Morocco is a Muslim country. Most of the public holidays are related to Islamic festivals and celebrations which move through the year with the lunar calendar. (As a rough guide, they are around 11-12 days earlier in successive years). Although banks and government offices close on public holidays, they are likely to pass without you noticing too much. However, if you happen to be travelling during one of the major religious festivals, you may wish to know a little more about it in order to be prepared.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, falling approximately 11 days earlier each year. Every day during this month, Muslims around the world spend the daylight hours in a complete fast. This fasting involves abstaining from food, all drink (including water, soft drinks and alcoholic), sexual relations, smoking and other vices between sunrise and sunset. It is a time for Muslims around the world to purify the soul, refocus their attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice. Ramadan is much more than just not eating and drinking though; Muslims are called upon to use this month to re-evaluate their lives in light of Islamic guidance.
Each day of fasting starts with prayers just before sunrise and there is a strong spiritual focus with observation of praying five times per day according to the rules of Islam. Just before the first dawn prayers of the day there is a special pre-fast meal called suhoor. At the end of each day the fast is broken with a special meal called iftar (literally, break-fast), often starting with a glass of milk, dates and a hearty Moroccan soup called harira. Sweets and honey-drenched pastries called chbekia are also popular to replenish the sugar levels of a day of fasting.
Many Moroccans continue their working and home lives as normally as possible in order to demonstrate the strength of their faith in not letting Ramadan disturb their routine. However, more typically as a result of the fasting, the day tends to turn on its head, with activities such as shopping, socialising and family visits taking place after sunset, following the breaking of the fast. It is unusual to see much street life in the early mornings of Ramadan!
The end of the month long fast of Ramadan is marked by Eid el Fitr, one of the two most important Islamic Holidays of the year. Families travel to come together and celebrate. The celebration of Eid can last for several days and often shops, local businesses and public transport are affected. Larger hotels will continue unaffected.
There is no need to worry about changing your holiday plans in Morocco because they coincide with Ramadan. There will be some business that alter their opening hours e.g. offices, banks, bureaus de change etc. You may find that some small hotels, riads and guest-houses chose to close for the month so check in advance if you have a specific place in mind for your stay. In the main cities most restaurants and cafes that cater for the tourist market will remain fully operational. In your hotel your stay will be mainly unaffected, but we suggest that you be sensitive to the fact that the staff working and delivering your holiday may be observing the fast. We suggest during Ramadan that you refrain from drinking or eating in the street and to avoid smoking publicly in e.g. shops, private homes, rural areas, in the tour vehicle. Discretion, observation and sensitivity to those around you and to local cultural traditions is the best policy.
Your hosts, drivers and guides may be observing Ramadan even in the hottest summer weather in the Sahara desert. Please respect their right to do so and be sensitive to their religious and cultural traditions.
Common Ramadan greetings in Morocco:
“Ramadan Mubarak!” - Blessed Ramadan
“Ramadan kareem!” - Noble Ramadan
2015: 18th June - 17th July (approximately)
2016: 6th June - 5th July (approximately)
2017: 27th May - 25th June (approximately)
Eid el Kebir
The other major religious festivity in Morocco is Eid el Kebir (the ‘big Eid’, as opposed to the one at the end of Ramadan). This is also known as the Festival of the Sacrifice as it is observed in remembrance of Abraham’s preparedness to sacrifice his son for God, before it was replaced by a sheep. In Morocco, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, families save up to buy a sheep to slaughter on this day to share with family, friends and those less fortunate than themselves.
In the days leading up to Eid el Kebir, travellers will observe the preparations for the feast. Sheep are sold in supermarket car parks, souks and street corners alongside all the necessary implements for the sacrifice and the feast, such as big knives, barbecue grills, charcoal, onions and spices. You may hear sheep being stored in yards or on roof terraces, ready for the big day.
On the day itself, there may be large public prayer events in main cities. Everyone wears their newest or best clothes (the laundrettes and dry cleaners do a roaring trade at this time!) Following this, the itinerant butchers have several hours of work going from house to house to assist in the slaughter. No part of the sheep is wasted and the day’s activities are not for the squeamish. In residential areas, youngsters will build fires to smoke the sheep’s brains and they will organise collections of the sheepskins to sell to tanners. The meat is too fresh to eat on the first day of Eid and an elaborate menu is devised over three days to prepare and enjoy each part of the sheep with family and friends.
More so than at the end of Ramadan, businesses may close at this time and supplies may fall low in the shops. If your trip coincides with Eid el Kebir, double check with your driver or host regarding arrangements.
Achoura celebrates the 10th day of the Muslim new year and is a festival for children. For several evenings in advance of the day, you may hear kids playing pottery drums called tarija and collecting old wood to build fires. They dare each other to jump through the fire in a festival that in some ways resembles western autumn and winter festivals such as Halloween or Guy Fawkes. It is also a time for children to receive gifts - just like at Christmas in western countries, the bigger and more modern the better!
If you are fortunate to be in a town or village celebrating its annual moussem, you are in for a treat. A moussem is a celebration to revere a saint or religious leader (marabout) at their burial place - usually marked by a small shrine or zawiya. There may be a peregrination aspect involved in the event, although in Islam formal pilgrimage is reserved for the Haj journey to Mecca. As you travel around Morocco, you will see these shrines - some more elaborate than others - painted white with a domed roof known as a koubba. Occasionally they are situated in cemeteries, but often they are in fields, on cliffs or on mountains and are sometimes very remote. Moussems are often held in Spring and are celebrated in both the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Larger moussems have a festive atmosphere and may feature processions, a market or displays of military horsemanship known as fantasia.