The sun dips down in the sky disappearing into the Atlantic Ocean. I seldom have watched a sunset so intently; waiting, waiting, waiting for that last little sliver to disappear. So much rested on that last sliver. My gaze moved from the sliver of sun to the restaurant around me. Families and couples sat at the tables with a platter of water, orange juice, a hard-boiled egg, and some bread in front of them. It was then that I realized that traveling during Ramadan in Morocco was a real learning experience.
This wasn’t the first time I was in a predominantly Muslim country during Ramadan. In fact, I still remember being in Zanzibar in 2006 on my career break travels when the hotel owner warned my sister and me not to go out right after sunset because it was Ramadan and the streets would be empty. I didn’t really understand what he meant – but we did take his advice. I was also in Istanbul Turkey one hot July during Ramadan; I was intrigued with the holiday, but I didn’t really try to learn much about it – until now.
When I arrived in Morocco, I had no idea Ramadan was supposed to start in 3 days. Unlike Christmas which falls on the same day every year, Ramadan changes days every year. The Islamic calendar has only 29 or 30 days in each month; therefore, Ramadan changes by 13 days every year. That was the first of many surprises that I encountered regarding Ramadan in Morocco.
For some reason, I always equated Ramadan as the big Muslim holiday, similar to Christian Christmas, but I learned that this holiday was far from joyous, in fact, it seemed like more torture than ‘joy to the world’. Yet I also learned that Ramadan had more in common with Christmas than I first thought.
Ramadan in Morocco
I took a lot of time on this trip to learn more about this important time. And it was interesting being there at the beginning and seeing the daily life go from normal to Ramadan. 95% of the population of Morocco is Muslim, so this holiday affects pretty much everyone. However, I wanted to also understand how it affected travelers like me and ultimately answer the question – should you travel to a country when they are celebrating Ramadan?
But first – some background.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the month in the Islamic calendar when the Quran was messaged to the prophet.
At this time Muslims fast from eating, drinking (even water!), smoking, and having sex from sun up to sun down. Depending on the time of year the month falls, this can be up to 16 hours of fasting a day! They do this in order to know and feel the hunger pains of the less fortunate and be grateful for what they have. It’s a time to remember the poor and destitute. It is supposed to be a time when you work hard and focus more on religion and God. Muslims spend more time at the mosque and more time praying. And they always go to Friday prayers.
How is Ramadan Celebrated Today?
Ramadan is powerful…so powerful it has the ability to turn back time! On the night before Ramadan started our guide told us the clocks would be changing by an hour. No – this wasn’t some sort of daylight savings time – this was Ramadan time. Moving the clocks back an hour allowed people to break their fast a little earlier in the evening. It will change back after the month is done.
“Ramadan can be hypocritical,” our guide Rasheed told me. “Normally people aren’t in the mosque, but during Ramadan it’s full, you can’t even find space to pray!” It’s true – many times as we walked around the cities, we saw people praying outside the mosque as there wasn’t room inside. It seems as if Christmas and Ramadan have more in common than I thought! What church doesn’t have to pull the folding chairs out of storage every December 24th for the extra people at the services they only see once a year?
And also, like Christmas, according to Rasheed it seems that Ramadan has also gotten caught up in modern-day commercialism, straying from the original meaning and origins. Families and restaurants often have huge dinners on display after sunset – going the other extreme to overabundance. I did see plenty of ads for ‘breaking of the fast’ dinners at fancy hotels around the area while staying in various cities in Morocco. It seems that even Ramadan has been swallowed up by social media and marketing.
Fasting and other Hardships
The abstinence includes food, drink, sex, and smoking. I’m not a smoker, so I personally think that not drinking any liquid would be the real challenge. Especially considering it was well into the 90s while I was in Morocco and I can’t imagine 15 hours without any water in that heat. Plus, we were traveling around the Sahara Desert; it sounds like a bad horror movie – not being able to drink in the desert!
Rasheed said that the first 2 or 3 days of fasting are the hardest as your body adjusts to a new schedule. I personally can’t imagine how hard it must be in the beginning, especially if you have to be around people eating like our poor guide. He would normally get us to lunch and then go in the back and take a nap or read the paper.
He also mentioned that this is a month where you get very little sleep since in the dark hours you are also making sure you are drinking a sufficient amount and waking up early to eat. He normally drinks 3 Liters of water at night; he’s up all night peeing.
