Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ramadan & Christmas in Morocco, Part 1 of 2

In December 2000 I discovered the other Casablanca--not the movie but rather a bustling, third-world city celebrating Ramadan. My visions of romance and an exotic land of cafes, gin joints, and beautiful people faded when I laid eyes on my now former boyfriend (hereafter referred to as FBF, not to be confused with BFF) at the Casablanca airport. Eight months had passed since he left to serve in the Peace Corps in West Africa. Over the next three weeks in Morocco, I would learn that personal hygiene is relative but when he greeted me I was unwitting to this fact. FBF smelled and looked like a man of the bush! “Couldn’t even shower and put on clean clothes to woo his woman”rumbled through my head.

Morocco is a popular travel destination for those who enjoy unique culture and adventurous conditions. December and January are the coldest and the rainiest months of the year. Most people would not choose to be in Morocco in December. And the maraschino cherry of it all? Twice every 30 years Ramadan coincides with Christmas and we were there for it! Ramadan, lasting 29-30 days, is the Muslim holy month. Ramadan traditions include the fasting of food, water, cigarettes, sex and other worldly pleasures from sunup to sunset each day. It is a time of sacrifice, prayer, and mindful reflection. 

It didn’t take long to figure out that Casablanca was not a Hollywood stage. All delusions of romantic trysts dimmed when FBF took me to our boarding room. I stared in disbelief: one single bed, a sink, and concrete floors. “Where’s the bathroom?” seemed a logical question and the answer prepared me for my Moroccan experience. He led me down the chilly hall, pointed out a group shower, adding that the hotel does not provide hot water. Then I saw the bathroom stall. A filthy ceramic hole and a faucet with a small bucket of water greeted me with a sneer. No toilet paper in Morocco--it is customary to wipe with the left hand and eat with the right. The bucket was there to rinse hands and catch the water from the spigot above. 

Choosing not to cold shower it, we took to the streets of Casablanca. Everywhere I turned men butchered live animals (chickens, fish, goats, and an occasional cow) to offer for sale. Despite the seemingly filthy conditions, I couldn’t help but guess that the process was less germ-ridden than U.S. meat factories. When a man purchased a slaughtered and plucked chicken, probably still warm with afterlife, and carried it barehanded down a narrow street I had one of many lessons that industrialized does not always equal better. Back in Missouri, I could only dream of meat that fresh.

Men worked and socialized in the streets during the day while the women, at home, prepared an elaborate meal for that evening’s break fast. It took me awhile to realize that they weren’t talking about breakfast. The mosques across Morocco play their haunting and beautiful sound (listen here at about 5:30 each morning and evening, alerting all that the day’s fast either had started or ended.

With few restaurants open due to the holiday, my first dinner purchase included bottled water, dry crackers, a banana, along with multiple packages of kleenex for bathroom use. In less than 24 hours, any thoughts of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s affair had dimmed yet I couldn’t help but look to the future. With our long bodies squeezed in a single bed I whispered in FBF’s ear: “We’ll Always Have Paris.”

Some highlights of our time in Casablanca include:

The Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca, is one of the two mosques in the world that allows non-Muslim visitors. It opened in 1993. The tour was a very aesthetic and spiritual experience and I felt privileged to be there especially during Ramadan. The mosque was designed under the watchful eye of King Hassan II who said, "I want to build this mosque on the water, because God's throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the Creator on firm soil, can contemplate God's sky and ocean."

I Spy a Tall Blonde (FBF)
It was hard to lose each other.
We encountered an unexpected mid-day gathering in the streets surrounding a local mosque. King Hassan II and his entourage drove to the town square procession-style and shared in a noon prayer with his people. The next morning with the rain cleared, we enjoyed the first glimpse of sunshine in days. I found myself relaxed in a Moroccan sort of way as we wound our way through some Casablanca souks and plotted our Christmas excursion over hot tea and crackers. 

Stay tuned for Part 2: Camping, Camels, and Survival in the Sahara Desert on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Marrekash.

The link to Part 2:


  1. Wow, are you ever brave to withstand such filth and squaller.And you even learned to enjoy it. Great piece, Annie.


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