Ramadan with Shepherds in Morocco

Ramadan with a Moroccan shepherd’s family isn’t really what I expected it to be. It’s not like I’m some stranger here, the shepherd is my wife’s father.

To be honest, I avoided spending Ramadan in Morocco last year because there is hostility enough in this country without it being 40 degrees and everyone feeling thirsty. I’m Muslim but I’m Muslim in that way that Seattle Jews are Jewish and Christians in the Mission District of San Francisco are Christian, meaning that like them, I don’t attend worship, I don’t really pray, and I don’t really believe most of the things they talk about in the Holy Houses of Worship.

I do fast though, I have to fast. If you’re Muslim in Morocco and you break the fast in public, you’ll go to jail. If you’re part of a Muslim family and you break the fast in front of those who are fasting, you are disrespecting them and yourself in their eyes. If I weren’t fasting, my wife would spend all her days crying because I would go to hell and even though she looks very pretty when she cries, I don’t like to be the cause of it. So, here I am, fasting in a mud brick house in Morocco during Ramadan while the temperatures soar and the tempers flare as the entire country becomes unhinged and unraveled because of heat and thirst.

In fact though, it’s not hellish. Not for me anyway. I have it easy. Since I write, I don’t have to be outside during the heat of the day. I woke up at 3:00 AM and ate my breakfast before the dawn call to prayer and then stayed up working while everyone else caught a few more hours sleep in preparation for the work they will need to do during the day. My father in law can’t take the sheep out to graze while it’s still dark. My brother in law needs his sleep because his job is moving cinder blocks with a hand cart from where they are made to where they are being used during normal daylight working hours. The women in the house have it a little better. They sleep until around noon and then they do the housework, cook the food we will eat for breakfast after the sun goes down, and take small naps now and then as they go through their day. Still, I hear them sometimes go ballistic on each other in Darija (the Moroccan form of Arabic) or Berber over things like how to clean the stove or where to hang something so that it will dry the fastest.

As for me, I write until noon and then I take a two hour nap. I remember that I need to go to Fez to get something from our apartment and I brush my teeth to get my mouth wet. It’s not cheating as long as I don’t swallow and the wetness of the rinse feels wonderful. The break from food and smoking is easy, but the water is what I obsess about.

To get to Fez and back I have to walk through Sefrou. It’s nice when all the cafes are closed. Usually half the male population sits in these sidewalk cafes just staring out at the world and harassing any females that happen to walk by alone. Not during Ramadan. The cafes are all boarded up and shut. A few men sit on doorsteps along my route, obviously unsure what to do since the cafes are closed. Most of the shops are not open either. Morocco feels deserted and to me it feels wonderful.

At the taxi station a fight breaks out as eight people each try to grab the six available seats in a grand taxi. I join the twenty or so impassive onlookers as two guys begin to scuffle and are pulled apart by five other guys. Meanwhile the seat they are fighting over gets taken by an old woman in a pale pink djelabba. The two guys don’t really want to fight but they have to bluster. Everyone understands this and it’s why the other men are so quick to get involved and pull them apart. No one really want’s to fight, they just want to bark and growl. None the less, the scuffle provides something for everyone present to chatter about. My favorites are the slightly overweight ladies in djelabbas who speak and act as if they’ve just witnessed the hugest scandal in the town’s history. I can see one of them is wearing light green pajamas under her blue djelaba. Moroccan housewives wear pajamas pretty much all day, every day. If they go out, they toss a djelaba over their pajamas. In the house, they throw on an apron that says something like ‘Happy Time’ or ‘Happy Sheep’ which is what the aprons my mother in law wears say on them. I told her the meanings and she laughed and told me that her work makes sheep and people happy. She’s right.

In Fez, the bakery under my apartment is in full swing. The men and women working there look miserable working in the hot kitchen making all the treats that Moroccan families love to eat during Ramadan. I can’t imagine how thirsty they must be because of the heat of those ovens. It makes me thirsty just walking by. I consider brushing my teeth again, but decide against it.

I only see one more fight on my return journey. A car accident. A policeman stands between the two motorists who are screaming at each other at the top of their lungs. One of them pulls a club out of his car and raises it as if to strike the other, the policeman doesn’t even flinch. He just looks at the guy until he lowers the club. He knows that it’s all bluff too. The taxi I’m in goes past.

