We moved house 2 months ago, and I just have to say, alhamdulillah, the view from our roof is amazing. Every day I go up there to check on the mountains. Yesterday this is what they looked like after a fresh snow.
We moved house 2 months ago, and I just have to say, alhamdulillah, the view from our roof is amazing. Every day I go up there to check on the mountains. Yesterday this is what they looked like after a fresh snow.
This year Ramadan runs from about July 20th to August 19th, so right in the middle of summer holidays. Marrakesh is usually bursting with tourists at this time of year, despite the scorching heat. I have seen groups of sunburned, dazed and confused looking tourists walking around, probably not too sure about what’s going on, except that Macdonalds seems to be the only restaurant open for lunch.
What’s going on is that everyone is fasting from 4 a.m. to 7:35 p.m. and that each individual is in a somewhat different state, and the whole country has collectively shifted gears. I can only imagine what it must be like to experience this as an outsider, but I’ve tried to put together some points here that might help you make sense of it.
1-Don’t pity us. Yes, I know it’s 47 C outside here in Marrakesh (that’s 118 F) and you can about boil a pot of that famous mint tea on the sidewalk. I know that this Ramadan has the longest daylight hours in the last 33 years. It sure must seem like we are suffering terribly. But here’s the thing: we like to fast. We look forward to this all year long. It’s like a beloved is returning to us. My dear non-Muslim friends, I appreciate your sympathy. “It must be really hard” you tell me. And it is. You apologize to me, wishing you could offer me a glass of water. And I thank you sincerely. But I wouldn’t trade a moment of this in for anything. No need to apologize, I’ll drink that water later, for darn sure. But right now I am emptying out, disengaging, and so is this whole country, all for a chance to come a little closer to the awesome and mysterious Divine.
2-Don’t call the ambulance just yet. It’s not dangerous to fast. Ok for some people it is, and they shouldn’t be fasting. In Morocco diabetes is of epidemic proportions, so on average there is at least one person per family not fasting. Pregnant or nursing women are excused from fasting. But you’d never know that a good 10-20 percent of people aren’t fasting, because Muslims would feel weird eating in public. For the rest of population, those blessed with good health, I’ve never heard of any risk or danger from fasting. It does mean downing water all night long though.
3-Don’t feel like you’re torturing me by eating in front of me. It’s really ok. Go ahead, drink that glass of water. No, I’m not drooling over you salad. Fact is I’m around food a lot during the day. The kids still need their breakfast, snack, lunch, snack and all that. What I’ve noticed thought is that when I’m fasting, food is like dead to me. I’m just in the zone. I’m not attracted to it in the least, don’t crave or obsess over it as I do when I’m not fasting. And I think this applies to most people. So when I see non-Muslims eating during the day, it’s not a big deal for me. The general rule is you don’t have to hide it, but you shouldn’t flaunt it either. Seeing tourists sitting in restaurants eating lunch doesn’t bother anyone, but seeing someone walk down the street chugging an ice cold Pepsi, ouch, that does hurt a little.
4-Do try to get invited for ftour. That would be of course the breaking fast meal around 7:40 p.m. It’s such a family oriented event in Morocco, and there is always much care and love put into food preparation. Moroccans eat a small meal at break fast and another dinner later on. The ftour is almost the same for the whole country, dates and water, some kind of soup either harira or barley, boiled eggs with cumin, chebbakia and slilou which are some complicated sweets that I won’t bother describing, and a smoothie like avocado and milk and sugar. It’s a shared ritual for sure. If you want to have a very Moroccan experience this is definitely it.
5-Don’t smoke in public. Yeah I’d put more emphasis on this one than on not eating/drinking, for several reasons. One is that there are smokers all around you who are in some state of nicotine withdrawal and that’s more intense than mere food deprivation. Two is that the actual smoke can break people’s fast. Of all the cranky fasters, I’d say the deprived smokers can be the worst, so bad in fact that there is a specific term used to describe a smoker who is losing it during Ramadan “maqtou3”, literally “cut off”. A blanket term used to explain the occasional flaring of tempers in the late afternoon.
6-Do appreciate the silence. That last 30 minutes before the call to prayer that marks sundown. The streets start to empty save for those last minute crazy drivers who know that traffic laws are not in effect at sunset. Then after the call to prayer, it’s a ghost town. Not a soul is out and about. In Marrakesh, a city of 1 million, there’s no other time where you could literally run down the street with your eyes closed and not get run over by anything. Not by a bus, truck, taxi, horse-drawn carriage, mule cart, donkey, moped, bike or walker! It adds to that special Ramadan “expect the unexpected” feeling. One minute the streets are teeming with last minute shoppers buying baghrir, jben or avocados for ftour, the next minute it’s like that dream where you are the last person on earth. Savor the moment.
