Fez from my rooftop terrace photo Paul Vigneault
The cannon will fire three times tonight in Fez as the tiny sliver of moon is sighted to herald the start of Ramadan. Ramadan m’barak … A blessed Ramadan … these are the words on everyone’s lips tonight.
It has been an interesting week watching how the city and the people of Fez prepare for what will be a daunting but achievable task. Temperatures will soar to the mid-30s C and going without water will be difficult. Towards the end of the day, tempers will be short.
Throughout the medina, cafe tables are piled so high with deep-fried sweet pretzels, samoosas and sausage-shaped rolls filled with almond-dotted sesame paste dripping with honey, that I wonder if everything will sell. I am assured it will; there are large plastic buckets hanging above the displays which you can buy to take home your purchases. And when you have spent a day wishing you could eat something, the sugar rush from these sweetmeats is probably not what your body needs, but certainly what it craves.
I have been watching the warqa pastry cooks. Fez may be the spiritual capital of Morocco, but it is also the home of warqa, an extremely thin pastry that makes strudel or phyllo pastry look positively leaden. There is a large plastic bowl of mixture, and both men and women are making the pastry. They take a fistful and roll it onto a griddle with the heel of the hand, as thin as can be. It takes but seconds to cook, and is then whipped off, added to the pile of sheets, and oiled with a pastry brush.
Housewives cram around the pastry cooks and haggle for sheets of the wafer-thin delicacy. They fashion sweetmeats from it, or make the famous b’stilla pies that contain pigeon meat and almonds and are dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. It is the taste of Fez – sweet yet savoury – and definitely worth trying. Warqa, meaning paper as it is so thin, is always available, but at this time of year it’s doubly valued.
The fast is broken each evening at around 7.20, in homes, cafes and restaurants across the country as soon as the sun sets and the last call to prayer of the day is heard. The iftar, or f’touh food is a wonderful spread. There is always harira soup, a delicious concoction of vegetable or lamb stock with tomato paste, chick peas, small pasta, lentils, rice, red pepper, fresh coriander and perhaps some lamb or chicken. It is served with dates and chebakkiya, honey-drenched sesame pastries as well as delicious pancake-type breads, some stuffed with egg and onion, bread, milk, fruit or vegetable juice, hardboiled eggs with salt and cumin and afterwards, mint tea.
The four weeks of Ramadan are observed by fasting during daylight hours. Exempt are pregnant or breastfeeding women, small children, those travelling and the sick and elderly. The aim is to remind Muslims of their commitment to God and as spiritual purification, and is also a great family time – many Moroccans living abroad come home for a holiday and people party late into the night. Now is the time to wear traditional clothes; the djellabas are beautifully embroidered and the pointy-toed babouches new and shiny.
If you are very lucky, you might hear the man who slips through the streets at around 4am, singing softly and rapping lightly on doors. His job is to remind everyone to get up and have breakfast before the sun rises at 5am.