Going without at Ramadan

Going without at Ramadan: At the beginning of the Muslim fast, a traveler decides to do as the Marrakeshans do.

Published March 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I am not a pious woman. I didn't go into Ramadan with a long history of restraint. In fact, the most I knew about fasting was from my Catholic childhood during Lent, where you went without some chosen item for 40 days. There were also meatless Fridays, but you still got a good fish sandwich from the church that night.

No one expected me to fast in Marrakesh, not even my traveling companion, who had chosen to do so to practice self-discipline. But we had decided to swear off Western extravagances on this trip -- no e-mail, no expensive indulgences, and with luck, no expat communications -- and hey, when in Rome ... Besides, I thought, if I couldn't go without food during daylight hours, what kind of weak human was I?

I spent the night before the first day of fast with many other Moroccans and tourists in the Place Djemaa el Fna, a large open market area jammed with food stalls, snake charmers, musicians and general business. There was a continual procession of cars, buses, motorized bikes, bicycles, scooters, horse-drawn carriages and every other conceivable form of transportation. Exhaust hung gray-blue against the road. I saw two parents and three children crammed on one bike. Motion was in every direction.

I was eating what would be my last large meal until tomorrow sundown. I wasn't praying or analyzing the challenge ahead of me; in fact, I wasn't really thinking about it. I was simply absorbing the general commotion that extended late into the night and drinking mint tea, which was affectionately called the "whiskey of Morocco."

Ramadan is practiced by Muslims to develop an Allah-consciousness in the practitioner's heart and soul. But it's not merely a fast from food; it also includes drinking, smoking and sexual relations. It is mandatory for all sane adult Muslims with exceptions for pregnant women, the elderly, ill and those responsible for heavy machines, like pilots. The fast begins every day at the Salatul Fajr call to prayer, or break of dawn, and ends at the Salatul Maghrib call, or sunset. I knew with my low blood sugar that if I were Muslim, I could be exempt from the fast, but I had decided to tempt fate and the peaceful rapport with my traveling companion by fasting anyway.

The morning of the first day of Ramadan I awoke to the cry of my empty, aching belly -- and figured it would be best for both of us if I had something small to keep my head together. I decided to eat. This added an extra challenge to the morning: There was no food at our hotel, and we had to find one of the few hotel-cafes in town that catered to Western tourists, where you pay for the privilege of eating during the fast. In this setting, I could partake of my few guilty bites without pressing my Western weakness upon those fasting and still respect the public restraint. We stopped at the Hotel Ali. Ironically, I ended up feeding more of my bread to a scruffy street cat who was begging at my feet than to myself. I resolved to make a go of it for the rest of the day.

With the decision to fast, whether to prove self-restraint or to respect the prevailing culture, came a contempt that I didn't expect. I found myself sneering at Western tourists who didn't know it was Ramadan, except that they couldn't get an espresso because most cafes were closed. Members of large French tour groups puffed away on cigarettes while being led through the markets. I watched one scene where an older Moroccan woman stared in disbelief while a camcorder-toting tourist ate a large pastry beside her. He seemed to have no clue about how rude he was being. I raged over his ignorance. I was embarrassed for Western culture and its post-colonial insecurities. It was as if that action were screaming out: Your country may no longer be ours, but we don't care about your culture and it will never rival our own.

The sun burned from above, drinking all moisture from my body, and I found myself dehydrated by 2 p.m. My friend had gone without food, but decided to splurge on water. Since thirst hadn't consumed my mind outright, we decided to push on. Temptation was everywhere. At least five orange-juice stands stood near the edge of the plaza. Each owner called to us, outbidding his neighboring competitor. I smiled and answered, "No thanks. Ramadan." This reply elicited some odd looks from them. I can only imagine what they were thinking: She's white, she's Western (meaning: she's rich), why would she be fasting?

After a while, I took my shaking hands as a sign that I should probably have something to drink. This situation led to another challenge -- where would we be able to drink water out of sight? There was the Hotel Ali or our hotel deeper in the medina. We were closer to the Hotel Ali, so we entered the closed cafe, found a shadowy corner and drank from the bottle of Sidi Harazem, one of two national bottled-water brands.

After the drink, I felt a renewed sense of possibility, and we set back out into the fray. It was as if that little break had healed all the weakness that was beginning to show. Despite my determined spirit, I had begun to feel faint before the water. This is another problem with the Ramadan fast. I was told later in my trip that the mental resolve to fast often has health repercussions. One man told me how his mother, who took shots for diabetes, went against doctor's orders and refused to take her insulin in order to keep the fast. She was hospitalized the next day. Both he and his uncle shook their heads and said this was quite normal in Morocco.

About an hour or two later, I felt the next pang of general
restraint -- illogically fluctuating mood swings. My generally calm
demeanor spiraled to deeply agitated, bordering on volatile. My traveling
companion was experiencing a similar strain. We started to bicker over
which streets to take, what we were seeing, almost anything. And we began
to see this happening all around. In the afternoon hours, we witnessed
two scuffles between groups of men and three men being escorted into the
police station. It's another irony of the fast -- you go without to better
yourself, and as a result of the hunger, you get really nasty to one

Agitation hung jaggedly in the diesel-laden air. The shop owner hawking
his wares became a hardship. My friend and I walked through long lanes
in the souks, some winding around back to where we had started. I became
frustrated by my inability to see that I was walking in circles. The
shop owners would see me come by for the second or third time and pick
up their haggling where they left off. I didn't want to deal with shopping. I didn't want to haggle. I
was tired of people staring at me. I hated the crowd pushing in every
direction. I marveled at how much patience these people had for all the
delays, the random loaded mules lumbering down the narrow passage, the
noise and air pollution from scooters passing on the same route. Even a
sign for Coca-Cola in Arabic script bothered me. I wanted out.