7-Don’t expect much. In the daytime that is. With the fasting day being 16 hours long, and it being August vacay mode, believe me there is no impetus for waking up early. In our family we wake up between 9 and 10 a.m. and if you go out it’s like it’s dawn and you’re the early bird. The shops around here don’t throw open their blinds til 11 or 12. Cause they plan to open all day, close for ftour, and re-open at night. As afternoon rolls by, you can expect some blank stares, people can just start to get spaced out. Chapped lips, bad breath. Crankiness. Be compassionate. Know that the fast is different for each person, they may be having a particularly difficult day. Love them anyway.
8-Don’t be alarmed if you hear the canons roar. The pirates are not attacking the coasts. The city fires off canons to to mark the start and end of each fasting day, in case any doubt remained. Some neighborhoods have air raid sirens that go off to mark the fast. Where I live now I can only hear the canons. This way even those who live far from a mosque can still know it’s time to break fast.
9-Do shake your head at the irony of it all. Ramadan is a time of giving up food and drink for a certain time, but ironically we Moroccans consume a lot more food than usual. There are always the special reports from the Ministry of Agriculture assuring everyone that there will be enough eggs and chickpeas to meet “the increase in demand”. The shops totally cater to the frenzy as well. This year maybe the heat slowed people down a little. I do try to make the ftour meal special, but ours has lots of juice, fruit and salad. Hard to resist this:
10-Do enjoy the nights. Because in Ramadan, the nights are the real days. There are night prayers in every major mosque that start about an hour after sunset and last for an hour and a half. For Muslims, these prayers are the other half of the Ramadan equation. After the emptying out all day, this is the replenishing. I was interested to see a long line of tourists sitting near the Koutoubia mosque, enjoying the night breeze and watching the night prayers that are held in the open courtyard outside the mosque. The courtyard fills with some 5000 people who stand, sit and prostrate as the imam recites passages from the Quran. This is probably the most public prayer conducted year round so I can see why people would want to see what it’s like. After the prayers, the streets, cafes and shops come to life all over again, and it’s a light, almost giddy feel. After the inward breath and contraction of the day, this is the great expanse again.
For more advice on Moroccan culture and etiquette I recommend the book:
Cultureshock! Morocco (Cultureshock Morocco: A Survival Guide to Customs & Etiquette)
I wrote about Ramadan last year here. Ramadan Mubarak!
Ramadan is already a quarter over. In Morocco, Ramadan is known as a time for, among other things, putting extra care into food preparation. This post is an ode to the women who work in the kitchen all year around and go the extra mile in Ramadan, the hadga’s. What is a hadga? She’s a hardworking, thrifty, creative, resourceful woman whose work stands testament to her character. The triumvirate she rules by is cleanliness, thrift and nourishment. Here are a few ways to recognize a hadga…maybe you know one…maybe you are one…
I’m sorry to say that I’m most likely not a hadga. It doesn’t come naturally to me, I haven’t seen and lived enough of it to be it. It takes a lot of exposure to, and infusion from other hadgas, grandmothers, aunts…It takes a village and all that. But I’ve personally witnessed every single one of these instances (and the list is only a thin-slice, by no means exhaustive. Just when I think I’ve seen it all, I’m exposed to something else that leaves me in awe). Chances are if you live in Morocco or have spent time here, you know what I’m talking about here. What else can you add to the list?
Olive season has just come to and end…and by olive season I mean that the olives ripened, were harvested, and either pressed for oil or cured to turn them edible. Did you know that both black olives and green olives come from the same tree? Here is a very ripe olive from our family farm.
Did you also know that harvesting olives by hand is a labor intensive business? In Morocco it’s all done this way: a large plastic is laid out under the tree, then you take a long bamboo stick and start to beat at the olives to knock them down. Eventually you have to climb the tree to get to the higher branches. Olives yield about 16 liters of olive oil per 100 kgs of olives, depending on how much the trees were watered. The more they were watered, the juicier the olives.
I will never forget when I was 8 years old and I spent a whole day knocking all the olives off a particular tree. At the end of the day, I had very sore hand and about 20 kgs of olives. I was very excited to lug my harvest down the road to where they would buy them from you for about a dirham per kilo (like 6 cents per pound, for those of you who are allergic to the metric system). I walked back with more than 20 dirhams in my pocket (2.5 dollars). I’d never been prouder of my earnings (maybe even to this day :-). It didn’t occur to me that those olives actually belonged to my parents, and that technically, I owed them like 90% of the money. They kindly didn’t point it out either.
