The Chronicles of Nezha

In the Red City, there lived a young woman.  She had many blessings; she enjoyed good health, had received instruction from learned teachers, had married a good and true man, and together they had had 3 children who lit up their hearts with love, like stars in the firmament.

And yet this young woman had one problem: whenever she received a blessing, she would soon grow accustomed to it, as if it had always been there, and as if it were her right.  She grew complacent in offering prayers of thanks to the Giver of blessings.  And so her heart grew numb.

One night she had a dream, in it there appeared a wise woman, clad in a cloak of light.  She spoke to the young woman “What do you wish for?”

“I wish to break down in tears over the blessings I have been given, but I can no sooner do that than granite stone can spring forth with water” said the young woman.

The wise woman clad in light said to her “Then you must go, enter the Ancient Labyrinth of Sorrows.  At its heart, you will find She Who Has Nothing.  She will give you what you seek”.

The Chronicles of Nezha, Part I:

Where you’re from, what does poor mean?  Does it mean wellfare checks from the government?  Food stamps?  Soup kitchens?

Then imagine that are poor in Morocco, and that none of that exists.  Imagine that if you fall, there is no net, so you will just free fall, on and on.  I once followed a beggar woman home.  She had a 4 month old baby boy on her back, and 18 month old baby boy walking beside her.  She was proud to show me the room where they lived.  It was the size of my bathroom.  They prepared food, ate and slept there.  The rest of the time she spent begging for money, for their next meal.

Her name is Nezha.  She can’t read or write.  She can’t tell her mother that she has 2 children and no husband.  She has no skills, except domestic ones.  She has no hope that her circumstances will change much.  You’d think she’d be totally depressed, right?  But it’s the opposite.  Nezha works hard, doing the basics of life, of survival.  She has a quiet strength, the ability to endure blow after blow of bad fortune.  I’ve rarely heard her complain, instead she has a kind of cheerfulness, of steadiness, of substance.

I’ve been “working with” Nezha for the past 4 years.  I’m not quite sure what I’m doing, except that I’d like to think I was there for her at her darkest hour.  The winter when both her boys were babies, when she did not have enough blankets both to serve as beds and to cover with.  When she did not have enough money to change their diapers more than once a day.  When she had no money for formula, so would give them regular milk.  When an electricity bill of 125 dirhams would mean her out, begging with the two of them, as many hours as it took to get that much.  When her rent of 350 dirhams (35 euros) a month was breaking her back.

A lot has happened in the last 4 years.  Some of it good, Nezha eventually learned a skill, and became a henna artist in Jemma el Fna.  She’s proud of it.  But I know that if there is no business there she is forced to beg.  Nezha’s two boys, ages 4 and 5, are now in a pre-school, and know the alphabet in Arabic and French, more than their mother.

The boys’ father has been in and out of their lives.  That’s a whole other story.  I met him a few times.  He’s a drinker, so he has his ups and downs.  At one point they were all living together, and he was supporting them.

Then Nezha called me one day and said “I’m pregnant”.  She was already 6 months along when I found out.  We’d been out of touch for a while, since she’d been somewhat stable.  And just like that, another baby came.  And even though she delivered her baby alone, with no doctor attending at the state hospital, even though she almost bled to death after that, even though it was the hospital maid who helped her dress her baby…There she was, a few days later, with her baby girl, so proud, so happy, so in love with this new soul.  Although she never planned to have three children, they give her life a purpose.  There is no existential angst when you have children, their needs are too physical, to immediate for that.

And every time I visit Nezha, I remember how to be grateful.

Here are some photos I took last time I saw Nezha, as I was making a delivery of some donations: food and sheets and towels.  Remember that this isn’t the room the Nezha lived in when I first met her, this is a much bigger room that she’s totally happy about.

The entrance:

Nezha and baby Khadija, now 2 months old.

That’s the kitchen end of the room (no fridge or running water).  Nezha’s preparing tea for me:

That’s the sleeping and living end of the room:

The entertainment center:

Nezha’s finally a little relaxed with me taking her picture, I love this one:

She’s insanely happy as she goes through the donations.  Some lovely sheet and towels, boy’s clothing, food staples.  She can’t stop thanking those who donated.  I want to be as thankful as she is.



Hmm.  I want to follow up that sad and heavy post with something light.

Introducing….::drum roll::….my new camera!  Yes, I’ve had it over a week now.  I’m in awe of it.  From now on, these will no longer be boring wordy posts.  They will be boring wordy posts, with pictures!

And my experience in photography?  It boils down to this: faint memories of a photography class, taken a billion years ago, before digital cameras existed! Yes, excuse me a minute as I wax nostalgic over the simplicity of those days, the way you treasured each photo, the way you really took your time before shooting, the way you were up to your elbows in toxic chemicals, dodging and burning as if your life depended on it, the excitement as the photo appears on paper and you’re seeing it for the first time…

Well, now photography is in a fast and furious age, right?  Pictures are certainly not in short supply.

