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Sunday, August 29, 2010

a Ramadan Entry

I took a long walk today. Strolling on the dirt road up the Melloul valley towards the fortress on the hill, I felt very content with my site. The tiny apple trees in the orchards beside the road are heavy with green and ready fruit; almost ready to harvest. Many of the trees down the valley toward my souk town of Rich are not bearing any fruit this year, as an unseasonably warm spring followed by a sudden snowfall in mid-May killed off their crop of blossoms. But we are lucky here I my village and many of us here, including myself, thank God for sparing the trees here. Turning off of the road, I walked between the tiny family plots toward the river. The wheat has been harvested already, and fields formerly filled with waist-high swaying stalks of golden grain, are now just closely cropped stubble. Most of the alfalfa and clover has been cut and dried by sickle-wielding women, ready to feed their sheep and goats through the long, and swiftly approaching, winter months. I saw a flash of movement off to my right and recognized the retreating gold, black, and white form of a Hoopoe; the first I had seen up here in the mountains.
There are still crops of potatoes being carefully tended while the tubers swell to unknown size underneath the meticulously kept earth. Most of the produce from these fields stays in the community and I buy it every week at the vegetable souq. Even the wheat is threshed and ground in the courtyards and homes of the farmers and made into flour. It’s amazing to think that the local bread that I buy every few days was growing in the fields just last summer. I was walking beside the river now, underneath a spreading canopy of poplars and huge weeping willows of unknown age and origin. It is sometimes easy to forget where I am in this cathedral of massive trees, but the dry slopes of the Atlas are readily visible between their trunks and I simply accept the strangeness of this juxtaposition. I was walking through a portion of the fields that I had never seen before; a place hidden from the village by the fin of gray stone on which the Qaid’s (mayor’s) palace sits.
There were few people back there, just a woman cutting grass with her sickle; her young son sitting next to her in the weeds, talking to himself in fast, childish Tam. This is the floodplain back here, and not much of it is cultivated; for good reason too. Just last week, I watched the river burst its banks and flood all of the fields and orchards that were within its reach. I walk past a field of sad, drowned potato plants, completely smothered in silt and look over at tiny orchard of apple trees; the high water mark is half-way up there trunks.
On the day of the flood, I shrugged on my red raincoat and joined a crowd of onlookers on the cement bridge that crosses the creekbed that runs from the nearby lake. Normally dry in the summer, it was bursting its banks and sending great jets of flood water high into the air where it hit the pilings of the bridge. In the distance I could see the floodplain, where I was now walking, entirely drowned in coffee-colored water.
I passed another woman cutting grass with her sickle, I waved and she waved back smiling, unguarded; looking at me not as a strange foreigner but merely an everyday passerby. I wish I could have talked to her, but talking to a woman alone in the fields is considered a breach of etiquette. Although here in the Berber lands of the High Atlas, that line is much fuzzier than down below. I just have not figured out exactly how much. On the rock fin, the sprawling structure of the Qaid’s palace and offices sits perched on the top, a wide balcony overlooks the field, river, and mountains behind; I am sure that it is very pleasant view indeed. I may have to work at acquiring a dinner invitation sometime in the next two years. Below the balcony was a grove of old growth Walnut trees, huge and spreading. They are beautiful, but then any tree is lovely when they are such a scarce commodity.
I came out from around the back of fin and was suddenly back in sight of the village. I took a trail toward the road, stopping to talk to a farmer working in the irrigation ditch next to his potato field. I am still amazed at the complexity of hand irrigation in Morocco, everything done without the use of hoses or pipes. Just ditches and hand tools.


I am hungry, but that is not a surprise considering that I am now halfway through the month of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. Yes I am fasting, a question I answer at the beginning of every conversation that I have with people in the village. Except for many of my friends, who already know this. I am cheating somewhat though, as I drink water during the long days. My body is not used to dehydrating for 15 hours a day. I tried it for about a week and got quite sick; I decided that my health was more important than ceremony and I now drink enough water during the day to keep my organs functioning, although sometimes I do throw in tea to shake things up. But I still do not eat during the day and I have changed my schedule like everyone else here.
People wait until about 7:00 in the evening for the “Call to Prayer” to echo through the village from the minaret and then break-fast in large meals called l-fdur. I try to alternate between cooking my own food and breaking the fast with Moroccans in the village. At my host family’s house, break-fast is an extensive affair with dates brought in from the southern oases, large fluffy flat breads drizzled in butter and honey, schebekkia—a honey soaked pastry like baklava, olives, and a roasted spiced flour called zimitta. The main course is a meat and chickpea soup called harira; this with tea, coffee, and fresh tangerine juice makes for a good way to refuel. You just have to pace yourself during this first meal of the night; many nights, especially in the first few days of Ramada, I saw lots of otherwise rail-thin berber guys staggering around the streets after l-fdur clutching their visibly swollen bellies. Pretty hilarious.
All of the cafes open after l-fdur¬ and I sit with my male friends, and any PCVs that happen to be visiting, drinking coffee or tea and talking about anything within the boundaries of my language skills, which are expanding more every day. Sitting on a stoop with my friends Mustapha and Bassou, I was told an Arab proverb—that even the small, slow drops of water will form a mighty river in time. I said that I hope that my river will be like last week’s after living here for two years.
After café sitting for an hour or so, I go back to my house to read and catch up on things that need my attention, such as a blog that I have been neglecting, and then stay up until the wee hours of the morning. I eat my last meal around 3:00am, just before the morning call to prayer, and go to sleep until noon the following day. Then the Ramadan cycle begins again. Every night is new and different. Tonight I broke fast in the cafe of my friend Aziz. I sat outside with Aziz and watched the streets empty as the call to prayer echoes died away. I ate a wonderful bowl of harira and chased it with bread, chilled dates, and fresh black figs. We drank tea and talked about the village and life in general, my friend Mustapha joined us after awhile and he and I sat out talking for an hour as the town came back to life.
Ramadan. I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either; it’s just a different experience. However it will be nice to be able to eat during the day in 11 more days; how this month has flown by! Fall is just around the corner, I can smell it in the air some days, when the wind is crisp and the clouds are high. Snow will be falling before I know it, but you know what? I feel like I am ready for it. I was riding down to the site of another volunteer a little while ago and was looking out on the barren mountains and the green fields from the transit I was traveling in. The villages of mud-huts that clung to the hill sides around the minarets of their mosques no longer seemed quaint or strange, but rather beautiful and normal. Wind swept the valley that day and stirred the poplars along the river. Taking in the scene, I realized for the first time that, not only was I not the least bit homesick, but that when I did go home after two years, I would truly miss this place. I don’t know what sparked the change, but it felt like a thread breaking somewhere in my chest; a slight letting go.

Ramadan is almost over, but I feel that the adventure is still only just beginning, I wonder what comes next?

Thanks for reading, please don't forget to comment!

-Charlie Kolb