Everywhere in the Moroccan countryside, you see olive trees, and under them there is wheat or barley growing. Each farming family gets olive oil and flour for the entire year. This way they have fresh bread and olive oil, which, along with sweet green tea, is a meal unto itself. Talk about local, sustainable, organic and vegan….This is how it all once was.
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.
Thank you to everyone who responded to the previous two posts. Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) there are now many donations coming in, in fact it looks like enough money for more than just the three families I mentioned. It’s wonderful to feel like there is a community out there caring for those who have nothing here. I am very excited that certain key elements are manifesting for the long-term vision as well. It’s all wonderful and even a little scary to think about.
Spring is here and I had the chance to go on a three day retreat in the countryside, all alone. Those of you with young children know how precious this is. I marveled at my own ability to do nothing but watch the clouds, mountains, stars, sunlight and full moon for hours.
At the same time, I can’t believe how much I got done, creatively speaking. By 7:30 in the morning I would find that I had already accomplished all the “me things” that I would hope to do in a normal day: reading from that most beautiful of books, the Quran; practicing that most noble of arts, Arabic calligraphy; writing much; reading my favorite author (Barbara Kingsolver) and Steven Covey’s book The 8th Habit.
I feel I have lived a lifetime, or at least a good season’s worth in these three days. By the end of my retreat though, the wind started to howl and shake all the doors and windows, and I felt the same way inside from missing my family.
I had a chance to go on a great tour of Marrakesh a few days ago. We hit all the major tourist sites, which of course I almost never do, but I should because it was an enriching and beautiful experience. It renewed my connection with this city that I’ve called home for so long. I’m sorry I’m not great with dates and history, if I don’t take notes then it evaporates almost instantaneously off the surface of my brain. Not to mention the late, late hour that the blogging itch strikes me, which is not a peak time for cerebral activity. I’m going to have to fall back on good old “a picture is worth a thousand words”.
But let me just say this, these places are beautiful in and of themselves. And if you can find a great guide to connect you with the richness of Moroccan history, so much the better.
These first two photos are at Medrasa Ben Yousef, which was one of the first examples of governmentally institutionalized learning in 1550. Before that, students would simply find a teacher and learn what they wanted to learn. This Islamic college was hailed by some as a positive initiative, and decried by others who felt the government should stay out of the business of education. I guess the home-schooling debate is not as recent as we think! Anyway, this college fell out of use in 1960, after the French had installed their own educational system in Morocco. Sigh.
My mother, who is an artist and has studied Islamic art, points out that this following picture contains four out of the five elements of Islamic art. And they are (from bottom to top): complex star polygons, arabesques, repeat linear patterns and calligraphy. Brownie points if you can name the fifth element of Islamic art, not in this picture.
The Menara basin and pavilion…used to be an swimming school…and now is a great place to catch a view like this with the Atlas mountains as a backdrop, or feed some of the colossal fish that swim in the murky waters.
The Koutoubia mosque, which I talked about before:
And here are some of the storks that live on the wall of the Bahia palace. Stork in Arabic is “laq-laq”, and if you’ve ever heard the sound a stork makes, you’ll understand exactly where the name comes from.
PS. Voting is still ongoing over at www.moroccoblogs.com If you can spare 30 seconds, please hop over there and vote for this very blog “Life in Marrakesh” under Best Overall Blogs. Thank you, shoukran, merci.
The voting over at www.moroccoblogs.com has been delayed until January 7th to allow for a few last minute nominations. Thank you for all your support already. And sorry for the confusion.
This is why I love the medina of Marrakesh:
I recently watched a video on TED called “This is Broken”. It’s about things that are broken, simple everyday things, mainly pertaining products and business models: a rebate that’s too hard to cash in or missing your plane because there were not enough signs at the airport to direct you to the right terminal. In fact, the speaker, Seth Godin, was inspired to start his website www.goodexperience.com after trying to catch an a cab from an airport. There were 75 people waiting in line to catch a cab, and 75 cabs, and it took an hour, he says.
As I was watching the video I couldn’t help telling the screen: brother you ain’t seen nothing! I kept waiting for him to come up with some really good bad examples. Gimme the juicy stuff. I want my mind to be boggled, I want to laugh and cry because it’s so bad it’s awesome, I want revel in the sheer brokenness of our products and systems.
