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"Fast Times in Morocco"
December 6, 2000

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Bab Bou Jeloud
Fs, Morocco (28Nov00)

I awoke with sand in my shorts and sun in my face. It was the first day of Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting, but my location high atop a sand dune hours into the desert meant that I was far from the morning call of the mosques of Merzouga. The start of Ramadan can only be determined by observing the exact moment the new moon begins, so the exact start can vary based on location.

Ramadan is one of the five pillars, or founding principles, of Islam. They are 1) Allah is God, and Mohammed is his prophet, 2) praying five times daily, 3) fasting during Ramadan, 4) giving alms to the poor, and 5) making the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, if you have the means to do so. During Ramadan, fasting begins each day at sunrise and continues until sundown, when the fast is broken.

Seeing as I was both hungry and non-Muslim, my morning continued as usual, with a leisurely, post-sunrise breakfast. I then hopped on my camel and, accompanied by my guide Ali, headed back to Merzouga. I got a ride back to Rissani in the very same bright orange taxi driven by the man with the bright orange turban that I took out, but this time it was a communal taxi ride and only cost a fraction of the cost.

Rissani seemed even more chaotic than when I had left it. People were rushing around in a near frenzy, like they were preparing for the arrival of a great storm. Then, at 5:20, a strange thing happened; everyone disappeared. I was all alone on a street that only moments before was exploding with activity; stores were locked tight, there wasn't a bus or taxi in sight, and it was dead quiet. Everyone had gone home to break the fast for the day. The situation did not bode well for those of us who didn't have a home to go eat at. I was left eating cookies for dinner, sitting on the curb of the street.

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Bab Bou Jeloud at night
Fs, Morocco (29Nov00)
Having spent a relaxing couple of weeks far from the big cities, I was ready to jump back into the thick of things. I hopped on an all-night bus headed for the imperial city of Fes. Fes is the oldest and in many ways the most impressive of the imperial cities. Its medina, or old city, made Marrakesh's seem small and tame. Its labyrinthine streets were packed with butchers, craft shops, fruit stands, and, my favorite, the sweet shops. The indisputable best of the Moroccan sweets was called chabeckai, a deep fried ribbon of spicy pastry, drowned in a sweet syrup as thick as tar. They were stored fused together in a giant cone almost a meter high, and each one would require a determined yank to remove it from its sticky, sugary hold on the pile.

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Guarding the chabeckai
Fes, Morocco (28Nov00)
The medina was confusing enough that I eventually gave in and hired one of the dozens of local kids who were pestering me to be my guide. Doing so was a lot cheaper than hiring one of the "official" guides, but I got exactly what I paid for. The kid ran around the medina with his friends in tow, and I had to scramble just to keep up. Eventually, I made it to the tannery, thet highlight of the medina. It was an extensive open-air leather processing district, with hundreds of huge vats full of goat skins soaking in multi-colored dyes. Spread out on the rooftops of all the nearby buildings were skins of various colors drying in the sun, soon to become the slippers, bags, and belts that were on sale elsewhere in the medina.

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The tannery
Fs, Morocco (28Nov00)
Scattered throughout the medina were the minarets of countless mosques, each with several banks of low quality megaphones mounted on top. Just like mobile phone cells, their locations were strategically chosen to maximize coverage. Each prayer would usually begin with the singer clearing their throat as loundly as possible through the megaphones. The prayers would rain down, sputtering and crackling onto every square meter of Fes five times every day; at sunup, midday, sundown, and twice in between.

Eating during daylight hours continued to be problematic, and I would resort to sneaking back to my room midday to snack in order to avoid the obviously disapproving stares I would get when I ate in the streets. It was becoming clear that trying to eat during the day was more trouble than it was worth.

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Fs skyline
Fs, Morocco (29Nov00)
Through the window of my room, I could look down on a mysterious building across the street. Huge plumes of steam would pour out of the strange, cylindrical shaped roof, and pretty soon, my curiousity compelled me to investigate. It turned out to be a hammam, or bathhouse, a truly unique Moroccan institution which everyone should try at least once in their lives.

The routine was as follows; I started by paying 30 Dirhams (about US$3) to an old, bald, pot-bellied man who worked in the front room. After stripping down to my underwear, he lead me through a series of three tiled, cylindrical-roofed rooms. The first was cool, the second warmer, and the third hot and steamy. I started in the hot room, where I was instructed to lay on the floor. The hot tile floor heated my body to the core, as I layed and watched an endless string of rickety old men with buckets parade in, fill their buckets from the fountain, and leave.

After ten minutes a side, my Gandhi look-alike guide led me to the warm room, where I once again layed on the floor. Using an abrasive mitten, he started violently scouring my entire body like a dirty stove, peeling off large clumps of old, dirty skin. He then soaped me down from head to foot, while simultaneously masssaging me. Once I was thoroughly soaped up, he grabbed one of the nearby buckets and dumped its entire contents of warm water over me. Before I had time to catch a breath, he poured another bucket on me, this time with very hot water. Soon he was back with two more buckets, and he poured them both on me as well, the first cold, the second warm.

My dousing complete, I was led back out to the front room to dry off. I found it strange that everyone bathing in the hammam wore their underwear during the procedure, especially since there were specific hours for men and women thereby guaranteeing privacy. An unexpected side benefit of the custom was that I left with a newly washed pair of underwear.

By the next day, I had decided that it was time to go native; to fast for Ramadan. It was not only an issue of practicality, it was also one of respect for local custom. Little did I know that doing so would open up a whole new, wonderful side of the Moroccan people.