My other photography wisdom comes from a friend of mine who recently increased my photography knowledge by about 200%.  He said “if you want one thing in focus, and everything else blurry, then open the aperture up wide.  If you want everything in focus, close the aperture up”.  That’s the kind of simple info I can use right now.  And  I’m gonna take it and just run with it for a while.   Eventually, I may be ready for a one-line lesson on exposure.  After that, I’ll be a photographer!  So easy!

[segues into main topic of post]  How to make a good pot of Moroccan tea.  Let me preface this by saying, I’m not much of a tea drinker, nor do I necessarily encourage or condone the drinking of Moroccan tea on a regular basis.  But, it’s good to know how to make it, to impress your friends.  Also, in our family, Hamza is the master of tea ceremonies.  Up until recently, I viewed tea-making as something that required as much skill as making a ship in a bottle, or growing a bonzai tree.  I would break out into cold sweats when faced with a box of green tea, a bunch of mint, and a mini mountain of sugar.  In a panic, I’d rush around the house shouting “Is there a tea doctor in the house, it’s an emergency!”.  Usually some more steady handed person would step up, and I’d watch in awe, as they worked their magic, and the pot of tea slowly came to life.

But one day, I decided, enough is enough.  I need to grow up and assume my tea making responsibilities.  So I learned, and guess what, it’s not that hard!  And then people compliment you, which is the only reason to be in the kitchen in the first place.  And now, you are all going to learn how to make Moroccan tea too.

Oh, sweet Moroccan tea, it’s all instant gratification, no bitter tastes that need acquiring.  Unless of course you are one of those puritans who has not trained their taste buds to like sugar.  In that case, ahem, you might want to skip this post. (freak)  Also, it was recently brought to my attention by my friend Reading Morocco that Morocco is the world’s first importer of Chinese green tea!  That explains all this green tea everywhere!

Ingredients for (eponimous) Moroccan Mint Green Tea with Sugar, or Atay Maghribi:

1/4 cup green gunpowder tea

8 stalks of mint, use only the top 4 inches, discard the rest

About 5 giant cubes of sugar (1/2 to 1 cup of sugar)


The ingredients

Fresh mint Diabetes here I come!

Ok, we’ll work on aligning the pictures later.

Boil a kettle of water.  Throw the green tea into the pot, it should cover the bottom of it.  After you’ve made tea a few times you will be able to adjust the amounts to your liking.  Next pour about a cup of boiling water into the teapot.  Pour this out into a glass that you keep, this is called the “soul” of the tea, in Arabic “errouh”.  It actually contains the caffeine motherlode.  Green tea seeps all its caffeine out in the first 30 seconds.

Ok, now pour another cup or two of boiling water into the teapot.  Swish it around, you’re rinsing the tea now.  Pour the water out and discard it.  Rinse it one or two more times if you wish.

Now fill the teapot almost all the way with boiling water.  Stuff in the mint, then the sugar.  Put the pot on a very low fire and let it simmer for a few minutes.

Here’s a good way to know when the tea is done: overfill the pot and then when it boils, it will spout tea all over your previously clean stovetop.  It will sound very much like your cat is coughing up a furball, and you will be immediately alerted that the Tea is Done.  I use this method every time.

You are ready for the penultimate step, the thorough mixing.  Pour out one glass, then pour it back in.  Repeat a few times.  Pour out a little and taste it.  Adjust the sugar if necessary.

Very important: when pouring the tea out, make sure you lift the teapot about 2 feet from the glass, this gives each glass a good head of foam, without which tea would be undrinkable.  Te

Now, if you’re going go to the trouble of making Moroccan tea, instead of plonking a PJ tips teabag into a cup of boiling water and calling it tea, then what you are wanting is not only the flavor but an authentic Moroccan experience.  To make this tea ceremony as Moroccan as possible, please avoid the following faux pas:

1. Drinking it from mugs.  Refined and lovely little glass tea cups are a must.  Leave the mugs to those beverage guzzling Americans.

2. Using loose sugar instead of “bricks”.  Yes, it might taste the same, but you loose a whole lot of authenticity points on that.

3. Using the whole stalk of mint.  Again, it’s about refinement, and the leaves change ever so subtly in taste as you move down the stalk.

4. Stirring it with a spoon.  That’s like eating Chinese food with a fork.

5. Drinking your tea alone.  Oh for shame.  And always add an extra glass on the tray, just in case, it’s an old Moroccan custom.

It was raining

I hope you find yourself sufficiently demys-tea-fied, for now.

