A tour of Marrakesh

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.

Marrakesh Morocco blogMy 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.

Marrakesh Morocco blog

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.

Marrakesh Morocco blog "Menara gardens"

Marrakesh Morocco blog Menara pavilion

The Koutoubia mosque, which I talked about before:

Marrakesh Morocco blog mosque islam

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.

Marrakesh Morocco blog Bahia palace

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.

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The best, easiest cheesecake. Step-by-step recipe with photos.

lemon cheesecake with strawberries, Marrakesh, Morocco

It’s recipe time!  When I was growing up, my mother had Francis Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet.  It’s a book about moving towards a diet that’s both nutritious and sustainable for the whole planet.  We learned a lot about how to combine vegetarian foods to get complete proteins.  One of my favorite recipes in that book was/is Ricotta Cheesecake.  My mother made a lot of nutritious desserts, but for me, cheesecake was the ultimate.  It’s so delicious, smooth and creamy and lemony.  And hey, if this is what it takes to save the planet, then so be it!

And I’m keeping up the tradition in my own family, although my kids are still fairly suspicious of the oxymoron “cheese cake”.  Chocolate cake is much more natural collocation.  I’ve made cheesecake many times for my Moroccan friends, and it’s been very well-received indeed.  I’d like to get at least some credit for this important cross-cultural contribution.  In fact, this recipe is mostly for those living in Morocco, as you’ll see from the ingredient list.

The ingredients. Now if you live in Morocco, you’ll know exactly what each of these things are.  My secret about cheesecake is that I never make it the same way twice.  I throw in a combination of whatever I have in hand.  These ingredients are enough to make a large sized cake, enough for 24 people.  I made it recently for a potluck at work, and managed to photograph all the stages of the making.  I didn’t even get that much cheesecake filling on my camera.

Ingredients for Cheesecake:

Crust:

4 packets Sable biscuits

100g of butter

Filling:

24 kiri (about 12 ounces of cream cheese)

1 can Nestle sweetened condensed milk

4 perly yogurts

4-6 eggs

1 lemon, zested and juiced

Garnish:

Strawberries/a little sugar

cheesecake ingredients from the hanut, Marrakesh Morocco

Here’s the thing about the ingredients, you can make infinite substitutions.  There’s no perfect recipe.  If you don’t have Nestle for example, just use about a cup of sugar.  If Kiri is too fattening, you can use ricotta or white cheese (jben).  Perly is also not necessary, you can use any plain yogurt.  I chose a lemon flavor here, but you can put in vanilla instead.  The eggs can also be increased, I used 4 here, but I think the original recipe has more than that.  So there is a lot of choice in the matter of ingredients.  As they say in Morocco, 3aynek meezanek (measure with your eyes).   And of course taste it and adjust the flavor to your liking.

Method:

1-Pulse the biscuits in a food processor:

making cheesecake crust

2-Melt the butter and add it to the biscuits.  Mix again:

pulverizing the cookies for cheesecake crust

3-Pour the crumbs into a glass pan and pat them down with something flat.  Bake for 10 minutes:

pat down the crust

4-While the crust is baking, prepare the filling.

Pour ALL the ingredients into the food processor: kiri, perly, eggs, lemon juice and zest, and the can of nestle.  You can taste it now to see if it’s sweet or lemony enough.  In this recipe I actually added another half a can of nestle.  The filling will be very liquid:

5-Remove the crust from the oven after 10 minutes.  Don’t burn it!  Pour the filling in.  It should look like this:

cheesecake for 24

6-Bake on VERY low heat for about 45 minutes to an hour.  It should feel firm and set.

Prepare the strawberry garnish: slice the strawberries, add some sugar, and set them in the fridge to chill and become syrupy.

7-Remove the cheesecake from the oven and allow it to cool.

Once it’s cool, it needs to be chilled in the fridge.  It’s best to make it about 4 hours in advance or even overnight.  The longer it sits before eating, the better it tastes.  (Don’t do what I did and serve it lukewarm.  That’s not cool, literally).

Enjoy it if you manage to get a slice.  It goes fast!

This is Broken. My Very Own Top 10 List.

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.

Eva Longoria and the Billboard Bandits

Eva Longoria is no stranger to attention, no shrinking violet.  I do not even know who she is, and yet I know who she is.  Maybe because her perfect bronzed effigy looms over me at the supermarket, singing a siren song of miracle dream creams, secret potion lotions from the Oracle of L’Oreal?

(Thank you, but I think that  for me to look anything like the image on that poster, scientists would have to splice actual L’Oreal genes straight into my DNA.  After that, I’d have to morph into a body that is 10 feet tall and 6 inches wide.  I’ll pass.)

So when Eva showed up on the side of the road outside of  Marrakesh, well it’s no surprise that her presence caused a bit of a stir.

Imagine you are driving through peaceful Berber country, passing mud villages, olive orchards, and farmers harvesting their year’s supply of wheat.   Men and women’s voices rise through the sleepy sunlit air, singing traditional harvest songs, sheep roam in search of shreds of pasturage, an old man in a jellaba rides by on a donkey.  Nothing could mar this bucolic serenity.

