When I awoke at 7:00am, quiet had finally settled over this bustling center of Morocco. Last night, reading just a few floors the downtown center’s evening counterpoint of conversation, music, horns, and traffic, I was grateful, as ever, for spongy blue earplugs. Playing host to visitors and Moroccans alike, Rabat rarely quiets by a teacher’s bedtime. With morning, however, the expansive trees in the plaza of the Hotel Balima looked scrubbed of pollen, pollution, and dust to a greener green than yesterday. The Balima, just across from the Parliament building and the regular throngs of demonstrators asking for jobs, fairness, or other assistance, has always been a “go-to” place for coffee or a cooler beverage. Men dominate the scene there, puffing, sipping, and chatting by the hour, their butts rising like a tide in tiny ashtrays. The open air venue clears most of the men’s cigarette smoke away, but it is advisable to check on potential neighbors before alighting at one of the dozens of aluminum tables. There is no point in sitting out of doors only to spend time dodging Marlboro fumes.
This morning, at 9am, the plaza is still empty. No tables are placed, no chairs set around them. No customers wait impatiently for their java or cola hit because today is the first day of Ramadan, the obligatory month of fasting for one billion Muslims around the world. Ramadan is a month pulled from the calendar and shined up with piety, arduous adherence to the stricter rules of life, and fasting. Fasting is mandated from an hour before sunrise, that instant in the night when the skies magically stop darkening and begin to lighten, to sunset, when the golden orb drops beyond the horizon. Earlier today, at that moment of change, called Fajr, the imam at the local mosque chanted the call to prayer and the first of twenty-nine or thirty fasting days began. In Morocco, authorities change the clocks, moving the hour back one to lessen the waking daylight hours and to hasten sunset.
In this nation, with its 30+ million devout Muslims, food disappears from the scene and the table until late afternoon, when vegetable stalls and grocery stores open so that wives can buy the necessary ingredients for the evening meal, ironically called ftour, or break fast. The ubiquitous McDonald’s restaurant opens long before sundown, at 3pm for foreigners who can’t wait any longer for their burger and fries. Popular even in the Muslim world, this fast food giant often serves a special ftour meal beginning exactly at sunset. Guests are served with first, dates and tea, foods that officially break the fast, and then a wonderful hearty soup called harira plus harsha (a kind of corn bread). Dessert is often shebekia, a honey pastry of unbelievable flaky sweetness.
Not everyone in Morocco is Muslim, and for those not obligated (or privileged, depending on your leanings) to fast, the country seems, on the surface, to become one huge diet spa. While it wouldn’t be seemly to nosh down on a turkey sandwich in the middle of Mohammed V Avenue, food is available to the non-Muslim or tourist. Naturally, large hotel restaurants are open on a limited basis for guests and others. In other cases, a politely asked question, in French or Arabic, will elicit the directions to an open coffee shop or patisserie. Au Delice, a small bakery near the train station, was open for a coffee and croissant breakfast at 8am. Strangely, the coffee shop at the train station for Rabat Ville, which has its fair share of foreign visitors during the summer months, was not open.
Another strategy is to buy ahead. Fruit, pastry, yogurt (homemade or branded) can be purchased ahead, thereby satisfying the munchies without offending anyone’s sensibilities. Neither Moroccans, nor followers of Islam around the world, resent those who do not fast. They simply do not understand it. Children practice fasting as early as they want and take it on as an obligation in the middle years of puberty. For many people, not even illness, medication demands, or pregnancy has kept them from participating in this devotional reminder every year. Ramadan is a calendar month, not a holiday or a ceremony. Greetings change from Salaam aleikum, or “Peace be upon you” to Mobruk Ramadan, which is “ Congratulations on Ramadan.” A full month is asked and given, to instill gratitude, calm temper, control lust, curtail addictions (particularly to cigarettes which cannot be smoked for the period of fasting), to undertake an arduous task obediently, and to revel in community. No places are more joyous than those communities that break fast together. After a family meal, people exit their homes, stroll with neighbors, play in parks with their children, and go to small evening festivals of singers, acrobats, and story-tellers. Some might compare it to a reunion of survivors, those who have weathered a trauma. More logically, the nightly gatherings resemble a christening, the celebration of something new and much loved.
Looking out the hotel window, I notice that cars are beginning to fill the streets as people head to work for a day of labor and fasting. For these hours, a divine intervention has put the social life of the city on Pause as it awaits the cool of the evening and the setting of the sun.