I sit in the eye of the storm, waiting. Spirals of dust dance through the streets, the only visible traces of movement left behind. My patience wearing thin, I close my eyes and begin to fantasise about the taste of couscous accompanied with mint tea. A young boy bolts through the haze, waking me sharply from my dream. He runs towards the market, missing a key ingredient for tonight’s iftar.
Finally, the athan echoes in the air, vibrating across the rooftops, electrifying the souq back into life. Families and children pour through the alleyways, overrunning the medina with excitement on the way to the mosque. With these long, hot afternoons spent awaiting night-time festivities, and the rhythm of the day turned upside down, it is unmistakably Ramadan.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and is known as the Holy Month. Muslims must observe sawm, which entails fasting from dawn until dusk. It is a time for prayer, reflection, atonement and charity, where rewards for good deeds are multiplied. It was my first time fasting, and as I travelled from the mountains to the deserts of Morocco, I was determined to seek out the true spirit of Ramadan.
From the taxi drivers who shared iftar from the boot of their car, to the Amazigh Bedouins who prepared mint tea over an open fire, I was blessed to enjoy the hospitality that epitomises Ramadan.
Travelling during Ramadan offers an unrivalled opportunity to explore the ancient medinas such as Marrakech, Fes and Casablanca, without the usual bustling tourist crowds. Marrakech’s Koutoubia Mosque, which proudly overlooks Africa’s largest square, Jamaa el Fna, is an unmissable stop on any visitor’s list. The best time to visit is at Isha’a, the evening prayer, when devotees congregate to pray, spilling outside onto the streets in their hundreds.
Perhaps the most breath-taking attraction, however, is the newly built Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the largest in Morocco. It sits on the city’s coast and boasts of the world’s tallest minaret. During Ramadan hundreds of thousands of worshippers flock here for Tarawih, the night-time prayers, when the mosque’s retractable roof is opened to welcome the stars. Believers recite one thirtieth of the Qur’an every night during Tarawih, so that a whole recitation will be complete by the end of the month.
After sunset, the real adventure begins, when the fasting is replaced with festivities and feasts. A trip to Morocco would not be complete without tasting their traditional handmade Ramadan sweets shubakiya, made from flour, sesame, orange blossom and sugar. Rahma, an engineering student from Marrakech, reminded me of the reason and meaning behind the Ramadan fast, “Allah asks us to fast so we can feel the importance of what we take for granted, to feel the hunger of the poor and encourage us to live with gratitude and empathy.”
As Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, began, I reflected on her words. It was undeniable that I had never before been so grateful for the food I was blessed with that breakfast, and for all the lessons I had learnt from my hosts across the diverse and spellbinding Kingdom of Morocco.
Words: Venetia Menzies