Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ramadan Ends

Decked out
Today was Le’id Amzzan (or Le’id Lftur, or, in my town, just Le’id). It’s the day following Ramadan when everyone celebrates the ending of the fast. It’s one of the major holidays in Morocco, and in order to celebrate it appropriately, I went to the souq yesterday with my host father and bought new clothes – a tajlabit (jellaba), ikurbin (pointy-toed slipper-shoes), and a tarbut (woven skull cap) – all in white. Basically, dress clothes. In our town, to finish off the ensemble, you also wear a dagger. Since I own one, a rather beautiful one, I was all set.

Decked out in my new duds, I went to my host family’s house a little after 7:00 and had breakfast in the morning for the first time in a month. Actually, it seemed plain, though filling – just coffee, bread with olive oil, and dates – after the many-course feasts that evening lftur accustomed me to during Ramadan.

In my town, all of the men of the village gather in the morning for a prayer service at the top of a high hill just outside of town. About 8:45, Mohammed, my host father, signaled it was time to go. I asked one of my host sisters to take a picture of us in our finery. Wouldn’t you know it, the battery in my camera died. Not only would I not get a picture of us, I wouldn’t be able to get pictures of any of the proceedings! I did get some pictures later in the day. You’ll just have to imagine them peopled.

The shatu supplies water to the village
We climbed to the top of the hill, where the shatu (the water tank and pumping station that supplies tap water to the town) is. I’d never been up here before. The view was extraordinary. Along the way, we passed the cemetery. Since the graves were basically neat mounds of dirt and stones, some marked with tombstones, some with a flat, incised concrete, others with just an arrangement of rocks, I didn't realize it was anything other than the stony hillside till we were abreast of it. At the top of the hill, several hundred men, most of them in white tajlabits, were sitting on their prayer rugs chatting and waiting. At 9:00, the imam turned and faced east. All the rest followed suit, and they began their prayers.

The town cemetery
Behind them, I stood in the shadow of the shatu with a great view down the hill.  I could still see a stream of men coming up the hill, some breaking into a trot as they realized the prayers had begun.

I was standing with about 50 boys - it was all males here - who were cheerfully and loudly oblivious to the sacred proceedings going on on the other side of the chateau. One of the boys sold chick peas dusted with cumin for half a dirham. He served them up in cones made of sheets torn from one of his old school notebooks, the pages covered with the red, green, blue and black script – some sort of color-coding – that Moroccan teachers seem to require of their students. Other kids were sliding down the steel pipe that feeds water to the community. Occasionally a short scuffle – some pushing or kicking – broke out as the physical play of young boys went too far.

After about ten minutes, the prayer ended and all the men turned around and faced west. The imam gave a sermon, I guess, intoning from a prepared script for about 15 minutes. As the time wore on, some men pulled up the hoods of their tajlabits and others draped their prayer rugs over their heads to protect them from the sun. When the sermon was over they all stood up and formed a big U-shaped line. Beginning with the imam, the line started curling back on itself, with each man greeting every other man who was there. Hussain, a friend of mine from the village, saw me standing by the chateau and called me over. I reminded him that I had not taken part in the prayer or the service. "Mashi mushkil" (doesn’t matter), he said, pulling me into the greeting line. That process took longer than the whole previous service. In the meantime, someone had brought five or six large serving plates piled with couscous and set them on the ground. As we finished going through the line, many men went to the plates and took a handful of the couscous, symbolically breaking the fast, though a few seemed to linger there, making a meal of it.
The annual prayer service for le'id takes place on this
cleared ground with a concrete seat and platform for the imam

About 10:30, Mohammed and I, along with my nephew Sulayman and his dad, walked back to the family’s house, where the women had prepared tea and a spread of nuts and dates and cookies. For the rest of the morning and on into mid-afternoon, family, neighbors, and friends streamed through the house as they made the rounds of the village wishing everyone mbruk le’id – congratulations on the feast of breaking the fast.