This is where we get the term breakfast, and breaking fast at sunset is a pretty welcome experience as you would guess! I noticed that people go about this in different ways; some load up on food and some start really light with water and soup. But the thing that is consistent among everyone is that they are inside eating something at sunset. This is when the entire place full of hustle-bustle just minutes before, turns into a ghost town for an hour; vendors close up their shops, and the streets are quiet. It’s actually an eerie experience to see the streets of Marrakech go from full to empty as if the zombie apocalypse is coming and no one gave me the message.
One of my favorite evenings was sitting at the Casablanca beach restaurant watching the sun go down. I could feel the energy in the air as families and couples came into the restaurant to sit down and wait. The waiter was calm and collected as he placed trays of water, orange juice, bread, and egg in front of them. I noticed that not many people were even watching the sunset. I had expected that everyone would be facing the setting sun just waiting for it to disappear – because that’s what I would be doing if it were me! But to my surprise, most people weren’t even watching the sunset. They weren’t really talking either; most just sat in a zombie state quietly.
I was also expecting everyone to open their water and chug it as soon as the sun disappeared. Or maybe quickly shoving the bread and egg in their mouth with a feeling of relief. However, it wasn’t like that at all; the people in the restaurant just got up and went to the buffet at the restaurant and filled their plates. It was all very civil. I was astonished at why they didn’t open their bottle of water or drink their orange juice first. I’m pretty sure I’d be ravaging after 15 hours of nothing.
Travel Considerations for Ramadan
During this time of fasting, I think you have to be considerate as a traveler, but it doesn’t mean that all tourism stops. There were a few times on this trip where I hit my ‘hangry stage’, my stomach was growling, it was hot, and it was taking us forever to walk for lunch. I had to stick with the schedule and the group which irritated me in my angry, hungry state.
My anger turned to our guide who was walking too slow for my liking. My stomach growled again as I took a drink from my water bottle and studied our guide walking slowly in his djellaba (long robe). He hadn’t even had breakfast or a sip of water on this hot day, and he was slowly plodding along doing his job leading us as he had been all morning in this heat. My hanger suddenly softened a bit and gave me new respect for what they were going through. While I was having a childlike temper tantrum inside my head thanks to my hunger, they were total professionals; you never would have noticed any discomfort on their part.
I thought a lot about how hard it would be to work in the service industry during Ramadan. I don’t think I could do it! Having to be accommodating and polite while not eating OR DRINKING all day was unimaginable to me. I think as a traveler though it is important to have patience and understanding for the people fasting while also working all day.
Travel Tips for Ramadan
1. Be patient
People may be a bit more tired or irritable (especially the smokers!), but once you understand the ‘why’ behind it – I think your tolerance and understanding increase too.
2. Plan your dinner before or after breaking fast
The sunset hour of breaking fast minorly affects you as people tend to disappear for a little bit at that time such as hotel staff, shopkeepers, and taxi drivers. You’ll have to plan accordingly and eat about an hour before or after sunset at any restaurant. I was at the bar in my hotel when the bartender came over and settled up the tab right before sunset and made sure that I had everything I needed for a little while; he said he was getting ready to go eat.
3. Stay off the empty streets during breaking fast
Locals have warned me to not go out on the streets when they are empty for fear of theft. I always found that odd, as I thought everyone would be inside eating and I’d be safer! However, once I walked around an empty Marrakech I totally understood what they meant. You feel pretty vulnerable with no one around, and I made sure to follow their advice after that.
Should you travel to a country During Ramadan?
As a traveler, Ramadan is a minor disturbance, but it’s not enough to change your travel plans.
If you are someone who enjoys cultural travel and is curious about other cultures, then I think it’s a great time to travel! It’s a chance to see another side of a country and learn more about religion and holiday that is celebrated all over the world. However, if you are expecting everything to run smoothly without any issues, then you might want to skip this time. But then again, if you expect everything to run smoothly with no issues on a trip, then you might as well burn your passport and stay home regardless!
In the end, I came back home more knowledgeable about a big part of the world’s culture – and isn’t that what travel is really about? Learning about each other, sharing, and understanding are the elements of a successful trip in my world!
Follow my Travels
I was a guest of Travel Explorations on this trip to Morocco, however all opinions expressed here are my own.