“SO YOU’RE SITTING on the fence,” he says accusingly. He grins at me and pours himself tea into a glass.
I don’t believe in God. I don’t know he doesn’t exist, though. No one knows that stuff. Probably we never will. There are many things in the universe that can’t be explained and science can only go so far, look so closely, before it starts getting in the way of itself and changing what we see. Nor does it ever really explain ‘why,’ only ‘how;’ maybe that means something. But still, I don’t have faith.
Instead I say: “So you were explaining, what is the story behind Ramadan?”
“No story. At least not the kind you are looking for. No, Ramadan is when the Qur’an fell from the sky to earth.” He looks up at me from his tea glass and hides a smile. “It is one of the things God has ordered we must do.”
“Like the Ten Commandments?”
“Ye-es…it is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. You must do Ramadan. You must pray, five times a day when you are called to prayer.” He counts them off on his fingers. “Charity, you must give to the poor. And you must go to Mecca, a pilgrimage. But only if you have the means.”
“And the fifth?”
He glances at his fingers, counting four. “I don’t remember. I think it’s important though…”
During the day the streets are quiet. Shops open and close early to avoid the heat, and at dusk the city becomes still as a ghost town. Only the shadows show movement in the lit apartment windows, those of families and friends brought together to eat. Once night falls, the city becomes alive.
We make the most of the cool, quiet morning, buying groceries for the night. Tomato-meat-chickpea soup, fat-holed pancakes or rugged bread and sweet honeyed pastries filled with sesame seeds or thick with almond paste that stick to the plate, dates, a boiled egg, and milk make up the typical Ramadan meal in Morocco.
“Don’t you get fed up of eating the same thing every night?”
“Well, we only eat this during Ramadan.”
We pick croissants and olive-stuffed bread from the counters at a cafe, flies and wasps crawling their way through mounds of glaze and powdered sugar, and take two cakes that look worthy of being sold in the finest patisseries in France.
“How do you say two?”
“Zouje, but you can say deux. Even that old beggar on the street speaks French.”
“Aren’t we taking a lot of food? Isn’t it cheating to gorge yourself after a day of fasting?”
A grin. “It’s for everyone. Besides, Ramadan is about appreciating what you have, being thankful. Not starving yourself.”
We stumble our way through and over and around stalls in the old town Medina, picking up mint, big ripe fruits, and sardines. A man waves a prickly pear from his cart at me as I stare at a wooden slab from which five sheep heads look up at the sky, dead-eyed, teeth bared and grinning. Garnished with parsley.
Everything is fresh and cheap. We inspect the piles of meat at the butcher shop, happy to try anything new and unrecognisable from street vendors. I once tried a sheep brain sandwich for this reason, mistakenly. After reading menus outside several restaurants, I discover all are the same this month: “Ramadan Special.”
We choose one with high ceilings and old paintings of men on horseback, deserts and kasbahs, and sit beneath a huge chandelier. The other tables are occupied by one or two men each, the odd couple, mostly reading newspapers or sitting quietly in front of their bowls as a tureen of soup makes the rounds of the room.
I check the time; only 7:20, and the call to break fast is not until half past. So we sit, all of us, a restaurant of people all watching our soups.
“It’s going cold,” I muse.
“Yeah, you can eat if you want you know.”
I play with a date instead, rolling it around the tray and then squashing it slightly with my fingertip, sticking it like tack to the paper.
“The dates and milk are traditional and in the past, in the desert, people would break their fast with them, where nothing else was very available.”
I imagine angry stomachs rumbling in protest to dried fruit and camel milk after a day baking in the sun, wondering how long you could live like that, all that fibre — and then the call interrupts my thoughts. I look up from my tortured date to see a man at a table ahead slowly lower his paper and furtively glance around over the pages at the other diners, pausing to verify, and then tucking in heartily.
I laugh. “Well, I am definitely looking forward to this after waiting.”
“I heard on the news that there might be a protest, some people taking picnics and eating outside on the grass, that sort of thing. The government says it will set the riot police on them.”
“For a picnic?! I mean, I see why people would take offence…”
“No, they shouldn’t. You don’t know what it’s like. If people want to fast that is their issue, taking it out on others is just weakness. Last year a non-Muslim man was beaten to death in Morocco for eating in a McDonalds during Ramadan, inside. The government have decided to shorten Ramadan by two days this year, because of the heat-wave, but then only they are allowed to bend ‘God’s rules’.”