So Ramadan is over. I managed to keep the fast the whole time, even while traveling, and I read the Qur’an in its entirety, my two goals for the period. I had several tough days, but I learned to schedule my physical activity so that it didn’t really put me at risk. I found that adapting to not eating for long stretches was not too difficult, but that it never got easy to go without water. And, as I’ve said before, it messed with my sleep. I’ll be curious to see: Will I return to my old pattern of falling asleep in seconds and sleeping straight through for seven hours, or will I be plagued with insomnia and fitful nights as I have been this month? Only time will tell.
From the hill there's a tremendous view of the town, the
green fields of the Dades Valley, Kalaa,and the
Atlas Mountains

Monday, August 22, 2011

Of Buses and Trains and Help from Strangers

I’m on the road again. Back to Rabat for a routine follow-up on some medical tests, then to a village in the Grand Atlas to visit a couple of other PCVs. I wrote what follows after my last trip (“I Become a Tourist”). I hope I do better on my own this time – though needing help always presents an opportunity to meet someone. At least I have the advantage of traveling to familiar territory. But then, I also ahave the unfamiliar situation of traveling while fasting. I’ll tell you all about it – with photos – in my next blog.

Transportation is often an adventure in its own right here and my recent trip was no exception. On the ten-hour ride to Azrou, the bus’s sound system blared a reading of the Koran non-stop. I don’t know if the driver was a religious zealot, or if it was company policy, but I have made a note of the bus-line so that I can avoid them if possible in the future. It’s not that I have anything against the Koran being read, but it was so loud, it was difficult for me to concentrate on the book I wanted to read.

I did see my first nomads on that trip. Over about a 30 km stretch through rolling hills, I saw thousands of sheep, huge flocks, along with a few donkeys, grazing the hills, and every quarter mile or so a tent compound. I was surprised at how various the tents were. Some very large, professionally made (usually black), others pretty rag-tag, often patched or supplemented by blue tarps, as if running the gamut from villa to shantytown.

Cart of Prickly Pears - lHindia - visible everywhere lots of
people gather this time of year
One of the things I like about long bus trips here are the rest stops. At some point the driver pulls over, turns off the engine and hops out. Everyone else does then, too, and spreads out looking for food and bathrooms. When the driver’s ready to go (usually in about a half hour), he starts the bus and honks the horn a few times. When you hear the horn, you best get on the bus, because no one calls the roll to see if everyone’s there. On the way to Azrou, we stopped at a town called Rich, which had a decidedly frontier feel to it. On my way home, we stopped at Taddert, high in the Tichka Pass. It was my second time there. I recognized it from the bus ride my third day in Morocco, from Marrakesh to Ourzazate. It’s a town strung along two sides of a mountain road. I think these stops are its main industry.

In both Rich and Taddert, there was a cart with lHndia (prickly pears). It’s the season for this succulent fruit. They’re cheap, 2 for a dirham. They're shaped like little hand grenades. The vendor deftly lops off both ends, then slices down the side and peels back the prickly cactus skin and holds it out to you so you can pick up the juicy inside. While you’re devouring that in two or three bites and getting juice down your chin and hands, he peels the second one for you.

My trip home involved taking the train from Rabat to Marrakesh, then a bus to Kalaa M’Gouna. By the way, the trains here are nice, fast, and on time. They also don’t stay in the station very long. They stop, people stream off, people climb on, and then they’re gone. It’s something I noticed while waiting for my Marrakesh bound train Tuesday morning. It made me a little nervous because I had my backpack, a large duffle, and a box with my new printer. I was traveling 2d Class, so there was no such thing as checked baggage. I felt awkward and bulky.

I got on what turned out to be a compartment car. There were no seats available in any compartments, so I found myself along with quite a few other people standing in the narrow aisleway hugging the wall with my duffle and box and having people sqeeze past me. I thought, “Am I going to have to make this whole ride out here?” But a guy next to me, perhaps reading my thoughts, said that after the next stop, there would be room in the compartments. And, sure enough, there was. I settled into a compartment with three women and a boy of ten or so stretched out asleep on the seat opposite me. I had just settled in when the conductor came by and told me I would have to change trains in Casablanca.

