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.
3 thoughts on “Ramadan”
Interesting as always and great sunset photo.
During family gatherings in the summer, I’d always ask my uncle Al to stay till dusk so that he could enjoy the sunsets. The sun is far enough north that we can see sunsets in the lake from late spring through the end of the summer. He usually declined, commenting that he “had seen enough sunsets while serving in the navy during the Second World War.” Watching the BBC lately, I’ve seen the VE Day celebrations in the UK and Europe. Here in the States, the day is not celebrated much though it certainly was at the time. Americans were lucky to escape the carnage. Many American servicemen died, but the general population only tasted war in the death of its young men and in the privations of a wartime economy. This country has really not tasted war since the Civil War, and that was largely fought in the South. Perhaps this is a problem for the psyche of this country.
Anyway, I suppose that the South Pacific had great sunsets. Al really liked New Zealand, where he got ashore and met women for the first time in months. The beauty of sunset on a ship in wartime must have been tempered by the knowledge that the ship was always vulnerable.
In any case, my wife and I can never get enough sunsets, and though I prefer them from mountains, where the the relief provides deep shadows and the clouds often lay below, I seem to be confined, certainly at this time, to the flatlands where I live. The lake has its own charms, and it is quiet enough here to enjoy some wildlife. While drinking tea this morning, I saw a pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in the area, sporting a striking red crest. I should be happy with that, as Americans should take comfort remembering that this country was spared the worst of the world wars. The last (some say the first) world war fought here was between the French and the British and ended in 1763 with the French giving up Canada for a few islands in the Caribbean.
I was born close enough to the Second World War to feel some immediacy, but few of the returning servicemen, unlike Vietnam veterans, ever talked about it. Nowadays, I like to remember events like the blitz through movies like “Hope and Glory,” where tragedy is softened with humor.
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Nice post, Dave. I too have experience Ramadan in a Muslim country for a few years and have nothing but respect for those devotees who express their beliefs in this way. It is not an easy thing to do, especially in the hot summer months. But at least, come If-tar families could get together to eat. And boy did they eat! How they are adapting under the lock-down is something I find hard to imagine.