't mention it again.

By 6, everyone is at home and the streets are bare - the city is silent. The only people outside are those that have no home to go to. Everything is closed except for a few restaurants hoping to attract a tourist or two. Around 7pm, people start coming out in droves in order to go to the after ftor prayer service. Stores reopen for a few hours, and restaurants stay open until 1 or 2 am. There's some different food in the restaurants and bakeries - a lot of dessert, plus some special breads, crêpes, etc. Festivity is in the air, and the nights can seem like endless parties. At the end of Ramadan, because of the overindulging that goes on at night, a large percentage of Moroccans end up with digestive problems.

Although alcohol is forbidden in Islam, Morocco produces wine and beer, and just about anything you drink back home is imported here. However, about a week before Ramadan begins, all of the stores that normally sell alcohol lock up their liquor sections or remove it from their shelves and display cases.

Women spend hours cooking the ftor meal. By 2pm, I can smell three or four different meals cooking in the apartments near mine. Any Muslim caught breaking the fast in public is subject to arrest, although I've heard rumors that it is not unheard of in the privacy of one's home.

Men who are normally very forward toward me now avert their eyes, in order to avoid the sinful "glance of lust." I didn't notice this during my first Ramadan, but last and this year I've been aware of teenage boys still trying to make aggressive eye contact with me, whereas men don't.

In general, everyone - with the notable exceptions of drivers and heavy smokers - is more polite.

In conclusion, I have to say that I find the month of Ramadan to be a study in contradictions. The way I understand it, during Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to go about their business exactly as before, with the exception of not eating, etc., during the day. They are not supposed to change around their schedules to make it easier to deal with their hunger, they're not supposed to party all night and gorge themselves to make up for suffering all day, and most of all, they're not supposed to brag about how difficult fasting is. The point of Ramadan is to recognize the hunger and thirst that the poor feel every day of the year and to suffer it in silence and, hopefully, to become a kinder person for it. In Morocco, it's more like a bad-spirited contest which, in my opinion, is contrary to the whole idea behind Ramadan. I'm not saying that all Moroccans act this way, but it's not a tiny minority either.

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