Then, all of a sudden, why it’s Giant Eva Longoria.  Weird.

Wait, there she is again.

Oh, it’s just some kind of real estate thing.  Bah!  Gentrification!  I turn my nose up at you.

No,  you’re kidding me, I’ve been driving for 20 minutes, and I see ten billboards of Eva?  Because I missed the first nine.  But the tenth one really drove it home.  Why if this condo development is good enough for Eva, then what are we all waiting for?  Hurry up good people, and sign on the dotted line, because there are only 1,000 apartments and 400 villas left, and they’re going fast.  (I googled it, those numbers are factual.  So if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live in a beehive, give it a whirl).

Am I the only one who finds these adds in poor taste?  Folks, it’s plain old cultural insensitivity.  Berber culture is very traditional.  Cleavage, as shown in the photo, is considered a private part of the body.  Ok, I realize that for most of my western readers, and even my Moroccan urban dwelling readers, this photo is very tame, it’s ho-hum in our flesh-image saturated world.  Female bodies remain the go-to advertising commodity, with less and less left to the imagination.  (In fact, these same adds, along with the rest of the ladies from Desperate Housewives, are plastered all over Casablanca, and they don’t seem to have caused any ripples.)

But try to look at it from an Other perspective.  Imagine your eyes have not yet filled with such imagery.  Imagine that someone put up a giant billboard in your neighborhood, showing body parts that you consider private.  How would you react?

Eva Longoria billboard graffiti

Would you, say, sneak out in the middle of the night with a can of black paint and go on a crazy daredevil mission demonstrating your community’s protest against said billboard?  Because that’s what someone did to Eva.  All ten of her.

And if you are the advertising mastermind behind the Eva adds, would you get the point, and go with something a little more culturally appropriate?  Or would you photoshop 2 inches more tank top onto Eva’s cleavage, and pay for another 10 slightly more covered Evas to be re-plastered onto said billboards?  Because that’s what someone did.  Improbable, but true.

Eva Longoria billboard Marrakesh

(You can see the next billboard not too far off).

So everyone is happy, right?  The advertisers still get to associate their condos with glamorous, glorious Eva, and the locals can stop making such a fuss now that her shirt is hiked a few millimeters in the front.  End of story?

Wrong, this was just the first battle in the war that was waged between these two parties, whom I’ll call Ad Machine and Billboard Bandits.

The Billboard Bandits strike again.  No paint this time, but the billboards are in tatters when they are done.

Next move by Add Machine: a new add featuring a somewhat bizarre looking couple, meant to be Moroccan, each looking in the opposite direction.  (subtext: these condos are for couples that are drifting apart?)

Billboard Bandits, it’s your move.  Sure enough, the adds are again shredded.  Methinks this is no longer about cleavage.

Last attempt by Add Machine, this time they go with the most benign and forgettable add possible.  So forgettable that I can’t even remember it, see?  I think it’s a photo of a balcony, with of course, the snow-capped Atlas rising majestic in the background.

Soon I will take that drive once more and see if this last billboard has survived.  I can’t stand the suspense, can you?

But first, lets take a moment to analyze these events.  Because it would be wrong to think that this issue is just about showing the human body in ways that the local population finds degrading to women.  Certainly that is a mistake on the part of the advertisers, who should not use the same concept on a dusty country road as in the heart of a worldly metropolis.  However, I believe that the thorn runs deeper than that.  It’s the juxtaposition of two completely different realities that is so unsettling.  On the one hand, we have this world of image and fantasy, of unimaginable riches and luxuries, of ersatz culture that attempts to package and commodify the Moroccan experience with no soul whatsoever.  All of it a vacuous Orientalist version of a Morocco pandering to the every whim of the upper crust.  A vision of Morocco that would not hesitate, for example, to introduce alcohol to a valley that has been dry forever, with no thought given to how it might destroy the lives of the locals.

On the other hand, we have the traditional lives of the Moroccan Berbers.  Berber families that are still connected to the natural cycles in the most primordial of ways.  Whose actions and intentions stem from a deep faith in God, enjoying the contentment that ensues.  Whose meals are bread from their own land, olive oil from their own trees, served in clay dishes from the Ourika river, sitting on rag rugs they’ve made with their own hands from scraps of old clothes.  There is nothing more real, beautiful, spiritual, sustainable.  They, and all the traditional peoples of the world, are the original “organic, local and slow” ways that we crave and long to return to.

So Eva Longoria et al, you are more than welcome in this old and beautiful world, but on its terms, not yours.  If your goal is to use and plunder, then you will be met with resistance.  Bring with you the best of what your culture has to offer the world.  Then take the time to learn about Morocco, its beautiful people, its old ways that are still alive under the strain of globalization.  Peace and grace are yours for the finding.

