In Casablanca, both spirituality and business thrive in Ramadan
Casablanca - It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and Moha o Said Street in Casablanca’s old medina is crammed with vendors shouting to lure customers, a scene that heralds the advent of the holy month of Ramadan.
Inhabitants of Morocco’s economic capital become more spiritual and sociable while charity reaches a climax and businesses thrive during this most sacred month of the year. However, the food often overshadows the spirituality as residents flock to markets and bakeries on a daily basis to fill their iftar tables.
In the neighbourhood of Derb Sultan, customers queue to get pastry called shebbakia from one of Casablanca’s busiest pastry shops, nicknamed “Hitler” because customers keep raising their hands to be served.
Also known as mkharka, shebbakia is a Moroccan cookie shaped into a flower, fried and coated with honey and adorned with sesame. The price for shebbakia can vary from $2.57 to $23.68 per kilo, depending on the ingredients used and the shops selling the product.
“I love to get shebbakia from this shop but, believe it or not, the black market is spoiling the festive atmosphere,” said Mohammed Talbi.
“Unfortunately, there are some guys who are charging customers almost half the price of the kilo if they want to avoid the long queue,” said Talbi as he watches a black market dealer approach a customer.
Another shop on bustling Mediouna Road is busy preparing all kinds of pastries to meet the demand.
“An iftar table without shebbakia is meaningless. Shebbakia is Ramadan and Ramadan is shebbakia,” said Mohsine Abou Ashahi, showing the different designs of the traditionally made Moroccan cookie.
“Most Moroccans drink harira accompanied with shebbakia,” he added.
Harira is an indispensable lentil and tomato soup that is served with other food, including hard-boiled eggs, briouate (sweet or savoury filled pastries), fried fish and various pancakes, for breaking the fast.
Charity in Casablanca peaks during Ramadan as many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and volunteers organise free iftar tables for the needy and distribute food across Casablanca’s public hospitals.
The 39-year-old Al Wifak Association is one of the leading NGOs in catering to the needy during Ramadan.
“This is the 18th year that we have been organising free iftar meals in Casablanca,” Abdel Haq Al Iyassi, the president of Al Wifak Association, said.
“We are serving almost 8,000 meals a day during Ramadan, 500 more compared to last year,” said Iyassi, who added that takeaways are served from 11am to 4pm to those who are in dire need, such as the unemployed, orphans or with special needs.
Al Wifak coordinates with other associations to cater at 13 venues in the economic capital besides serving food at the Casablanca Handicrafts Chamber.
Another team of a dozen volunteers packs food to distribute at Hospital Moulay Youssef.
“We distribute around 150 food packs to patients at the hospital on a daily basis throughout Ramadan,” said Fatiha Mghoghi, who coordinates donations.
“Once we finish from the hospital, we look for the homeless and deprived children across the streets of Casablanca’s poor neighbourhoods to offer them food packs.”
A couple of hours before iftar, people can be seen running or cycling along the corniche despite doctors’ repeated warnings that participating in sports could be harmful during Ramadan because of the lack of water in the body. Others fish or just sit, taking advantage of the sea breeze and watching the beautiful sunset on the Atlantic coast.
A few minutes before iftar, the noisy city is brought to a standstill as if it were abandoned to errant cats and dogs. Speeding cars, oblivious to traffic lights and stop signs, can be clearly noticed from time to time, trying to make it home before the call to the Maghreb prayer at sunset.
As soon as cannon fire and sirens blow, to officially declare sunset, people in Casablanca break their fast while tuning to their favourite programmes on Moroccan television.
Some, however, prefer to eat out as restaurants compete to offer the best value for money.
Iftar meals start from as little as 51 cents and include a bowl of harira and a pancake at a little shop owned by Najia Salim in the old medina. At the other end of the economic spectrum, the Cabestan Ocean View offers an iftar meal for $40.13 while a traditional orchestra plays. The five-star hotel Golden Tulip Farah charges $46.31 for an open buffet.
“I like the atmosphere in Ramadan. As a matter of fact, if Ramadan lasted for one year, this would be a civilised nation because the traffic is better, dealing with people is much better than in the other months,” said Ali Alami, who was shopping in the old medina.
Mohamed Benchikh, a trader in his 40s, echoed Alami’s statement and said people are increasing good deeds by performing extra congregational prayers, inviting relatives to iftar and becoming more tolerant towards each other.