The excitement and ambition I had to live in Morocco started months before my program in Meknes actually began. Everything about Morocco fascinated me: the medinas, the colorful designs and patterns, the endless souks, the beautiful natural landscapes, and of course, the food. I was ready for it all! However, I don’t think there was anything I was more enthusiastic about than having the opportunity to learn about such a unique culture. For me, what truly makes living in another country an even more life-changing and wholesome experience is being able to observe and even participate in the local customs and traditions. Not only does it expand your knowledge and worldview, but teaches you a lot about yourself in the process. With that being said, you can bet that the excitement I had only increased when I found out that my first two weeks in Morocco would overlap with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The Moroccan culture is heavily influenced by Islam, the country’s main religion. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar in which Muslims fast from the moment the sun begins to rise in the morning until the sun sets in the evening. The fast includes, among other things, refraining from eating, drinking, and gossiping during the day. While I am not Muslim myself, I still thought it would be interesting to try to participate in a special tradition that not only holds a very significant place in the lives of many Moroccans, but also in the lives of millions of other Muslims around the world. I declared that I was going to fast for the last week of Ramadan which would conclude with the celebration of Eid-al-Fitr. If millions of Muslims around the world can fast for an entire month, seven days shouldn’t be too hard, right?
Thankfully, I was too distracted by the excitement of trying something new, that I never really gave much thought to what was physically required from me. I told my friends, host family, and basically everyone my intentions to fast so I would held accountable. I couldn’t back down now. “Are you crazy Kerstin? Why would you do that?” was definitely the most common reaction among my friends. Well, if I’m being honest, that only motivated my stubborn self even more. It didn’t even cross my mind that I would not be able to do one of the things I love the most—eating—all day. The purpose of Ramadan, however, is not to sit there and starve and complain about it. Among many reasons, it is to sympathize with those who are less fortunate and do not have access to basic necessities such as food and water. It is also intended to strengthen Muslims relationship with God. As my host brother told me: “ It is not just stopping drinking and eating, but you have to think about Allah while doing that”.
If there is one way to describe what it is like living in Morocco during Ramadan, it is incredible in so many ways. As cliché as it sounds, it was truly like nothing I’ve ever observed before. The difference between the streets during the fast and after the fast was like the difference between night and day… literally. The streets were almost deserted during the day, but they were filled with people shopping and laughing and hanging out at night. Many different stores in the Medina (the old city) and the Hamria (new city) were all opened until around 1:00 a.m. during the entire month. It was interesting to shop at midnight with everything open as if it were the middle of the day. If wanted a midnight snack (as always), no problem! Restaurants and cafés were open extra late as well. After Iftar, I would walk down the streets passing by mosques that were overflowing with people in prayer. The streets were tightly packed with people and their prayer mats. On the 26th night of Ramadan there was an entire festival in the Medina that was elegantly decorated with Moroccan flags and traditional decorations to celebrate the young children who tried fasting for their first time. There would be Moroccan music blaring on the streets until the early morning hours. Another tradition we participated in was getting henna on the special 26th day of Ramadan and had couscous for Iftar with our family. Not to mention the call to prayer in the early morning had a special Quran verse recitation for the last 10 nights of Ramadan that would beautifully echo through the streets from the local mosque indicating that it was time for us to begin our fast.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things I noticed was that this tradition really brought people together in a very special way. My host sister and brothers, who are rarely at the house, would come over for Iftar (the meal that breaks the fast at sunset). We would all wait together around a table filled with various Moroccan foods and drinks until we heard the call to prayer at sunset (Maghrib) and a special alarm that echoed through the streets indicating that it was time to break the fast. Sharing the last few moments of the fast and the meals that followed was one of the coolest bonding experiences I have had with my host family. Ramadan also brought friends together as well. ISA even organized a special Iftar for both American and Moroccan students, where we were able to interact and make friends with locals over a shared meal. I would only really go out with my Moroccan friends at night after Iftar since that’s when everyone had the most energy. My Gender Studies class even visited a Women’s Association where the women and girls were bonding over preparing food, decorations and sewing outfits in preparation for Eid.
Another thing I observed was that people would be always be so pleasantly surprised when I told them I was fasting! The looks on their faces were priceless. They were very supportive and encouraging! Some Moroccans even asked if I was Muslim! I could tell that they do not normally come across Americans who actually fast (and are not Muslim).
It was such a rewarding experience being able to participate in Ramadan. Unsurprisingly, refraining from drinking water in a city where I was constantly walking around underneath the sun in an average of 85 degrees Fahrenheit was not the easiest. What made it a lot easier though was living in a Muslim country with a Muslim host family taking classes with Muslim professors—all of which were fasting as well. Not eating was actually surprisingly easy as well! I only messed up twice- which believe me, was an accomplishment! One of the times I messed us was when I ate a snack subconsciously on the bus to Rabat. It made me realize how eating food was so second nature to me that I may not even pay attention to it. Fasting made me realize how lucky I was that eating was so normal to me that I did not even need to think about it. While I expected my participation in Ramadan to be a culturally immersive experience, I never would have expected it to be so rewarding.
At the end of Ramadan, of course, was the celebration of Eid-al-Fitr. The entire country declared Eid and the following two days as part of the holiday. No surprise, my roommate and I spent the entire day eating with our host family and their relatives and friends! We were surrounded by such kind and generous people who would shower us in compliments. If you haven’t realized already, Moroccans are truly some of the kindest people you will ever meet! Eid was the most exciting confidence boost I’ve ever experienced. I would definitely recommend.
I could go on for hours about how rewarding it was to experience Ramadan and Eid in Morocco but, in short, I felt that it was not only a way to experience the Moroccan culture, but I also felt that it greatly widened my understanding of the world. Millions of Muslims participate in Ramadan every year in Morocco and elsewhere around the world. I truly believe that if more people took the time to actually participate or even understand different traditions, then maybe we would all understand each other more, and misconceptions would be much fewer!
Kerstin Westerlund is a student at California Lutheran University and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying with ISA in Meknès, Morocco.
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