January 1996, Ramadan, 1417. My first trip to Morocco.
Late in the afternoon, I was about to conclude a long road trip that had started earlier that morning in Casablanca. With me, driving the car we had rented was my friend Bill, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco who had agreed to join me on my journey and introduce me to his adoptive country. Having converted to Islam a few years earlier, Bill was observing the mandatory fasting of the holy month, from day break to dusk. Out of respect and consideration, I too abstained from eating or drinking that day. Now, as we were approaching the small town, just off the main internal road connecting the imperial capitals of Fez and Marrakech through the Middle Atlas, we were thoroughly hungry and thirsty.
The observance of Ramadan in Morocco is virtually universal. Save for an occasional group of ill-informed tourists, it is impossible to see anyone eating or drinking in public. Many restaurants and cafes close down throughout the month, and those that remain open, for the sake of foreigners, are forbidden by law from serving Moroccan clients. While night time features a happy gathering of people outdoors, during the day the streets are far less crowded than usual as most Moroccans tend to spend their days indoors while those out at work wait impatiently to get back home to break the fasting. By contrast, an hour later the streets are deserted and silent as everyone is home eating.
It was this silence that welcomed us as we entered Ksiba and made our way to the home of IO, an old friend of Bill and our host for the night. Entering the modest dwelling, inhabited by more than a dozen multi-generational family members, I came face to face for the first time with the simply irresistible warmth and hospitality of the Middle Atlas Imazighen (Independent Men; AKA Berbers). No matter how poor they may be and how meager their material resources, they would never hesitate to share them and offer their guests the most lavish fare they can afford.
Ftour is the Moroccan Arabic derivation of Iftar, meaning breakfast. While the term is usually used for the morning meal, during Ramadan it refers to the meal at sundown when the daily fasting comes to an end. It is never a heavy kind of meal; that one would come later on, close to midnight, after the body has readjusted to digest food. Instead, it is an array of small, appetizer style dishes, some as simple as hard-boiled eggs or a bowl of Morocco’s signature soup, Harira. The first item one consumes is typically a date. Before leaving Casablanca, Bill and I had purchased a nice bag of dates at the Central Market, a common gift during Ramadan. Now those dates were added to the pile already arranged on the small table loaded with dishes and glasses. We joined the family seated on low sofas in the large open space used as the dwelling’s only common area.
In the years since, I have had many opportunities to visit Moroccan homes and share meals with their members. I have experienced fine cuisine in feasts that took place in breathtaking palace-like surroundings that appeared to be taken straight out of the pages of Arabian Nights. And still, in my mind I will always remember that modest breaking of the fast at a small town among complete strangers who would soon become friends.
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