Friday, 9 August 2013

From dusk till dawn

Salam friends.

I’ve recently spent 3 weeks in Morocco, a glorious country rich in culture, tradition, history and community. What I found most striking while hopscotching from place to place - from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech, Casablanca and Fez, to the sunny surf of Taghazout, to the seamless red dunes of the Sahara, to the magical valleys and streams of the lower Atlas to the blue hideaway mountainous town of Chefchaouen -  was people’s binding commitment to their Muslim faith. Religion without a doubt is the cornerstone to the way of life in Morocco and can be seen, heard and felt in all facets of daily life (Yep that’s right, a religious assault to the senses if you will!). And there are countless opportunities for travelers and visitors to feel a part of the richness and depth of what it means to be a Muslim in Morocco. This was particularly the case for me during the month of July, which was Ramadan; the annual fasting from eating, drinking, smoking and having sexual intercourse from dawn to sunset, and the recitations of more frequent prayers. Most people understand Ramadan to mean this, including myself, but after speaking with three very lovely practicing Muslims I learnt that it has much greater meaning and purpose, like most things if we open ourselves up to experiencing it.

The alluring lights of Marrakech medina 

My chats revealed that the Muslim faith shapes people’s core values, gives structure to daily rituals and practices, creates space for community gatherings and meetings and above all, connects each person. By connection I mean through day-to-day interactions, but more so to a higher good (getting a bit deep now!). A spiritual connection for most. Ramadan is considered one of the five pillars of Islam, those of which include: Shahadah (belief or confession of faith), Salat (worship in the form of prayer), Sawm (the practice of Ramadan), Zakat (charitable giving) and Haji (the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime). Ramadan is most commonly considered an obligatory part of an adult Muslim’s faith if your body is well enough to support you, with exceptions for those who are ill, traveling, pregnant, breastfeeding, diabetic or if it’s that womanly time of the month. But in saying that, the overall and consistent message shared was that Ramadan is a personal choice and is a very different experience depending on the individual.

The act of cleansing after prayer
Mohammed is a 36-year-old Beber man from a carpet making community in Morocco's south where he lives with his extended family of 42 people in a traditional mud and straw made house. We got talking, initially about carpets and how everyone should have a Moroccan carpet in their home (a home isn’t a true home until it has a Moroccan carpet apparently!) after which I explained I didn’t have a home. Well, not at the moment anyway. The conversation turned to Ramadan, which Mohammed was more than happy to talk about. “It’s really nice. I’m feeling really good”, he said while smiling. “Good? In 40 degrees plus without food or water?” I questioned. Mohammed laughed. “Yes, good.”

Cheeky Mohammed and his carpet spiel

For Mohammed, Ramadan is a time for cleansing. “It’s one of the only opportunities in the year to cleanse the body, mind and soul. A time to let go of worry and stress and give relief to the body. We are constantly eating and drinking more than we should and it feels really good to allow my body the chance to rejuvenate.” When it comes to prayer, Mohammed said “I don’t pray a set amount or at set times during Ramadan. Prayer is my relationship with Allah and it’s something that I practice consistently, not just at Ramadan.” As a child Mohammed use to watch his mother and father, as well as his older brothers and sisters go about their practice and wanted to be a part of it. “I was 7 when I first began my practice. My practice has obviously evolved over the years and has a lot more meaning now.” As a father of three children, his eldest aged 10 years, Mohammed explained that it is his childrens’ choice if they decide to participate in Ramadan – not his or his wife’s. “It seems children are beginning their practice later these days, like around 15, when they are near adulthood and I agree with this. I will not put any pressure on my children. It is completely up to them if Ramadan serves them or not.”

Holy Guacamole. Is this a sight or what?  The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is the country's largest and the 7th biggest in the world!!

I was also fortunate to meet with Sarah Essvai from Fez, a 26-year-old architect who had just literally returned home from two years living abroad in Indiana, USA, where she did her masters in urban planning. This was her first Ramadan back in Morocco after adjusting to a very different practice in the States. “When away at school, I didn’t feel the intensity that I do here which is geared for Ramadan. It was definitely harder practicing on my own. I connected with a small Islamic community in Indiana, with Pakistanis, Afghanis, Syrians, and we would encourage each other but it’s a complete other experience here.” Ramadan for Sarah is particularly about personal development and reflection. “It’s a sacred time for me. A long meditation. An opportunity to think about what I have done and where I want to go.” Sarah continued to explain that eating is a basic need. “If you are able to get over your need to have food at your finger tips, think about what else you can do when you foster that determination. Ramadan reminds me to get on track, rethink my values and realign myself for the coming year… This Ramadan is about transformation for me. I have left the States and am actually moving very soon to be with my husband in the Neverlands. I am preparing myself for this new change… There’s no right or wrong way to go about Ramadan. It’s what you make of it.”

Sarah and I discuss, muse and giggle

For Majdi Fal, 28-year-old human rights activist from Tunis in Tunisia (who I was gratefully put in touch with through a friend – don’t you love connections!), Ramadan is a time to foster compassion and cultivate empathy for others. “Ramadan is very important to me. It helps me to learn much more deeply about my religion, to become more patient and to feel for the suffering of the needy, poor and ill.” Talking connection, Majdi said Ramadan is an expression of unity among Muslims worldwide. “I see this through prayer. I pray five regular prayers during Ramadan and sometimes go to the mosque of a night to perform the long Taraweeh prayers, which are not necessarily an obligatory part of the practice. These prayers are a bit long (half an hour or an hour), but they have taught me how to sacrifice, love the other and to think more about other people before thinking about myself.” Majdi is currently working for the Tunisian humanitarian and cultural association called AFREECAN (sorry peeps, only in French but give google translate a whirl), which is supporting children from remote areas who are from financially poor families or are at a disadvantage because of health issues to have better access to education opportunities and resources. They are currently raising funds to renovate school facilities in the northern mountains. See Majdi’s video here!

Tunisian activist Majdi Fal (Photo source: Majdi's facebook)

I saw Ramadan transform cities and towns. Prayer calls from nearby mosques chimed five times a day (You can hear the mountain town of Chefchaouen come to life with song at dusk here). Sugary sweets soaked in a honey syrup lined the streets as bees lingered close. Children played outside until late in the evening blowing trumpets and horns. Stores and shops remained vacant and closed for the best part of the day as people took to the mosques and other holy spots to bow in prayer. The scent of lentil soups and simmering tagines could be smelt in the night's air as families prepared to break the fast. Despite abstaining from so many things, it was clear to see that Ramadan is in actual fact a celebration; a celebration of faith, a celebration of personal growth, a celebration of connection and I'm very happy to have been apart of it.

Sweets and nibbles to break the fast

Your turn. Have you witnessed or been part of a mass celebration of connection? What was it like? The more adjectives the better! What did it mean to you? What did you take away from it?  Stinging to hear from you. Click away in the comment box below.

Next I’ll be musing over art and history from the stunning countries of Spain and Portugal all the while sipping on a sangria. Stay tuned amigos :)

Love love 

As the day comes to a close

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