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3 cups of {Saharan} tea

25 Mar

Today my daughter made this interesting remark “I don’t really like tea, I just drink it to be Moroccan”.  Indeed it’s very much an entrenched tradition and to refuse tea would be antisocial.  The tea itself varies by region, and I can’t believe that until a couple of months ago, I’d never had Saharan tea (from the Sahara that is).  I’d heard that in the desert teatime can last for several hours,  hot water being poured over the same tea leaves and reboiled at least 3 times, the hours whiled away in talk and socializing.  I was lucky enough to witness this ceremony in Rabat of all places.  My sister’s in-laws are from the South and I was at her house when they came for a visit.  Almost the first thing they did after the long car ride was set up the tea stuff in the living room.  They explained to me that it’s a “3 cup tradition”, the first cup or brew being the strongest and most bitter, then more water is added on to the tea leaves for the next two brews .  They said that a gathering is only complete after all 3 cups have been shared.  I mentioned that there is a famous book that refers to a similar tradition in Afghanistan.  They said that Afghans must have Bedouin roots in that case…

My hosts were excited to test me out and see if I could stomach the infamously bitter and strong “1st cup”.  I couldn’t.  I had the second cup.  The portions are very small but so potent.  The tea is poured from cup to cup to cup, creating an impressive layer of foam.

I’m digging the butane bottle in the middle of my sister’s recently redone living room:

This innocent looking cup made me lose 6 hours of sleep, no joke:

Today’s Saharan woman: traditional sari-type clothes (melhfa), tea, cellphone and laptop open to Facebook.  University educated.  This whole tea experience was like travelling to a new place for me.  I’m not much of a tea drinker but the company made it worth it.  I agree with my daughter on that.

Southern Gem

19 Feb

Our family of five recently took a vacation down to the south of Morocco, Agadir and the region called Souss.  It was special to be together and discover parts of Morocco we hadn’t seen before.  The kids are now at a great travelling age so there may be more and more travelling in Morocco posts on here, insha Allah.

There were a lot of gems on the trip, but as I was going through my photos this set jumped out at me.  It’s the tomb of a woman called Lalla T’ezza Semlalia.  We just came upon this in the middle of a pretty remote, deserted stretch of highway 2-lane road, and I was immediately drawn to the fact that such good care had been taken of this tomb.  In fact there is a  very large, lushly ornate mosque there that serves as a traditional center of Islamic learning.  I was heartened (in the very literal sense of the term) to see that this sort of center does indeed exist in Morocco.  We were told that anyone who wants to study intensively is welcome and will be given food and a blanket.

The Souss region is largely arid, mountainous, empty and open.  It’s gets more and more desert as you go south.  The Islam there is very traditional and strong, and seeing this tomb/mosque/school complex I got a feel for why this region produces many fine scholars.

What a jewel in the rough, no?

I’ve never seen anything quite like this, certainly not in the countryside.  A beautiful place to remember God and ask Him for a measure of virtue, mercy and nearness to Him, as He granted this woman.

The Arabic inscription on her tomb and also on the wall reads “every soul shall taste death”.  Although some may not choose to dwell on death, I appreciate any reminder, as one of my main goals in this life is to work towards what is called “husn al-khatima”, a good ending.

And then there was the mosque, with a large prayer hall inside and a very nice school and dormitory.

The serene interior, quiet now between prayer times.

I don’t know anything about Lalla T’ezza Semlalia, and didn’t manage to find anyone to ask in our short visit.  I’d be thrilled if someone who read this blog actually knows a story or two or about her.  Please share!

 

Paula Wolfert in my Kitchen

29 Jan

Everyone who knows Paula Wolfert seems to have a great Paula story.  Here’s mine.

It was about 2 years ago.  I was dropping off a good friend at the Marrakesh airport.  After we said our goodbyes and parted ways, I glanced down at a counter and noticed a shiny credit card.  I read the name, Paula Wolfert, and it sounded so familiar, like a household name, but I couldn’t quite pin it down.  I looked around and spotted likely candidate.  I ran up to her and asked if she’d dropped a credit card.  She said she had and I handed it over and that was that.  I walked away then it suddenly came to me who she was.  Again I ran after her and asked, “wait, are you Paula Wolfert who wrote Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco?”.  She said “Yes”.  I was so excited, I told her how we’d grown up with that book in our kitchen.

It was that book, with its detailed description of how to shop for and prepare Moroccan food, that unraveled many mysteries for my mother and later for my sister and me.  When my sister and I decided to make bastilla for Eid, we used the books detailed instructions on how to prepare each layer, the chicken cooked in saffron, the eggs and the sweetened ground almonds, all of it wrapped them in thin, crispy warqa dough.  We did not have a Moroccan grandmother to pass on the old ways to us, but this book was often a good stand-in.  Paula was not just another cookbook author, she was one of us, a foreigner who had come to Morocco, learned the ropes, and lived to tell the tale.

Already in my mind I couldn’t wait to tell my mother that I’d met the woman we’d sort of grown up with.  Little did I know that Paula had gone on to write many, many other cookbooks, and that she had developed a loyal following.  Her fans were people who enjoyed doing things the traditional way, cooking in clay pots, tracking down the best cumin and saffron, steaming couscous for hours…

Then Paula told me that she not been back to Morocco in 27 years!  And that she had now come to find new (old) recipes that she hadn’t featured in her first book.  Food and Wine Magazine was going to run an article on her journey re-discovering Morocco.  She mentioned that one of the recipes she had come to pin down was Seffa, that steamed angel hair pasta with chicken dish that is my favorite.

It just so happens that we have a beloved housekeeper, Malika, who is an amazing Moroccan cook.  I mean the kind of woman who, whatever she puts her hands into, turns out delicious.   I told Paula about Malika, and the next thing you know I was inviting Paula and the magazine staff over for a cooking demonstration.  Yikes!

I called my mother and gleefully exclaimed, “you’ll never guess who I just me at the airport…”.  My mother was equally pleased, and she called up Paula at her hotel and the two of them talked for an hour.  I’m sure they had many tales to tell.  Both my mother and Paula came to Morocco at a very different time.  I remember my mother with her jellaba and basket, headed to the markets to do battle, haggling in a foreign language for the purchase of each and every item that crossed our doorstep.  Before the big chain supermarkets made everything easy and infinitely less interesting.

