My first time travelling south to Africa, and first experience of Ramadan* in a Muslim country – two of several thoughts crossing my mind as I looked out at the different layers of white cloud that encircled us. The latter thought didn’t seem like a big deal at the time; I never expected it would become one of the defining features of the trip. We didn’t feel out of place arriving in Marrakech’s only airport, surrounded by other tourists. My cousin and I were both in travelling clothes, nothing out of the ordinary.
I wondered if I had dressed too provocatively
After freshening up and heading out for our first proper exploration of the Medina, she opted for a black headscarf and abaya (a loose, robe-like cover) ensemble. I decided on a dress that went halfway between my knees and ankles, and my hair remained uncovered, the way it had always been aside from during prayer or when at the mosque. Even though I didn’t think much of it before we left, as soon as we got out of the taxi I felt on display. The majority of my legs were concealed. My dress covered the top of my shoulders; however, the rest of my arms were exposed. With most local women dressed to show only their faces, I wondered if I had dressed too provocatively.
Finding our way out of the maze of small streets we’d somehow ended up in, we headed for the main market. The sight of other tourists, dressed in even shorter dresses or shorts with shoulders out put my mind at ease slightly. However, this relief was short-lived due to the realisation that, ethnically, I still blended in more with the locals. Quite a few stall owners even wondered if I was Moroccan. After discovering that I was in fact an Afghani Muslim, their smiles became warmer.
Admitting this hybridity in identity wasn’t new to me
There was a certain acknowledgment of companionship during these interactions, but I still felt out of place. Almost as if I was dressed as a fraud, when in reality I should be more like them, and not just aesthetically. Admitting this hybridity in identity wasn’t new to me, however I gradually became more aware it, and it was the first time I felt like an outsider due to my Western upbringing.
Interestingly, the situation was slightly reversed for my cousin, whose skin is paler than that of your average Afghan. Along with light brown hair and hazel eyes, she constantly gets mistaken for Caucasian, and seeing her in her abaya with her hair covered, many of the locals assumed she was a religious Christian. Despite this, she “felt more at home [and] closer to the people who also held their fast and prayed”, and was content knowing they shared something similar.
There was a serene calmness in the air
Admiring her ability to fast on the trip, I repeatedly questioned whether I too should be fasting. Alongside this, I also felt a strange sense of guilt for coming to Marrakech as a tourist during Ramadan, experiencing the different privileges of that position while simultaneously witnessing some of the struggles of the locals.
My cousin’s desire to pray Tarawih (extra prayers organised collectively, usually in the evenings of the month of Ramadan), at the city’s central Koutoubia Mosque meant we headed back out after she broke her fast at the hotel. Unsure of whether I would be joining her, she packed her spare headscarf. Arriving at the mosque that night was an experience in itself. There was a serene calmness in the air that contrasted the bustle and chatter of the assembling crowds, and this energy made me want to partake in the experience. Even though I had to find a cover up (jeans were not allowed in this mosque) and rush to make it in time, we managed to find a spot, ironically right at the front.
The world is so much bigger than just you
So there I was, previously unsure whether I would even be partaking in the prayer, now slightly squished between another lady and a young girl, at the very head of the Tarawih assembly. Standing there listening to the magnified recital of the holy verses, with the wind providing a pleasant breeze against the headscarf and abaya I found myself in, my mind recollected all of the day’s encounters, and tears unwillingly ran down my cheeks.
It was one of those moments where you realise that the world is so much bigger than just you, and that in that instant there is something greater connecting you with every single person in close proximity. Even though the occurrence of the trip during Ramadan hadn’t been intentional, looking back now, it’s what made it so special.
*Ramadan is a Muslim holy festival where one is expected to fast from sunrise to sunset. It is one of the five pillars of Islam and allows individuals to devote themselves to the month where the Prophet Mohammed received the Quran.