We went to bed around midnight in Chefchaouen, only to be awakened at 1:30 AM by the loud, rhythmic banging of a drum. It started in the distance and slowly got closer. I looked out the window just in time to see a young man jogging by, banging his drum on the run. A woman across the street was looking out her window also, smiling and watching the drummer as he disappeared and his drum faded into the distance. Finally, the 1-man parade ended as I heard the final drumbeat.

But about 15 minutes later, just as I was falling back to sleep, the muezzin in the mosque next to our hotel called out for several minutes. Loudly. After that, we didn’t awaken until around 8 AM, despite an alleged call to daybreak prayer.
Earlier that day, everyone had been making preparations. Shops displayed beautiful kaftans for women who wanted something special to wear, sweets and breads were being baked and some cafes prepared to close for long vacations. Late in the evening, while tucked away in an alley eating dinner, we heard what sounded like an air raid siren and the calls of the muezzin from all 5 mosques in town. Soon after, we heard children singing in the street.

Ramadan is the 9th month of the traditional Islamic calendar, the one in which the Prophet Mohammed is said to have received the Quran. It’s a lunar calendar, with months beginning on the evening of a new moon. There’s no correction for the seasons, so Ramadan cycles around our calendar every 32 years or so.

ramadan-creasentIn some countries, the start is calculated using modern science. In Morocco, the physical sighting must verified by the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic affairs, after which it’s announced throughout the country. So even though everyone knew Ramadan should start that night, it was possible that it might start the next night if the moon didn’t look right to someone in authority. I don’t know what they do if the sky isn’t clear.

Rather than try to explain the meaning of Ramadan myself, I refer you to these explanations of its meaning. In the days before it began, we felt honored to have been invited to share Ramadan ftour (“break-fast,” the sunset meal) by 5 different people at their homes. Unfortunately, our travel schedule didn’t permit it. One invitation was from our taxi driver to Chefchaouen, who even asked if we might delay our planned trip to Fez by a night, so we could meet his family. The sunset meal is a celebration of gratitude and generosity, like having Thanksgiving dinner 28 nights in a row. We did have the opportunity to eat with the hotel staff in Fez where for one evening at least, we felt like part of their family.

Typical Ramadan sweets like chbakia, fried and then drizzled with honey

Fasting begins at first light, which this year, is around 3:15 AM. No food or liquids, no smoking, and no sex. Even water is prohibited. It ends when the sun sets, this year around 7:30 PM. In Fez, sunset is announced with a huge cannon blast over the city that can be heard everywhere. Other places blow a horn, and everywhere the muezzin announce that it’s OK to eat. Tourists aren’t expected to fast, but we tried to be respectful by not eating in public. Fasting also isn’t required for children, pregnant or nursing women, elderly people, and anyone who is sick; nonetheless, our guide in Fez chose to fast, despite his age and poor health.

We learned that the 1:30 AM drumming is a ritual practiced in many of the smaller towns. The point is to wake people up if they’ve fallen asleep, so they don’t forget to eat, and it’s done every night. In the bigger cities, the call of the muezzin is the only alarm but in Chefchaouen, they do both. At the end of Ramadan, the boy who did the drumming is rewarded with gifts.

A couple of other interesting things that happen during Ramadan: Restaurants open at 8 PM or later, so that the staff has time to pray and eat before they start serving customers; and the clock is moved back 1 hour during the month of Ramadan, presumably so that those who work regular hours can start eating sooner after work ends. After Ramadan began, we received a notice from Air France changing our flight home from 7:45 AM to 6:45 AM, but the arrival time in Paris is unchanged; I guess they don’t believe in astronomy either.

Typical Ramadan breakfast; meats and other heavier foods come later at night

As you can imagine, people don’t get a lot of sleep during Ramadan. Ftour is a light sunset meal of dates, harira (chickpea soup), bread, milk, hard-boiled eggs, and sweets. Then a more substantial meal at 11 PM, and one more meal around 1:30 AM. We’ve been told that they never eat past 3 AM, even if Ramadan is in the winter when the nights are longer. First prayer of the day is always at sunrise, this year around 5:15 AM. How people get by on so little sleep, I have no idea. Many businesses open several hours later than normal, but offices keep the same hours as always.

In Fez, where the stress runs high on a normal day, we could see the challenge of adjusting to the Ramadan schedule. We saw a large group of young men gathered to trade goods in a square, and after a lot of yelling, a fistfight broke out. At the tanneries, an angry man was yelling at everyone- us, his overladen donkeys, and his coworkers. It takes a few days to settle into the rhythm of fasting, especially when you can’t even drink water in a hot place like Fez.

Women carry wheat into town to be dried and threshed

In the rural areas, it’s perhaps a bit easier. Village women can be seen gathering wheat or alfalfa from their small fields throughout the day, while men tend their flocks. Road work and construction continue unabated, if perhaps with less enthusiasm. But without the pressures of city commerce and much less reliance on tourism, many people do as little as possible in the middle of the day. Travelers can have a hard time if they’re looking for a place to eat lunch, since nearly all cafes and restaurants are closed until evening; some are closed throughout Ramadan. Even hotel staff are often found napping in darkened rooms.

Most people tell us that they find fasting to be cleansing and healthy, while a few have said they are desperately tired by the end. Either way, I can only admire the strength and self-discipline it takes to observe this important tradition. A couple of times since Ramadan began, I thought about fasting for just one day, to experience what most Muslims do every day for a month. But by 4 PM I was hungry, and in the desert heat I was thirsty long before that. Ramadan mubarak karim!