The day of the photo shoot came, and there we were, Malika, Paula, Emily Kaiser (the food editor), Quentin Bacon (world famous food photographer), his assistant whose name escapes me at the moment, and myself.  Malika was dressed in a beautiful turquoise caftan.  My daughter, who was then 7 years old, was so excited about the photo shoot and made sure she was wearing a beautiful gold caftan.  (She kept asking, “do you think they’ll put me in the magazine?”).

Malika started to work her magic, turning the noodles, chicken and almonds into work of art.  Quentin snapped away while his assistant wrote down information on every photo he took.  I was so pleased that Malika was getting her chance to shine, she certainly deserves it.  Making Seffa (or Chaariya medfouna) is a long process.  Angel hair pasta only takes a few minutes to boil, but it takes about 3 hours of steaming to turn al dente.  During this time, it absorbs the flavors of the chicken that is bubbling away in the bottom of the steamer.  Malika showed how she gets the most flavor out of saffron: she heats up the threads in a pan and then crushes them between her fingers.  She also demonstrated the steaming technique, skillfully turning the pasta onto a plate every 40 minutes or so to toss it and throw on more butter.  Here’s a photo of the same dish, made at a later date:

The next day, my mother invited Paula and the crew out to her farm in the country.  There we hired a couple of local ladies to demonstrate another rather labor intensive Moroccan dish called Treed.  Emily told us to look for the magazine article 12 months later.  “We prepare articles 12 months in advance so that when we run them, it’s the same season as in the photos”.

Let me just say that we were all very comfortable with each other.  Paula is extremely down to earth, real and loving.  It all came together in the most serendipitous way.

So, 12 months later I began to look for the magazine article online.  I did not see anything until a few months after that.   Finally the article appeared, I showed it my daughter Karima and to Malika the great cook.  Although Malika and Karima’s names had been switched, and the chicken had turned into lamb, it was fun to read about our cooking day together, it honored Malika and included a nice photo of her and Paula.

I thought that was the end of the story…until Paula published her highly-acclaimed newest cookbook.  This one:

Well, then, a friend of ours who had spent 3 months in Morocco returned to the States and wrote us, “someone gave me a beautiful new Moroccan cookbook and I opened it up and there was Karima”.  (Just so it’s clear, Karima is our daughter).  She snapped a photo of the page and sent it to us.  I don’t think I knew that Paula was also working on a cookbook when we saw each other, so this came as quite a surprise.

Soon after that, Paula sent 2 copies of the cookbook, one for me and one for my mom.  It’s really beautiful, part coffee-table book, part cookbook.  I’m amazed at the depth of Paula’s research into Morocco history, regional characteristics, obscure cooking tips and spice categorizing.  There was a very dear picture of Karima in the book , as well as a few pictures taken from the cooking demo with Malika. (If you want to see the pictures of Karima, Malika, our steamer, and a very blurry me eating Seffa, you’ll have to get your hands on a copy).  I showed the book to Malika and she was fascinated by all the different recipes.  I asked her if she liked being in the book and she said “shweeya (a little), I like the other people’s recipes better”.  Come on Malika, give yourself some credit!

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the book, which ties in nicely with the blog post I wrote a few days ago.  It sums up what I appreciate the most about Moroccan cooks, their ability to make something fabulous out of almost nothing

“Moroccans put much store in what they call baraka, which means good fortune.  And in culinary terms, baraka can also refer to an ability to start cooking with very little in the way of ingredients and yet feed many people from the food pot.”

The photo of Malika and Paula Wolfert is by Quentin Bacon.  

A Wonderful Death

21 Jan

Baraka is the Arabic word for blessing (of course, it’s so much more, but you know…semantics).  I feel blessed to speak darija (Moroccan dialect of Arabic) because that means that I can participate in the daily Moroccan baraka exchange.

Each and every thing or action can either have baraka or not.  For example, food that is purchased on an honest income, prepared with love and prayers, shared among as many people as possible is said to have baraka.  Food that  is bought with questionable money, or processed in an unnatural way, or consumed greedily without praise of the Creator, without sharing with or offering to those around us, is said to be devoid of baraka.  The first kind of food makes you healthy, physically and spiritually, will never make you ill, will strengthen your body for doing good things, will strengthen bonds of friendship and unite hearts.  The second kind will weaken you, make you anxious and leave you wanting.

Our daily exchanges can have baraka.  Take, for example, this exchange I had with a man who is a car guardian.  This is when I get in the car to drive away.  I am giving him 20 cents for his car guarding, and he’s helping me navigate out of my parking space into traffic.

Me: Salam alaykom akhoya.  Peace be with you my brother.

Guardian: wa alaykom salam. And with you peace.

Me: bismillah.  In God’s name.  (hand him the money)

Guardian:  Allah ya3teek el khair.   God give you good things.  (another way of saying “thank you”)

Me: Allah y3awnek.  God assist you.

Guardian:  Seeri fid Allah.  Go in God’s care.

And that’s it.  As I type it in English it sounds so contrived, but you have to understand that in Arabic, this is actually completely natural speech.  This is just how people say “hello”, “thanks a lot”, “good luck” and “have a nice day”.  Every utterance is a prayer, returning the speaker to the divine, time and time again.  As I drive away from the guardian I feel so incredibly thankful that this is the case, I feel a little more alive, more humbled, more compassionate.

Most times when I have an exchange like this, I walk away feeling a little more light.  Then there are those exchanges that feel like the person reached in, took out my heart, plain cracked it open, washed it in light, and placed it back in my chest.  A heart unexpectedly broken in the best way possible.  Tears flowing at the most importune of moments.

