Rabat – My phone read 18:59, but the call to prayer did not sound. I was anxiously fumbling a cigarette, undecided if I was hungry, thirsty, nicotine-deprived, or all of the above.
The seconds dragged on in slow motion.
A cannon boom echoed through Rabat’s medina. There it finally was, the Maghrib call to prayer.
I lit my cigarette, the nicotine entered my bloodstream, and I felt a shiver run down my spine.
My first-day fasting was permeated by headaches, dry mouth, monumental hunger, lack of focus, irritability, the list — like the potential side-effects of medication — goes on.
But it was also filled with camaraderie and solidarity, with tips and tricks on managing the stress and the temptation, and a lot of “Ramadan Kareem” and “Ramadan Mubarak” from friends and strangers alike.
It was a time for adjusting. Sitting in the office, battling the little voice in the back of my mind, every article that I published served as a reminder of the cigarette breaks I was not taking. The state of being deprived, this self-deprivation, was vital for the broader sense of solidarity and bonding. When, no matter how on the edge you and others are, you know the cause behind these tensions, whatever is in the air becomes a sort of shared open secret.
Read more: Ramadan in Morocco: A New Perspective on Food, Society, and Fasting
As someone with no particular religious inclination, for me personally, Ramadan has not been about finding God, or as Wikipedia would put it, about “spiritual reflection, self-improvement, and heightened devotion and worship.”
I am more interested in — what I would describe as — the “measurable” effects of intermittent fasting as part of a larger collective or a social group. I wanted to see how it affects my creativity, how it affects my productivity, will my interpersonal relationships shift or change in any noticeable manner? Was I expecting too much or too little of my first fasting experience?
Nonetheless, none of this was obvious on the first day or even several days. The first days were the uphill fight to establish a new normal, to not lose in a battle of wills against myself. And so, I made it through the first day and then, days.
I learned to manage my time better. For one, keeping busy was my personal salvation. As long as I wrote, cleaned, walked around, or cooked (in preparation for iftar), all my demons receded out of sight, my temptations did not tempt me anymore. I learned to appreciate this busyness-induced bliss as the days passed.
But ultimately, beyond some abstract shifts in creativity, or in how one sees things, or anything else for that matter, the single biggest joy of Ramadan, for me personally, has been the breaking of the fast (iftar).
Don’t get me wrong —even though the hunger and the thirst are real, the joy does not come from satisfying the need for sustenance, the great physical hunger.
Read also: In Pictures: Morocco’s Bustling Sweets Market Ahead of Ramadan
Instead, the collective relief that comes from the occasion, in one’s family, community, house, with whomever and wherever you break your fast… that is the joy. The sense of expectation that lingers in the air before the cannons go off, the feverish activity in the kitchen reaching a sort of a tenor… that is the joy.
When the cannons go off, my flatmates and I go through the motions. A couple of the smokers huddle up together, passing around a cigarette. Someone is making coffee and someone is filling up the water vessels. All in all, it is a shared experience. We cook, break the fast, and gorge ourselves, all together.
In our household, the iftar meal usually lasts between an hour and three. We sit outside in the fresh evening air most of the night, re-upping on the coffee, going through more cigarettes than any of us would like to admit. Sometimes, one of us disappears to start preparing a tagine or some stew to eat during the later hours. Sometimes we spend the rest of the night just snacking on bread and sweets.
On the first night, at around 9 p.m. or so, we were reflecting on our first day of fasting. We talked about university, we talked about work, and when we got to talking about the iftar, my flatmates could only laugh. It took a few minutes to get them to admit, but finally, they explained to me how my breaking fast reminded them of a small child during his first Ramadan.
And so for me Ramadan was, as for a young child, an experience to still explore, learn about, and come to terms with. My first Ramadan is not over yet, but I am already looking forward to the next one, wherever it may be!