Waldorf school in the high Atlas

Are there people in your life that are amazing?  I’m thinking a lot these days about my friend Itto.  She is a German woman married to a Berber man, living a simple and beautiful life tucked away in a village in the Atlas mountains.  Her valley is a 5 hour drive from Marrakesh.  Let me tell you some of the reasons why she’s an amazing woman:

  • She lives 5 hours from “civilization” and has a deep contentment with her lifestyle.
  • She homeschools/unschools her 3 children.
  • She is always making something beautiful, she is after all, an interior designer by training.
  • She gave birth to her baby girl virtually unassisted at home, which, in case I didn’t mention it before, is 5 hours from the nearest big city and hospital!
  • Although German is her first language, she blogs in English and I forget that she isn’t a native speaker.
  • She has chosen Islam as her spiritual path and is able, via her writing, to convey the peace and serenity that she experiences in her path.
  • And now she has opened Morocco’s first Waldorf inspired school, yes, in her village in the Atlas mountains.

Her blog is called Itto’s Living Faith.  It always inspires and relaxes me.  I pray that God continues to bless her and her family with love, mercy and protection always.

From Marrakesh to Taos

Hello, salam alaykom!  It’s been a while!  The kids and I made it safely through 3 days of travel to arrive in Taos, NM.  Praise be to God. 

On July 4th we went to the little town of Arroyo Seco to see the parade.  Now, I do not exactly have patriotic fervor (fever?).  As an American born in Morocco, I have never had a strong sense of attachment or belonging to either place.  (let’s leave the identity politics essay for another post).  However, I like to think that I appreciate the good things that both countries have to offer. 

On this 4th of July, I was reminded of some of the things I appreciate about the US.

1-Organization and Order:  the parade started promptly at the scheduled time of 1pm.  People lined the street and kept orderly of their own accord.  They were rewarded by being sprayed with water from the fire engine.

2-Low key and sense of humor:  The parade floats were all home made with not a lot of fuss or money spent.  Most of them had a funny theme. 

Passport renewal season

Hello!

As you can see, I changed the WordPress theme I was using.  I’m liking this new one, it’s still minimalist enough for me, but it’s got some style.  The only 2 problems this has caused are: all the photos got a smidge shaved off on the right, which is ok, I guess I can reload them later (or not).  But the second problem is that now, when I try to add entries to my blogroll, it won’t let me.  It says “There are no options available for this widget”.  Help!  I have so many wonderful new blogs that I’d like to add.  For those of you using Worpdress, have you encountered this problem, and more importantly, have you found a solution?

2YKWAVXJVQGR (don’t mind this, it’s a token claim that needs to show up on my post).

On Monday, we took a quick trip up to Casablanca. Our mission: renewing my son’s passport.  He is turning 5 soon, (too soon), and his passport will expire then.  Both parents had to be present, as well the boy himself.  So we made a little trip out of it.  Every couple of years we make the same pilgrimage up to the US consulate in Casablanca, leaving Marrakesh at dawn to make it there within the rather narrow window of receiving hours (8 to 9:30 am, or if you miss it 1 to 2:30 pm).  More often than not we have a newborn baby with us that needs to be issued a birth certificate or a passport.

The Consulate is on a busy street near the Spanish, French and German embassies.  There are always long lines in front of all these embassies, Moroccans hoping to gain the much sought-after visa which would grant them entry to one of these countries.  At the American consulate, there are also large steel containers lining the street, the size of several cars, filled with some sort of dirt or concrete, as a protective measure.

Once you have given up your cellphone and gone through a security check, (airport-style), then you head towards either the small room or the big one.  The small one is for US citizens, the big one is for Moroccans (or non-US citizens living in Morocco).  We went to the small room.

Casablanca is big and modern.  I always try to dress as nicely as possible.  I wore my leather boots.  Maybe I thought that the US consul would peer over the window at my fancy footgear and think “what a successful, respectable woman”.  But when I think about it, dressing nice is more of a Moroccan attitude that has rubbed off on me.  My husband, who is more American than I am, wore Birkenstock type sandals.  Our son wore hand-me-down sneakers from his sister, they are light blue and don’t look too girly.

In any case, our combination of dressy and casual footwear did the trick.  That, and we accidentally brought all the documentation necessary.  We only forgot to bring photos of our boy at different ages, to show that the pudgy baby with the giant head has indeed morphed into an almost 5 year old (he still has a giant head though, you should try getting a t-shirt on that boy).

As we sat in the small room, waiting, my eyes wandered up to the portrait of Barack Obama.  I was so (very pleasantly) surprised, I mean I know I voted for him and all, but being out of the country, I’m not yet accustomed to seeing his image everywhere.  And a strange new feeling came over me.  I wouldn’t exactly call it pride (because in my head, pride is synonymous with arrogance).  But I did feel profoundly grateful.  Grateful to be an American, grateful that Barack Obama is in charge, is using the best of his skills to guide this ship to better shores.  Grateful for the education I received in an American university.  Grateful that I wasn’t over in the big room, wondering if I’d get a visa or not.  I don’t take it for granted.

(after all, I chose moroccomama as my login name, partly because it rhymes with: Barack Obama).

I didn’t take my camera to Casablanca, but here’s a picture of the passport boy, when he won some points at a fun fair at school.