Every soul must taste death

February 16th, 4:10 p.m.  A young medical student has just finished classes at the Marrakesh Faculte de Medecine.  He and his brother are heading home to the Cinco appartment buildings near my house.  He is 20 years old, and has left his hometown of Safi to pursue his medical studies in Marrakesh, in the only medical school in the south of Morocco.

It’s a very blustery day.  Unseasonably strong winds make it very hard to be outside.  Marrakesh is not built with extreme weather in mind, and that is proven each winter in the brief but intense rainy season, as news of collapsed houses and flash floods make headlines.

The Cinco appartment buildings are a giant monolithic block, not unlike a housing project.   They are 5 storeys high, home to many university students who travel to Marrakesh from nearby cities, like Safi, Eljadida, Beni Mellal, or from other African countries like Mali and Senegal where a Moroccan education is considered more prestigious.

On the rooftop terrace of Cinco, a crude wall, hastily thrown together with cinderblocks and cement, divides one side from the other.  The heavy rains that we’ve gotten for the past two weeks have soaked through the wall.

The young man is hurrying towards the entrance of Cinco, anxious to get out of the wind.  At that very moment, the wall 5 storeys up collapses, and a detached cinderblock falls over the side of the building.  It plummets down, hits an awning of a store, slides off and slams full force into the young man.  His brother who is a few steps behind him, is untouched, but he has witnessed the scene and he is screaming in shock.

As the medics load the young man into the ambulance, those gathered catch glimpses of him…his skull, bloodied and bashed…his eyelashes fluttering.  And when they wheel him into the emergency room of Hopital Civil, he breathes his last breath.

He is dead.

This post is for him, not to question why and what if, although those questions are inevitable and do deserve consideration.  But to stop, to offer a prayer for his soul.  To remember and honor, to mark his passing in some way.  Although it was his fate to die at that moment in that way, it’s shocking and disturbing, sad and heartbreaking.  I cannot imagine how that boy’s mother felt when she was told the news, that her young son had died, far from home, in such a random accident.   What a huge gap he will leave in her life.

Death is so close to life, just a breath away.  Moroccan graves are inscribed with this verse : Every soul must taste death.

No excuses

A few weeks ago my husband, Hamza, got a rather unusual request.  A new friend, a student at the school where we teach English had heard that my husband was a golfer, and wanted some help getting started with the game.  The friend, Sa’id, is a Physical Therapist, he’s had a thriving practice for the last 14 years not far from the school.  He’s married and has 2 children.  He’s traveled quite a bit and studied P.T. in Tunisia.  Now he’s interested in golf.  Oh yeah, and he’s blind.

My husband was very intrigued, immediately all kinds of questions came to mind.  Are there other blind golfers?  Yes, there is a whole association in the US, but nothing in our part of the world.  Do they have special equipment?  No, just lots of coaching and getting a feel for the game.  In a game that relies so much visual gaging, how could it even be possible without sight?  Well, Sa’id was used to having such challenges thrown at him, and he was more than eager to get started.

We met him at the golf course, kids in tow.  It was the first time my kids had met a blind person, and my 4-year old son kept saying “look, look at this”, and “watch me!”.  Sa’id replied “I see nothing, only darkness” with the biggest smile on his face.

I sat and watched, completely blown away, as they started practicing putting.  Hamza had to guide Sa’id over to the putting green, had him feel the grass with his shoe, “it’s much smoother over here”.  Then Said felt the putter.  He felt the little flag that marks the hole.  Next Hamza explained a lot of things about grip, back swing, stance, etc.  He is a patient and observing teacher as well as a good golfer, so he knew how to get Said to feel it.  He oriented Sa’id in the right direction and told him how far the hole was, about 3 meters.  Sa’id putted a few times, each time Hamza would tell him how far the ball had gone.  2 meters, now 4 meters…  Each time Sa’id would adjust based on the information he received.  After about 5 tries, the ball went straight in the hole.  Sa’id heard it rattle and the biggest smile flashed across his face.  It was miraculous.  I had tears in my eyes.  The whole experience felt barely real.  Golfers are usually a bit blase, but a few of them couldn’t help but watch.

Sa’id rode back into town with us, and he graciously let us pepper him with questions about being blind.  He lost his sight at age 7 to a disease that damaged his optical nerves.  He still remembers everything he saw before that, even most faces, but he said “I’ve been told things have changed a lot in Marrakech”.  He can’t sense light or darkness, but he can still tell if it’s night or day.  He had a lot of trouble when he first opened his practice in convincing people that a blind person can heal them.  But now he has a practice comparable to any seeing therapist.

And he also said this “It doesn’t matter if the eye can see or not, the eye is merely a camera that captures images and sends them to your brain.  It matters only if your heart can see, that’s much more important”.  And he said “Will is the key, some people have problems and they just sit and cry and pity themselves.  Others have a strong will and find ways to do what they want to do”.

We have no excuses my friends!