And it can come from the most unlikely sources.  I’d like to tell you about someone who dazzles me with light.  She’s a woman who sells candy outside my son’s school.  Her name is Naima (not Naima from the baking project, it’s a common name) and she is one of the more joyful, exuberant people I know.  She’s got this cart that she had made, and it’s a child’s delight,  full of every kind of candy and trinket.  She pushes this cart to the school in the morning, noontime and afternoon school, as many as four times a day.  My son is a regular customer, both because he likes candy, and because I really, really want  to support her.  I often stop by after dropping him off at school, just to get a little dose of Naima to start my day off right.  I never know what the topic will be.  So I might ask her a question, like, “how did you get started with this cart?”  She’ll animatedly tell me all about how she got it made and  how she started out, and then she will offer the spiritual wisdom behind it.  “Honey, I’d rather make one dirham the right way than a million dirhams the wrong way!”.  Or if she had a day off, she’d say “Our body has a right over us!  These hands, these feet, they have their rights!  They’re going to bear witness against us if we aren’t good to them”.  She is smiling and animated, and has this amazing faith in God.  I doubt she can read or write, but she has a deep, strong wisdom about life, the human soul and our journey.

About 2 months ago, I came to the school, and I saw Naima dressed head to toe in white.  I was in total shock, because this is the color of mourning in Islam.  Even though I knew exactly what had happened, I couldn’t think of any other way of approaching her than to ask her “Naima, why are you wearing white?”.  She answered, “the man of the house died”.  This is a way of referring to her husband.  I stood there in total shock, and she told me about it.  She said “he wasn’t sick, so it was a total surprise.  He died a wonderful death, he didn’t suffer, his body was completely at peace.”  Her face is glistening with tears and at the same time she is smiling and there is that joy and light in her face.  “And you know, he died during the best times”.  (the first ten days of the Islamic pilgrimage month, considered to be the holiest days of the year).  Then, as usual, she shares spiritual insight, “we’re all just renting space on this earth, and once the rental contract is up, we’ve got to leave.”  But the words that stick with me the most are “a wonderful death”.  I’m amazed that anyone would use that particular combination of words, and I love it.  This woman endured the ultimate loss, the person that was closest to her,  and she was completely accepting of it, and could see that it happened in best way possible.  These are the fruits of a spiritual life.

Since then, it’s been so strange to see Naima every day, with her white jellaba, scarf, socks and shoes, busily selling candy to a 100 screaming kids or cheerfully chatting with the mothers after morning drop-off.  She’ll wear white for 4 months and 10 days, the traditional mourning period.  It’s a constant reminder of death.  We talk about it often, revisiting the story of her husband’s death.  And every time I am awed by how real her strength and faith are.  More often than not, we both end up in tears, and laughing for no other reason than that we enjoy each other’s company.  Exchanges of baraka are possible anywhere, anytime, if we are open to them.  If you’re not getting any love then you just have to be the one that gives it.  A kind word, a smile, a sincere prayer are what soften and open hearts.

The sufis say that a saint is one who reminds you of God.  With him or her you experience a higher level of reality, in an instant, effortlessly.  If anyone ever wonders where the women saints of Morocco are, have no doubt that they are there, making bread, raising children, pushing a candy cart around.

Baking their way to success

5 Dec

She chooses to walk for 45 minutes rather than spend 4 dirhams on a taxi.

She lives in a triangular sliver of a room.  No beds, just blankets.  A TV to keep the girls company while she is at work.  A bamboo roof that leaks in winter.

She knows the prices of food; she knows that a bowl of white flour costs a dirham and a quarter, precisely.  She knows because she needs to.

It is the details of poverty that make it real to me.  The contrast between what she eats, and what I can choose to eat.  The gulf between our earning capacities.  It is the details that I want to know, so I pry, I am nosy, I persistently inquire.  Really, you made how much?  50 dirhams a day?  And you worked 12 hours a day?  50 dirhams is a little under 6 dollars, it’s 4.5 euros.  For this she stood for 12 hours in the cafe, over a hot griddle, patting out the greasy dough for fried breads, one after the other, one hundred per day.

When I do hear the details, I have to let each one sink in, with all the emotions that come with it.  I am awed, I have so much respect for this woman, she is tough as nails, she has endurance.   I honor her for this.  Then I am sad, pained at this, at hearing how little her labor earns, and at the part I play in this imbalanced picture.  But most of all I am humbled by her wonderful smile, her gratitude for life’s smallest blessings, her constant mention of God, in praise and thanks, her celebrating of her children.  I think she knows that life transcends what we merely see, touch, eat and surround ourselves with.  Even as she lives with so little, she floats above it with grace and a smiling face.

I let the details drip, drip, drip into my consciousness.  I let each of them change me, just a little, propel me towards something.  What is the solution.  Do I give 1 dirham, do I give 10?  Do I solicit more on her behalf?  All this I can do, and have done.  I cannot bear to think that her girls could go to bed hungry, or not get the proper nutrition, or have the cold seep up from the floor through the blankets at night.  I know that in some countries poor people get fat because the cheap food is the fattiest.  But here they can’t even afford enough of the cheap food to make them fat.  Potatoes, white flour, sugar and oil are still precious commodities, often purchased a dirham at a time, enough for a meal.

Finally things have coalesced into a new picture, a new phase.  Fatiha and Naima, 2 of the ladies who I love dearly and have blogged about here, have started up a small baking enterprise.   They are baking to supply the small cafe at our workplace, the Center for Language & Culture.

It’s been an exciting and creative process for them, and very rewarding for me to watch unfold.  Both women have spent extensive time baking mesemman (Moroccan fried flat-bread, a staple in most cafes).  However, neither of them had baked, or even tasted, much else.  So we set about learning how to bake a few things.  They had already learned fruit tarts last year in cooking classes.  I showed them how to make chocolate chip cookies, and finally after tweaking the recipe over the course of a couple of weeks, they now have a great, easy go-to method for delicious, beautiful cookies.  In Morocco we don’t have brown sugar, which makes the cookies moist and chewy, so we’ve had to approximate the taste and texture.  I’m getting into the details here, the bakers out there can stick with me, the rest of you just scroll down if you wish.  Our dear friend and wonderful cook Khadija gave the ladies her recipe for awesome chocolate cake, and we figured out that it works really well as a cupcake.  The chocolate cupcake is one of the best-sellers, the ladies make a batch of 30, or a double batch of 60, every day.  Then a dear friend of mine, who is French, showed us an easy recipe for crepes.  Those too are a daily must (20 a day).  We stumbled on a recipe for easy chocolate pudding to fill the crepes with (ok, I’ll admit, it has cornstarch, the dreaded “thickener” that we are meant to avoid in search of “real” ingredients.  Let me tell you, the stuff tastes great, and we do not have such discerning palates around here).

