When God told Abraham to kill his son, he obediently knelt to do so but found a ram in his place, its throat cut.
Abraham passed the test, and now Muslims honor his actions by slaughtering sheep on Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice. Other traditions include wearing new clothes, visiting family and friends,
I celebrated the three-day holiday, Islam’s biggest, with my host family. We woke early, slaughtered a ram, ate a LOT, and enjoyed each other’s company. Here’s a smattering of pictures from the weekend. You can find a bonus video below! (Warning: it is pretty graphic.)
All good things must come to an end, so they say. Yesterday was the last day of Ramadan and today everyone is celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the two-day holiday full of family, gifts, and food.
Most people in my site with whom I’ve come in contact know that I’m not Muslim. Even so, during Ramadan I received an inordinate number of questions involving exactly that. One specific conversation was with the computer teacher at my middle school.
It was my last day teaching there for the year. As I was about to climb the stairs to my classroom, the computer teacher greeted me with a big, “Ramadan karim!” (essentially, happy Ramadan.) I responded back similarly, and we quickly arrived to the big questions.
Saida asked, “Are you Muslim?”
“No. You know that!” We both laughed because humor is how I deal with religious harassment. (For the record, Saida was not harassing me. On the contrary, she’s one of my favorite colleagues at the school.)
“Are you fasting?” she continued through her broad smile.
I shrugged and responded, “I am trying.” Of the two words in Darija meaning “to try”, one means “to attempt” and the other means “to experience”. I meant the latter.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic year. There are several features to Ramadan, the most important and most visible being complete abstinence from food, drink, sex, and smoking from sunrise to sunset. Nearly every Muslim is required to fast once they reach puberty, though I have come across a few examples of families that encourage their children to start earlier in an effort to prove the family’s religious devotion.
The idea of fasting is to bring Muslims closer to God and to remind them of the suffering endured by the less fortunate. In addition, many Muslims give zakat, or donate money, to charities and often feed the hungry and poor. Overall, it’s an exercise of self-restraint and charity.
There are, however, specific groups of people who are exempt from fasting, namely: pregnant women, menstruating women, people traveling, and those who are sick. Such people must make up their missed days at a later time.
One night of Ramadan is more important than the rest. It’s called laylatu l-qadr (“night of power”). This night – one of the last ten of the month – has no definitive date because it was revealed only to the Prophet. Different countries celebrate laylatu l-qadr on different odd-numbered days of Ramadan; in Morocco, it’s the 27th. All people go to mosque to pray, separated within the mosque by gender. From sunset to sunrise, the imam (a religious leader) reads the entirety of the Koran. Some people believe that the sky opens up in the meantime and wishes will rise straight to Allah.
What fasting looks like
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam. The others are the recital of the declaration of faith (shahada), praying five times a day (salat), almsgiving (zakat), and the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).
Fasting is a healthy experience, according to my host family, my friends and their families, and everyone else around town who asks me if I’m fasting. Though I’m not convinced that eating a bunch of food close before you go to sleep is entirely healthy, I spent most nights gorging myself with my host family… let’s examine my typical daily schedule when I visited them.
We start with breaking the fast in a meal called lftur around 7:30pm; the time changes daily based on sunset. As soon as the fourth call to prayer rings across the oasis, we first dive into the small pile of dates on the table, either the smashed ones or the unsmashed. My host dad and brother leave almost immediately to pray at the nearby mosque. I stay with the women to eat our way through shbekia, khubz l-7arr, hard-boiled eggs, harira, zameta, tea, coffee, lbn, and juice. Eventually the men of the family return and eat the remnants aplenty.
shbekia: fried dough in the shape of roses, slathered in honey
khubz l-7arr: two layers of flatbread with peppers, onions, and spices between
harira: a soup with lentils, chickpeas, cilantro, parsley, noodles, and a bunch of spices
zameta: a nutty, crumbly substance that I absolutely love
lbn: a sour, buttermilk beverage that I absolutely hate
The most popular TV shows during this time? Up and down and across Morocco, families start with the Turkish soap opera Sam7ini dubbed in Darija.
As an aside: My training host family named me “Kamal” after a character in the show. SPOILER ALERT: He died in a recent episode, giving whole new meaning to Kamal matt (“Kamal died”).
Then, after ten minutes of commercials, we watch Mshiti Fiha, a mix of Candid Camera and Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d.
The proliferation of watching TV during this time is becoming a moral problem in parts of the Muslim community. Some people see it as an example of the abandonment of tradition, much like when stores host Ramadan inventory sales and sell things like plates that are “great for your Ramadan meals”.
About an hour after beginning our meal, we finish eating. The family goes their separate ways to either clean, watch more TV, do work, or hang out with friends. I typically use my laptop in preparation for a camp and a couple classes.
I leave the house around 9:30pm to set up for my photography and videography workshops at the dar shabab. The streets, normally empty at this time of night, teem with women in traditional shawls shooting the breeze with one another, men walking to and from mosque (the final call to prayer is near this time), young men stealing WiFi from cafes, and children playing soccer.
My workshops end at midnight. Even at this time, particularly because I must bike through the city center to reach my house, the streets remain lively. Fewer women are out due partially to safety and partially because they are preparing the next meal.
Yes, there’s more food.
