I tend to have a ‘feast or famine’ experience when in Morocco, and I was pleased that my arrival this time quite literally coincided with a feast.
I arrived during the evening at the end of a day of Ramadan, just in time for ftur (breakfast). I also cleverly timed my visit to coincide with the Eid festivities, the celebrations at the end of a month of fasting (Eid El Fitr being due to take place in Morocco as of Tuesday 29th July, two days after my arrival).
Having not eaten since lunchtime at Luton Airport and it nearing 10pm, both FreeToBeZ and I were impressed with the spread of food that FreeToBeB laid out as a starter whilst he cooked the main meal. I could have taken my fill just with this first course: grapes, fresh figs, prickly pears (the fruit of a cactus that is abundant here), mixed nuts, bread, and sweet pastries.
Added to the selection for the main course were a bowl of deliciously spiced mixed olives and a tagine cooked with a copiously seasoned tomato and onion sauce.
I have a plant-based diet in my own home but allow myself to be flexible when visiting other people and places. Not that the ethics of food choice aren’t important to me – they most certainly are – but travelling has made me very aware that our ethical choices in Britain are not always practical in other countries.
These choices may also not carry the same moral weight in countries where observing particular etiquette during rituals of eating and drinking apparently say a lot about the sort of person you are – I sometimes wonder if it is more morally objectionable to be rude to my living host by turning my nose up at their food than to eat part of an animal that has already been killed and cooked. That’s material for a whole other blog post though (and I’ve got lots of pointers on how to retain a healthy vegetarian/vegan diet in Morocco).
Following our well-fed arrival, our first full day turned out to lean more towards the ‘famine’ experience, at least until later in the afternoon.
It was the final day of Ramadan and FreeToBeB slept most of it away, informing me that none of the local shops or restaurants in the suburb we were staying in would be open for food. FreeToBeZ and I contented ourselves with a small breakfast of bread and jam, topped off with orange juice – simple but satisfying thanks to the bread and juice being locally sourced and made just the day before.
From late morning onwards, FreeToBeZ had her fill of breastmilk whilst I eventually took stock of the contents of the fridge at around 3:30pm. FreeToBeB had still showed no signs of stirring, yet I was beginning to go slightly stir crazy. I’m not sure if it was hunger or boredom that led me to the kitchen; there’s a certain ennui I always have to come to terms with in Morocco (something I dwelt on a lot during this visit and managed to find the positives in).
In the fridge I discovered the previous evening’s leftover olives, figs and stale pastries and decided they would do as a late lunch, which we ate as we watched a American children’s film on MBC3, a Moroccan kids’ channel. The Standard Arabic subtitles seemed to bear little resemblance to the Moroccan Arabic words I would have used to translate the dialogue into English and, not for the first time, I caught myself up in thoughts of how useful it would be to study Modern Standard Arabic alongside the local language.
I was pleasantly surprised when our host returned from work at around 4pm to announce that he was cooking for himself, inviting FreeToBeZ and I to share.
Ah, yes. FreeToBeB had expressed his disapproval the previous day that he’d spent the day cleaning the apartment for our arrival whilst observing Ramadan, yet our host awoke late and immediately disregarded the fast by finding something to eat and drink.
I’m more inclined to discover what makes people tick than to immediately cast judgement upon them. As we shared the food, I asked my host if he was fed up of Ramadan or didn’t partake in it at all.
“I know God and I don’t need a religion to tell me what to do. It’s hot in Marrakech and if people are thirsty they should drink,” said my host.
I agreed with him. I’m not uneducated in the ways of fasting and the spiritual significance behind it – I’ve practiced it in the past in order to put myself into a particular state of mind for rituals I’ve been part of when I was very active in the pagan community. Indeed, Wikipedia’s article on Ramadan notes that its origins lie in the pre-Islamic pagan culture of Arabia. Fasting is undoubtedly a sign of submission and tolerance and restraint and patience, especially for a whole lunar month during the hottest, longest days of the year.
Yet my host’s reply was something I’d tried to explain to FreeToBeB when he’d been struggling with the fast. I’d told him he should just eat and drink if his body was screaming for it; that no loving God would be punishing a good person for doing something necessary for health and survival. FreeToBeB had responded by telling me to respect his religion – yet my advice had not stemmed from thoughts of respecting or disrespecting any religion, but all about respecting a person’s individual autonomy and physical needs.
I know the pagan doctrine of “And it harm none, do as thou will” is still a driving force for me, despite my lack of identification with any one spiritual path these days. As long as what you’re doing isn’t harming yourself or anyone else, go ahead and do it. Obviously, this could still be read very subjectively – if you believe that what you’re doing (e.g. breaking off a religious fast) may reduce your chances of making it to Paradise in the afterlife, then you would certainly see it as harmful to yourself. Yet, from my point of view, my respect for a loved one and their need to eat and drink will come above my respect for a belief system that I don’t even subscribe to and that I therefore see as having arbitrary rules.
