A year ago last week, we moved back to the US. I don’t think it’s any secret that I wasn’t happy about it, but it was one of those tough, unavoidable things. I had no idea how things would work out, that a year later my life would be nearly as Arab as it was in Morocco. I had no idea that this summer would find me busy but happy, doing work that I love.
It’s Ramadan now, the Muslim month of fasting. I read an article in Time titled “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Ramadan” but they were wrong—I knew them all. I told someone that this was my first Ramadan in America but obviously that’s not accurate. What I meant was that it’s the first time that Ramadan has impacted my life in America.
Ramadan is tough on non-Muslims in Muslim-majority countries. Restaurants aren’t open. It may or may not be technically illegal for a non-citizen to eat or drink in public, but either way you aren’t going to win any friends if you choose to do so, and will most likely get harassed. Taxi drivers are grumpy. Your friends are exhausted from fasting and cooking all day and staying up and feasting all night, and by about the third week, everyone is bleary-eyed and not at their best.
Obviously, it’s easier for us non-Muslims here. The rhythm of our daily life isn’t interrupted at all. But, I wondered, would it be harder for Muslims? For one, the support of knowing that everyone in your society is fasting, not to mention the pressure of it being expected and almost forced on you, would make compliance easier. Also, we’re farther north here, and it’s summer and the days are longer. There’s no call to prayer to announce the second that you can raise a glass of cool water to your lips.
So I asked my friends. No, it’s not harder, they assured me. Well, maybe a little bit. They print out lists of times to eat, each night a little earlier. (One of the things I knew about Ramadan is that it moves throughout the year. This year it ends Sept. 1, but our first year in Mauritania, it ended a few days before Christmas) They go on with their lives. “The Eid (feast at the end) was hard last year,” a young friend confides. “We are used to having to get up very early so we have time to see everyone all day. Here, we just sit home and no one comes.”
In spite of not fasting ourselves, we have managed to get invited to several F’Tour meals, as well as hosting some ourselves. This is the meal that breaks the fast, served at sunset. For those fasting, first you drink water and eat dates. Then you eat soup. Then you pray. Then you eat an enormous meal, full of lots of special foods made only at this time. If you are not fasting, you still get to do this.
When I had Suzi and her family for F’Tour last week, I made harira, the Ramadan soup of Morocco. In Morocco, you can take a pot to a restaurant at sunset and they will fill it with soup that you can take home to your family. It’s made with a bit of lamb, and chick-peas and tomato and parsley and cilantro and lemon juice, and it is very very good. I made my own version and I was very happy with how it turned out. Suzi and her family were, too. “It’s Arabic!” exclaimed her husband in surprise.
Tonight we are going to their house for F’Tour. I’m hoping for Ramadan desserts—crescent horns filled with almond paste and covered in sesame seeds, dates stuffed with walnuts, and much more.
I visited a family the other day who is fasting. They insisted on setting plates of cookies and glasses of juice before Donn and I. No, no, we said, but they persisted. We smiled and said thank you, but then we didn’t take any of it. We just felt awkward. At the end, the man praised us. “It’s nice to not eat or drink in front of someone who is fasting,” he told us.
And are they all keeping the long daily fast, without societal support and societal pressure? Well… I’m certainly not going to judge them! Some are, some aren’t. The excuses are pretty funny though.