Sunsets here are greeted with cannon fire and joyous shouting in the streets during the holy month of Ramadan and the Islamic faithful end a 16-hour fast each day.
Calls to prayer from minarets atop neighborhood mosques mingle with echoes of two cannon blasts, and within five minutes the streets are empty. The Moslem faithful, forbidden to eat, drink or smoke while the sun is shining, rush home to eat their Ramadan soup, the traditional first course of eight hours of nourishment before the next sunrise.
Ramadan, the period of abstinence commemorating the revelation of the holy book of the Koran to the Islamic prophet Mohammed in the 7th centruy, falls in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Unlike the Christian calendar, which in most cases has annual observances at fixed dates, the Moslem holidays change. Consequently, Ramadan moves forward 11 days every year.
When it falls during the short days of winter, the fasting is more bearable. This year, however, the observance was especially arduous, beginning July 25 at the start of the hottest period of the year when daylight lasts longest.
Today, the last day of Ramadan, the faithful begin one or two days of feasting. The first meal of this holiday, Id Al-Fitr, is a huge breakfast.
During Ramadan, temperatures climbed into the 90s at times, relieved occasionally by stiff Mediterannean and Atlantic breezes. Veiled women walked listlessly to and from markets, their bodies draped in heavy woolen or cotton robes designed to hide the human form.
They could find relief from the heat only in the privacy of their homes where they could remove the heavy robes covering their light-weight dresses. Men demonstrated more freedom to dress according to the weather. When they were not working, those who preferred the traditional long robes to sport shirts and slacks sought shady corners in which to pass the daily waiting game for sundown.
Despite the heat, few residents dared seek relief on coastal beaches for fear of mistakenly swallowing water while swimming.
In a nation where the official religion is Islam, the month of Ramadan dictates near total change in the pace of life. In spirit, mood and action, night becomes day and day, night. Daylight is merely endured. After sundown, the city comes to life. Until after 3 a.m. streets and shops are noisy and and crowded, even filled with children at play.
Such a reversal of life and time was vexing occasionally to the approximately five percent non-Muslim minority here, and to tourists, who are accustomed to a different schedule. At night, many slept fitfully due to the din in the streets, which sounded more like lunch time in Washington than morning's wee hours. When it came time for the Europeans' customary light breakfast, they had to wait until after 11 a.m. for fresh bread, because the Moslem bakers slept late. They ran out of coffee, it was often midday before the neighborhood Moslem grocer opened for business.
Grocery shelf stocks of beer and wine, never plentiful in a state whose religion officially bans alcoholic consumption, often were emptied. "Everything is backwards," grumbled a German tourist forced to travel to three groceries before finding beer for sale.
On the other hand, water -- which is often shut off in summer because of water shortages -- flowed freely this month. Residents even were allowed to nearly deplete wells to permit the frequent washings required in observance of Ramadan purity.
Overall, the pace of life was slower than usual. Most businesses opened later, and government offices closed at 3:30 p.m. to ease the physical and mental strain from the fast and the sun. Non-Moslem residents complained that they could never depend on any of the normal services, because Moslem merchants and laborers kept irregular and curtailed schedules.
Sometimes tempers flared, usually late in the day. "They are nervous and they are hungry," a 14-year-old observed while watching two Moslems fighting in the street. "But keeping Ramadan is a sacrifice you make, or you are not a true Muslim."
Those Moslems who have in fact abandoned the orthodox practice of the fast said they dared not eat, drink or smoke publicly for fear of being seen and beaten by other Moslems.
Only children under 12 years of age and the sick are exempt from the rigors of the Ramadan fast.
To the outsider, the most noticeable aspects of the observance were the five usual daily calls to prayer augmented by extra Ramadan prayers throughout the night. Chanted in wailing melodies from the more than 100 mosques in the city of 250,000 the calls to prayer rang in choruses across the hilltops of the landscape. Equally distinctive were the regular pounding of drums and haunting flute melodies from bands marching through neighborhoods at night to wake the faithful for their last meal before sunrise.
The holy leaders of the official Moslem ministry set the hours of Ramadan prayers and meals in accordance with solar and lunar cycles.
The first meal began at 8:30 p.m. At that hour, Moslems broke their fasts with plentiful helpings of thick Ramadan soup, or "harira," a nourishing concoction of vegetables and meats, often brewed for hours over woodburning stoves. The main meal, centered around a cous-cous or a "tajine" stew of beef or lamb, began about 10 p.m. For dessert, the faithful would consume the rich and sugary "chebbakiya" or "pastilla," pastries of almonds and honey.
The most devout would stay up all night for the Ramadan 'supper," which began after 12:30 a.m.
Throughout the night, at the appointed eating hours volunteer bands playing flutes, horns and drums would march through the city of 250,000 to wake any faithful, and everyone else, who might have dozed off. Eating each meal during Ramadan is considered to bring an extra blessing.
Then at 4:30 a.m. for about 30 minutes, repeated blasts of horns mixed with eerie flutes to herald the approach of sunrise. The children were put to bed, the last dishes washed and the city returned to silence. Almost invaribly, the last horn blast sounded as the roosters began to crow.