The school year is over, Karima just completed 3rd grade and Amin kindergarten. My usual ambivalence towards conventional modern schooling, and the Moroccan school system remains. On the one hand, both kids are learning Arabic and French. The teachers are loving and kind, competent and doing their best with 30+ kids per class. My kids go to what is purportedly the best school in Marrakesh. And it’s true that the students I have seen from there do stand out, both academically and as having some extra spark in their personalities.
However my husband and I are getting an inner calling that it is time for change, major change. We are thinking along the lines of a homeschooling cooperative, where small groups of children (5-6) can receive good quality, personalized instruction from parents and tutors.
One of the main reasons we are living here in Morocco is so that our children can receive a deep grounding in the Islamic tradition. We want the children to spend a good deal of their time, especially these younger years, chanting and memorizing the Quran. We want them to receive transmition of sacred knowledge from an illuminated being, a spiritual guide who can inspire in them great love for God. This should be the top priority, and at the moment, it’s not. They study “Islamic Ed” in class, and there is some benefit. But Quran memorization is assigned as homework, then tested in class. That’s not really how we want the kids to see Quran, one more thing they will get in trouble for not learning by heart.
We also think that the children can keep up with, if not exceed, the Moroccan curriculum for Arabic and French via an approach that is more based on the communicative method. As a product of Moroccan schooling, I can’t tell you how many hours I spent learning Arabic grammar. But never once did I have any sort of in-class discussion in Arabic, never once did I read a great work of Arabic literature and give my opinion on it (apart from the Quran, I’ve only read one Arabic book cover to cover and in my mind there is something wrong with a school system that is not focused on reading). So for all my years studying Arabic grammar, I’d like to say I’m fluent, but truth is I’m not. It feels unnatural for me to speak Arabic and I probably can’t speak 2 complex sentences error-free. In fact, when you speak to most Moroccan students, they say Arabic is their least favorite subject (math and science are usually their favorites). Most of my friends who are very fluent in Arabic claim to have picked up their fluency from watching Arabic cartoons!
We envision a language class based on communication: teacher asks students what they did on the weekend, and doesn’t correct their grammar when they answer, instead she responds to the content. That gives the student confidence that she has communicated successfully in the target language. The method should be based on reading, lots and lots of interesting, age-appropriate books. Games such as Bingo and board games are a great way to acquire lots of lexical chunks without pressure. Skits are another fun and creative way to live a language. After all, we learn a language for two basic reasons, to communicate orally and to read the best works in that language. We do not learn a language to become expert grammarians.
Take my own example in English. My good mother taught me to read when I was 7. It just so happened that I got hepatitis and was forced to stay home from school for a whole month. Most productive month of my childhood! My mother patiently taught me to read from good old “Ted and Sally”, “See Spot Run”, and all that. Thank you mama! By the end of the month I could read. Henceforth, my sister and I received a continuous supply of good English books that my parents hauled over from the US. All the Little House on Prairie books. The Narnia series. The Lord of the Ring series and so many others. My father read to us out loud every night too. (Just one more chapter, pleeeease!) We were not distracted by television, we did not have one. No computers either back in the middle ages of my youth. (Although maybe if we’d had a TV, I could have improved my Modern Standard Arabic from the cartoons!)
I never attended a formal class in English until I got to university. In my freshman year, I thought I should take Freshman English, to make up for what I’d missed out on. The first day, the professor convinced me not to take the class. “You’ll be really bored,” he said. Instead, I took the CLEP test that gave me college credit for both levels of Freshman English. I am not saying this to boast, I am just using this as an example of how powerful reading is. We can’t overemphasize its importance.
Back to the homeschooling co-0p idea: the kids should be able to explore creative outlets as part of their daily activities. Art, music, drama and sports. School nowadays focuses so much on the left brain. What about the right brain, and the rest of the body? To paraphrase Ken Robinson, it’s as if modern education sees our bodies as just transportation for our brains, slightly to one side. Our son Amin is the prototypical right-brainer. He loves to dance, he is someone who needs to dance every day. He puts on his favorite music, something like Ravi Shankar tabla music, or Chinese sword dance music, and he just dances, usually with no one watching. He is also the boy who is so drawn to images, he can “read” comic books for a good 45 minutes at a time, i.e. just look at the pictures and get a whole story from them. At the same time, he’s not a very language-oriented person. Concepts like “tomorrow” or “next week”, questions like “what day is today?” are hard for him to conceptualize. I’m loathe to send him to the Moroccan school system that will have him sitting at a desk up to seven hours a day, learning abstract notions in two foreign languages.
I also think that when the kids aren’t so caught up in school, there is lots of time to explore. Our children don’t even know their own city that well. We’d like to take them to see all of Morocco, and eventually another country like Mali or Senegal.
I could go on and on, and I probably will in future posts.
Calling all Marrakesh parents interested in alternative homeschooling! If you resonate with any part of this post, please contact me to begin a conversation about an alternative education cooperative. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a creative project of massive importance. Please write me at email@example.com and please repost this on any relevant sites.
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.
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.
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!