Growing up in the UK, I knew nothing about Ramadan, I did not know that Ramadan is about much more than fasting, nor did I know that I would fall in love with it.
Running down the winding, uneven staircase towards a huge wooden door that needs kicking at the bottom to open, I try very hard to balance the tray of dates, harira, seafood pastilla, and fresh lemon and ginger juice in my shaking hands. As I reach the bottom step, crash, the door opens and an old woman bustles through it, seeing me just in time.
Smiling, the old woman, heavily laden with bags and boxes, shuffles aside to let me rush through the door. She shouts that she will leave a box of chebakia outside my flat, as she makes her slow but purposeful way up the stairs.
Outside in the narrow street, the air smells of grilling meat and excitement, jovial shouts and urgent conversations echo with the breeze. Tired, happy faces gather as two men roll out long, woven prayer mats across the dirty square.
Directly opposite the heavy wooden door is a small, slightly battered, iron one. Still carrying the precarious tray, I push the grubby iron door. The windowless room is crammed with old, broken furniture. A gray head turns to a toothless grin towards me.
“Shukran Lala, shukran besaf, Lahafduka (Thank you princess, thank you so much, God bless you),” he shouts as I place the heavy tray on the table in front of him. He does not start eating, he leans his skeletal form on the torn leather-backed chair, and listens.
The delicious scent of fresh bread floats down the alleyway and, as I cross the two-meter stretch to my own front door, the tall, cheerful butcher shoves a parcel of mouthwatering bread and grilled lamb into my arms. “Cadeau, cadeau,” (gift) he insists, smiling.
He looks at his watch and sighs, not time yet. Next to the overflowing shed-sized mosque, my husband smiles over at me as he gives out dates to the men waiting to break their fast and pray.
In just a few moments the call to prayer will echo across the Casablanca sky, and more and more voices will join the ethereal song. Silence and stillness will fall on the buzzing, chaotic, cacophonous city while families, friends, and strangers join together to share a meal, a moment of reflection, and the beauty of Ramadan.
Growing up in the UK, I knew nothing about Ramadan other than that Muslims fast and pray for one month to be close to God. I did not know that Ramadan is about much more than fasting and feasting, or praying and reflecting, nor did I know that I would fall in love with it.
However, living above my husband’s school in Baladiya, a neighborhood of Casablanca’s Derb Sultan, I was lucky enough to experience Ramadan in a way that has changed my perspective forever.
Within the tight-knit, deprived community, no one goes hungry during Ramadan and no one is alone. Those who have enough are generous and open-handed, giving food and charity to neighbors in need as a matter of course, while those who have nothing give what little they have to others.
Encouraged by the example set by my husband and neighbors, I threw myself into the sharing spirit of Ramadan and found the joy and magic in it. Every day, I delivered iftar to our elderly neighbor who lives alone and shared the Moroccan treats I have learned to make with friends, family, and neighbors, and every day found pleasure and peace in giving.
This Ramadan, my husband is at our home in Essaouira, and I am waiting out the COVID-19 lockdown with my one year-old-son in the UK. I cannot help but miss the joy in the air, the chaos and fun of pre-iftar shopping, and the bond of sharing and spreading Ramadan love.
My family are not Muslim and do not observe Ramadan, but they have lifted my spirits by helping me to bring some of the Derb Sutlan Ramadan spirit to the UK this month.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, families and households all over the world, including in the UK, have been badly hit by the economic shock. More people than ever are turning to food banks and charities to feed their families and thousands of elderly or vulnerable people are isolated by the lockdown.
Acts of kindness, sharing, and charity are, therefore, incredibly important this year, and, though I cannot replace the vibrance of spice shopping in the souq with an online order of ground ginger, I can brighten the day of an elderly relative or neighbor with a phone call or card in the post.
During the lockdown, my father is donating to the food bank collection in our local supermarket every time he shops, my mother is cooking and delivering meals to a recently bereaved family, and my sister is holding regular video calls with a friend who cannot leave the house due to severe asthma.
While these acts of kindness are just a drop in the ocean, the solidarity from my British family and the knowledge that we are sharing with my son at least a fraction of the Ramadan atmosphere has brought a new sparkle to our daily lives during the lockdown.
And, this morning over breakfast, when my little boy offered his grandfather a bite of his banana bread before digging into his meal, I could not help but smile and look forward to Ramadan 2021 when he will share both his iftar and the magical atmosphere of Ramadan with his father.