Dear Mr. Joshua David Stein, of New York magazine:

I just came across your recent article entitled “Get scrubbed in Marrakesh”.  I agree with you that getting scrubbed at the hammam is one of the best Moroccan experiences possible.

I saw the names of the high end Hammam’s that you recommend, La Mamounia, and Spa something or other…even if I had 100 dollars burning a hole in my pocket (I don’t, believe me) I would never, ever give it to one of these luxury so-called hammams.  As people on the streets of Marrakesh struggle on a daily basis to eat and feed their families, I could not justify spending that much on a scrub.  No amount of spoiling or pampering will fill the yearning in our souls, but a little generosity might.  I’m just saying.

Then I saw that you did offer an alternative hammam, for those who do not wish to throw their money away by the fistful.  Alas though, I cringed when I read that it was Hammam Dar el Basha.

Mr. Stein, I must posit that you did not actually enter the Hammam Dar el Basha.  Had you done so, I doubt you would have enjoyed the experience, much less endorse it in a widely read magazine.

The Hammam Dar el Basha has long been featured as a “local hammam” in The Rough Guide, a recommendation which quite frankly baffles me.

I lived around the corner from said Hammam for several years, and frequented it on the rare occasion.  I always found it dark, crowded, and gross.

For those who have never been to the hammam, here is a brief summary of the proceedings:

You enter one of three rooms, each successively hotter than the previous, and find a corner to lay your mat.  Then you grab your buckets and wait in line at the hot/cold spigots.  Once you have filled up 3 buckets you return to your mat and commence the hammam routine: hot water, black soap, rinse, then scrub like mad till rolls of your actual epidermis start to peel off like soggy gray worms.  These you rinse off.

Now if you were a regular, savvy hammam goer, you would have NOT placed yourself in the flowing current of your neighbor’s rinse water, which is meandering towards the central drain.  In the hammam, as in real estate, location is everything.  That’s why the good spots, all along the wall, were already taken when your unsuspecting self got there.  If you are the newbie, you just sit any old where, including in the doorway (too drafty), in front of the spigots (you’ll get bumped a lot) or in the awful effluence of rinse water.

Now that is how it happens most hammams.  So why am I picking on Dar el Basha in particular?  Well, for one, it’s a relic, and not in a good way.  It’s decrepit, and compared to the newer sparklier hammams, it’s grimy and forsaken.  Also, the drains seem to get clogged regularly, and that is not pleasant, not one bit.

Now, I’m probably not as germ-phobic as most westerners, but even I cringe at the thought of sitting in water that contains dead skin cells from 20 different strangers.   I don’t care how much “local flavor” you want, or how tight a budget you are on, do not go to Hammam Dar el Basha.

Despair not however, there is a superlative choice.  If you will only listen, I will tell you about Marrakesh’s best kept secret.  It’s a wonderful little hammam tucked away on an quiet little street in the Ain Mezouar neighborhood (that’s near Menara gardens).  It’s called Hammam es Salama (the bath of peace?).  But that’s a pretty common name for hammams in Marrakesh, so that’s not much help.

So, to get there, you ask a taxi driver to take you to Hammam es Salam in Ain Mezouar.  A towering heap of chopped up olive trees marks the entrance, the wood is used to heat the hammams (which apparently poses a big ecological problem in Morocco).

There you will be treated like a queen (or king, but I wouldn’t know).  The hammam is very tastefully decorated.  It is rarely crowded and the clientele is varied, mostly local but enough foreigners.   I especially like the walls done in tadellakt, marble counters, your own personal hot and cold faucets, a marble stool and large marble slabs to lay on while you get scrubbed (they keep you up out of the rinse water), the reassuring smell of disinfectant, a professional staff of jolly ladies, and a cozy dressing room with a fireplace to lounge in when you are done.  You can’t get a better deal in Marrakesh, a scrub only costs 60 dirhams (8 dollars), or do it yourself for half that price.

Mr Stein, I thank you for your article, it provided the impetus to set things straight once and for all regarding the best local hammam in Marrakesh.

Hammam es Salam in Ain Mezouar. Ladies get the whole week: Monday through Saturday 8am to 10pm.  For men it’s only Sunday 8am to 10pm.  Starting at 30 dirhams (3 euros, 4 dollars).

