Step-by-step photo recipe: Moroccan fry bread (msemen/rghaif)

A fun little tutorial on how to make Moroccan fry bread (msemen or rghaif in darija).  These are eaten for breakfast or as a special afternoon snack.  Cafes often have a woman making them on an outdoor griddle.  They are heavy on the oil but so good when eaten hot of the griddle, downed with a glass of tea.  Interesting how so many cultures have some sort of fried bread, in New Mexico we eat sopapillas drizzled with honey and Navajo fry bread tacos, while our Pakistani friends have shared spicy Puri with us.  I guess fried comfort food is a universal concept then.

Click on the first image to view as a slideshow.

Natural highlights with henna and spices

A few months ago my daughter begged me to put henna in her hair.  Not just henna, but the full works, a mysterious blend of herbs and spices that strengthens hair and leaves it a coppery hue.  Our friend Lalla Khadija is one of those people who knows what to buy and how to use it.  She has her own family henna recipe and helped us purchase the right ingredients from a spice shop down near Jema el Fna.  I love the way that Moroccan women view such indulgences as henna, the hammam, and natural beauty remedies as necessities rather than luxuries.  That’s just how they roll.

This hair henna recipe contains 4 major components: the spice mix shown below, a red mineral called “lakar el fassi”, about half a gram of saffron, and of course freshly ground henna.

Can you spot dried roses, pomegranate peel, cinnamon sticks, lavender and cloves? These ingredients help darken the henna effect and scent the hair.

Boil it in water until, as Karima says, it looks like eyeballs. It smells so good though, edibly good.

This is "lakar el fassi" (translation: lipstick from Fez). I think it's pulling the real weight here, as far as color longevity.

When we added "lakar el fassi" to water it turned bright reddish orange. We also added about half a gram of saffron. See the cool gold flecks from the mineral?

We strained the "eyeball" mixture keeping only the nice burgundy colored water, added "lakar el fassi" and saffron brew, then stirred in the ground henna. It got too messy after this to document...

But what we got is a bright red goo, like clay in texture, that I smeared all over K’s hair.  It took a while, it was messy, we survived.  She kept it in for an hour then rinsed (also messy).  Her hair is normally dark brown, but it turned dark orangey red.  She was kind of shocked in the beginning, but after that wore off she grew into the look.  We’ve all been there, right ladies?  That’s just what we do.

Beware, henna does dry out hair, so if you already have frizz going on it’s not a good match.  It also has a strong smell…the rose petals and lavender help but the henna has a very distinct smell.

Voila. Natural highlights that have lasted for months, much longer than expected.

 

3 cups of {Saharan} tea

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.

Beyond blue jeans and plastic, journeys into traditional Morocco

I don’t blog often enough.  I’d like to.  I write a lot of things…in my head.  They are perfect little morsels, full of wit and truth, that seem to disintegrate by the time I am sitting at the computer.  I get bloggers block often.  Blogger’s blahs.  Since I write with my real name and make only very weak attempts at veiling my identity, blogging makes me vulnerable.  I think about all the people I know from the different spheres of my life reading this, good golly!  Instead of throwing caution to the wind, I wrap it closely around me.  The more people subscribe here or stop by, the more nervous I get about the next thing I am going to write.   (Then again, as my friend aptly pointed out, I’m not exactly Oprah Winfrey, when it comes to audience size).

What makes blogging even possible, sustainable and enjoyable is the feeling that the more I write, the more my true voice emerges.  (sounds so self-indulgent it makes me cringe).  It’s great practice anyway, even if “the voice” doesn’t always show up.  People respond well to true voice, it resonates with all of us.  I may not have a huge readership, but I always feel like you all who are reading this really engage with it and respond in ways that are deep, appreciative and real.  Just take a look at the comments you all leave.

I like to read a variety of blogs.   Some are witty, self-deprecating and sardonic.  Others are excellently word-crafted, obviously written by someone with actual literary ability.  Some contain spiritual writings.  Others are gorgeously designed and well-photographed.  Some blogs have all the bells and whistles, twitter feeds, giveaways, buttons.  I didn’t use to get blogging.   Why would we put so much loving labor into something that, for the most part, we are not paid to do?  But I get it now, it’s about taking a little extra time to savor life and share it with all those who might resonate with our way of seeing.

Now I’ll show you what I actually came on here to blog about.  Believe it or not it wasn’t about blogger’s block.  It was about travelling in Morocco, and how every time I travel I really appreciate this country.  There’s so much I haven’t seen, there is a lot of natural beauty and there are people living the old traditional ways.  Blue jeans and plastic haven’t yet taken over every inch of this planet, and we need to witness as much of the old ways as we can, in my opinion.   A recent road trip took our family to Tafraout (about 5 hours south of Marrakesh).  It’s located right where the mountains meet the desert, and it contains elements of both.

