Last year, during Ramadan, I had attempted to fast. At the time, I was in New York with virtually no support and no accessible ummah (that is, “community”) to guide me in the proper practices. I was able to keep it for ten days.

But what I lacked in a community then, I made up in ambition. So this year, as the holiest month on the Muslim calendar neared, I decided to attempt another fast, this time with a change of scenery.

This past spring, I took to Morocco for Ramadan. My curiosity of the North African country had gnawed at me for years. As an undergraduate student, I had dove into Moroccan culture, and more recently,  I made a handful of lovely Moroccan friends. Paired with my desire to fast, my choice seemed clear: In Morocco I would have friends and their families who would be more than willing to teach and guide me on this rich and profound month-long journey.

After boarding a plane in Malaga, leaving the comforts of the West and my teary-eyed family, I was off to al-Maghreb to step into an unfamiliar environment. I spoke no Arabic and very little French. I suspected my Spanish would only help in the North. My first stop was Hay al-Qods, an industrial suburb of Casablanca.

There, a high school friend connected me to her aunt and cousins, my first host family. I had never met them before, but they didn’t find it at all strange that I was coming. They were willing to take in a stranger during Ramadan, which seemed to show their earnest devotion.

I arrived at my temporary home around 6 PM. Iftar, the breaking of the fast, wouldn’t begin for another two and a half hours that night. My hosts had invited me to eat with them so I could experience the practices and get to know the family better. It was my first invitation to a fast breaking ever.

Being from the Dominican Republic, I adapt rather quickly to non-Western conditions. Some would fret about the decaying buildings, beaten-up taxis, and unpaved roads in Morocco. But to me, they seemed oddly familiar. My friends back home had told me that Caribbean and Latino culture is very loosely related to a larger umbrella of African culture. That is why, when I joined my first host mom, brother and sister, it was fascinating to feel the comforts of my first home, the Dominican Republic, from many years ago and thousands of miles away.

After I revealed my intention to fast for the remainder of Ramadan, they looked at me with strange eyes, probably wondering, “who is this unusual Western girl?” It was fundamentally important for me, I explained, to get closer to and to humanize the region I study so intimately. This would enable me to become a better, more understanding diplomat in the future, one who is aware of the sensitivities unique to the region.

My host mom chuckled. I understood, through hand gestures, that she had shelved my proposition.

The first few days of my fast went well, with the lazy coastal breeze drawing us to and from the living room, in and out of casual naps and from one thought to the next, allowing time for reflection. Adapting to my new everyday life occurred quickly during the first week of fasting. We went to sleep after our second meal (near 2:00 AM) and woke up quite late the following morning to shorten our time in the sun. We lounged around the family room, enduring the physical difficulties of fasting while also diving into our psyches and seeking knowledge within ourselves.

Once it was time for iftar, we would reconvene and share our appreciation for the meal and the opportunity to fast. As the television played in the background, the family and I, once energized, would iron out any cultural differences on our minds to better understand our distinct perspectives. Often, we visited family members in the neighborhood for music, singing and storytelling.

Ibtissam Tiskat’s song Khawa quickly became the soundtrack of my Ramadan, thanks to producer Driss Roukhe’s Ramadan TV special of the same title. The melody perfectly expressed the joy I experienced from my adoption into several Moroccan families and the cultural lessons and exchanges which followed.

The author during her stay in Morocco. [Gabriela Billini]

Two weeks into my journey, I moved on to Fez. A dear friend whom I met years earlier in my second home, New York, was visiting her family there over the summer. I had asked to share part of their Ramadan experience.

In Fez, the sun scorched the earth. The combination of the blistering heat and fasting put me in a mystical state at times, which lent itself to an experience of self-discovery, one of profound understanding on the value of the journey and the important lessons that Islam teaches the faithful by the vehicle of one’s own body. These several hours of reflection each day changed my understanding of foreign cultures and religion. Through them, I learned the value of personal engagement with tradition and cultural practices. Indeed, it is exponentially harder to try to truly and fundamentally understand, much less respect, groups and their beliefs without valuing one’s own.

At the end of my journey and fast, I took away a deeper understanding of both Islam and the West’s overall ignorance of Muslims’ devotion. The latter derives from an inability to comprehend cultural practices which ask a community to come together in such a personal and consuming way to perform the same task, or commit the same effort. Better understanding of this level of religiosity would draw us closer to one another, Christian and Muslim alike. The sincere devotion and all-encompassing dedication that comes with Ramadan is unlike anything else I have ever seen or experienced as a Roman Catholic Latina in the West. There is a boundless commitment in each fast that is plainly admirable and deserving of so much respect.

Having experienced the weight that comes with completing such a moving, pious act, I acquired not only discipline but also a capacity to resist the temptation of consumption. Fasting revealed that the search for substance and meaning in our everyday, so-called modern lives is baseless when clouded with the desire for things and popularity. Instead, I learned, we should turn inward to peer within ourselves, willing to step out of our comforts in order to grow.

Despite my many years of studying the Middle East and Islam, I was only able to understand both in new dimensions once I endured the struggles that came with fasting: the profound knowledge of the rewards. This personal connection gave me a clear perspective on the ummah in two respects: first, that the willingness to open one’s doors to outsiders speaks volumes about hosts; and secondly, that the fortitude of a community is capable of lifting itself up, just off the strength of their own. Ultimately, it was the factor of communal dependence and action that left the strongest impression on me.

Of course, I would not recommend that everyone wishing to understand a different culture immediately dive into its customary practices. History shapes social norms. These historical distinctions should be taken into consideration before exploring another culture.

I had three host families in Morocco, and all showered me endlessly with incredible doses of hospitality. They presented me with delicious foods night after night. There were early mornings and nights filled with mint tea, tajine, msemen, harcha, and bastila rice, as well as misunderstandings on the streets, bursting and energetic after iftar. We unwound at late night gatherings with friends, done with the purpose of enjoying the beauty of life and the importance of faith. No matter what, Moroccans always have their community, and Islam is what builds this deep connection. The generosity and kindness they showed me will live within me forever. ♦

Gabriela Billini is a student of International Security with concentrations in Diplomacy and the Middle East, and a specialization on Iran. She currently interns at UNESCO and is a research fellow at the American Iranian Council. She has entered the field of international affairs after 5 years in the fashion industry.