While spending Ramadan in Morocco I noticed how this demanding muslim ritual involves sharing as much as it involves fasting.
In origin it was a pagan tradition of pre-islamic arab societies. After Muhammed’s territorial gain, Ramadan became one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Exception made for children and sick people, all muslims in the world are requested to fasten during light hours, in a span of time lasting 29 or 39 days depending on the moon phases, traditionally linked to the time when the Prophet received the godly revelations.
These year Ramadan stretched through almost the whole of July. Hoping to experience it in a more intimate way, I moved from my place in Casablanca – the financial heart of Morocco, a fascinating town but a bit too modernized for the real touch of ancient traditions – to Fes, the Morocco’s spiritual capital.
At sunset the muezzin‘s chant would announce the end of fasting and the appetites opened to ftur, which in Moroccan dialect (the Arab term would be iftar) means ‘breakfast’ or ‘the interruption of fasting’. Since hours everyone roaming the streets had a small plastic bag to carry around a few items – dates, yogurt, bread, eggs, bananas… – and if anyone was to be found without any food – that would be me – the by-passers hurried to offer him something to drink and to eat.
On my first night in Fes I was waiting for the crucial moment in the square behind Bab Jdid (‘New Gate’), just at the entrance of the medina. Foreign visitors are not expected to fast, but I had already decided to try my will with this ancient ritual. Also, I wanted to be close to my Moroccan friends, and you can’t understand the joy of sharing ftur if you haven’t gone through a long day of fasting.
While most of Fes’ inhabitants were already at home, the square still hosted a few tourists, some shop keepers and a bunch of youngsters. First came the siren, then the rumble of a cannon and finally the muezzin‘s voice.
I was already consuming my first sacrifice – cigarettes! – and thought I could wait for dinner until the restaurants would open again in about one hour. But after a few minutes a guy was already insisting I take at least some of his peach juice. Then a shop owner had me seated in front of his place and offered me some tea and a dumpling of meat and vegetables. He also offered me a long pipe filled wit kif which caused me coughing until I removed any trace of lungs in my body.
Kif is a by-product of cannabis, very cheap and therefore very popular all over Morocco. It’s illegal, but during Ramadan the smoke of it often mixes up with hashish, especially in the medinas. Casablanca is far stricter about cannabis consumption, but in Fes still survives a timeless atmosphere where ancient habits find place despite the laws.
Although the evenings were quite and relaxing, during the day me and the other travellers had to face constant persistence of shop keepers and merchants, which would hardly allow us to enjoy the stunning architectures of mosques and medersas (the koranic schools), the refined art of potters and the warm welcome of the Moroccan people.
In order to get a break from such daily inconveniences, I applied for a trip in the neighbouring area. With two taxis hired directly through the hostel, I and a group of seven more travellers got led through the Atlas mountain range, until the charming waterfalls of Shilal and the Cèdre Gouraud Forest where a settlement of funny Barbary Macaques is easily spotted and approached by visitors.
Althoug the landscape and the sights were very beautiful, the sun and the long walk made my fasting almost unbearable. At four o’ clock in the afternoon I was already speaking various italian dialects with our Berber guide and at six I was bargaining for a packet of cigarettes with a macaque.
Then, finally, came the evening. And the siren, the cannon, the muezzin. And digging in the long sought meal with my new friends appeased once again all my senses.
To get to Fes you can travel by plane to the Fes–Saïss airport, or by train or bus from most of Morocco’s main towns. From Casablanca there is a direct train every hour which takes about 4 hours.
In town there are several hostels (dorms 6-10 € per night). I lodged in the Funky Fes, which is placed in a charming riad just outside from Bab Jdid.
The medina is a maze, but you will always found people ready to help you out for a small tip (5-10 dirhams should be enough, 20 will make them happy). If you don’t want them to lead you be firm, but expect to be misled but their indications.
The beginning of Ramadan changes every year. Foreigners are not obliged to fast, but some restaurants might be closed until after ftur. In any case I suggest you to consume food, drinks and cigarettes out of sight during the day.