In Tafraout, the houses are built on, under or around boulders.

The landscape is both desert and mountain. The color palette is pretty much earthy brown and sky blue.  The houses tend to blend into the rocks.

A couple of doors.  When I was a kid I remember a lot of doors being made of corrugated metal like this.

See the windows in this house?  We were told how in these type of houses, the two larger windows symbolize parents, while the smaller one underneath is the child.

More doors and windows, the textures are so gorgeous.

On our boulder climbing adventures we found a totally fun mushroom shaped rock.

And managed to climb into it and get a peak of the village below.

There’s not much green in the landscape, the Argane trees are the only prolific shrub.  We saw thousands of them.

Inside one of the houses, the passageways were dark and sinuous…the one below struck me as especially symbolic, full of portent.

Every house had its own storage room for secret stashes of argane nuts.

Waiting to be transformed into liquid gold.  Each family has claims to a certain number of the wild Argane trees on the hillside.  The villagers all respect this code, and the families go out and harvest the Argane seeds when they are ready.  I’d always heard that Argane seeds are collected after goats have eaten them and left them in their droppings.  It turns out that this is somewhat of an urban legend.  The locals we asked assured us that that they harvest the seeds themselves.  The goat way leaves a certain “smell” to the oil and a real connoisseur can tell by one sniff if the Argane has been through a goat or not.

This window is just beautiful.

Funny story about the owner of this shop.  Even though we were 5 hours from Marrakesh in this remote village, the shop owner recognized me, we’d been to the same junior high in Marrakesh.  It turned out to be a serendipitous encounter as he was a big help to us.  He showed us around the area and took us to see the traditional mosque he was in the process of restoring at his own expense.

At sunset we went out to see the famous Tafraout painted rocks.  It turned out that “painted rocks” wasn’t meant figuratively, like Arizona’s painted desert.  No, these were huge boulders painted garish blue and pink.  It hurt to look at them, and I refused to photograph them, except for whatever showed up in this photo.  Apparently some Belgian artist came along a while back and went out to the middle of nowhere and started this massive endeavor of painting boulders, you know, like a huge ugly art installation in the middle of God’s glorious creation.  This had the effect of drawing tourists to the area, and since that time, the locals have kept up the tradition by repainting the rocks when they fade.  My husband and I were speechless with dismay.  The rest of the landscape was really open, sandy, quiet, expansive, much like hubby’s native New Mexico.

After spending a few days in Tafraout, we went somewhere very different, Merlift beach.  Since it wasn’t tourist season, we had the town and the beach practically to ourselves.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who read the Beirut post and this one, do you prefer to look at photos in a slideshow or just like this?

Beirut

 

Hello there.  It’s been over a week since I got back from Beirut.  It’s been hard to find any time at all to write down a few of my thoughts.    Here goes.

 

Before I went to Beirut I had only some vague impressions of it…destroyed by civil war was one haunting impression, there is nothing left to see.  Another sense I had was one of cultural complexity and refinement, after all it’s the publishing capital of the Arabic speaking world.  For a country so small it also produces a large number of Arab music’s best singers, from the emblematic Fayrouz and Abdel Halim Hafez to today’s flashy pop stars.  I didn’t attempt to learn much more than these vague notions, preferring to be completely surprised.  (Just like I don’t read anything about movies I’m planning to watch either).

 

Truth is nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the city.  There was so much to take in from the minute I landed at Rafik Hariri Airport, looked out of the plane, and saw the sea, the Mediterranean, right there across the tarmac.  The taxi ride from the airport took me through busy, crowded streets, older and dirtier than even Marrakesh.  It was dizzying to take it all in and realize with tingling excitement that I was in the Middle East again

 

In the beginning I was just overwhelmed by the visual of the city itself.  I’ve never been in a city that had suffered a war, and here is what I saw.  I saw a good 10% of the buildings standing there, gutted, abandoned, bullet marks all up and down them.  And that is something really heavy to witness.  As I was walking by an old wall I saw holes and when I looked closer there were actual bullets still in the holes, rusted over.  There was a giant skyscraper downtown that just stood there, damaged and empty.  They can’t live in it and they can’t tear it down, it’s just too big.  I saw the old Lebanese style of villas, with beautiful balconies and the typical three arches.  Some have been restored, most are abandoned.  Then there is just junk everywhere too, shells of cars, building scraps that I’m not sure were just torn down or waiting to go up.  It reminded me of a trailer park.  And then there were all these ultra-modern,glassy, painfully boring buildings going up everywhere, promising to be “exclusive” and grant you a very privileged lifestyle.  A city trying to regenerate itself fast enough to overtake the decay.  It was like looking at several archeological layers at once, each one from a drastically different time period.  Add to that the fact that Beirut is built on a series of hills, so at any given point, not only were you walking through different eras, but you were also continuously ascending and descending.

