For expats, Ramadan is a month of invitations to iftars but also invitations to fast.
Rabat – Morocco has a large expat population. Many foreigners call it a “transit country” or, in traveler lingo, an ideal place to visit en route to another destination. That is not to say that Morocco doesn’t have its expat nesters who leave behind their old country to build a life in Morocco. For those who choose to call Morocco their home, Moroccan practices steadily bleed into their own lifestyle ‒ seeing time as an endless resource is just one example.
However, some traditions are not easy for an expat to adopt. For example, to fully experience customs revolving around food, such as couscous every Friday, depend on having a family there to share it with, when many expats in Morocco are without family ‒ myself included.
Perhaps the most important tradition is fasting during Ramadan. This practice is first a religious requirement and is one of the five pillars of Islam. As a result, it has become part of the culture in places where the Muslim population is the majority, including Morocco.
Fasting is also a tradition many Moroccans invite foreigners to participate in. Moroccans, who are known to be tremendously hospitable, invite foreigners to “iftar,” or the meal at the end of the day which breaks the fast. Receiving iftar invitations is heartwarming. However, along with these invitations, there may also be a question: “Are you fasting for Ramadan?”
Coworkers, neighbors, students, really any friendly face is likely to ask a foreigner if they are fasting. The question is posed so casually. If the answer is yes, the conversation remains light and happy. But answering no could be the quickest way to disappoint a fasting Moroccan. Disappointing an acquaintance with good intentions is uncomfortable, but with the virtue of honesty comes its price.
Responses to the negative answer range from the furrowed brow, to the wrinkled nose, to the lips, where recently my neighbor uttered: “Hshouma.” “Hshouma” expresses something heavier and more nuanced than its English translation: “you should feel ashamed of yourself.”
Instances like this show that fasting for Ramadan is more than religion and more than a tradition. It seems to be an expectation. Even so, an expectation that remains immune to nationality, faith, or awareness of it. The charming response I have developed to curtail this conversation is a simple shrug and smile. As someone from a culture that encourages individualism, the societal pressure to fast intrigues me. I asked Moroccans about the reasons why they encourage foreigners to fast.
As it turns out, it’s not that there is some prize to gain in telling someone outside of this tradition to follow it. Many Moroccans believe that fasting is a good practice and by telling someone they should do it, they believe that they are being helpful.
“We do it just to be nice,” Mehdi, a coworker who had just asked me if I was fasting, said. When I told him no, he almost automatically responded, “you should.” Mehdi explained, “It’s just a way to show you care about someone’s health.” Others I asked gave me answers similar to this.
Loubna, a Moroccan Muslim who said she had never told a foreigner to fast, offered the idea that from a Moroccan perspective, advising someone to fast is a way of sharing the joys of Ramadan: “It’s just to invite people to enjoy the month.” These responses showed caring and kindness from Moroccan people but didn’t explain the disappointment when I reveal that I do not fast.
I still questioned why“hshouma” is an acceptable response to those who aren’t fasting. Or why, in the place of “hshouma,” fellow expats have stories of people openly disapproving of foreigners who don’t fast.
“Because [many] Moroccans believe fasting is a good thing, some of them, especially older ones, see people who fast as also good. [Many of them] tend to see people who don’t fast as not so good or beneath them,” Omar, another fasting Moroccan, said. In this way, it appears that fasting is also a way to measure a person, which makes some sense ‒ if you are to judge someone, and we all do, it is better to judge them by their actions than the factors they can’t control.
Omar added, “Sometimes people don’t really know why they tell others to fast, just that it can be a habit. It can also be a habit to judge, especially for those who are so traditional they may not have the concept that there are other religions.” This was the first time I’d heard of that there isn’t always a motive behind telling someone to fast. It could be as compulsive as saying “bless you” after a sneeze.
It is undeniable that Moroccan culture is group-oriented, in that people who stand out are more likely to get noticed. In the context of Ramadan, this may mean that for foreigners, who already stand out, those who choose not to fast are more likely to attract unsolicited guidance. “It sounds like a sales pitch,” Kristen, an ESL teacher from Canada said. She was right; hearing over and over, from the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker, all the reasons it’s good for you feels like living in a brochure.
Not to mention that Ramadan for an expat in Morocco is different, as there is an absence of sentimental memories to give significance to a bowl of harira at the end of a hungry day. To someone traveling alone, and according to Kristen, it might even feel “unnatural.” It is, after all, another society’s tradition.
So, you have foreigners who see fasting as foreign. Moving abroad is so immersive that if a traveler doesn’t draw the line between their host country’s practices and their home country’s practices somewhere, they might as well be trading cultural identities. For the foreigners who choose not to fast, there is still an abundance of Moroccan customs that end up seeping into an expat’s own lifestyle, over time.