In early September, I spent a few days in Marrakesh, a city located squarely in the
Sahara desert. My visit coincided with Ramadan, during which observant Muslims abstain from both food and drink during the hours between dawn and dusk for one month. When my flight from Spain from landed in Morocco, I was curious as to how the Ramadan would affect the rhythms of city life in Marrakesh.
This was not my first experience with Ramadan. One of my closest friends in New York observes the holiday and I have learned that meeting him for the iftar – the large evening meal that takes place when the fast is broken – means eating promptly at sunset, as is customary in the Muslim tradition. Also, during my various business trips to Turkey, I often visited Istanbul during Ramadan.
Unlike Istanbul, where as much as half of the population chooses not to fast, I learned that fasting in Morocco is observed by practically everyone. Those who choose not to fast, or cannot fast due to health problems, are careful not to consume food or drink in public out of respect to others. This is quite different than in Turkey where I relished the idea of having a normal breakfast and lunch with the half of the city that didn’t fast and then enjoying a huge Ifthar alongside all of the faithful who hadn’t eaten since before sunrise.
Another big difference from my experience with Turkey was the oppressive heat that overtakes Marakkesh during the day. Since the city is located in the Sahara nights are rather cool, but days are scorching, with temperatures exceeding 100º during my visit. As I polished off my fifth bottle of water on my first day in the city, I wondered how the locals could bear this heat if they weren’t able to drink water.
The answer, I soon found out, is simple. Lots of people just stay out of the heat. Everywhere I went in the city, people were clearly trying to conserve energy and making sure that they didn’t work up hunger or thirst. It is not uncommon to enter a shop to find the shopkeeper lying on his side and looking a bit woozy. In fact, the entire city feels like it’s sleeping through the day in anticipation of the iftar and the activities that will come once night falls. From sunset until late in the evening, the city’s main square is filled with families enjoying music and watching animated story tellers relate folk stories and fables.
That’s not to say that there are no exceptions to this rule. I spent an afternoon in the souks shopping for classic Moroccan souvenirs such as clay cooking pots called tagines and knock-off soccer jerseys of the most popular Spanish teams. The souks are located in the heart of the ancient medina and are a massive maze where I managed to get lost three times in the course of an afternoon.
Despite the heat, loads of entrepreneurial young men offered to escort me to my destination of choice for a few coins. The concept of personal space in many parts of the Arab world is quite different than it is in the United States. Strangers will call out to you and grab you on the shoulder or the arm and it’s no big deal. After the thirtieth kid grabbed my shoulder, I finally gave up and hired him to guide me out of the maze.
While Mohammed and I chatted a bit in a mix of Spanish (his was pretty good), English (I won that one), and French (merci again, Mrs. Auger), he repeatedly attempted to hold my hand and guide me along. I wasn’t too surprised as I’d observed in the past that male friends in places like Pakistan and Egypt tend to walk down the street holding hands. Heck, after living in Argentina where male friends kiss on the cheek as a sign of greeting, I’ve learned that in some cultures guys are a little bit more…uhhh, affectionate than we are in the States. Still, I couldn’t really resign myself to holding hands with a male teenager and settled them comfortably in my pockets for the rest of our walk.
I emerged from the souk and made my way to another part of the city. As sunset approached, I found myself far from my hotel, thirsty, and ready to grab a cab and hit the pool. It was then I realized my fatal miscalculation. The streets, usually clogged with traffic, were empty. Every shop was closed. I walked by a few homes and restaurants and saw families breaking their fasts and opening large bottles of water to rehydrate after the long, hot day. With no water and no taxi, I was stranded in a world of thirst and could look forward to walking back through the desolate streets, a solitary and parched soul.
Just as I started to think that I should follow the example of my Moroccan hosts and sit down in a shady corner for a while, a lone taxi rounded the corner. The driver picked me up on his way home to break his fast and told me there would be no need to pay for the ride. I think he could tell by the look on my face when he picked me up that I had finally figured out what it was like to fast during Ramadan.