The smell of the soup wafts enticingly over but my mouth is too dry to water. The seconds tick past loudly. Then, the call to prayer rings out, ‘Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar – God is the most Great’. We all say, ‘In the name of God’ and reach for a date. I hear the blissful sound of water being poured. It is break-fast at Ramadan and I am sharing it with my neighbours.
I am a Scottish adventurer and came to Morocco to run the toughest foot race on earth, the infamous Marathon des Sables. I liked it so much I stayed. Eight years on I live in a compound in Imlil, high in the Atlas Mountains. There are four families housing about 25 people from the patriarch, the great-grandfather who is in his 90s, down to Khadija who is nearly five. Our houses are built into the rock of the mountains and from my terrace I can gaze on the soaring snow-covered peaks of the Atlas. The family cow and her new born calf live under my bedroom and the noisy, busy chickens cluck beneath the sitting room.
This is Amazigh (Berber) country and life here is communal. I am a strange being for living alone and one of the things I had to come to terms with when I moved into my little house was the genuine pity that the women here feel for me. ‘You poor thing, you have no husband, no children. Maybe we can find you a man and you can have a good life.’ Family is all in this culture and I am lucky enough to have been adopted as a kind of eccentric aunt. I am showered with affection and included in everything.
That brings responsibility with it and I decided that, although I am not a Muslim, I should fast with everyone else during Ramadan and share both the efforts and the rewards it brings. The first thing that everyone asks me in Ramadan is, ‘Are you fasting,’ and their delight when I say yes makes the longs hours of thirst and hunger worthwhile.
Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam and it is central to the faith. Muslims who may lapse in other areas will often still observe the fast. The rules are that you are not allowed to eat or drink, or smoke or have sex – even think about sex – between sunrise (approx. 5 am in Morocco) and sunset (approx. 7pm). Purists won’t even swallow their spit. As well as the fasting and praying, you should try to be a better person during the month, putting away your bad thoughts and actions and striving for a purer soul. I find this bit even harder than the fasting.
It is tough. I usually wake up around 8.30 with a dry mouth and morning breath. There is no coffee to look forward to. I brush my teeth making sure I don’t swallow any water – my body tries hard to. I feel ok in the morning. My tummy is hollow but I can usually function quite well. 3pm hits me like a train and it is woman down. By now I am dehydrated and have a headache. Hunger and thirst are dominating my system and my brain is slow. I feel like I have flu. The next four hours are to be overcome and stretch out long, I try to sleep or numb myself with Netflix. Half five is the time to attempt any kind of exercise as you can do an hour, shower and be ready to drink water at seven pm. Alternatively, it is the time that I go out into our shared yard and sit with the women and chat about how our day is going.
One of the aims of Ramadan is to understand what it is like for people who habitually don’t have enough to drink or to eat and I realise how physically brutal it is. When you are truly hungry and thirsty it is all you can think about. It’s as if your body has set off a fire alarm, you can only hear that noise.
In spite of this, my friends and neighbours really look forward to the ‘blessed’ month. They consider the fasting to be good for their health, a body reset. Their spirits thrive and then there is the true sense of celebration you get at each breakfast.
I eat every night with Fatma, her daughters and the children. There are lots of special Ramadan treats like fresh fruit juices or avocado with milk, little homemade pizzas, succulent chicken tagines and giant couscouses. We all eat from the communal dish and then sit back, drink sweet mint tea and watch the Ramadan Amazigh soap opera which is called Baba Ali and involves lots of men with eyeliner being carried around in sacks.
We are all laughing, sitting squashed up on the sofas, the children running amok over and around us. We have drunk and we have eaten and we are all together. The overwhelming feeling is of gratitude and contentment and the deep enjoyment of just being. For me, this is the true blessing of Ramadan.
Alice Morrison’s new book, Walking with Nomads, about crossing Morocco and the Sahara with six camels is out now www.alicemorrison.co.uk/books