Next we wanted something savory to balance out the sweet stuff, so we tried small quiches.  Those too were a big hit, but we have a problem with the crust.  We are baking them in the same pans we use for the fruit tarts, which are the kind with the pop-up bottom.  When we pour the egg/milk mixture into the crusts and bake them, the egg mixture seeps out through the crust onto the oven pan.  I think it might be our crust.  Any suggestions?

The ladies have also learned how to make a pretty tasty pizza from scratch.  Before this project, it’s safe to say that neither of them had tasted the majority of these foods.  Now they have this amazing new skill, and the confidence that goes with it.  The first week or so I was in the kitchen with them a lot.  But now that they have their core recipes down, they run their own show.  They are doing an excellent job of planning, working together, communicating, decision-making, and most of all baking from morning til night.  The baked goods are then available to the students and teachers at the center, mostly during their break times.

What’s new for me here is working without a blueprint.  Seeing potential in a situation that is not all spelled out.  I have to say I was very nervous to even start the whole thing.  What if I just got their hopes up, and then it didn’t work?  What if we lost money and got demoralized by it?  What if we couldn’t master the recipes?  What if we couldn’t actually make enough money for them to live off of?  And honestly, some of the people I shared my idea with had the same doubts.  I lost some sleep just being nervous, or I’d drive somewhere and forget where I was driving, cause my mind was busy sifting through all the details.

I’m glad I didn’t listen to the doubts.  It’s only been a couple of weeks, but already the project looks very promising.  First of all, the food is great.  In fact I want a strawberry tart right now.  Secondly, sales are going well, there is rarely anything that is not sold.  Some of the items are tricky because they need to sell the same day (crepes, tarts, quiches).  Even so things rarely go to waste.  We are starting to have regular customers.  Even though I told the ladies to view this first month as just a training period and not worry about the money just yet, it already looks like the project is financially viable, alhamdulillah.   And thirdly the ladies are totally enjoying being their own boss, for the first time ever.  One of them mentioned to me something like “Now the color has come back to our cheeks”, in reference to the fact that they feel FREE in their work.  It’s nice too because they are together, they keep each other good company, they can bring in their children if necessary.  When one of them brings her baby in, they take turns carrying him on their backs (the original Attachment Parenting, fo’ real).   And it’s all getting easier and more relaxed.  We already have plans for expansion, but I’ll leave that for another post.

These customers look happy:

Mobiles for Morocco, and other projects

5 Aug

Peace and blessings of Ramadan to all readers!

  1. Good and wonderful things are happening…a few people are in fact interested in homeschooling in Marrakesh.  Whaddya know.  When this seed first planted itself into our consciousness, I prayed that God would send the right people and resources if this were meant to be.  And alhamdulillah, things are in fact coming together.
  2. Amanda (blogger Marocmama) is running a wonderful charity campaign called “Mobiles for  Morocco”.  She is collecting mobiles for the babies at a home for abandoned babies here in Marrakesh.  Read more about it at http://marocmama.com/mobiles-for-morocco  (she lives in the US by the way).  The babies spend so much time in their cribs, mobiles with interesting shapes and soft music would be very stimulating to them.  Please send Amanda your new or used mobiles, or a cash donation.
  3. The next step in the cooking classes project (cooking classes for poor mothers here in Marrakesh) will be, inshallah, to equip these women’s kitchens!  They are learning how to cook, but what good is that when they don’t even own fridges or ovens (for the most part).  Most do their cooking on little camping style burners and even with such meager equipment, they manage to whip up amazing Moroccans goodies like tajines or fried bread (mesemn).  We are hoping to buy the necessary fridges, ovens, pots, pans and appliances that would push these women into another category of cooking.  For Moroccan women, their kitchen is their pride and their creative outlet, and we want to encourage that.  Eventually they may be able to turn their cooking into a side business, cooking for special occasions in the neighborhood.  If you’d like to contribute to this project, please contact me.  We already have a generous donor from Germany who has gathered 500 euros towards this.  Yay!
  4. In other news, our littlest child is not so little now.  He turned 4 last month!  No more toddlers in the house (but still plenty of crying).  The other day Amin (his older brother) got a cut on his toe, so I gave him a little foot bath to soak it in.  When little Yousef saw that he said “Can I have a bloodbath too?”.  When he got better he said “Ok!  I’m back on my foot”.  He cracks us up, and I am glad his brother and sister are old enough to also appreciate the cute things he says and does.
Here is a photo taken at a recent visit to the home for abandoned babies:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ladies cooking:

Birthday boy with the birthday tarte he requested:

 

Moroccan Chicken Bastila: step-by-step recipe with photos

4 Jul

Bastila is a Moroccan dish made from chicken, eggs and almonds, layered and wrapped in phylo dough.  The word comes from Spanish “pastilla” which I am assuming refers to the thin crispy layers of dough.  Who knows if this dish still exists in Spain, but “history” (i.e. wikipedia) tells us that the Moors brought this dish with them when they were driven out of Spain in the late 1400’s.  Today it is served ubiquitously at special occasions, usually as an appetizer ahead of a meat dish.

I’ve been wracking my brains for ideas to help some of the struggling ladies I know, which is hard to do since my brain actually liquefied and oozed out of my ears a long time ago in this 110 degree heat.  But thankfullyI retained that 10 percent of our brains that we actually use.  So it dawned on me that knowing  how to make bastila is a potentially marketable skill.  In Morocco, women who know how to make it can get commissioned by their neighbors or by local catering companies.  It’s something they can do at home and at their own pace.  But for a large number of Moroccan women, there are two basic challenges when it comes to a home industry like making bastila.  One is illiteracy.  So they can’t read recipes, something most of us take for granted.  Another challenge is not being able to afford the ingredients in order to practice a few times.  These things pose such a huge mental block that women won’t even try.

