Harira, a traditional Moroccan soup to break the fast. To see a gallery of Ramadan photos, click here.
Ramadan ends this weekend with the sighting of a new moon, and millions of Muslims worldwide will break their month-long fast through the feast of Eid. It’s not been an easy month. Since Ramadan follows a lunar calendar, its precise dates vary from year to year. This year, the holy month just happened to coincide with the hottest days of the year, during one of the hottest years on record. All around the world, Muslims abstained from food and drink during daylight hours.
We arrived in Fez, “the soul of Morocco,” on the first day of Ramadan. Our taxi driver told us it was 110 degrees. We checked into a beautiful 17th century home whose giant door opened onto an alley no wider than a donkey cart. The place sits at the edge of the medina, the labyrinthine city of 9,000 narrow corridors and 1,200 years of history.
A donkey in the medina.
People get lost in the medina—that’s part of its allure, for children and tourists alike. But we held off on our explorations for a couple of hours, retreating to our air-conditioned room for a nap until the sun began to fall and the people prepared to eat.
The empty medina, as people go home to eat.
That’s when we entered the medina: just as shop doors closed and the air grew calm. Everyone, everywhere, went home to eat those first necessary and divine bites of food. Many Muslims break their fast with sweet treats baked specially for Ramadan, or a thick lentil soup called harira. A young man on the quiet street insisted we try a bowl. We were told harira is more popular in the winter months, but still, we saw many men dipping into that rich, savory, fragrant soup.
Inside the medina.
By morning, the medina—home of mosques, markets, shops and all manner of life—throbbed with activity. We hired a guide and immersed ourselves in the medieval arena. But as the hours passed, the people began to lag. They rested. They slept. They doused their faces in cool water. And although a few restaurants and drink shops remained open for visitors, nowhere did we see Muslims eating or drinking. By late afternoon, our guide grew weak, his face turned red and we all had to call it a day.
People get testy during Ramadan. They quarrel over petty things. It’s supposed to be a month of goodness and prayer, lacking all ill-will and harm. But locals everywhere told us hunger and thirst can lead to heightened tension.
I felt it—and I didn’t even stick to a full-fledged fast. In public, Jerry and I both abstained from food. We tried to sneak sips of water from our bottles when others weren’t looking. And twice we sat to freshly squeezed juice from sellers in the medina. But then we bought little bags of olives, dates and nuts and took them back to our room. There, in the hot afternoon hours, we sat beneath the air conditioning, digging our hands into those bags and filling our parched mouths with cool water.
Nectarines, grapes, artichokes and a sleeping vendor beside Ramadan sweet treats.
At night, everyone feasted in the streets. Most the city stayed up late, energized through the darkened hours. Just before dawn, we were awakened by a man singing a soothing call. He strolled through the medina streets, banging on each family door, reminding all residents to eat their last meal before sunrise.
It occurred to me that I could not think of an equivalent occasion in the United States in which so many people were united in one common cause—not even for a short time. The Super Bowl, oddly, perhaps comes closest. But not really, not in the same way we saw in Morocco (and certainly not if the Super Bowl required fasting rather than indulging).
I’ll be honest: I can’t say that I liked Ramadan in Morocco in July. But I can say this: when the cannons fired each night, calling all to break the fast and inviting the people to bring water to their lips—there was a sense of unity in that action.
A sense of unity I don’t see often enough in my own country.
Napping among Moroccan carpets.