Around 2:30am – again, based on sunset and sunrise times – the final meal of the day, called suhur, is served. This meal is like a normal Moroccan lunch, at least with my host family. We eat mrka (meat, potatoes, carrots, and turnips in a broth, sometimes with French fries, olives, and/or tomatoes) and fruit one day, some more mrka and fruit on another. The first call to prayer of the day (around 3:30am) marks the end of suhur. Then… it’s time to sleep, fast from 3:30am to 7:30pm, and start the whole process again.
Why I (sort of) fasted
“If you’re not Muslim, why are you fasting?”
“You should fast because you live in Morocco.”
Some Moroccans understand why a non-Muslim fasts here and some don’t. Some Moroccans don’t understand why a non-Muslim fasts here and some do.
It all comes down to the individual. Among the non-Muslim Peace Corps Volunteers, as I’m sure is true of other non-Muslims living in or visiting Morocco, we each had our own reason for choosing to fast or not. Personally I fasted from food but not from liquids, but even then, I was very careful about when and where I would drink in order to respect others’ fasting.
The reasons I still drank liquids:
I’m not Muslim, so I wasn’t obliged to fast.
The temperature in my site had been hovering around 100 degrees Fahrenheit for all of Ramadan, and I needed to stay hydrated.
My body was not used to the heat nor the fasting.
Perhaps most importantly, waiting until lftur was a fantastic way to connect deeper with my community. I spent many meals talking with several families and learning more about Moroccan culture as it relates to Islam.
It was also convenient: I stayed awake until two in the morning (or later if I ate suhur) and I would wake up late, so waiting until 7:30pm wasn’t too difficult. I also became very accustomed to it.
The Christmas season in Morocco is a strange time. I say strange because Christmas really is just another day for Muslims here. I say strange because I didn’t spend it with my parents. I say strange because I traveled more than usual.
And yet… everyone I’ve run into in my site knows about Christmas and its significance to Christians. This does stand to reason: Jesus, in Islam, is recognized as a prophet, while in Christianity he is the son of God. In fact, Muslims and Christians believe in the same god, they just worship him differently.
Other than religious purposes, of course, Christmas is significant in American for cultural purposes. Perhaps that is why my host family didn’t have any questions when I told them I was celebrating l-3id noel with volunteers in another city. The following weekend – the actual Christmas weekend – they didn’t ask any questions when I said I was celebrating again in another city with other volunteers.
And what a pair of Christmases it was! The first weekend was full of cookies, pasta, Christmas music, ornament drawing, and tree decorating (see photo above). The ten of us did a white elephant gift exchange; I got a French press! Christmas weekend was quieter – I and three others sat around, watching movies and TV shows, eating far too many knock-off Oreos, and singing pop song karaoke.
While Christmas in Morocco can’t quite compare to Christmas in America, it was comforting spending it with other Americans who were in the same situation as me. Here’s to the upcoming New Year!
Fun fact: The earliest call to prayer happens before sunrise and is the only one of the five that includes the words “Prayer is better than sleep.”
5:40 AM. Call to prayer.
Much like how church bells signal the beginning of a service, Islam has a call to prayer called adhan. A muezzin recites the adhan – often over loudspeakers – five times a day from the minaret of the mosque. The logic behind this is that minarets are typically one of the tallest structures in a city or town, so everyone will hear it and be reminded to pray. The adhan itself is a brief summary of the Muslim faith; it includes the takbir (“God is great”) and the shahada (“there is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger”).
Of course, as in many religions, there is theory and there is practice. Though prayers are mandatory five times a day, I have never seen a Moroccan recite prayers immediately following every adhan, neither in public nor in private. It is possible that many men do visit the mosque each time as the koran demands, but clearly many are not doing so. That said, Islam permits people to skip prayers if they absolutely cannot perform them, as long as they make up for it later in the day.
I think I have only slept through this call to prayer once or twice in my first two months here, particularly because I can hear three calls to prayer from my room.
6:30 AM. My host brother’s alarm.
My host family lives in a two-story townhouse above a one-story apartment. My host mom and three host sisters sleep on the top floor as does my younger host brother. I sleep on the lower level in my own room, and my older brother sleeps in the salon next to my room. Because the entrance to both my room and the salon are curtains, I hear his alarm go off every morning at 6:30. Mine is set for 7:30.
The catch? He is a very heavy sleeper. I’m not. And I’m lazy in the mornings. So when his alarm goes off, I don’t go over to turn it off. I just deal with it for about 20 minutes until, without fail, my oldest host sister screams his name from above in order to wake him.
In conversations with other PC trainees, there seems to be a common theme in our host families. The men typically bring in the money while the women tend to spend the money. In this way, the women (in my family, my oldest sister) prioritize purchases and determine what is best for the family. My older sisters control meal times, they keep the house clean, and they make sure both my working brothers wake up in time for work.
7:07 AM. Chickens.
There are two chickens in my house. My oldest sister calls them “monsieur” and “madame”, which we both find hilarious. What I don’t find as hilarious is how loud they get in the mornings. They stay in their cage (read: a box with a grill on top) at night, and they really want out as soon as the sun starts peeking under the front door. Their clucks echo up the stone-and-drywall-lined staircase, under the lower floor’s door, and through my bedroom curtain.
Chickens are relatively cheap (I hear you can buy one for 50 dirhams, roughly $5), and eggs can get relatively expensive, so it makes sense for families to own one or two. I don’t yet understand why my family owns a rooster and a hen, but at the very least we get a few eggs a week from “madame”. Perhaps my family sells chicks but it isn’t yet mating season. If any of my readers know anything about chicken breeding, feel free to weigh in on this topic in the comments section.