For the average tourist looking to travel to a Muslim country, Ramadan is reason enough to postpone a visit.
What a shame.
Let’s lay out the facts. Ramadan is a month of religious purity — more or less the complete opposite of a Westerner’s lifestyle on vacation. During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunup to sundown (that includes water). Intoxicants are forbidden. Sex as well. Muslims attend mosque often and pray five times a day (technically a continuous requirement, but nobody’s perfect twelve months a year). Calls to prayer wail through the city every few hours — often enough to make the average American nostalgic for the Ke$ha soundtrack in the supermarket. It’s all a bit bewildering.
This is especially so for a nonreligious person. Despite their noted differences, Muslims, Jews, and Christians are all monotheists who worship more or less the same God. Atheists like me are left with a pile of Richard Dawkins books and quips of “but the fossil record!”
As chance would have it, I found myself with a plane ticket to Marrakech in June during Ramadan, equipped with Balance Bars and episodes of Seinfeld. I knew a bit about Islam: as part of a series of personal experiments in my twenties, I attempted to live like a Muslim during Ramadan (but that’s another story for another day). I’ve read the Quran. I’ve prayed at a mosque. I’ve broken fast with samosas from a man I’d just met. However, I participated in Ramadan in San Francisco, where atheism is the norm, not the exception. Still, the experience left me with a deep reverence for Islam, even if my life has been significantly less pure since.
Even with that background, I initially felt tepid about vacationing in Morocco during a holy month, especially since I had no qualms about scarfing down tagine and mint tea at noon. I had many questions leading up to my visit. Will anything be open? Won’t everyone be miserable if they’re not eating? Where can I get a beer?
I’m glad I didn’t let those inane questions consume me. Because Ramadan is magical. It produces a unity unmatched in the Western world. Independence Day provides the closest analogue, but beer and barbecue is hardly deep culture. Even Christmas is divisive. With over a billion participants, Ramadan is the largest showing of cultural cooperation anywhere in the world. When I asked our guide how many of the thousands of Muslims in a Berber market were fasting, he looked at me like I’d asked how many people had mouths. “Everyone.”
In a city like Marrakech — bustling with motorbikes and street hawkers, where the smell changes from gasoline to orange rinds to burnt sandalwood meter by meter — you can feel Ramadan. The city inhales and exhales it. One moment the streets are flooded; another they’re empty. It seems incomprehensible until you stumble upon an alleyway leading to a mosque and glimpse rows of men prostrating in prayer. That’s where everyone is. Only when you find yourself caught in a dense mass of white-robed men streaming down from the mosque will you begin to grasp how important the month is to so many.
And so, what of the practicalities for a traveler? Will you be able to find food? Of course, especially in an area known for tourism. Plenty of restaurants cater to the non-fasters. Islam is a religion founded on love. Even though fasting is a fact of life for Muslims, they have empathy enough to realize it’s not a fact of everyone’s.
That said, you have to be respectful. That means not wandering into a mosque wearing shorts and a Nikon. You probably shouldn’t chug water, smoke cigarettes, or munch chips on the streets. If it’s just after sundown, you’ll have to recognize that the service is slower since the staff is taking turns serving so the others can eat.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the locals thought of the Westerners sipping on mojitos at 6 p.m. Most I asked seemed unoffended, as long as it was done on a restaurant terrace. Although no one said this outright, based on my knowledge of the Quran, there’s a deeper, unstated subtext: if you’re a nonbeliever, you’re a lost cause anyway. (Personally, if I end up being wrong about the afterlife, I’m blaming the chicken Caesar salad.)
That said, if you’re a woman wandering the streets solo, be prepared for pent-up sexual energy directed your way. No one would dare touch you (at least in Morocco, the penalty for harming a tourist is massive). At best you’ll get a “Moroccan husband for you?” At worst, you’ll be followed and harassed for wearing a halter top and low-cut jeans.
Most Muslims shun those attitudes and actions, though. Nonbelievers may be going to Hell, but the hypocrites — those that claim to practice but live impure lives — are doomed to an even deeper level. I heard a story from another traveler of a fight in a market between two men, which escalated to one whipping out a knife. When the tourist asked his server what was happening, the server replied that the two were friends and one accused the other of smoking during the fast — a punishable offense. Tempers flared, but once the offender assured his friend that his afterlife prospects were still intact, they eventually calmed down and kissed each other on the cheek.
To truly experience Ramadan, you must be in the medina as the sun concludes its descent. People who were lethargic an hour earlier begin to brighten with the promise of food. The sky turns a brilliant orange, the shops close, and the streets empty. Like birds calling to their flock, the Maghrib call to prayer rings throughout the city. You’ll see a man pop a date in his mouth, another sip some vegetable soup, and you’ll feel the tension dissipate.
Fast is broken not with a feast, but a morsel. Prayer is more important than gorging yourself. Most Muslims head to a mosque or back to their home to pray, and only after that concludes do they feast. If you wondered where all the women were during the day, many were at home preparing food for their families. With the fast over, the city comes to life — only in a Muslim country will you find streets busier at 1 a.m. than sunset.
And so, the concern I’d had about the “inconvenience” of being in a Muslim country during Ramadan was replaced by respect and reverence. Atheism can come with a dismissive attitude that is dangerous and counterproductive. Those who cling to their preconceived notions about religion, culture, and politics from behind a white picket fence should consider opening their eyes to the cultures they accuse of being closed-minded.
I consider myself lucky that my trip to Morocco was in June and not July. If nothing else, I have a deeper recognition that Allahu akbar is not a threat or a war cry but a call for love, unity, and peace. After all, it means “God is great.” And even if I don’t plan on meeting Him, after viewing the beauty of Ramadan, who am I to argue?