I was the only customer in the place, sipping my mint tea and reading my first Richard Brautigan book. I sat by the window, hiding from the blazing afternoon sun. It was early September by my calendar, but these people called the month Ramadan. I was in the small town of Tetuán, Morocco and this café was my second home.
The only guy working that day was the manager and he was leaning on the outside of the bar and staring out into the street. It must have been after three o'clock because in from the street comes this little kid carrying his school case, hot and sweaty, no doubt on the way home from school. He walks up to the manager and makes the universal sign for a drink of water, raising his thumb to his mouth. The manager jerks to attention, takes a good look out at the empty street, looks over at me, then hustles the kid behind the bar and they disappear from sight. A minute or so later the kid staggers out from behind the bar, wiping the last drops from his face and he heads back into the heat to complete the journey home.
The manager then reappears, looks sheepishly at me and shrugs his shoulders and says, "What can I do? He's my cousin, he's just a child, he's thirsty."
I nodded commiserations and he sadly shook his head and went back to leaning on the bar, staring out at the street. And I went back to my book and my mint tea, clueless of what had just happened.
It probably was the child that threw me off. He acted like getting a glass of water was a completely natural thing to do. Throughout the whole event he looked like an innocent cherub, oblivious to the sin being committed (as was I). But the manager looked plenty worried, and that's why the story has kept with me all these years.
Back then I knew you couldn't eat during the day, but it never occurred to me that you couldn't drink during the day. For a people from the desert, how could an all-knowing divine entity come up with a plan like that? Surely every Muslim, at one time in their life, has broken this rule. This seems to me a sure-fire way to make everyone a sinner.
But the main point in all this is that you have to hide from your neighbours. Islam is not a quiet, private relationship with God. It's a public affair. Every mosque has a speaker dangling out a window blasting out the call to prayer. In this country only the deaf can escape the call to prayer. Rich young Moroccans will speak French and wear jeans, pretending to be westerners, to get around the rules of Ramadan. But everyone else is judged by how they dress, whether they stop to pray at sundown, or if they give a 6-year-old a drink of water. It's an us-or-them thing and for Arabs being a believer is a big part of who "us" is.
Religion in their society is like it was back in the 1600s in England. Then, every small town had a church with a spot in it for you. And if on Sunday your butt wasn't sitting on that spot you got a shilling fine. Back then religion wasn't optional, it was part of the country. If the king decided to change the religion then you had to change too or it was treason. Catholic priests had to leave England or they would be hung, drawn and quartered. In many countries today, believers also face the death penalty if they try to join the infidels.
So you have to feel sorry for that poor manager. Trapped in a religious bubble, modernity just out of reach. Imagine running a café in a poor country where you can't serve booze, the local women aren't allowed in, and one month a year is a guaranteed dead loss.
And it's not like he thinks his trials will get him into heaven. In Morocco they have a saying: "A good man is one who says all five prayers at their time." And you only get an expression like that if no one says all five prayers at their time. Contrary to what you see on the news these people don't believe in God any more than you or I. They know their religion was written a long time ago, but it's part of who they are and they're stuck with it.
This is not to say that God might not be right on this one. Unbridled consumerism, with its accompanying pollution, may not be good for us. But having everyone standing around staring out at the street won't work either. Somehow the Arabs have to uncouple from their religion and be more like the disbelievers, the wicked. And given that God wrote the Qur'an, it's real tough to argue against it.
In England it took a civil war and a few hundred more years of squabbles before they were able to finally beat religion out of the conversation. It looks like Egypt and Syria are heading down that path too.
Arabs always like souvenirs from the outside world, and when I left Morocco I felt bad because I had nothing to give. Over a year later, when I got home, guilt got the better of me and I mailed off a set of Canadian Football League posters to Morocco. God only knows what possessed me to do that — these guys would have known nothing about Canadian football. I don't know if the parcel arrived, but I used to picture that manager with all the team posters spread out in front of him. Dumbfounded by the whole thing.