We decided to leave the enclosed markets and return to our hotel. The lack of food, walking and general unpleasant vibe had worn both
of us into exhaustion. We passed through a side street on the way to the
hotel, and when a young man offered us hashish, my friend yelled, "No!" and shoved past him. The man returned with, "Fuck your wife!" My companion turned with rage, "Hey,
fuck you, motherfucker!"

By then, the guy had disappeared, but my friend
just snapped. He broke from my side and tore off in the direction of the
man. Panic rushed over me as I saw him dash off. I didn't know what
would happen. I was suddenly alone and surrounded by possible
pissed-off friends of the dealer, but even though I felt like a target, I
couldn't help shaking my head and laughing at the lunacy of situation.

I waited in the passage with only people's stares to keep me company
until my friend returned. He was breathless and
expressed disbelief with how he had lost control. He said he didn't know
what he would have done had he caught the guy. It was crazy and yet somehow appropriate. That's
what happens when you have a city filled with people starving themselves
for the first time in 11 months.

We headed to our room at the Hotel Smara, where we planned to rest until
the Salatul Maghrib. When we arrived, Mustafa, a young man who had just
finished school and started working at the hotel, smiled and greeted us.
My first impression of him had been when we were pricing rooms upon arrival.
He was listening to an English-language instructional tape that cut
between bits of Lionel Ritchie's ballad "Hello" and British English
speakers reciting the lyrics to teach usage. We were his first American guests, Mustafa had told us.

Now he greeted us and asked us how our day had passed. We explained our agitation and
exhaustion from the day of fasting. But why are you fasting? he asked. We wanted to try it
out, my friend explained. And out of respect, I added. He smiled. We retired to
our room. It must have been around 4:30 or 5 p.m.

I lay on the bed and felt an immense weight lift from me. The room's
cool air fell like a blanket over my weary frame. It was as if all the
muscles in my body clung to the stuffed futonlike mattress and refused
to let me move. I barely spoke. After a few minutes, I fell asleep.

About an hour later, I woke to the sound of the shrill, amplified voice
singing the call to prayer. It is a strange noise that lingers below the
hum of the city. You wonder if you're hearing anything at all. Then you
listen more closely, concentrating on the softer drone until it
slowly rises to where it becomes the siren of sunset. Next you begin
to hear other calls rising out of the distance from mosques all over the
city. It is a cacophony of religious outpouring, and becomes a way of
marking time throughout the day. At that moment, it was a celebration
that my day without food had finally ended. I didn't remember my vow to
fast or my reasons behind it, I only rejoiced in the
fact that food was on the way.

Elation set in. I fantasized about the day's "breakfast," a term most
Moroccans use to describe the meal taken at sundown during Ramadan. It
included a bowl of harira -- a traditional Moroccan soup -- plus brochettes, pita,
rice, fries and mint tea. I could almost taste the first bite. I smiled
at my friend, who now seemed like the perfect person to
celebrate my first meal with. He understood my sentiment and seemed to
return it. We left the hotel and meandered through the thin streets of
the medina toward the plaza. All the surfaces shone orange-red from
the setting sun. It cast a surreal glow over the place that earlier had felt like a prison to me. On that pilgrimage to the harira stand, I
decided to fast again the next day. If this was the high for all the
"suffering" throughout the day, I wanted more.

Upon arriving at the stand, the young man who had so cordially wooed us into
eating there the night before greeted us and guided us to benches among
other hungry Moroccan men who had just locked up their shops and come
for their first meal of the day. The young man gave my friend and me each
a bowl of soup. I asked a man beside me in French to pass the salt and
gestured my thanks. My shoulders slumped forward. I let my body fall
limp and lifted the soup bowl near my face. Its sweet aroma pierced the
dirty air around us and sent a wave of delight through my entire body. I
slipped into a slow trance of spooning the hot broth into my mouth. I
was without thought, like a robot mechanically maneuvering the utensil.

For some reason, I glanced up between bites and shuddered. I saw my
reflection. My traveling companion, all the men eating beside me, and I
were all slumped over, all spooning in silence as the sun ran slowly
over the plaza like golden syrup. Some invisible force held me, and
for the first time I didn't feel like an outsider. We had all fasted
that day for the first time in a long while. We had all faced the
mean-spirited ambiance that comes with physical resistance. And now, we
were together eating a family meal.

In the days that followed on my journey through Morocco, I spoke to many
people about fasting and my reasons for doing it. Those
people seemed impressed that I should want to respect the measures that
they took for what they believed as well as to subject myself to such
restraint. In doing so, I found a place that I never knew existed. Quite
frankly, I believed that people had forgotten the idea of fasting and
the inner strength that comes when you eliminate extravagance. I went to
Marrakesh to see -- and left having lived.

By Emily Zuzik

Emily Zuzik is film editor for Siren Magazine. She has also written for Feed, PAPER, Maxi, San Francisco Weekly and Salon.

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Ramadan Religion Travel