…but couscous is a worthy contender

In my post about Sha’ria, or Seffa, the noodle dish, maybe it seems like I’m dissing couscous.  Far be it from me to disparage our weekly Friday meal.  So I shall pay due homage.

Couscous has three components.

One, some meat in a pot…

Two, veggies, arranged by cooking time…

Three, couscous, which a wee elf might come and give you a wee hand with…

Here is the couscous trio:  meat in the pressure cooker, veggies in the bottom of the steamer, and couscous happily steaming on top.  But wait!  Crisis in the kitchen!  The flame that cooks this lovely meal is waning.  To the hanut, to procure a new energy source…

Fortuitously, this precious cargo is being delivered as I approach.  We will cook another day my friends, crisis solved.

Not to be outdone by the blue truck, the red truck delivers its own bottles of chemical wonder.  Shall we pass? Yes, I believe we shall.

Back with the gas bottle.  The couscous is steamed and fluffed several times.  For more technical advice,  go here http://moroccanfood.about.com/od/maindishes/r/couscous_veg.htm

A hasty snapshot:  couscous as fluffy as the clouds on high, resiliently fluffy under the weight of the caveman’s stew piled atop it.  Remember, although recipes for Moroccan food vary, the one constant remains this: eating with loved ones, giving thanks for another hot meal and another gathering with beloveds.

Chronicles of Nezha, part 2

I made another trip to visit Nezha yesterday.   Nezha lives deep in the Mellah, which used to be the old Jewish quarter, but now is just what you’d call a slum.  I’m usually pretty confident wherever I go in Marrakesh, having grown up here, and speaking the language, I can navigate this urban jungle fairly wel.  But the Mellah, well that’s a different story.

In the Mellah I see young men with scarred faces smoking kif pipes at 10 in the morning; I hear 4  year old kids swearing like sailors; I get whiffs of strong alcohol as someone stumbles past me in the alleyways, thederbs.  I’m  aware that I stick out, that people here stare more than elsewhere, and although I’m not exactly afraid, I am way out of my comfort zone.

There have been rumors that the city wants bulldoze the Mellah, relocate everyone.  For one the buildings aren’t safe.  On this trip, I saw a building that looked like a public bathroom, that had crumbled just recently.   Every year there a few cases like that, sometime there are casualties, other times not.  Another reason why the city threatens to raze the place is that it’s a hotbed for petty crime and illicit behavior.  Most of the houses are what are called fundouqs, which are riad-style houses meaning individual rooms which all open onto an interior courtyard.  Usually, there’s a different family or individual renting each room.  It’s crowded, poor and relatively anonymous, and there are more problems concentrated here than in other parts of  Marrakesh.  Drinking, drugs and low level gambling are more common here, although living among all this are also traditional families, good, clean living people, who have not been stricken with these diseases.

In Nezha’s house, there are about 6 different families.  But she likes it because she says they are quiet people who keep to themselves, something close to respectable.  She’s lived in rooms before where drunks kept her and her kids up all night, loud, throwing bottles at her door.

I am dropping off some more donations.  In this assortment there are: a bulk carton of about 100 packets of cookies, a big pack of diapers, some iron pills I found in my medicine stash (she suffers from anemia but usually can’t afford the pills), some odds and ends of clothing, and jackpot:  a small, used baby bottle, which she is delighted to have.  She picks it up and admires it, it’s brightly colored and just the right size for a little 3 month old.  She rushes off to wash it and fill it with some water.  Nezha doesn’t have running water in her room, but she has some kind of system with different buckets.  It is both gratifying and heartbreaking to see her so ecstatic about someone’s used, discarded baby bottle.  Nezha’s baby has not had anything new.  She does not even have formula.  At this moment, Nezha can not afford it, nor is she strong and healthy enough to breastfeed her baby.  So baby Khadija drinks regular milk, distilled with some water. And although she is growing bigger, I am sure that she is not getting enough brain nutrients from regular milk.  This, too, worries me.

I look at Nezha and I see a woman who has not been treated kindly by time.  When I first met her, she looked young and strong, she was beautiful.  But the strain of repeated pregnancies, and of spending her days outdoors in sunny, polluted Jema el Fna have weakened her.  She is younger than I am, I think she’s 28, but has already lost many of her front teeth.  Moroccan tea is not easy on the teeth.