That’s not to say I believe people shouldn’t practice Ramadan. In reflection, there was certainly some way I could have acknowledged FreeToBeB’s struggles whilst supporting him to find the positives in the experience of fasting rather than denying his desire to observe it. Even as I asked him why it was so important to him personally rather than important to his religion that he observed the fast, I recognised my own individualist culture and upbringing in what I asked – for in regards to the spiritual pursuit of selflessness and the solidarity of religious community, am I totally missing the point?
Yet I do strongly believe in people practicing such things as religious fasting through their own understanding of it and a genuine yearning for spiritual union with the divine. Not doing something just because everyone else is doing it, yet may have never even stopped to question the reasoning behind it. Not doing something just because you’re worried about others’ disapproval if you don’t conform. Not doing something just because that’s what your family have always done and because that’s what religious leaders say ‘should’ be done.
I see little substance in things that aren’t practiced from the heart – and if you have a good heart, the thing that I call ‘God’ (Allah, Yahweh, Para Brahman, the divine, the source, universal energy – whatever name you wish to give it) knows this irrespective of whether or not you abide by a specific religious teaching and what is often merely another fallible human’s interpretation of a religious story. Yes, there are certain religious teachings that run through all belief systems that I genuinely do believe are part of the make-up of someone who is tuned into ‘God’, and they are wholesome attitudes to adopt and practice – yet these attributes, such as “loving one’s neighbour”, are things that any decent human being would seek to practice, whether they have a religion and/or a belief in God or not.
I remembered talking to my host and his brother during a previous visit to Morocco and being intrigued to discover that not everyone in what is classed as a 99% Muslim country takes the religion they’ve grown up with at face value – and that some even decide to openly reject it. By ‘openly’, I’ve observed that they seem to have no qualms stating their case to friends – how publicly open they would be is another matter, especially with laws against proselytising. Tourists are generally advised that topics such as religion and politics are ‘sensitive’ issues in Morocco. However, it is thought to be one of the most – if not the most – liberal Islamic countries and I’ve always found a way to talk about my own Sufi-inspired beliefs using Islamic terminology.
Religious freedom, to me, is about being free to deviate and interpret things in your own way whilst allowing others to also make up their own minds. Thus I respect all those Muslims who wholeheartedly take on Ramadan and make the most of the month to connect with the divine, give charity and reflect upon their human limitations. Just as I respect all those atheists who have concluded that there is no divine being to call on or report to, yet whose hearts are imbued with much more goodness and pureness than those who practice hateful follies in the name of ‘God’.
I’d actually spent a fortnight observing the final half of Ramadan during a previous visit in 2011, when I felt the hshuma (shame) of eating when everybody else was fasting. Of my own volition, I felt a need to “When in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do”. Unfortunately, being but an amateur in the ways of Ramadan and failing to get out of bed for the last meal before dawn, I probably ended up eating even less than the locals.
And so much for the pride of martyrdom: I definitely spent more time selfishly thinking about my own evening meal than meditating upon my usual luxuries and praying for those who have no other choice than to regularly go without.
I do, however, remember Eid El Fitr fondly and am glad to have spent a second Eid in a Muslim country.
I thoroughly appreciate being in Morocco during such a special time for the people here. Judging by some of the celebratory interludes on the children’s TV channel, being in Morocco for Eid is akin to being in the UK for Christmas.
However, in much the same way as the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas is oftentimes lost beneath piles of presents and frantic food shops, I’m left wondering how much spiritual reflection permeates the day to day lives of the people here during Ramadan? How much is just a waiting game for the festivities of Eid and the cheerful resumption of normal eating habits? Being spiritual yet non-religious, am I truly able to take a more objective viewpoint whilst genuinely appreciating others’ beliefs in ‘something greater’, or will any tradition I observe be severely clouded by my own cultural conditioning?
If this post had a point, I suppose I’ve found it. It’s difficult to write about Morocco without writing about its food, yet cuisine was never intended to be a main topic of this blog (as much as I love food and cooking). There are already many resources out there with instructions on how to cook the perfect tagine or how to make authentic Moroccan mint tea.
Yet the colourful cultural issues surrounding food are a fascination I can reflect upon as I discover this big wide world, learning at my children’s sides as I encourage them to be open-minded, curious, sensitive global citizens themselves.
I question and discuss not to judge but to discover. Together with my children I can look and learn and say:
What is happening here? Why are people doing this and what do they believe? Why do they believe it? What can we learn from them? Do we already share any of these beliefs? What do we believe?
What do you, my child, believe?
Thank you for reading this post. What do you think about any of the issues I’ve discussed above? Feel free to leave your feedback below, I’d be glad to hear other points of view – or just others’ experiences of enduring or enjoying Ramadan and Eid.