Monday, August 24, 2009

Fasting and Feasting* - Two Days of Ramadan Briefly Sketched

This past Friday morning, I went to Marjane for some grocery shopping. As I discovered when I walked onto the parking lot, about half of Rabat had decided to do the same. I had never seen that many cars stationed around the lot – nor had I ever dealt with such a lack of shopping carts. After a bit of scavenging around, I literally snagged the very last one there, and entered the store.

Inside, I met with mayhem. The aisles of Marjane had become a miniature version of Moroccan urban traffic. Thousands of carts, it seemed, were busy making their way through and across aisles, past roundabouts of sale items, without care or regard for any traffic rules. There was no right of way, no yielding, no merging; no system to the direction of traffic and no regulation of speed. Abandoned carts stood parked at random, no rhyme or reason to their positioning. Pedestrians darted this way and that, weaving themselves in between moving carts. Idle cart-pushers strolled along at a leisurely pace, suddenly abandoning their cart mid-traffic to browse an item two feet up ahead – to the great frustration of all speed-devils behind them, trying to get to the tomatoes before they ran out. Maneuvering my own cart through this chaos and barely managing to avoid a few multi-cart pileups, I slightly began to re-think my desire to learn to drive a stick shift and navigate actual Moroccan traffic on my own…

All these people had come to Marjane to stock up on Ramadan-necessities: their carts were full to the brim and beyond with industrial size containers of oil, flour, dates, and sugar. Not only are excess quantities of these staples needed to fashion the copious amounts of Ramadan-delicacies that are expected by hungry fasters at each day’s sundown; but in the interest of avoiding unnecessary labor during long, hot days without food or water, people try to get their major shopping in before the start of this month. The exact start date of Ramadan had not yet been determined, but it was to be either Saturday or Sunday – and people apparently wished to be prepared for all contingencies.

I too was there to stock up on Ramadan necessities: mostly high-fiber items that I hoped would tie me over during those long days of fasting. I decided to participate in this month of fasting - because after all, I figured, as an anthropologist I am a participant-observer. I think that the only way to truly approach some kind of understanding of what this month means to Moroccans, is to engage as fully as possible in the practices and traditions.

And so I find myself, at my time of writing, counting down the last hour until I hear the cannon shot and the muezzin’s call for Maghreb (sunset) prayer – our indication that we are allowed to eat – on my second day of fasting. I am sitting by my open balcony doors, and I can already smell the harira (a Moroccan soup of chick peas, lentils, and tomatoes) being made in kitchens up and down my street. The street is quieting down; anyone still outside is there for some last minute grocery shopping and is rushing home, plastic bags in hand. In about forty-five minutes, the street will be entirely deserted, as everyone retreats to the dinner table at home, ready to pounce as soon as prayers are over.

In standard Arabic, the sunset meal is called iftar; in Morocco it’s referred to as ftour,** the same word used to denote ‘breakfast’ any other time of year. It traditionally consists of dates, chebakia (very sweet, very sticky pretzel-shaped things), harira, bread, hard-boiled eggs, milk, and a variety of other things that may vary from table to table. Ftour is a meal to eat in the company of loved ones, of course, but for those whose family ties extend beyond the city limits, restaurants put a prix-fixe ftour on their menu during Ramadan. And so it happened that yesterday, I joined Farid to break my first day of fasting at a local restaurant, where we were served a luxurious ftour for 30 dirhams. I do not think I have ever appreciated food and drink as much as I did at that moment – I remember being hyper conscious and appreciative of the taste and texture of every item on my plate: the stickiness of the dates, the sweetness of the chebakia, the softness of the bread. My stomach was filled to capacity way before my mind was done relishing the cornucopia in front of me.

Nevertheless, spending a day without food or water was less difficult than I had feared. I felt listless, my muscles seemed to have no strength, and I very consciously felt a tugging emptiness in my stomach, but I was able to hold out, and I was still able to concentrate on my work. Day two was easier than day one, and I hope day three will be easier than day two. But for now, I’m looking forward to that intense feeling of appreciation for the food I will be eating in an hour – that ultimate satisfaction of filling an entirely empty stomach. Tonight Farid joins me at my house, where we will be making instant harira from a box – I intend to make my own at some point, too, but have not yet found the time.

While we eat, we will be watching 2M, one of Morocco’s public television channels. Whereas everyone watches satellite channels from Dubai during the year, Ramadan is a time for a bit of national pride and identity. 2M will let us know when we’re allowed to eat, and will subsequently intersperse the broadcast of a new sitcom with lavish, special Ramadan-oriented commercials for food (I’m getting the sense that this month of fasting is in fact all about eating).

After dinner, we will head out for a stroll through town. Whereas the streets are deserted between sunrise and sundown – everyone avoiding the sun, and unnecessary expenditure of energy – the city comes to life again about an hour after ftour. At 8 pm, the streets are as empty as one will normally only experience long after midnight, but an hour later, stores and cafés re-open and everyone comes out in their finest clothing to see and be seen. We’ll have some coffee at a café, and then we’ll each head home. I’ll eat a small bite and then go to bed, only to wake up again at 4 am for a last light snack before the muezzin and another cannon shot lets everyone know the sun has risen.

And my third day of fasting will begin.

* I’ve stolen this title from the English version of Marjo Buitelaar’s book about Ramadan.
** ftour comes from iftar, I’m pretty sure


Anonymous said...

I hope your fasting goes well the remainder of the month. Ramadan Mubarak!

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