I first encountered the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 1970, as a young traveler newly arrived in Morocco from the States. I was 24, decades away from embracing Islam, and with no real understanding of the faith that nearly all Moroccans practice.

Like many Americans in that time, I thought of religion as an antiquated approach to life--when I considered it at all. Certainly I had never before imagined a country where 99% of the population stops eating and drinking on a daily basis for a month in an effort to come closer to God.

One evening shortly after arriving in Tangier, I was strolling in a crowd on Rue de la Liberté, a busy street that leads to the central market. The pavement was lined on either side by men and women in woolen robes, crouched before steaming pots of soup set up on the sidewalks. It was not quite sunset, and no one had started eating yet, but the aroma of cooking laced the air, and the street was bathed in a mood of expectation.

All at once from the garden walls of the governor's palace down the hill, a single cannon boomed over the city. As I glanced in the direction of the explosion, a cloud of smoke spread overhead; then the streets and the market became a hive of activity. More than half the crowd scurried away down twisting byways, rushing home to break the fast with their families.

But a number of people remained behind--they worked in the market, they had a friend to meet or business to finish. These people, I noticed, went to the fruit stalls first and purchased a paper cornet of local dates, then moved to the bakeries to buy a loaf of bread and finally approached the soup sellers on the sidewalk.

Every Muslim country has its recommended foods to break the fast with. In Morocco, people say that during Ramadan you must treat your stomach as if it were a baby's. The softest, gentlest item on the Moroccan menu is bysar soup, a thick brew of split peas in a wooden bowl with a healthy drizzle of olive oil puddled on the surface and a vigorous sprinkling of the cumin that brings out the flavor of the peas. I joined a line and, when my turn came, watched a grizzled man from the Rif mountains ladle a quart of soup into my bowl. He patted a wooden stool beside him. I sat down and began to eat.

"Big cannon," I said in Spanish. The whole of northern Morocco speaks some Spanish. I didn't know a word of Arabic.

"Si, y muy antigua tambien,"he said. An old cannon, too.

In every city, he explained, Muslims announce the end of the fast in different ways. In some places, it is marked by a siren; other places use the beating of a large drum.

"Here we fire a cannon," he said. "How did your fast go today?"

I felt oddly flattered to be mistaken for a kinsman, and a little embarrassed to have to explain that I wasn't fasting.

The old man chuckled softly. He'd known I wasn't a Muslim, and he found that interesting.

"You should fast anyway!" he said. "It's good for the system, and it armors your heart, so only good things can touch you."

One heard this comparison often in Morocco between Ramadan and armor. It was a usual way to extol the virtues of fasting.

"Is it hard for you?" I asked.

The man smiled broadly. "No, no. It gives me strength. After a few days, it makes me feel like el Rey de Tierra, King of the Country."

"Well, perhaps I'll try it."

The basics of Ramadan are easy to cover: Every day for one lunar month, from sunrise to sunset, Muslims, whether teenagers or grandparents, men or women, neither eat nor drink. Nothing, not even smoke, may pass their lips. In the evenings, they visit their mosques in record numbers or meet in one another's homes to break the day's fast together and take part in group remembrance and prayers.

Why do Muslims do this? Some will tell you, "Because it is ordained by the Qur'an." But what does the Qur'an provide as a reason? First, it recommends the fast as a means to sharpen our awareness of God--to be reminded of a natural state all creatures were born with. Indeed, Islam doesn't teach original sin, but rather original "innocence," an inborn direct connection to the divine.

Second, the fast is recommended to strengthen self-control. Personally, I found this concept puzzling until I'd completed my first month of fasting years ago. Perhaps you need to experience Ramadan to understand it.

From feeling deprived, you come to feel empowered by your ability to shake off the promptings of appetite and go about your day. From thinking how slowly time is passing, you move along, as the fast progresses, to not watching the clock. You may take a larger interest in the minutes right around sunset, but the rest of the day drifts along, once you're in the swing, and time as a social habit loses some of its importance. Indeed, Ramadan stands time on its head: You "breakfast" after sundown, when others eat their dinner. You stretch out your evening to take in a second meal, then rise before dawn for a final repast.


Third, Islam asks Muslims to fast in order to increase their sympathy for those who hunger through the other months. Ramadan is not just a time of self-denial: It is a time of increased charity and giving. If you miss a day of fasting, one means of atoning is to feed someone who can't afford a meal.

The old soup vendor did not impart these facts about Ramadan to me; I learned them many years later. Rather, he gave me a feeling for its spirit, and that intrigued me. So much so that, as Ramadan neared its end, I fasted for the last three days of the period.

It wasn't so difficult, really, with a whole city behind you and with no one waving plates of food beneath my nose at lunchtime.

Indeed, lunchtime went from a social embarrassment to something like a challenge. I had arrived in Morocco a few days before the fast began. Once it got started, I'd find myself sitting alone in restaurants at noon, faced with delicious meals prepared by chefs who were fasting and served by waiters who were fasting, too. This was all performed in the best of spirits--it was, after all, a blessing to have a job in poor Tangier--but I felt by turns callous or shy to be eating in front of them.

By fasting with them, I entered into the city's spirit.

I had no idea of the actual religious basis for my fast. I'd had my first lesson in Islam, however, and it left me with a lasting respect for the people who upheld its tenets.

When Eid al-Fitr, the feast that concludes the monthlong fast, came around, I felt I had earned some small right to celebrate with the rest of the city's population. The streets were flowing with celebrants that day. People were dressed in their holiday best, promenading through the markets and enjoying their holiday. I went along with them.

No one thought me out of place for joining in.

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