And yet, for all her outer wear, Nezha has a steely resilience that has not been corroded by time. She is one of the toughest women I know.  Every day she hoists her baby on her back, and takes her two boys to school.  At home, she makes them sit and do “homework”, and at 4 and 5 years old, they are already reading and writing Arabic and French letters.  She wants them to be off the streets, because she knows firsthand how the streets destroy lives, so quickly.  She earns the food money, buys the food, carries it home, cooks it, serves it, and cleans up.  Every day.  She handwashes all their clothes.  All this with a baby on her back.

And in the midst of all this, she celebrates her children every day.   Their growth, the cute things they say, the wise things they say, the cute girl clothes that baby Khadija wears, the way Si Mohamed the 5 year old, loves and adores his sister, while Mehdi, who is 4, is passionately jealous of her.  “He has his father’s personality, and looks”, she tells me, “not Si Mohamed though, he’s all me”.

I highly believe in the saving grace of education.  That is why I show up at the boys’ school every months with the 40 dollar tuition fee.  I know that this is not something Nezha can afford.  Although sometimes Nezha’s case seems so overwhelming, there is hope for her children.  And I so admire the fact that she can see that.  Many times the police have approached her and encouraged her to give her kids to the orphanage.  “They’ll be fed and cared for much better than they are now”.  But she refuses, adamantly.  Even with baby Khadija, Nezha and I had discussed giving her up for adoption once she was born.  I was ready to help, in whatever way, and Nezha thought it would be better for the boys.  But once she was born, and I saw Nezha, with that fierce new mother look in her eye, I didn’t even have to ask.  I knew she was once more prepared to do the impossible for her baby.

This is Nezha back in 2006 when we first met.  Mehdi, on the left, was 6 months old, his brother si Mohamed was 18 months.

Better than couscous

Angel hair pasta, steamed for two four hours.  Chicken, onions, cinamon sticks, saffron, ginger powder.  Roasted almonds.

This is my mouth watering favorite Moroccan food.  It’s called Sha’ria medfouna, or buried angel hair pasta  (it’s the chicken that’s buried under that big mound of fluffy pasta).  I like mine with a little powdered sugar sprinkled on top.  I like mine in a big clay platter, as in this picture, shared with family and friends.  I like mine cold out of a tupperware, standing in front of the open fridge.  Did I mention that I like this dish???

I’m not going to give you the recipe though.  Do you know why?  Because I don’t want to push you to the teetering edge of sanity.  No, neither you nor I need to be tending delicate noodle dishes for hours on end.  However, better than a recipe, I will give you a better way of getting to eat this dish.  And here is my 5 part plan:

1.  Get to Morocco on the double, if you’re not here already.

2.  Good.  Now you will make a Moroccan friend.

3.  We’re close now.  Next, you will say this line, try to sound like you haven’t rehearsed it too much “You know, I’ve had couscous and tajine, and boy are they delish, but I’ve heard that the best Moroccan dish is sha’ria medfouna.  Is that true?”

4.  Our plan has worked, because your Moroccan friend will reply “my mom makes an awesome sha’ria, why don’t you come over for lunch tomorrow and see for yourself”.  You, sheepishly grin and say “if you’re sure it’s no trouble”.

5.  Finally, you get to taste the noodles that melt in your mouth.  It’s such an addictive dish that you will eat long after you’re full.

Or, you could do it the hard way, and actually make the dish yourself.   http://moroccanfood.about.com/od/maindishes/r/Seffa_Recipe.htm

Whichever plan you follow, I highly recommend you find a way to taste this sublime Moroccan dish.

My newest discovery

Regarding photography…obviously one needs a good camera, the bulky three dimensional unwieldly kind, not so much the flat kind that comes in pink and fits discreetly in your purse.  Mine is a Nikon D3000 , the most basic of all DSLR’s, the baby of the bunch.  By the way, I highly recommend Amazon for this camera, they are underselling the Nikon website, so they can’t even display the price until you add the camera to your cart.

Then, most photos need a little, um, plastic surgery, by an amazing doctor called Photoshop!  Just as I am telling myself most emphatically that I am NOT the kind of person who has 4 hours a day to spend tweeking photos…my words came back to bite me.

Here are some before and afters.

Before:  nice photo, but doesn’t quite have that pop to it.