I wanted to find a way to overcome both challenges.  The idea came to have  a series of cooking classes, free to the participants, funded by outside donations.  We held the first one last Sunday, at the school I work at CLC Morocco (www.clcmorocco.org).  When our school cook, Khadija, heard about the project, she immediately volunteered to teach the class.  Khadija is great cook, but more than that she has a fun-loving confident personality that puts even the shyest and most awkward among us at ease.  As for the participants, we started with a small group of 5 women, some of whom I’ve blogged about here, so if you’ve been reading, you have an idea of the challenges these women face.

As they worked, I took pictures in order to make a picture recipe book that the women can follow another time.  Seeing and participating in making the dish the first time would give them the initial confidence they would need to try it again.

First they prepared and laid out all the ingredients.  From left to right, top: powdered sugar and regular, 1 kg almonds, 1 kg onions, 2 chickens; middle row: 1 gram saffron threads, fake saffron food coloring, 3 cinnamon sticks, peppe, ginger, chopped coriander, smen (ghee), and 1 kg of the bastila sheets called warqa in Arabic; last row: Ras el Hanout spice mix, salt, 3-4 garlic cloves, oil, melted butter.  Missing from this picture are 15 eggs and orange blossom water.

I have to warn you, making bastila is a long process.  It’s a labor of love that I don’t actually expect you or myself to make.  But just for fun, here’s how it’s done.

First, the chicken is set to stew with lots of salt, pepper, ground ginger, ras el hanout (about 2 large spoons each, Moroccan cooks don’t give exact measurements).  There is also a good cup of oil, about a quarter cup of smen (gheen), the onions, garlic, saffron and coriander. Khadija told us that some people prefer to leave the coriander whole in a small bouquet, then fish it out at the end.  She prefers to add it chopped, but she said “you do it however you want”.  That is basically the philosophy behind Moroccan cooking, measurements are eyeballed, the dish is tasted at various intervals and tweeked, and no two cooks will make the same exact recipe.

Stir the chicken in the pot.  It’s going to smell really good really quick, but don’t start to falter, although your mouth may start to water, the end is *not* in sight.  

Good yellow chicken.  Moroccans will not tolerate white chicken.  While the chicken is cooking, you can work on the almonds, see bellow.

When it’s good and cooked, the chicken is removed from the sauce, left to cool and de-boned.  Stage one complete.

Next, skim off a small bowlful of the sauce, add it to the chicken to avoid dryness.  Now start the egg stage.  About 12 or so eggs will be broken straight into the sauce and stirred.

Keep stirring until they look like this.  Then transfer them to a colander and let all the excess water drain out.  Stage 2 complete.  

The almonds now.  These take a while so it’s best if you do this step the day before.  It’s tedious and depressing to do this alone, be warned, so call your friends and make it a bastila-making party.  In our cooking class, there were like 5 ladies plus Khadija plus me working, cleaning, laughing (in my case, snapping photos and running out for random ingredients that we ran out of) and it still took about 2-3 hours from start to finish.  The almonds need to be washed, boiled, skinned, dried, and fried.  If you know Moroccan cooking, then you know what I mean.  For the bastila, Khadija’s method was to take the now prepared almonds and add cinnamon (1 large spoon), regular sugar (a bowlful, to taste, personally I like mine good and sweet), a few tablespoons of orange blossom water.  Then the almonds are pulsed in a food processor until they are coarsely ground.  Then Khadija added a good half a cup or so of melted butter.  Mmm!

Stage 3 complete.  Now on to the great assembling of the bastila.  Here you have 2 things on hand, a bowlful of melted butter (check your diet at the door) and a bowl with 2 beaten eggs (remember the eggs are the glue that keeps the bastila sheets together).  In Morocco, we order bastila sheets at the local bakery the day before.

First butter the pan.  Lay the first sheet down, half hanging out of the pan.
Step by step instructions for Moroccan bastila with photos

Add four more overlapping sheet, brushing egg in between them, and brushing butter on top.
A fifth sheet is added in the center, egged and buttered.

Now take your chicken and eggs and mix them up (who cares which came first, hehe).  Lay them down for the first layer.  It should be a good 1.5 – 2.5 inches thick.  With the amounts we used, we had a good third left over (we made little bastilas out of the leftover filling).

Place a bastila sheet over that layer.  Not everyone does this, some prefer to just add the almonds directly.  

Now add the coarsely ground almonds.

Now add another bastila sheet smack dab in the middle, and start to fold all the flaps over. 

Always egg and butter.

At the very end, you add one last bastila sheet to cover the whole thing.  Tuck it in nicely all around and butter the top.

Put it in to cook, about 45 minutes, until the bastila is golden brown and crispy.  At this point I sort of dropped the ball on photos and did not get a PHOTO OF THE FINISHED BASTILA.  Doh!  At the end, you decorate it with powdered sugar and cinnamon.  It is so good, I’d place it among the top 5 best Moroccan dishes.  Oh yeah, and you can’t get it in restaurants, well, not really, unless you go to those swanky places that serve pigeon bastila at exorbitant prices.  Homemade is always better!

But you can sort of see it in this picture along with the apprentice cooks.

It was such an enjoyable day.  I think the ladies learned a lot from Khadija (she’s second from left here).  She has had lots of experience cooking for riads and for catering services, so she has the confidence it takes.  These women on the other hand, have worked mostly as maids, receiving orders, so maybe do not have that confidence.  The cost of the ingredients for this dish and the fruit tarts they made afterwards was about 300 dirhams (40 dollars).  It’s not a lot, but in Morocco it can be a week’s salary.  Someone had given me this money and said, do something for the ladies.  This turned out to be an awesome use of the money.   Khadija also insisted that we buy the ladies proper white uniforms, which made them feel like real students.   And these ladies who are so used to serving others, their employers and families, well on this day they were the guests of honor, since we all sat down and ate the bastila together.  For me, it was a perfect day combining several of my favorite things (things I have not yet figured out how to get paid for doing, lol): networking, planning, empowering women, photography, eating and finally breaking through the blogger’s block!

