I watched the sun set a few days ago, and thought of Ramadan. Muslims are now about halfway through their month of obligatory fasting. Memories returned of sitting in Don Brown’s apartment in Rabat, and hearing the cannon fire to announce the end of the fast. Located near the Oudaya casbah or nearby cemetery, the cannon seemed to fire across the Rabat medina directly toward the Peace Corps office, and I actually thought I could hear the shot fly by, though there was no shot. There must be a story about that cannon, but a lazy internet search did not find it.
Most cities had sirens, not artillery, to announce the moment the fast would end. The streets were often deserted, as families sat around their tables waiting to break the fast. There was coffee and sweets, followed by the thick, chickpea- filled Moroccan soup, hrira, always eaten from small bowls. Today one finds hrira served in hotel restaurants all across the Arab world, but I doubt that any taste better than those I ate as a young man. There were cookies of all sorts and I best remember the sugar- and honey-soaked, sesame seed-covered chebakia. There is a nice picture, the third photo, in an article on Ramadan under quarantine in France, of both a bowl of hrira and chebakia. Dates added to this riot of sugary things, and the sugar rejuvenated those whose energy had flagged as did the cigarettes for those who had that habit. Observant Muslims would then go to pray at the mosque, or perhaps at home.
When our Peace Corps group entered Morocco in 1968, Ramadan began in late November. When I left in 1971, I had experienced three months of Ramadan, but all were in October, November, and December. In Sefrou, those were cold months when the days were short and damp and often promised a long night in a cold house. The short cool days made the fasting easier, but getting up in the night more difficult.
I lived in the medina where all my neighbors were fasting. Gaylord Barr, with whom I shared the house, agreed with me that we would fast out of sympathy and solidarity, but I think we both did it out of curiosity as well. We were naturally curious about Muslim life and how it felt to be Moroccan. As a Catholic child, I had grown up with fasting and abstinence, but it was for short periods, which for a young child, did not necessarily seem short at all. One fasted before communion, and on certain holy days, ate fish on Fridays, and gave up sweets during Lent.
Gaylord and I may have made a trip to Rabat or two, where we could eat during that first Ramadan. Most restaurants in the city center were open for the still large European population and tourists. I smoked then, so Rabat was also an occasion to indulge that habit.
The first Ramadan, I remember breaking the fast in a medina restaurant or cafe in Sefrou, but my memory is really fuzzy. I have no clear recollection ever eating anywhere in Sefrou except at home or in the homes of friends. I can’t even remember a restaurant in the medina, except that I have this feeling that it was in Derb el-Miter. Khadija always made a big pot of hrira that Gaylord and I shared.
The second and third Ramadans we kept the fast without cheating. Too cold in the Sefrou house to get up and enjoy a pre-dawn meal, we ended up eating before bedtime and then going a long time before eating again. I worked in Fes, and sat in an office all day with colleagues who were smokers. Food and water was not what all of my co-workers craved: some were smokers and satisfying their habit was their major problem. People were tired, and occasionally grouchy, but went to work albeit at a slower pace.
In one Ramadan, I remember watching a Saturday afternoon movie in Fes with Gaylord. Leaving the theater just before the fast was to end, we stepped into deserted streets that reminded me of scenes from the movie, On the beach. Today the deserted streets are in big American cities in quarantine. We hurried to the street corner on the southern edge of the ville nouvelle where one could catch buses and grand taxis back to Sefrou.
These days I fast two days a week to lose weight, and on those days I can eat a bit and drink as much water as I like, so the fasting is nothing like the Ramadan fast. Still, little pangs of hunger and the setting sun brought back old memories, and the tastes and smells of the food. When I imagine sitting around the low round tables at which we ate all meals, the shared pleasure of conviviality and friendship returns. Outside, in the lighted street, some shops are reopening again and one hears people resuming business, going to the mosque, or just taking some evening air. What a simple thing nostalgia is!
Gaylord passed away five years ago, and I have not been to Morocco since the 1970s, and those Ramadans seem so far away. Still, somehow, I can taste the hrira and the chebakia.