I’m lucky as I’ve got the window seat in the front. I share it with a large Arab listening to headphones. Grand taxis hold six passengers in a car designed to hold a maximum of four. It’s tight quarters, the air conditioning usually doesn’t work, and the windows often don’t roll down. I say ‘hamdulilah’ to myself that I am sitting next to the window and it is actually rolled down all the way. For some reason taxi drivers in Morocco remove the window handles so passengers can’t operate the windows without asking permission.

When I leave the taxi I head to the fruit and vegetable souk. The usual energy of the open air marketplace is gone. No loud cries about the virtues of the fish from Tangier or the low price of the bananas from the Sahara today. I buy a kilo of grapes, a kilo of tomatoes, and a kilo of cucumbers. It’s a disgrace to come to a house you are visiting empty handed. The three kilos of food cost me 14 dirham, less than a Euro and a half.

It’s a little past 4:00 PM as I pass my father in law where he sits watching his sheep. He doesn’t look too uncomfortable sitting under the shade of a fig tree. We wave as I pass in the distance. In the house, the women are watching TV and a neighbor has come to visit. They gossip as I head back into the rear salon to read. The gossip is about other neighbors and also about the king. People keep telling me that the king is going to move to Sefrou. I doubt it, but it’s something to talk about. Each time I visit there is a new twist in the tale or a new piece of evidence. ‘A rich man gave him two villas.’ ‘His son is sick and needs to be near the mountains.’ ‘ He’s going to build a palace on the taxi station.’ ‘He’s thinking of taking a third wife- this time a Sefrouia.’

I lay down and read Henry Miller in the rear salon while the Turkish and Mexican soap operas translated into Darija run in the front salon along with the imaginations of the Berber and Arab housewives of the neighborhood. Around 6:00 PM, the kitchen becomes the most active room in the house.

My father in law returns with the sheep at about the same time as my brother in law comes in from his hard day’s labor. I know this because the light has faded enough that I can’t read in the back salon any longer so I’ve moved to the small outside courtyard next to the sheep pen.

My wife comes outside with her arms loaded with blankets and rugs. She spreads them out on the concrete ground just as her sister comes out with a low wooden table which she places in the middle of the area my wife has just laid out. Next, my mother in law starts the process of bringing out everything we will break our fast with: cactus fruit, dates, a big pot full of delicious harira, fresh figs from the tree in the yard, grapes, a cucumber and tomato salad, pastries, cookies, homemade nougat, big bottles of water, tea, coffee, homemade khobz (bread), fresh peach juice, and olives. There is so much food that they need to bring a second table out.

The sight of the water is too much for me. We’re still fasting. I go to the roof and look around at the neighboring houses. All of them have variations of the same theme happening insider or out. Each doorway and window has someone in it waiting to hear the call to prayer so that ‘Iftar’, breakfast, can begin.

When it comes I head downstairs to see my brother in law gulping down water. My father in law performs his ablution and goes to pray in the rear salon. My wife hands me a cold glass of water and I say ‘bismillah’ and drink it down. Iftar is a fun time as we sit together, eat, and drink. There are many jokes and a shared sense of relief that the heat of the day has passed on.

A funny thing happens though. As it gets dark the mud bricks begin to release the heat they stored during the day. It becomes hotter inside the house than outside. Also, our bodies begin to burn the calories they were missing and so they also feel hotter than during the day. Still, the family moves inside to watch Moroccan comedies on television while I lay on the rugs outside and gaze up at the stars and try to figure out exactly how my body is reacting to each of the things I just ate. I light up a cigarette and pour a cup of mint tea while I contemplate what this day has been.

I fall asleep but am aware of my wife joining me and then we are both being woken by her mother for the meal before the dawn call to prayer. The second meal is heavier and is really more of a dinner. Chicken and rice, bread, and a bowl of pudding. As we finish eating and the voice of the muezzine rises I can sense the fatigue of those around me.

In fact though, it’s not hellish. Not for me anyway. I have it easy. Since I write, I don’t have to be outside during the heat of the day…