How you can help

11 Mar
poor single mother in Morocco

Chaima, Khadija and mom pose for their first family picture ever.

So now what?  Thank you all for your overwhelming responses to Sa’eedah’s story, both by email and in the comments section.  I am blessed to have this little community of blog readers who take the time to really read and feel the stories.  And care!   It makes blogging a worthy use of my time.

A number of you out there asked how you could help.  As I see it, single mothers like Sa’eeda and Nezha need both a short-term relief plan as well as a long-term life-transformative plan. The short-term plan is about survival.  It’s about all the little things we take for granted.  Nezha calls me about once or twice a month.  Several times she’s mentioned that her feet get so cracked that she has a hard time walking.  Now, I get the same problem in summer, it’s a small thing that can become very painful.  I advised Nezha to rub olive oil on her feet and wear socks all the time.  Her response? I’ll save up for some socks. She did not own any.  You can be sure that the next time I saw her I took her three pairs of socks.

For Nezha and her kids, being poor means a diet that consists mainly of bread, olive oil and tea.  My family’s morning omelets would seem an extravagant indulgence in protein to Nezha, who uses eggs as a rotation in her main meals, along with beans and the occasional bite of meat.  Nezha buys food on a daily basis, just the amount needed for the day’s meals, a dirham(10 cents) of flour, 2 dirhams (20 cents) of sugar, a potato or two.  Hot water is poured over used tea leaves to squeeze another pot out of them.  There are no leftovers (nor any fridge to store them in).

Every now and then, donations will come in for Nezha.  It is such a pleasure to deliver the treasures to her: 10 kg bags of flour and pasta.  20 cans of tuna.  Yes, most American cats and dogs eat a much richer diet than this family.  What would Nezha think of the cat food section at Costco?  In my mind, it’s hard for me to accept that both realities exist at once.  That what Nezha and her children need in a day (for everything, not just food) is the same as what an average American might spend on a latte and blueberry muffin (and maybe not even finish the whole thing).  Ok, I know, it’s easy to pick on US consumer habits…so let me just look at my own life for a minute, because I’m as guilty as they come.  There are enough inconsistencies and hypocrisies in my own spending habits, outings with the kids where we pay to eat, pay to play, pay for cheapy plastic stuff that I hate.  Yes, it is only due to my amazing levels of cognitive dissonance that I am able to do this.  (I can only hope that as I become more aware of others, I can eliminate more and more frivolous spending).  It’s not about beating ourselves up for every cent we spend, but yeah, it’s about our shared responsibility on this earth.

We must never underestimate the power of giving, even if it is 10 cents, a dollar, 20 dollars.  Of course there is always the debate over “aid versus trade” and does welfare make people lazy and are they going to buy drugs with it.  The short answer, in the case of these single mothers, is no.  As my father always says “if you err on the side of kindness and generosity, you won’t be wrong”.  In fact we must see each opportunity to give as a blessing for ourselves…that is one less dollar that we might have wasted and now we’re relieved of the burden of spending it.  Islamic teachings say that a good deed is rewarded tenfold, and sometimes it’s uncanny to give something away, only to receive a totally unexpected gift a few days later.  Wealth does not decrease through charity.  Giving away a portion of ones wealth only blesses and purifies the rest of it.  Give freely, give from what you love, there is enough for us all.

More concretely, here are some of my ideas:

1-Short-term help for three single mothers (Nezha, Chaima’s mom and Sa’eeda).  I believe there are a lot of people out there who would like to help with the immediate needs of these mothers.  What an honor for me to be the medium that connects between you and these women.  If you live in the US, please email me at nora@clcmorocco.org and we can discuss how to make a bank transfer.  I have a US account which facilitates things a lot, because I can withdraw the money from an ATM here.  Even 5 dollars helps a lot.  What would be great would be monthly pledges of 5, 10 or more dollars.  Some amount that won’t really affect you, but WILL affect them in a huge way.  If you live in Europe, I think it’s also fairly easy to transfer to a US account, but I’ll  have to research this.  I’d love to be able to offer something to these mothers similar to those “sponsor a child” programs, where the mother can count on a monthly contribution of 30-50 dollars for each child.

2-I will research what resources are currently available for women and girls in Marrakesh.  I will be your eyes and ears on the ground and compile the information necessary to assess what is needed in terms of infrastructure.

3-For the long term, I am reaching out to all of you for your ideas, resources, connections, experience, dreams, prayers…anything that comes to you for our common vision.  This is the MOST IMPORTANT PART.  In this whole process, my motto is “start small, THINK BIG”.  Even as we help someone survive day to day, we have to use these super-educated brains of ours to think creatively about poverty.  Vision.  Then planning and execution.  Don’t be paralyzed by your fear of imperfection.  So let our vision quest begin.

Morocco blog baby

Birth, Sa’eeda’s story

27 Feb

Sa’eeda had her baby! Those words were not uttered in celebration.  No, it was a frantic phone call, tinged with panic, defeat and heaviness.  This was not a joyous occasion.  There would be no forty days of pampering for the new mother, no naming party for the baby.  You see, Sa’eeda was not married and no one in her family knew of the baby.

There’s a problem, she can’t stay with the family she’s living with anymore. Sa’eeda was someone I knew only peripherally, but our lives were about to converge.  (This post is long, read it when you have a little space carved out for yourself).

Okay, she can stay with us for a few days, was my reply.  So Sa’eeda came and brought with her the most beautiful baby boy, 5 days old.  My daughter moved in with her brothers, so that the new mother and her son could have a space of their own.  Seeing her took me back to my own post-partum days, the shock, the euphoria, the pain of recovery, the shattered sleep, the steep learning curve.  The immediate and natural way that a new mother rises to the occasion 24 hours a day.

She stayed with us and kept herself very scarce.  Hardly a whimper was heard from the baby.  Every time I would go in with food, she’d have the biggest smile on her face.  She kept her sense of humor, didn’t take the baby too seriously.  Smiled in his face and laughingly told him to stop making such a fuss.  She had raised so many babies.  And now at 41 years old she finally had her own.  Not born under the best circumstances, to be sure.  But, nonetheless,  a soul delivered to her safekeeping, a companion, someone to love for always.