After: much better, dontcha think?

Or remember this picture from the El Jadida beach?  I was pretty excited about it, before:

After: high drama!

So, next time you see photos that look too good, chances are they’ve had a little work done.

A handful of pebbles

Re-reading my last post, a few things dawned on me: one is that, although I never regret taking a picture, you may not feel the same way.  Blurry and boring, could have been the title of the post.  I vow to redeem myself…

But while you’re waiting (for me to redeem myself), let’s do something useful together.  Let’s have an (extremely short, I promise) lesson in Darija.  And what is Darija you might be wondering?  Well it’s simply the Moroccan dialect of Arabic.  It’s Arabic, minus any vowels, mangled beyond recognition, un-writable, fun, changing, current, loving, formulaic and spiritual (I say all that in the most affectionate way possible).  After all, it’s my second native language, along with English.

Our word for today is one that is appropriate to say  in any of the following situations:

your friend just

a) had a shower or went to the hammam

b) finished off a great couscous

c) bought some new clothes

d)put a down payment a new house

You get the idea

And what you should say, when in Morocco, is besseha (alternately, in text message darija “bss7a”, yes, 7 looks like the Arabic letter “ha”, a deep guttural “h”, but sorry, I can’t help you more than that with pronunciation via this blog, I just don’t see how that would be possible).  This simple word conveys a multitude of meanings.  A literal translation gives us “with health”, something like “to your good health”, or “wear it in good health”.  It means “I’m happy for you” , “congratulations”, “good for  you” and “you deserve it”.

It also has a deeper level of meaning.  In Morocco, where people just don’t have a lot, well, envy can certainly arise.  When you see someone (say your best friend) with something newly acquired, whether a new haircut or a newly re-decorated living room, what is your FIRST inward reaction?

Hmm?

Is it pure happiness for that person?

Or do you feel a slight pinch?

Do you immediately wonder how you can get the same?

Or does envy bubble and boil, like salt eating up a snail?

Does your inward reaction match your outward reaction?

Do you want your friend to have a life as good as yours?  Or even better?

Well, maybe it’s a little of everything.  But for me, a true and pure happiness for others is a goal, perhaps a lifelong goal.  When I find people with this quality, I inhale really deeply, maybe I can soak up some of their kindness and sincerity.

From what I’ve observed in Morocco, and in my own self, is that saying a word like “besseha” can put out the fire in my heart very quickly.  Maybe pure happiness for others’ blessings is not your/my first instinct, but maybe we can train our hearts to do this.  Saying besseha, to me, is like saying “I purify my heart from envy for your blessing”.  It’s like stomping on the fires even as they are lighting.  I say it as much for my own benefit as for my friend’s.

Words are so inadequate, and yet they’re what we have, and they are a miracle.  They are like small stones that we give and receive from each other…some are common pebbles, some are semi-precious, and others are rare gemstones.  “Besseha” is somewhere in there, in the mix, a discreet little gem, not the most magnificent, but a good token to exchange often and freely.

And the response to it is: Allah ya’teek sahha, which means: “may God give you health”.  An equally expansive and magnanimous expression, one which does not focus on oneself, or even the blessing, but rather on the Source of the blessing.

Much love from Marrakesh, and “besseha” on your latest blessing, whatever it may be!

Photography tips by Moroccomama

Tip #1:  There’s never a bad time to take a picture.  Let go of perfectionism.  I used to think that the only time to take a picture was early morning or late afternoon (when the light is warm and very yellowy).  Certainly never at high noon.  I used to hold back from taking pictures, because someone’s face wasn’t washed, or because we were in the car and it would be blurry or have a glare.

But you know, I’ve never regretted taking a picture, no matter how harsh, messy, blurry or glare-marred.

For example: on our trip to the desert, I was somewhat despondent because the sky was hazy, in fact it was the exact same hue as the asphalt ribbon that unspooled before us for hours.  I also kept thinking, let’s wait until we stop and I’ll take some pics.

However, in the end, I realized that I’d better just go for it.

I’m thankful that I took these pictures, even from a moving car, even with the ashen sky.

Tip #2: Pictures of people are always interesting.

Tip #3: Get some perspective, and a focal point. I like photos with some lines that draw you in and take you somewhere.