But he never quite hit his stride, in my very humble opinion. That is why I’m very humbly offering to help him out here. After all I am indebted to him for my newest favorite catch line, say it with me, this is broken!.
If this sounds like a rant, it’s not (entirely). And it’s not about Morocco per se. There are broken things everywhere, I just happen to live in Morocco so naturally the things on my list are, well, things that exist in Morocco. And I hope you appreciate the subtle difference that I’m trying to underline here: this is not Morocco-bashing, it’s systems that I encounter in my every-day life that I feel could be improved. I love Morocco so dearly and am so grateful for every blessing that I receive here. Not about to turn all that on its head just for a measly blog post.
This is Broken. My Own Personal Top 10 List.
(ok not really the TOP 10, just randomly generated off the “top” of my head)
10-Sidewalks. No really, they’re literally broken. Or too narrow to walk on (2 feet is just enough to walk single file, so very convivial). Or over-planted in such a way that leaves no space for us to walk.
Simple solution: pass a law that requires each homeowner to maintain their bit of sidewalk in good repair, unobstructed and free of plants.
9-The lines that were painted in the middle of the road. My husband and I were driving down one of the main streets in Marrakesh. The dashed lines dividing the avenue into lanes had been freshly painted a nice cheery yellow(in preparation for the Royal visit). A small marker had been placed on every other dash. The dashes that did not have a marker had ALL been smeared with yellow tire marks shooting out of them.
Simple solution: paint the lane dividers at night. Or close off one of the lanes so people would not keep changing lanes.
8-Birth certificates. Every time I need to prove my children’s ages, I need to produce a recent copy of their birth certificates. The copies expire after 2 months. And since we lived in different parts of the city when each child was born, they are each registered at a different muqata’a. That’s a day spent running around town with my family book, hoping that the clerk will not say those dreaded words: come back this afternoon to pick it up. (I am guilty of blog recycling on this one, I wrote about it in one of my first posts ever)
Simple solution: A photocopy of the family book should be enough to prove their ages. And birth certificates should never, ever expire.
7-Car got towed. First of all, never park on Jema el Fna square, no matter how many other cars are parked there, and no matter if an official gardien assures you it’s ok. It’s most assuredly not. Nothing is more deflating that spending a morning in the souks, happily browsing around, haggling, filling your bags with all the pretty things you found, la la la…then walking to your car…or the place you are sure you left the car, which is now gapingly car-free!
There is nothing to be done but spend the next two hours in a cab going to the all the right places. First stop will be the towing lot, la feraille, because I’m (I mean, you’re) the kind of person who leaves her car papers in her car. During the taxi ride you can make “the phone call of shame” to your husband and tell him that the car got towed. When he asks where you were parked, you suddenly wish the taxi would drive out of cell range. Hubby is both sympathetic and irritated. Not nearly as irritated as you will be by the time this is over. Once you retrieve your car papers, and brace yourself cause this is the hard part, you have to wrench yourself away from your car (you were so close, you even sat in it for a minute and it felt so right). Then you catch another taxi back across town to the central police station. Are you still with me? It’s exhausting even in funny-blog-format. At the police station you pay your fine (only 25 dollars, now that’s not Broken), then catch your last taxi ride back to la feraille, were you and your car are finally reunited. Sitting in cabs for the last couple of hours makes you appreciate your own wheels oh so much. Pick up life where you left off.
Simple solution: Can’t we pay the fine at la feraille?
6-Cocotte. My pressure cooker is going to kill me. Oh the cocotte-minute, Moroccan cooking pot of choice. It’s fast, cheap and easy (because it cooks food faster, it uses less energy). The big bummer: these pressure-cookers are made of aluminum, a powerful neurotoxin that has already been linked to Alzheimers.
Simple solution: As in most cases, the older ways were better. Nothing beats cooking in an unglazed clay tajine pot. Pile your meat and veggies in and let is slow-cook, preferably on a charcoal fire. No neurotoxins, the onions caramelize and stick to the bottom (mouth-watering), and best of all, you can eat out of the same dish you cook in. Amount of dishes to do: one.
Look out for part two of this post coming soon…in which I reveal the rest of my top 10 list. Sorry if you feel cheated, I know, I say top 10 list, and it’s only 5. So sorry for the false advertising and all. I like to keep my posts under 1000 words is all. There will also be a brief analysis of why things are broken. And because I’m really more of a glass half-awesome type of person, I promise to palliate all this ranting with My Life: A Good Experience. My Personal Top 10 List. (will this top 10 list also only have 5 items? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on how many I can come up with at a time and how concisely I can enumerate them. No promises).
Coming soon…insha Allah.