Sunday, January 01, 2006


Place des Nations-Unies

Ramadan at Rick's

Pretty much everybody in the US knows Casablanca in the landscape of our imaginations.

The city is cool 40's snap brim fedoras and foggy airports. Clipped and clever dialogue. Homely anti-heroes and conflicted beauties who love them. World weary wisdom and passionate heroic intensity. Bogart and noir. Rick's Cafe Americain. Mysterious and worldly Arabs.

That last part's the thing.

While I was doing my due diligence I heard about the "worldly Arabs" of Casablanca from a lot of experienced folks in Morocco.

The Moroccans were supposed to be a pretty "user friendly" Islamic people, with the Casablancans the most western of all. I was expecting a toned down take on the kind of Islamic religious zeal that has Americans worked up into a pseudo-religious frenzy.

In some ways that view is pretty true.

Casablanca looks more western than most cities in the Islamic world. And judging by the way some of the fashionable young men and women dress it's not your father's Caliphate. At first glance it's more Ayatollah of Rock-n-Rolla than Wahabi worldview.

I got in country at the start of Ramadan. When in Mecca do as the Meccans. I decided to keep the dawn to dusk fast as best I could while there.

Christians once valued fasting as a way to discipline desire and open a pathway to what might be.

Western believers largely dropped that discipline long ago and put their faith and money on an overflowing marketplace. So spending time in a place where lots of people ritually and socially deny themselves something as basic as food was new for me.

Traditional Shoe Sale

When I'm traveling I normally buy my food at local markets. It's a good way to save money and get a better feel for the place. But shopping at a downtown supermarket in Casa during the fast was even more revealing than usual.

The place was packed out with eager folks getting food for the “break-fast” meal at dusk when everybody chows down after starving all day.

Every city in Morocco has a slightly different official breakfast time, often announced with loudspeakers or sirens. In Casa you can start downing the couscous at 6:30 pm sharp.

Anyway, folks went out of their way to look their best even though I knew they were suffering from hunger pangs and even dizziness since it was about 3 pm. Muslim people consider personal cleanliness of the utmost importance, a fact I learned firsthand a few years ago when--after walking around the hot and dirty streets of Cairo for hours--a good natured young man pointed out my need for “a more effective deodorant.”

Everybody looked sharp and clean, with about half the people wearing more traditional clothes and the other half wearing the west. And nobody seemed noticeably out of sorts, something I observed in most of the people I met during the fasting hours throughout Morocco.

Check out lines in the developing world will normally test the patience of even the Dalai Lama. This market was no different. I was in the “express” lane, which meant I had a chance to get through a ten person line in 20 minutes instead of 30 minutes. But even in lines moving at geologic speeds, folks were positive and unruffled.

Well, except for me. By that point my stomach was grumbling and my glucose stores were pretty much burned up. Feeling dizzy and a little on edge, the last place I wanted to be was squashed among the pious and cheerful in a hot, humid market. By the time I got through the line I secretly wanted to wipe the annoyingly pleasant expressions off a few of their faces :^) I realized at that point that I had a few things to learn from my temporary neighbors.

Beyond people’s dignified and pleasant demeanor, though, the most impressive thing about Ramadan in Casablanca was the simple fact that everyone observed the fast. Or at least, everybody I ran across got with the spiritual diet.

No sign of anybody trying to sneak a mini-chocolate donut on the sly. No restaurant or café open between dawn and dusk (well, with one exception). No sidewalk food peddlers. No smells of food cooking. Nada. For a westerner, it's almost inconceivable to spend all day in a big city without the sights and sounds and smells of food and of people eating.

Human nature being what it is, I'm sure lots of folks in the city were doing potato chips and Snickers bars when nobody else was looking. And I'd guess some families in the high end suburbs got their three squares behind their high walls. But none of that is immediately visible to a person spending a week on the streets among Casablancans.

Hollywood visions of Casablanca aside, and in spite of Casa’s French colonial roots, the reality is the vast majority of folks there are deeply committed Muslims. So much for the “worldly Arab” reputation. Maybe Casa is ‘more western’ than some other cities in Morocco and the Islamic world, but it’s a place of serious faith and practice by any western standards.

I sometimes hear these days about the beginnings of a Muslim “Reformation” or even a Muslim “Enlightenment.” Some people believe that Islam will join Christianity and Judaism as a faith thoroughly modified and re-interpreted to make it more compatible with secular modernity, capitalism and democracy.

Well, maybe. But from my experiences in the Islamic world, I wouldn’t hold my breath that will happen anytime soon.

Hassan II Mosque

I don’t want to give you the impression that I faithfully kept my short-term fasting vows, because I didn't.

On my last day in town, after walking for a few miles along the “Corniche,” the developed water front and beach area in the western part of the city, I got so dizzy by late afternoon that I just had to get some food. But nothing was open. What to do?

I walked north--head hazy and stomach growling--for about another mile until I saw what looked to me at the time like a vision of splendor.

It was The Golden Arches. If there was any restaurant in Casa that would probably ignore Ramadan, McDonald’s was the place.

McMaroc is the local tag for a worldwide franchise that has simply kicked Mohammed's booty. Current score: 99 billion served to 1.3 billion believers.


And sure enough, it was open for business. So I knocked down a meal along with some other happy infidels.

Now, I’ve probably eaten at McDonald’s ten times as an adult. Yes, it’s possible for an American to achieve this. I've never liked fast food, even as a kid.

But I’ve never been happier walking through the doors of a restaurant than I was walking into that air-conditioned ka-ching! sanctuary. I’ve never been so grateful to see such disregard for religious values and traditions.

It was a beautiful sight.

I guess hunger can re-arrange the mind wonderfully :^)


Blogger jon said...

“a more effective deodorant.” - Ha! That is hiliarious.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Ya, I actually cracked up when he said it and he got a kick out of it too and giggled. Obviously, folks are a little more straightforward about some things in Egypt than in the US.

6:33 PM  

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