And in non-Amal center related news

 

 

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.
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And for a few moments before it set the sun lit up the snowy peaks with the most striking rose color.DSC_0245

 

And here is our family according to Yousef.  Karima’s crutches!  Funny that he is surrounded by these boxy concrete houses and yet he draws ours with a slanted roof.  Why is that so universal.  DSC_0242

Traveling to Morocco during Ramadan: 10 do’s and don’ts

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.

The new moon marks the beginning of the month of Ramadan.

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.

Gathered for the ftour meal

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.

Thousands of women in prayer at the Koutoubia mosque

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!

Ode to the hadga

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…

  • She knows that dishwashing liquid is not enough to get the eggy smell (zfouria) off dishes, always has her combo of bleach, fairy and tide near the sink.
  • She’s been known to scrub old dingy tiles with hydrochloric acid (ma el qat3) to bring out the shine.
  • Otherwise, she never mops tiles with plain water because that leaves that same weird eggy smell as with the dishes.  Always has Mr Propre or Sanicroix in the bucket.  She knows the only real way to mop a floor is stooped over a jiffaf, a sort of towel that she works side-to-side from one end of the house to the other.  The house is mopped daily.
  • Even though she works outside the home, she makes tomorrow’s lunch tonight so that her family can come home to a nice hot tajine.
  • She personally inspects every single vegetable she buys based on specific hadga criterion of size, firmness, smell, sheen, hue…She’s been known to snap a carrot in two the check the core is not woody.  Knows that tomatoes have to overripe for tajine or red sauce, but on the firm side for salad.  Wilted green beans or spongy cucumbers hold no place in her shopping bag.
  • Her family doesn’t know what store bought bread tastes like because she bakes it fresh every morning.
  • Turns 10 or 20 dirhams into a feast when you come visit.  Laughs dismissively when you praise her for it.
  • She comes over to see you, notices you have dishes in the sink (and that you are likely too overwhelmed with your lively young’uns to get to them).  She says “let’s take care of these” and cheerfully does so.  Then she asks if you have flour and oil and proceeds to make you a batch of msemn, staying cool, calm and collected throughout.  She leaves the kitchen sparkling and full of nourishment.  Makes it look effortless.
  • She never serves stringy, chewy chicken because she bought today’s chicken yesterday and gave it a thorough salt scrub followed by an overnight lemon bath.  Her chicken tajine is always as tender as can be.
  • Turns one orange into a decanter full of juice by boiling it with the peel, adding sugar, water and a teaspoon of citric acid.  She always has it in the fridge a standby.
  • Her home is never in a state of C.H.A.O.S (can’t have anyone over syndrome).
  • She shows up at the hammam with all natural, homemade beauty treatments.  Body scrub made from ground chickpeas, body mask made from henna and herbs, argan oil with her own additions of essential oils.  She even lets you try some after you’ve asked enough nosy questions about all of it.
  • Prepares for Ramadan the month before, filling the freezer with briwat (stuffed pastries), chopped celery and herbs ready for harira soup, soaked and hulled chickpeas too.  Chebbakia and sellou sweets of course in large covered buckets.

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?

 

Everyday Marrakesh

I live for olive

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.

 

Marrakesh homeschoolers, are you out there?

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 nora@clcmorocco.org and please repost this on any relevant sites.

Spring renewal

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.

Atlas mountains Ourika Morocco blog

olive oil, bread and moroccan tea

khatt ar ruqaa

march blossoms

cactus in morocco

sunlight on cobweb eucalyptus leaves

khatt naskh