Fasting for Ramadan requires abstinence from anything that passes the lips - food, water, cigarettes - from sunrise to sundown. Conveniently, or inconveniently, depending on your perspective, there was a great ruckus at five AM with horns and prayers to wake you up for a last meal before sunrise. I usually would just reach out of my bed, grab a handful of dates, and wash them down with some water before going back to sleep. Lack of food can make anyone a bit edgy, and when a whole country hasn't eaten, it can only spell trouble. In the final hour before sundown, when everyone would run franticaly through the markets making last minute food purchases, strung out and irritable from low blood sugar, fights were inevitable.

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Olives and lemons never looked so good
Mknes, Morocco (1Dec00)
As I arrived in Meknes, another Imperial city, I went straight to the market to photograph. It was a visual delight, with the line between food and art completely blurred; olives and lemons would be stacked together in intricate patterns like Lego blocks, every sweet would be placed in the exact right spot. It seemed a shame to buy anything and spoil the display. As I was snapping away, a great commotion was happening in one end of the market. A man, yielding a knife, was engaged in a yelling match with another. People gathered around to watch the action, but no one seemed to see it as much more than just entertainment. Sure enough, the testosterone level soon ebbed, and everyone got back on with their business.

I broke my fast by snacking on a few things I had bought in the market - I obviously had no regrets about destroying public art - but as I left my hotel, I met a man who invited me to break the fast with him and his family. Fearful that it was just another Moroccan scam to liberate me from my money, I told him thanks, but I had already eaten. Still, he insisted I join him for tea at the least, and I figured that it couldn't be too much trouble, so I accepted. Also joining us was my friend Tamsin, a British woman whom I had run into so many times by random in Morocco that it felt like one of us was following the other.

When tea time arrived, we went to the house and knocked. We were greeted by Ahmed, a slender, well dressed man in his mid 30's. As he shook each of our hands in turn, he would move his hand to his heart and briefly touch it, as if he were taking a piece of each of us into his own heart. It was the standard greeting in Morocco, and it hinted at the deep, heartfelt connection in Moroccans that sometimes got lost amongst the hustlers and scamsters of the cities. The house was beautiful; all the walls were covered in ornate blue tiles, making it look like some kind of luxurious bathhouse. Along the walls ran a sofa made of many square cushions, and on the wall, a guilded Quran (Koran.)

The women of the house, his wife and mother, were kept in a separate room, as they were not allowed to entertain guests, only prepare the tea. After tea, Ahmed proceeded to bring out an endless number of photos, which he had neatly packed in a box. Apparently it was some wedding that his mother had attended, or perhaps several weddings. It was rather hard to tell, and his English was far from comprehensible. Tamsin and I, not wanting to be rude and bolt immediately after tea, sat patiently through a half hour of photos and mangled monologue, but eventually we tired of mechanically bobbing hour heads in feigned understanding, and we politely make our exit.

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Me and Rachid
Mknes, Morocco (3Dec00)
The hospitality never stopped. Each time I met someone in the street and casually mentioned that I was fasting, they would invariably invite me to their home for dinner; it seemed that joining them in the fast earned tremendous respect. Once such person I met was Rachid, a slow but sweet man who had once lived in Canada, until a series of run-ins with the law resulted in his being deported back to Morocco. He was patiently waiting until he would be allowed to return. Rachid insisted that I join him at his family's house to break the fast. Once again, the women were noticible in their absence, and only Rachid and I ate together.

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Breaking the fast
Mknes, Morocco (2Dec00)
There seemed to be a near ritual with how they ate the meal. All the food would be layed out, and they would patiently sit and wait until you could hear the prayers bellowing out, just as the sun set. First, they would eat a single date. Then, a bowl of hearty lentil soup called Harina. Next came the bread, olives, chabeckai, and tea, and soon after, smoking. Some people would postpone the food and go straight for a cigarette, and the smoke of choice was hashish. The smoking seemed to continue for the rest of the evening. You could see it wafting from every single bar and cafe in town, from the instant of sundown until the wee hours of the morning. The Moroccan's obsession with hashish was impressive - apparently the absence of alcohol necessitated a strong stubstitute.

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Bluewashed streets
Chefchaouen, Morocco (4Dec00)
As I slowly worked my way back up north to the town of Chefchaouen, the invitations for dinner just kept coming. Even on the night when I ate in a restaurant to break the fast, I was immediately invited to a table, and we all shared the various offerings as one family. They refused to let me pay. Fasting became an amazing way to connect with the people, to no longer be an outsider.

Chefchaouen was a beautiful little town, built up into the sides of a steep hillside. Everything in town was painted in pale bluewash, giving it a very Mediteranean feel. Chefchaouen was also a hippie hangout - the Kathmandu of Morocco. Pleasant and quiet, it was full of westerners seeking the eternal chill-out. From the moment I arrived, I was whisked away by a British man into a small cafe, where I found myself in the middle of a drumming circle.

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More kids
Chefchaouen, Morocco (4Dec00)
Chefchaouen was, even for Morocco, awash in marijuana and hashish. The only annoying part of Chefchaouen were the people tring to sell hashish, as well as Berber carpets. "Hello, where are you from? California? Many people from California come to my shop to buy authentic Berber carpets." As I was wandering my way around town photographing, I had one man try in vain to convince me to buy some hash and smuggle it home in tiny balloons in my stomach. I assured him that it would be much, much longer than a digestive cycle before I found my way back to my own country.

After taking all the chill-out I could handle, I, Tamsin, who I not surprisingly ran into yet again, and a couple of other friends met along the way all started to make our way across the Straight of Gibraltar and into the western world once again.

Morocco would be missed.

Copyright 2000-2001 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.