The call to prayer begins to resonate out into the early morning darkness, mixing with others into a cacophony of voices. The beauty of the individual Adhan is lost among the clashing notes and the warring sounds become haunting, baying in the night. It punctuates the air regularly every day, blending into the city backing track for those who let prayers slide. We sit in the walled patio-garden and listen in silence as impending dawn brings with it more fasting.
“So why are you doing Ramadan?”
“Because I want to. But people should have the choice.”
Armies of feral cats prowl the streets everywhere, taking on overflowing and defenceless wheelie bins in gangs, gutting the putrid bags of rubbish that lie already sprawled across the streets. They run beneath the tables on terraces, crying for pieces of chicken and purring affectionately. Opposite the cafe where we are sitting an older woman holds a child in her arms, looking up at passersby from where she is hunched on the curb, her hand held out. I am not hungry.
As we walk around town he tells me how poor the country is, about the high levels of illiteracy, prostitution, of women forcibly divorced from their husbands and left on the street. He points out the photos of the King that have been lovingly placed in every hovel and tiny cafe. We pause outside a wooden kiosk, walls packed floor to ceiling with boxes and jars and nuts and toilet paper and juice.
“I mean, where else can you do this?” he says, and ducking under the nets of oranges and hanging mint he asks the man at the kiosk, “zouje garro afak?” The man pulls out a crumpled pack of Marquise cigarettes from a drawer and hands him two, his change, and a lighter that is fastened to the till by a piece of grimy string tied around its middle.
He hands out coins, to the old man who stops us in the street, to the kid who tries to sell us tissues, to the women outside the bakery after a meal. Bits of copper fall into people’s hands. I save up my change for the woman and her child.
We sit opposite each other at a small square table in the airport cafe. The table is littered with the coffee cups, bruised banana skins, and the sticky bottles of fruit juice that have accumulated over the last four hours, waiting for the morning. I rub my eyes as the conversation lulls, tired from the unnatural yellow light of the airport, and my skin feels greasy under my fingers.
Nine hours ago, back at the apartment, I tried to understand why we had to leave so early when my plane was at 7 the next morning and the airport a mere two hours away.
“The trains are dangerous that early in the morning. You get the boozi, gangs with knives.”
“But you took the 3am train the last time you went to Casablanca.”
“Yes, but I went with my brother. We would be more of a target.”
I glumly pushed a round (and now grumpy) cat off my suitcase where it had been napping and thought for a moment. It’s true that my past travelling experiences in Morocco had been strange. The driver who passed me a bottle of Heineken before opening one for himself — hands free! The taxi driver whose tiny frame occasionally left his seat when he swerved between cars at speed, his radio belting out verses of the Qur’an, leaving us to roll about in the back (no seatbelts) with my boyfriend laughing the whole time.
On one occasion we had waited, tickets clasped in hands, at the newly built tram stop as two trams passed us by at full speed. Giving up and following the tramlines into town we later discovered them, a small herd of trams, all gathered together under the trees and blocking the road, their drivers sandwiching on the tracks. My eyes, querying, were answered with a shrug and a sigh, “Ramadan.”
The train that had originally brought me to the city had been late by a few hours. When it finally pulled up alongside us the closest door, which was already open ajar, was wrenched open by a passenger, only to stick, buckle, and wedge half-open in a concertina shape. We took the door at the other end of the carriage as people squeezed suitcases through the gaps.
Ours was the only compartment that was lit and we shared it was a young Moroccan couple who, apart from the conductor, were the only people we saw on the train after everyone had boarded. Cigarette ash, glowing red in the dark and blown down the corridor by the draft from the door, was the only other sign of a presence on the silent vehicle. I was later told that sometimes the lights go out on evening trains, the blackouts caused by thieves, bribery money, and carelessly placed handbags.
None of this compared to gangs with knives, however. We took the train at 9pm.
I check the time on my phone: half past four. Our conversation about the difficulty for Moroccan people to leave their country had dried up a while ago as tiredness and the sticky summer heat began to take their toll. The time means no more coffee to keep us awake. I suggest I try the check-in desk, and we peel ourselves off plastic seats and head towards Departures.
“By the way, I looked up the five pillars of Islam.”
“Yes, on Google. The fifth one is ‘Believe in God.’”
“Goes without saying I guess.”
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Bryony Cottam is a writer and radio presenter in southwest France, a photographer and Sub Editor of the political site ShoutOutUK.org.