She recovered well.  The color came back to her cheeks.  One day she came into the kitchen, got out the big clay bowl and started making mesemn. Her expert hands had done this hundreds of times, when she worked at a cafe (making 35 dirhams or 4 dollars a day).  My children demanded to help, and she obliged, giving each of them their own lumps of dough to work with, always with her big smile and laugh.  She did not take them too seriously, she did not get stressed out.  I was beginning to sense she had a high thresh hold for stress.

And when she told me her story, I understood why. When I was 12, I went to work in Rabat for a family.  They had a baby that I raised for seven years.  When he was small I had him on my back.  He wouldn’t let me get any work done, I just had to take care of him all day.  At that time, people didn’t have washing machines like they do now.  When he’d go to sleep, I’d start on the laundry.  I really had a rough time (she says with the biggest smile on her face and no grudge that I can sense). But that’s when I got asthma, from the damp air in Rabat.  I went to the ER many times because I couldn’t breathe.

(how much were you paid?  I ask).  I got paid 300 dirhams a month (40 USD, 30 euros).  But I always sent it home to my family.  I ate and slept with the family I worked for, they gave me clothes, so I didn’t need the money for myself.  We were all working, all us girls went to work for families.  You know we were so poor and my father only had a small piece of land.  At that time, it wasn’t accepted by the people of my village for a girl to go to school.  They were simple people.  It’s not like now.  We always say to mother, why didn’t you send us to school?  Even for a year?  Just to learn how to read and write!  Mother says she wished she had, she wished she hadn’t cared what people would say, but she didn’t know any better.

When I was 19 I came back to Marrakesh.  I worked for another family.  I didn’t know Marrakesh very well.  They live out there near the military base.  One night, they sent me out to get something from another family’s house.  That’s when something really bad happened to me.  They were two men, drunk.  They grabbed me and held me down and each one raped me.  I ran back to the family’s house and told them what happened.  I begged the woman to come with me to the police, to tell them what happened, to get a certificate from a doctor, so that I could always have it as proof of what happened to me.  But the woman said that she wouldn’t take that responsibility, that the police would blame her for sending me out at that time of night.  I wish I had known how to do those things myself.  I will never forget that and I will never forgive her.

Sa’eeda is wistful but not sad…she has that quality of someone who is not broken, who can’t be broken, who doesn’t have the luxury to break.  My own words and projections for sure, but this is what I sensed.

After that I had different jobs.  Sometimes I worked in cafes, sometimes I found good jobs working as a maid.

As the story comes closer to the present, Sa’eeda gets quieter.  It is easier to talk about things that time has numbed.  Not so easy to speak of how this baby came into the world.  Conceived in secret, carried in secret and born in secret.

Here is a woman who has never, ever been supported.  She has been giving to others since she was 12.  At the time when she needed her mother the most, she was off in a strange city, already raising a child, still a child herself.  She was supporting her family financially.  She was living as a servant, at the mercy of her own illiteracy, of the low expectations everyone–including herself–had of her. So I do not blame Sa’eeda for getting pregnant.  Who ever told her how the human body works?  Who ever gave her a sense that she was valuable, that she was worth marrying?  Who ever gave her any religious instruction or spiritual guidance?  Who ever gave her a chance to marry, to start her own family?

After 15 days with us (we’d gotten quite used to her and the baby) a room was found.  It was 1,000 dirhams a month (about 120 USD) to be split with another girl.  So expensive, but a good situation for mother and baby.  The family that rented out the rooms was warm and kind.  The aging patriarch was loving and protective, he exuded a sense of stability and security, while the woman of the house seemed glad for the companionship, happy to have a baby to help raise.  The room mate was also happy to share the space and overnight turned into a helpful and loving aunty.  This is one of the qualities I love most about Moroccans, this effortless connection with others and ability to see what needs to be done and just do it.  From what I’ve seen, it’s especially true among the poorer people.  It’s “it takes a village” working in real life, not just a slogan.

When I think of Sa’eeda’s baby, he’s gonna need all the loving aunties he can get.  How will his future unfold?  We don’t know.  His mother is taking it as it comes.  When he is a little older, no doubt a story will be invented to explain his existence.  Her family and village people will prefer a “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of explanation, rather than be confronted with the truth.  In a traditional society where marriage is still a sacred rite and something that everyone across the board works for, hopes for and dreams about…it is very difficult for people to accept in their hearts when a baby comes into the world without that sacred container of a family.  Not judgement as one might expect, but a sadness that this baby is deprived of a father…not to mention that financially it’s a nearly impossible equation.

One thing I discovered via this experience, was that when I told people about Sa’eeda (the truth that is) they were immediately sympathetic.  There was not a moment of judgement or hesitation as donations came flooding in.  A few people gave large sums of zakat, the charity-tax that Muslims must pay on their accrued wealth.  Soon Sa’eeda had enough money to live for a few months before being confronted with the harsher possibilities of existence.  She bought a mattress, the first she’s ever owned, a few blankets, a gas bottle and a few pots and pans to cook with.  The minimum necessities of existence (there will be no Boppy pillows, no Graco swings or bassinets for this baby).  And I think what a difference a few thousand dirhams (a couple hundred dollars) has made in her life at this critical time.  At the time when she and the baby are most vulnerable.  And I think of all the orphanages in Marrakesh full of abandoned babies, not orphans!  And how much support their is for those babies, which I’m totally thankful for.  But there should be even more support for mothers to keep their babies!  Mothers should be supported at that critical time, given a place of respite to transition into this new life.  It can be done!

But even more so, whenever I see a single mother like this, I wish I could have gotten to her BEFORE this mistake was made.  We have to start educating our girls!  12 years old is the critical age.  That’s when they need the most teaching.  Girls need to know everything about how babies are made, and everything about birth control, aids and all that.  A girl needs to be told that she, and only she, is in control of her body.  A girl needs to hear that she is valuable, so precious, and that she should demand her full worth.  A girl needs a space where she can ask questions.  A girl needs to know that she is the mother of creation, that this is God’s gift to her, and with it comes great power, and also great responsibility.