“Great.” I thought, “just what I want to do – wrestle these bags off and onto another train.” Again, I was a little nervous, knowing how briefly the trains stopped. I must have thought I was on the Marrakesh Express, because after about 45 minutes, a length of time I deemed sufficient to get us to Casa at the speed we were going, people started moving toward the end of the car. I decided I’d better get ready, too, and pulled my duffle and box out of the compartment and queued up at the end of the car. When we stopped, I hustled off. Only then, as the train was pulling away, did I look around and see that I was not in the middle of big, bustling Casablanca, but somewhere out in the country.

Trying not to panic – what of my connection in Casa? What of my bus connection in Marrakesh? – I looked around. I said to a guy near me, “This is not Casablanca, right?” In a more cynical culture, that would have just a elicited a pitying look. Or a laugh. But he just said, “No, Mahmoudiya.” Noting all the people on the platform, I asked, “Is there another train soon?” “In about 5 minutes,” he said. “Going to Casa?” He nodded, and I understood him to say, “It’s the next station.” In 15 minutes the train arrived. He helped me get my baggage on board, and we stood at the end of the car. After about 15 minutes, we came to another station. “Here?” I asked. “No,” he said, “the next station.” Somehow, though, some people on the platform got into the conversation, saying yes, I should get off there, because the next train through was bound for Marrakesh. So, at my good Samaritan’s urging, just as the doors were closing, I hopped off. Again, I found myself at a country station.

About 25 minutes later, the train arrived. My new good Samaritan (the one who’d urged me to get off), helped me with baggage and situated me in a standing area at the end of the car. Again, as at Rabat, there were no seats. We stopped in Casa briefly, then pulled away again. A well-dressed man next to me said that after the next station I would be able to find a place to sit. Sure enough, as we approached the next station, a number of seats emptied as people queued up at the end of the car. The well-dressed man walked into the car and staked out a place for me. I went in and placed my pack in the seat then went back and wrestled my duffle and printer into the aisle, found places for them in the overhead, then flopped into a very comfortable seat.

I spent most of the ride reading The Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux’s account of his overland journey from Cairo to Capetown. At one point I started talking with the woman next to me, whose cute little 5 or 6-year old daughter kept coming up from another row and talking with her then dancing off. After a while the young woman across the aisle from me said, in English, “What language are you trying to speak?” (Note the “trying”.) I told her Tamazight. Then she told me she was from Toronto, a Canadian-Moroccan here for the summer visiting her mother. I asked her if she was going to Marrakesh, the main station. She said, “Yes.” “I’m following your lead then,” I said, and told her about my getting off at the wrong station before Casa. When we arrived at Marrakesh, I looked around and saw that there were two station buildings. I asked her if she knew which was the main one, that I had to transfer to a bus. She pointed at one and, lifting her eyes, said, “That’s the bus station.” Raising my eyes, I, too, saw a rather large sign saying “Supr@tours Bus Station.” “Good thing I have you as my guide,” I said, then, thanking her, hustled off to the station. I have no idea whether I ended up on the right train to Marrakesh, but as it turned out, I arrived with 25 minutes to spare…with a lot of help from Moroccan strangers.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ramadan Begins

The breakfast table: tomato & onion salad, olives, dates, fresh figs, several
breads and pastries, soup, coffee, juice, and water - lots of water.

We’re now a week into Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting that Muslims all over the world observe to commemorate the period when Mohammed received the Qur’an.

From sun-up to sun-down, Muslims (with exceptions for the ill, travelers, nursing mothers and pre-pubescent children) are required to abstain from eating or drinking during daylight hours. There is also an increased emphasis on prayer and alms-giving  during Ramadan. Non-Muslims, like me, are allowed to eat and drink, though respect for the culture requires that you do so privately.