 

The only conversations I had with any Lebanese were the taxi drivers, straining to comprehend the dialect of Arabic, and replying in very formal classical, since Middle Easterners do not comprehend our Moroccan dialect.  The taxi drivers’ replies were my crash course in Lebanese cultural (pun…intended).  I asked about the civil war and found out that it lasted from 1975 to 1992 (google says 1990).  The man said: Yatla3 jeel mesh m3ellem.  A whole generation emerges uneducated.

 

Beirut is truly a striking city, nestled between snowcapped mountains and the great, calm expanse of the Mediterranean.  It was only my second time in the Middle East and I have to say there is something very special about it.  It’s haunting and it makes my heart ache.  There’s a deep strength, a tenaciousness, in the people and the place itself.  It’s ancient, to say it’s a spiritual place doesn’t even come close to describing it.

 

I came away from this particular trip a bit jealous of Middle Easterners, feeling that they share a deep bond.  It’s apparent in the similar dialects, Jordanians, Lebanese, Saudis, Syrians etc. can comprehend each other fairly well, despite some variation in dialects.  When I tried to speak Moroccan darija they literally did not understand one word.  The countries are all close together so it’s not hard to imagine living in Jordan and visiting Lebanon, an hour away by plane.  They even share similar long distance calling codes and cell phone operators give coverage over the whole Middle East region.  This left me feeling kind of lonely, we Moroccans are way, way over there, the outliers, geographically, linguistically and to some extent ethnically.  We cannot even bond with our Algerian neighbors, since those borders are closed for who knows how long.  And although I feel Moroccan I do not feel Arab at all.  Hello identity issues, you don’t leave me for long do you.

 

I witnessed one rather disturbing scene that left me unsettled.  My Danish friend and I were walking back to the hotel from Gemmeyzeh to Ashrafieh.  As we approached downtown we started to notice soldiers, truckloads of them.  They were lining the street on both sides and it made crossing rather awkward.  I asked a passerby what was happening and he said that parliament was in session and this was security.  Hmm.  It was quite unnerving to see rows and rows of soldiers with machine guns and riot shields.  Then we heard loud Arab music and several trucks rolled by, full of black-clad youth waving flags.  We cautiously approached to see what all the excitement was about.  I figured out it was the Syrian flag and I told my friend, oh it’s something in solidarity with Syrians.  After all Lebanon and Syria share a border (and a whole lot of history) that is only about an hour away from Beirut.  Then I looked closer and saw that the young men were carrying pictures of the Syrian pres. Bashar al Assad.  I listened more closely to the songs…and the realization hit me, these were actually pro-Bashar guys.  I did not know they existed and here they were, just came out of nowhere in front of our very eyes, singing and dancing.   The riot soldiers formed a tight circle around them, presumably for their own protection.  At that point my friend and looked at each other and we were like, this is surreal and disturbing.   Yeah let’s get out of here  But that was that and we got back to the hotel with no further incidents, only a rather sick feeling.

 

Now for the highlight of my trip.  The absolute shining moment that, as it was happening, I knew, this is why I’m here.  On Friday I went to the stunning, blue-domed Hariri mosque in downtown Beirut.  I had gone in the morning to photograph it and was eager to attend the Friday prayer there.  It’s a beautiful mosque, with gold calligraphy on the vaulted ceilings, giant chandeliers, even an elevator going to the upper level.

 

The mosque was full (but nothing like we see in Morocco, where Friday prayers mean people overflowing from the doors onto the sidewalks and streets).  Still I felt like I was home.  During the prayer, the imam started the most soulful prayer of supplication to God, it started, in a clear, beautiful, melodic voice…dear Lord, our brethren in Syria are being killed…we appeal to your mercy, your compassion, envelop them in your protection… It was powerful, knowing that Syria is so close, and this prayer opened my heart and allowed me to feel some of the pain of it all, allowed me to sob from the depth of my being.  I was not the only one, many were moved to tears including the imam.  It seemed so right¸ to be in a place of worship together, acknowledging in complete sincerity our weakness, humility and dependence on Allah, beseeching Him for his mercy.  It seemed the best thing we could possibly do for the Syrian people…there is the physical plane where things manifest, but the spiritual plane is where things truly originate.  I had not experienced many prayers of that intensity in Morocco, except for some of the night prayers in Ramadan.  I felt as if I had come all the way to Lebanon to receive this treasure.

 

I missed my family, it’s strange for me to be away from my kids overnight, let alone for five days.  My husband was, as always, amazingly supportive of my going, taking on the full force of parenting while I was away.

Beirut sort of got under my skin, it haunted me for a good while after I got home.  I feel that the words and photos don’t encompass it but they’re all I have as the experience begins to fade from memory.  So, here are the photos, click on any one of them to view in slideshow form.  Sorry, no time to write captions.  It’s taken me probably 10 (nocturnal) hours to edit photos, upload them and write this post.