I have a daughter, she is only eight, and we speak of these things.  Because I want her to hear them from me first.  Keep talking to your girls.  Don’t expect that they will learn these things through osmosis.

As for Sa’eeda, her life will not be easy.  But then again, it has never been easy.  Whenever I see her, she says alhamdulillah, praise and thanks be to God!  Her full trust is in God’s care.  Her trust and God’s subtle mercies, those are the wealth that never runs out.

Eva Longoria and the Billboard Bandits

21 Oct

Eva Longoria is no stranger to attention, no shrinking violet.  I do not even know who she is, and yet I know who she is.  Maybe because her perfect bronzed effigy looms over me at the supermarket, singing a siren song of miracle dream creams, secret potion lotions from the Oracle of L’Oreal?

(Thank you, but I think that  for me to look anything like the image on that poster, scientists would have to splice actual L’Oreal genes straight into my DNA.  After that, I’d have to morph into a body that is 10 feet tall and 6 inches wide.  I’ll pass.)

So when Eva showed up on the side of the road outside of  Marrakesh, well it’s no surprise that her presence caused a bit of a stir.

Imagine you are driving through peaceful Berber country, passing mud villages, olive orchards, and farmers harvesting their year’s supply of wheat.   Men and women’s voices rise through the sleepy sunlit air, singing traditional harvest songs, sheep roam in search of shreds of pasturage, an old man in a jellaba rides by on a donkey.  Nothing could mar this bucolic serenity.

Then, all of a sudden, why it’s Giant Eva Longoria.  Weird.

Wait, there she is again.

Oh, it’s just some kind of real estate thing.  Bah!  Gentrification!  I turn my nose up at you.

No,  you’re kidding me, I’ve been driving for 20 minutes, and I see ten billboards of Eva?  Because I missed the first nine.  But the tenth one really drove it home.  Why if this condo development is good enough for Eva, then what are we all waiting for?  Hurry up good people, and sign on the dotted line, because there are only 1,000 apartments and 400 villas left, and they’re going fast.  (I googled it, those numbers are factual.  So if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live in a beehive, give it a whirl).

Am I the only one who finds these adds in poor taste?  Folks, it’s plain old cultural insensitivity.  Berber culture is very traditional.  Cleavage, as shown in the photo, is considered a private part of the body.  Ok, I realize that for most of my western readers, and even my Moroccan urban dwelling readers, this photo is very tame, it’s ho-hum in our flesh-image saturated world.  Female bodies remain the go-to advertising commodity, with less and less left to the imagination.  (In fact, these same adds, along with the rest of the ladies from Desperate Housewives, are plastered all over Casablanca, and they don’t seem to have caused any ripples.)

But try to look at it from an Other perspective.  Imagine your eyes have not yet filled with such imagery.  Imagine that someone put up a giant billboard in your neighborhood, showing body parts that you consider private.  How would you react?

Eva Longoria billboard graffiti

Would you, say, sneak out in the middle of the night with a can of black paint and go on a crazy daredevil mission demonstrating your community’s protest against said billboard?  Because that’s what someone did to Eva.  All ten of her.

And if you are the advertising mastermind behind the Eva adds, would you get the point, and go with something a little more culturally appropriate?  Or would you photoshop 2 inches more tank top onto Eva’s cleavage, and pay for another 10 slightly more covered Evas to be re-plastered onto said billboards?  Because that’s what someone did.  Improbable, but true.

Eva Longoria billboard Marrakesh

(You can see the next billboard not too far off).

So everyone is happy, right?  The advertisers still get to associate their condos with glamorous, glorious Eva, and the locals can stop making such a fuss now that her shirt is hiked a few millimeters in the front.  End of story?

Wrong, this was just the first battle in the war that was waged between these two parties, whom I’ll call Ad Machine and Billboard Bandits.

The Billboard Bandits strike again.  No paint this time, but the billboards are in tatters when they are done.

Next move by Add Machine: a new add featuring a somewhat bizarre looking couple, meant to be Moroccan, each looking in the opposite direction.  (subtext: these condos are for couples that are drifting apart?)

Billboard Bandits, it’s your move.  Sure enough, the adds are again shredded.  Methinks this is no longer about cleavage.

Last attempt by Add Machine, this time they go with the most benign and forgettable add possible.  So forgettable that I can’t even remember it, see?  I think it’s a photo of a balcony, with of course, the snow-capped Atlas rising majestic in the background.

Soon I will take that drive once more and see if this last billboard has survived.  I can’t stand the suspense, can you?

But first, lets take a moment to analyze these events.  Because it would be wrong to think that this issue is just about showing the human body in ways that the local population finds degrading to women.  Certainly that is a mistake on the part of the advertisers, who should not use the same concept on a dusty country road as in the heart of a worldly metropolis.  However, I believe that the thorn runs deeper than that.  It’s the juxtaposition of two completely different realities that is so unsettling.  On the one hand, we have this world of image and fantasy, of unimaginable riches and luxuries, of ersatz culture that attempts to package and commodify the Moroccan experience with no soul whatsoever.  All of it a vacuous Orientalist version of a Morocco pandering to the every whim of the upper crust.  A vision of Morocco that would not hesitate, for example, to introduce alcohol to a valley that has been dry forever, with no thought given to how it might destroy the lives of the locals.

On the other hand, we have the traditional lives of the Moroccan Berbers.  Berber families that are still connected to the natural cycles in the most primordial of ways.  Whose actions and intentions stem from a deep faith in God, enjoying the contentment that ensues.  Whose meals are bread from their own land, olive oil from their own trees, served in clay dishes from the Ourika river, sitting on rag rugs they’ve made with their own hands from scraps of old clothes.  There is nothing more real, beautiful, spiritual, sustainable.  They, and all the traditional peoples of the world, are the original “organic, local and slow” ways that we crave and long to return to.

So Eva Longoria et al, you are more than welcome in this old and beautiful world, but on its terms, not yours.  If your goal is to use and plunder, then you will be met with resistance.  Bring with you the best of what your culture has to offer the world.  Then take the time to learn about Morocco, its beautiful people, its old ways that are still alive under the strain of globalization.  Peace and grace are yours for the finding.

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