I decided to fast along with my Moroccan friends, though, and it’s been quite an experience. There are many aspects to it:
·         The physical act and bodily response to fasting
·         The breaking of the fast
·         The turning of one’s schedule topsy-turvey
·         The spiritual benefits

Inghayi laz, inghayi fad

These are common expressions, the equivalent of “I'm dying of hunger, I'm dying of thirst.” But everyone, including me, is saying them these days. I found the second and third days to be the worst, and quite difficult, but now my body seems to be acclimating to the regimen. The hardest time for me is in the morning between 10 and 11, after I’ve been up for 4 hours or so. But I’ve been able to continue my running (about 45 minutes every other day), though I time it just before sundown so that I can rehydrate shortly after I finish. And I’ve walked to Kalaa twice this week, about 5 miles round-trip. I’m not sure how manual laborers manage it, though, especially during this August heat.

Rmdan ishka, walakin ihla

I was led to believe that no one would ask me if I was fasting, that it would be a little too personal. On the contrary, once the ritual greetings are out of the way, everyone asks da tuzumt? (Are you fasting?). When I answer, Iyeah, da tuzumgh, I can see they’re both surprised and pleased. Sometimes, a bit incredulous, they’ll follow up with, Kulshi? Walu aman? Walu lmakla? (Everything? No water? No food?). And then they’ll follow up with Rmdan ishka, walakin ihla (Ramadan is hard, but it’s beautiful).

That’s my preeminent perception – everyone loves Ramadan. A big reason, I think, is the breaking of the fast, which happens with breakfast (lftur), about 7:30 in the evening after lmughrb, the sunset call to prayer. There are special dishes served, everyone in the family makes a special effort to be there - of course, since they’re all dying of hunger and thirst! - and, frankly, in this country where togetherness is a chief characteristic, there seems to be even more of it than at other times of year. There’s an eagerness to share the time, too. In the seven days so far, I’ve broken the fast with four different families, two of whom I had never eaten with before. Many families then also have dinner sometime after the last call to prayer, which occurs about 9:00. With my host family, we’ve also been playing a lot of card games, a Ramadan tradition.

One of the things I like about Ramadan is the early meal! It’s a substantial meal, all I really want or need, and I don’t have to wait until the usual dinner time of somewhere between ten and midnight.

A 3:00 a.m. Wake-up Call

I’m finding the hardest part of Ramadan has been the disruption of my normal sleep cycle. I’ve been following the recommended practice of getting up at 3:00 a.m. for shur, a pre-emptive meal with lots of water, which must be completed before the morning call to prayer at 4:00. Then I go back to bed until my alarm rings at 6:30, though in fact I’ve been staying in bed till 7:30. And then I seem to need a long nap in the afternoon. And when I go to sleep at night, and again after shur, I have trouble going to sleep, unheard of for me since my days in the Army, fifty years ago. So will I become accustomed to this, too? Or will Ramadan initiate a permanent change in my sleeping habits? I hope not! Or is adapting to this new sleep schedule part of the spiritual challenge?

Spiritual Benefits

Other than for short periods prior to medical tests, I’ve never fasted before in my life. I do not have any pre-conceived agenda about my fasting. I’m doing it out of curiosity and cultural reasons, rather than some religious or spiritual intent. But I do know that spirituality arises out of discipline and practice, both of which characterize Ramadan, so who knows what the result will be? As part of my practice, I am also using this time to read the Qur’an for the first time. After I wake up in the morning I read one juz’, a traditional division which facilitates reading the entire book in one month. It takes me about 45 minutes each day. I hope it will lead me to a deeper understanding of these people and this culture.

It is fascinating to watch as the whole society submits itself to this single idea. An example: Restaurants are closed most of the day (how do they survive a month of this?). And many businesses are closed for longer than usual in mid-day and, presumably, in the evening for lftur. So productivity (and income) must suffer during this time. But then this is not a society in which work is the pre-eminent value, as it in the States. I have lots to learn. For now, it is enough for me to observe and to submit myself to the discipline of fasting.