Tip #4:  Find something incongruous. Like this Dodger’s fan on his moped, about to drive through an elaborate gate in the desert town of (I’m guessing here) Rissani.  Ok, I know he’s not a real Dodger’s fan. Judging from the things  I’ve seen written on shirts here, I’m guessing most people don’t know what their shirts say.

Tip #5: Don’t discount the obvious. When I was in the desert, everything was so picture perfect I didn’t know where to start.  So, this captures the basics: some full-length palm trees, the sky, the dunes, the tents.

I don’t have a tip for this one.  Maybe something about shadow and light.  These were all the camel guides in their tent eating breakfast.  Remember that while the rest of us rode on camels for 1.5 hours, these guys walked it.   Sometimes they make the trek several times a day.  The camels know and follow only their own guide.

Tip # 6:  Closeups are good.  And don’t be shy. This young man was dressed in a jellaba and turban, selling some pretty geodes and necklaces.  Living in Morocco, I have an aversion to many of the people trying to sell stuff to tourists.  I always check out the person’s vibe before approaching.  If he is too eager or aggressive, I don’t bother.  I look to the person first, merchandise second.  This guy passed my very stringent judgement of character.  We weren’t looking to buy anything though.

I hope these tips are useful.  In full disclosure I must add that I only came up with them just now.

Do you have any tips to share?

El Jadida: the mo’rockin beach

Eight years ago, give or take a few days, was the most amazing, painful, spiritual, mind blowing experience of my life.  It was the day, or night, that my daughter, Karima was born.  She was born at home, in our house in Marrakesh, after 38 or so hours of back labor.  If you know what that means, then you know.  If not, then ignorance is bliss.  I’d like to say I had an amazing, natural, birth, with lots of candles and self-empowerment…But the home birth was actually pretty old school.  My 70 year old Swiss midwife, arrived with, I’m not kidding, a small black leather bag full of medical equipment, a la 1800’s doctor making house visits.  She settled in the next room with her knitting and said to call when I needed her…

But really this is not the story I’m telling now.  That whole story was amazing and deserves its own post, perhaps.

What I’m trying to set the scene for here is…it’s Karima’s birthday!  And how do you celebrate an 8 year old girl’s birthday?  Do birthdays simply get more and more elaborate?  More goodies in the goodie bags, more complicated games, fancier canapes (junky enough for kids, yet still appealing to adults), more expensive presents?  It’s hard not to play the game of up the ante.  It’s all pretty overwhelming, for the parents, and especially for the birthday kid.

That’s why I pre-emptively suggested the following to Karima right after her 7 year old birthday party: “hey, next year, what do you think, instead of a party, you could pick one or two special friends and have a really cool experience?”.  She was into it…and so, this year, I’m happy to say, we had the best ever, beach weekend birthday celebration.

We packed our kids in, along with a couple more that we borrowed from neighbors and friends, and drove two/three hours towards the coast, from Marrakesh to El Jadida.  Some friends of ours have a cottage right on the beach, and while it’s rented during the summer season, it’s empty now.  Score!  How lucky is that?

El Jadida beach, or Sidi Bouzid, was still quiet at this time of year.  Somehow, it’s not a touristy beach, we saw only Moroccans there.

The kids braved the pounding surf, dug holes in the sand to see the water come up.  Then there were the kites.  When you have five kids, who are maybe a little cranky from a long day, trying to fly a kite is an impossibly stressful activity.  So much expectation, such unsatisfactory flying experiences.  Nevermind.  There was still the sunset over the Atlantic, the excited joy the kids had in sharing everything together, the rocks and shells they reported back with periodically, the pleasure of eating together out of one big plate (lunch was a veggie platter, a giant omelette and a fruit platter), the showers and hopeless battle against sand everywhere, the sheer craziness of spending 3 hours in the car together.

As a parent, so much of your own happiness derives from your children’s happiness.  For me, it’s seeing my kids being kind to each other, spending time outdoors, finding creativity, sharing willingly, engaging the world and being engaged by it.

And once again, it’s my midnight blogging hour, rushing to post before postponement happens once again, and although I’m never quite as expressive or careful with my words as I could be during normal hours, I guess it’ll have to do.

Karima, still a little sleepy:

Pure beauty:

An overcast morning:

Some jewels:

The kite was in the air for a nanosecond, everyone was elated: