So you want to start a non-profit…

Starting the Amal Center was a difficult endeavor, I can’t explain why exactly I did it, I did not have a very clear plan on how it would all develop, I did not have answers to people’s most basic questions, like “how long will the women train there?”  I would freeze up and give vague answers like “well, we are still in the experimental stage trying to find a successful formula…”

I did not anticipate also the strain it would have on my family, of course no one could foresee that my daughter would develop a bone cyst that we discovered about 10 days after I signed the lease for the Amal Center, and that would put her on crutches for the next 5 months.  I would never wish it on anyone to undertake a major remodeling job AND have your daughter need emergency surgery and a metal plate inserted.  I felt that I had made an internal promise and engagement to help women who have had lives much more difficult than my own, but ultimately found myself often torn between the responsibility I felt to honor that promise, and the responsibility I felt to honor the more fundamental promises I have towards my husband and children.  My husband is a good and patient man, and I feel like he has been just as responsible for the manifestation of the Amal Center as I or anyone else has.  He works long hours to allow me to follow this weird and inexplicable dream to create, from scratch, a massive institution to empower women.  He supports me in this, and often provides a realistic perspective to counter my “woman’s intuition” approach.  Did I also mention that when you are the president of a non-profit, you don’t get paid.  But you get the cool perk of being the president of something, which is totally worth the blood, sweat and tears (please pick up on the sarcasm).  Just time-wise, the Amal Center needed as much as I could give it, and so did everything else important to me.  Valuable relationships and friendships suffered damage because of this.  My management and communication skills (my least developed skill set) were tested to the extreme.

However as you can see all these sentences are in the PAST tense, not because the Amal Center fell apart, au contraire.   At the most crucial time, deliverance appeared.  Help came in many forms: an experienced board of directors came together (which would have been so valuable from the beginning: don’t work alone is a big lesson learned), volunteers took over chunks of the work (delegate!), and a life-saving grant was awarded to the Amal Center by the Swiss Drosos Foundation (apply for any and all grants, sooner or later someone will believe in what you are doing and want to help!).  All of a sudden, a very skilled and experienced director was hired to run the Amal Center.  Another talented and gracious person came on board to take care of communications, which is basically telling the story of who we are and what we do to many audiences through many mediums. over and over.  Soon we will also have a social worker (!!!) to screen potential trainees and monitor their progress.

Now if you ask me all your trick questions like “how long will the women stay at the Amal Center?” or “how are the women selected?” or “what happens to them afterwards?” I no longer need to bob and weave through them, there are actual solid, well-thought out answers. The women will spend 4 months in training.  The candidates are selected either through our partnerships with other local non-profits, or based on an application and interview process to determine socio-economic need.  Priority is given to mothers who are the primary support of their families (widows, divorced, single mothers) and to women who were child maids.  The women also need to demonstrate a degree of motivation and the desire to enter the job market.  While they are at the Amal Center, the trainees will learn: Moroccan cooking, “Cuisine Internationale” (will show you photos in a bit), baking and pastry-making, waiting tables.  And they will pick one language-based course to study: either Arabic literacy, French or English.  In addition, we are going to be having workshops on what is referred to in the field as “soft skills”, such as life-planning, empowerment, non-violent communication, reproductive help, and this thanks to a working partnership with Search for Common Ground, a Rabat-based international NGO.  Simultaneously, our Amal Center team will be networking with potential employers to facilitate job placement for the women once they graduate from the Amal Center.  Insha Allah!

Right now we are in transition mode full-swing.  The entire team is getting used to the new structure and putting everything in place to ensure that when the new trainees come in, they get a really top-quality training experience.  5 of the women who started out as trainees and made it through some of the rocky transition times are now full-time staff members with work contracts and benefits.  And also we saw that it would be impossible to move forward without a clear leader in the kitchen, so we hired a very capable chef (male, I think that also makes a difference and helps balance dynamics).  On the one hand, we’ve come a long way and are now working with a very clear objective.  On the other hand, I’m impatient to actually get down to the training and job placement!  We have not even gotten to the real work.

And in the meantime, we also have a restaurant to run.  The restaurant has been a huge success (alhamdulilah).  In November (pre-grant) we served an average of 13 people a day.  In December that number went up to 29!  I think January’s going to show even more of an increase.  Friday is by far the busiest day: couscous day!  The number of customers on Friday has been gradually increasing until we broke 100 recently.  Here’s what some of them have to say on tripadvisor  Mostly people love the place/food/social concept (a few people were not feelin the love though).

Speaking of links, the Amal Center is having its (annual?) fundraiser, an effort that is spearheaded by some of our volunteers.  Anyone who wants to be a part of our humble endeavor here in Marrakesh can use this rockehub link  which will be up only until the end of January.

New garden couches:

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Tea time cookies:
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The ceramic teap-cups are part of a donation from a local artisan businessman.  He gave us hundreds of pieces.  Those are the kind of amazing heart connections that happen.
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It tastes like deviled eggs, and salad nicoise.
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This is what I want to eat for every meal:
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A “light snack” for the mothers and toddlers weekly class.

snack

 

Traditional Moroccan cookies:
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Wow. I don’t even know what this is:

raspberry

 

 

 

 

The team that is behind all this amazing yumminess:
team

 

Kitchen looking good:
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And this!  I could also eat this…a lot.  Seafood bastila:
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Again, no idea what any of this is, sigh…
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Cooking lessons happen in a sort of informal way:
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The Amal team had a booth at a local fair, another opportunity for the women to display and sell their goods and mostly to become confident in a rather intimidating setting (a good number of the fair-goers were European).
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And here is that donation link again http://www.rockethub.com/projects/35895-expansion-efforts-for-moroccan-women-s-center-working-to-employ-empower .  If you made it to the end of this post, thank you dear ones near and far for reading first draft material!

 

Death by Chocolate, the Cheesecake Version

 

 

 

 

When you live in Morocco, it’s handy to have a few super powers.  Driving stick shift…is not a super power. It’s a plain old power.  Driving stick shift, during rush hour, behind a mule cart and right up next to a flashy 4×4, a guy trying to sell you box of tissue while the light is red, while tuning out the arguments of 3 or 4 kids (is it pronounced pokemon or pokeman?  No!  It’s not a man, it’s a monster)… is a super power, one that few give credit to.

Another, much less vital super power I’ve discovered I possess is the ability to bake any American dessert with Moroccan ingredients.  I have cracked the code on many classics, such as Chocolate Chip cookies, for which I have sourced actual chocolate chips in both dark, milk and white chocolate (you can only find them in the deep recesses of the medina, at a professional baker supply store).  I’ve also discovered a decent substitute to brown sugar, which is cane sugar (Marjane) mixed with a few spoons of sugar honey (Miel de glucose).  Works like a charm to give that must-have butterscotch flavored chewiness to the cookies.  No need to thank me, frustrated fellow bakers, it’s just what I do.  I find this super power useful when my American friends complain about the food here.  I just say, man up and make it yourself!  If you’re gonna make it around these parts, you better crack the code too.  That’s my PSA for y’all.

One strange thing about my super power is that I can never outpower my sister.   Just when I’ve reached a new level, she’ll show up with like, oh, Cinnamon Rolls from scratch (I’m not gonna write from scratch anymore during this post, because there’s no other way to bake around here).  Funny story about that, once my sister was over and we made brownies.  That day my husband had a guest from the states and we served the brownies for dessert.  The guest said “so you guys brought the box of brownie mix over from the states?”.  And we were like “are you kidding me?”.   There’s like 5 ingredients in brownies, all available from the local store and they take about 10 minutes to mix.  Box mix is for sissies 🙂

That said, there are some things that I like to have from the states.  One is a set of measuring cups, since most American recipes are measured in cups, not grams (there are ways to convert between the two, some websites, don’t get me started).  Anyway, I have my measuring cups.  Another is some good quality vanilla extract.  I like the Trader Joe’s brand that is alchohol-free.   That’s about it, seriously.  2 things.  As far as cooking in general, I like spice mixes like Mrs Dash.  I stock up on those if I get to the states, or my family and friends bring them over.

Everything else I can either make, find or do without.

So, this past Eid, I decided to put a new twist on my Moroccan-made cheesecake.  (My sister did, and since I can’t get ahead of her, I have to at least keep up).  Chocolate Cheesecake!

1.  I think the ingredients speak for themselves here, but just in case not, let me introduce them.  Sable are our Graham Crackers, Carre creme (the squares) is our cream cheese, Perly is our sour cream/yogurt, Nestle is sweetened condensed milk.  That Choco Pasty stuff is dark chocolate, the real kind, don’t go for “Sucre Chocolate” which only has 5% cocoa.  Eggs and butter are, naturally, universal.

2. Put the Sable biscuits in the food processor.  My food processor is about 13 years old.  Every time a new piece breaks of and I think about springing for a new one, I’m like, nah, just superglue it:

3.  Process till they look like sand.  Add about 50-100 grams of melted butter (1/4 to 1/2 cup):

 

 

4. Pat the crust into the pan like so.  It’s classier to just cover the bottom and not try to go up the sides:

5.  Food process the rest: the Kiri, Perly, Nestle, eggs.

 

6.  This is how chocolate looks when you’ve done absolutely nothing to it:

 

7.  Now melt it.  I ended up using 200g, almost the whole pack but not quite.  I wanted it chocolaty enough to overpower the cream cheese, but not so chocolaty that it’s bitter.  This is where you gotta love microwaves.  Sure we don’t know what the long-term effects are… but you make it up in clean dishes!

 

8.  Let the chocolate cool for a minute and blend it into the cream cheese mixture.  I love that this whole recipe take place in the food processor and you hardly have to do any work.  When you pour it over your crust it should look like this and very liquidy:

 

9.  It takes a good hour to cook on low heat.  Once it’s set, don’t let it overcook or it will dry out.  I went ahead and made a lemon cheesecake too.  I was interested to see that they behaved very differently in the oven, the lemon one really puffed up and the chocolate one stayed low.  I realized that the lemon juice I used to flavor the lemon cheesecake actually curdled the milk ingredients and gave a whole other texture, it was grainier.  The chocolate one tasted smooth as mousse.  Of course when I mentioned this to my sister, she’d already encountered the same phenomenon and solved it by using only lemon zest (not juine) to flavor it, and it didn’t curdle.  She’s so Obiwan to my Luke.  Yeah, yeah, we watched Star Wars and now every metaphor or simile is Yoda this, Darth Vader that.  

 

 

10.  Ta da!

11.  My attempts at food styling.  Couldn’t think of anything to top this with except for a blue morning glory.  The teapot is a bit of a show-stealer, all shiny and symbolic of Morocco.  Enjoy and remember, I’m not legally responsible for the 5 pounds you gained while reading this post.  

Eid, Drink, and be Merry

In the weeks leading up to Eid I was in a kind of fog, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that it was Eid again.  Life has been busy and I felt unprepared to shift into this other mode.  Buying a sheep, buying enough supplies to last us through the 10-day souk hiatus that follows Eid, tracking down something bright and happy to wearh (times 5), giving some thought to decorations and presents (again?), making plans to see tribe members (in our case, other than family our tribe is an ever-shifting crew of family-less souls that share our lives at the moment).  But amazingly, we managed to do these things, and they didn’t do us in.  It flowed busily but peacefully into this blessed day.  And I have managed to shift into that other mode, because you just can’t help but emerge into full consciousness at the sacrifice of an animal.  Oh, I remember now what this is all about!  I’m always amazed at how the most powerful spiritual experiences come from pattern interruption.  This Eid reminds me of the ultimate pattern interruption, death, only a breath away.

But as much as I like to ponder symbolism, Eid is no time to daydream.  It’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.  Today I felt like we were a pioneer family, all of us working to do our part.  Even the children were eager to help with the skinning, the gutting, etc.  When I saw my five year old chopping liver with a butcher knife I got this feeling like, yeah, maybe we could survive in the wild after all.  These kids are not squeemish.

A beautiful morning that brings the promise of rain.

I know we had some other kids somewhere…I’ll just have to photoshop them in later.

Veggies on the grill, on Eid?  Psych!

The little assembly line I set up for myself: marinating the liver and wrapping it in fat to make kabobs with.  It sounds awful but it’s such a big hit with the kids.  The fat keeps the liver from drying out on the grill.

He leaves the rest of us no excuse, methinks.

Entertainment for the night, a light saber show.  Feeling the force today.

Preparing for Ramadan 2012

Wow I sort of forgot I had a blog.  It’s less than a month now until Ramadan, and I realize that inshallah this will be my third Ramadan “on the blog” (and maybe 22nd or so Ramadan in real life, alhamdulillah).  Already there is an electric feeling of anticipation, houses to be cleaned (Moroccan no-joke cleaning: wash the walls, wash the carpets…do they still take the stuffing out of the pillows and wash it?), delicious stick-to-your-ribs-straight-to-your-hips shebakia and slilou to be prepared, schedules to be turned completely on their heads (hello 4 a.m. breakfast)…but the deepest preparation is the feeling that my soul stirs and awakens from its hibernation, anxious and yearning another season of nourishment.   Another time when this world slips away of its own accord and we are yet again allowed to experience other possibilities.  There is also a tinge of apprehension, for me personally, and I get this before every Ramadan.  I think, will it be ok?  Will I be able to do this again, now the days are even hotter and longer?  I didn’t ever use to have this fear, then I took some Ramadans off while pregnant and nursing, and it sort of broke my flow.  That fear usually subsides after the first day when I realize, yest this is hard, but so worth it.  The great thing about fasting in a country where everybody fasts is that we all agree to reduce our mutual expectations of each other to bare minimum.  Work dwindles, productivity is not even mentioned, faults are overlooked as being just side effects of the fast.

At the same time we are all busy trying to wrap up the year’s work in time.  The women’s baking project is slowly but surely turning into something wonderful.  We are trying to establish it as a proper women’s cooperative.  The aim is to train and employ women from among the most vulnerable strata of society: poor or even destitute, illiterate, divorced mothers, single mothers, older women who have no one to care for them.  Already the number has grown to 12 women.  We have submitted an application to become a cooperative, and as I understand, it should be *only* six months before the final seal of approval is given.  There are many, many stages to the application, including a phase where a committee actually visits the house of each woman.  In the meantime, we continue to look for a good locale for the restaurant, continue to have training days, continue to chase the paper trail, continue to brainstorm as to the big picture.

It’s all very exciting for me and for the other women.  Things are moving slowly which is good because it has allowed me to process in many stages what it means to invest myself into a project like this.  It’s no longer simple volunteer work, a few hours here and there taking someone to the doctor or time in the kitchen working on a new recipe.  The compassion that spurred me to action is no longer sufficient to carry this project to term.  Now there is a long list of questions the only seems to grow.  Will the cooperative model work with women who come from such intensely needy backgrounds?  These women are not used to a democratic structure, will they even want that, or do they prefer to have a boss who runs a tight ship.  I really want the core spirit to come from them, not from me.  Together some of us visited an embroidery cooperative called Al Kawthar, for handicapped women.  It’s a beautiful space deep in the old city, a nice light-filled workshop with large windows, very well organized with shelves of different colored threads.  There are 40 women in the cooperative, with about 7 of them forming the board.  They were very gracious in talking to us, showing us their business structure, talking to our women about how they run their coop.  It was enlightening.

So, all in due time.  If we could only find a space…that’s the piece that’s driving me crazy.  There are places that are too busy and crazy, and other places that are way to quiet and remote, so hard to find a decent place that strikes a medium.  My ideal space would have a garden and a few indoor rooms to set up in simple Moroccan decor.  Like the bottom floor of a small villa, nothing fancy, somewhere in the Gueliz/Asif/Isil/Daoudiate areas.  I’ve also looked at cafe spaces, apartments, etc.   If you happen to have any leads for us, please pass them on.

In the meantime, it’s summer, the crops are in, the roses are blooming, the kids are swimming, the heat’s a-blazing, and here we are blessed to see it all.

From my mother’s garden:

Mother’s roses and painting:

The one who is almost 5:

There are never enough pics of roses:

Dyed in the wool, using Koolaid.  Done by crafty Karima and her grandmother.

Meanwhile in the kitchen, the ladies were taught to make warqa, that papery thin dough used in so many Moroccan goodies.  Barely there:

Can you see it?  Can you imagine making hundreds of these?:

Peeling them off so carefully:

Cutting them into strips, filling with an almond center, and wrapping them into triangular briwat:

For most this was the first time making these labor intensive sweets:

She stood and deep fried them for hours:

Then dipped them in a syrup made from…coca cola:

Crispy, syrupy, almondy goodness!

The Best Moroccan Food You’ll Never Eat (in a Restaurant)

Moroccan food has to be homecooked.  For the most part, and tajine joints aside, restaurants around here just don’t do it right, which explains the fact that Moroccans rarely order their own national food when dining out.  Instead they seem to have picked Italian food, or a version of it, as the national eat-out food.  Pizzas, paninis, pasta are standard fare in many popular eateries.  It makes sense, most people want a break from what they eat at home, something that is not spiced with cumin, ginger and paprika for a change, something you don’t sop up with bread.

Visitors to Morocco may surmise, from eating at restaurants that serve Moroccan food, that we Moroccans survive on a steady rotation of three different meals: Chicken Tajine with Preserved Lemons, Beef Tajine with Prunes, and Couscous (on Friday).  I don’t know how those three dishes became our national culinary representatives and ambassadors, given the variety of other superlative candidates.

Take for example, in no particular order:

1-Chicken Bastila:

This dish has it all, chicken stewed in saffron and spices then cleaned off the bone, eggs, almonds that have been peeled, deep fried and ground with cinnamon, sugar and rosewater, all wrapped in crunchy, buttery paper thin layered dough.  It’s sweet, it’s savory, it’s soft, it’s crunchy.  I could eat this every day.  Realistically Moroccans will only eat this on a special occasion.

The downside is that it’s pricey and time-consuming.  Not to mention the calories.

2-Fish Bastila:

For a long time I was a Chicken Bastila purist, until I finally got over my seafood phobia (someone once told me to be really careful when eating sardines, or the little bones would get stuck in my throat.  I did not eat fish again til I was an adult).  Even so this bastila is not super fishy tasting, it’s stuffed with shrimp, calamar and cubed white fish cooked with vermicelli and mushrooms.

3-Herbel: it’s like oatmeal, only good.  Moroccans eat this on Eid morning as a special breakfast.  It’s cracked wheat boiled for hours until it softens, then you add condensed milk and butter.  Some take it salty and others add honey.  It’s very satisfying and addictive.  Carbalicious.

Before:

After: creamy and delicious.  Even the Gerber baby approves.

4-My go-to Chicken and Rice recipe

You’re not likely to have this dish in anyone’s home, much less a restaurant.  The reason?  I got this recipe from my sister, who I believe got it from the Moroccan TV chef Choumisha.  Since then it’s always come through for me (although I have a tendency to forget about it for months on end, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment every time I remember that I know how to make this).    It’s distinctly Moroccan, yet the rice sets it apart from most Moroccan dishes.   No bread!  I don’t even know if my sister still makes this (do you sis?).  If not I may be the only person in Morocco who presents this on a regular basis.  And now I humbly pass it on to you.

You start with some old old North African standbys: garlic and onion, parsley and coriander, preserved lemon and sliced olives, turmeric, paprika, ginger and yellow stuff.  A tea glass full of half olive oil, half regular.  It makes this kind of salad that looks pretty remarkable as is.

But then you mix it with cooked rice, and use it a stuffing for chicken.  The juice from the chicken runs down and cooks into the rice.  I make plenty of the rice because that’s usually the best part.  There’s crunchy part.   If you come over to my house, I will probably serve you this (if I remember that I know how to make it).

5-The Big Salad

Every Moroccan family has their own version of the big salad.  It’s great especially in this weather (guess how hot it is here).  You just keep piling stuff on until voila, it’s a meal.  My favorite versions include corn, boiled eggs, cheese, avocado.

You know, I am also writing a post about homeschooling.  It’s a lot of work (the writing that is.  The homeschooling is a whole other ball of wax).  I don’t exactly know what I think about it, but writing is helping me sort that out.  Some blog topics are a lot of work, so we end up with post after post about food and pictures.  Fun, light, safe.  To do it justice I’m going to have to write about homeschooling in installments, complete with flashbacks to my own school days, psychological forays into what motherhood means to me, issues of identity and belonging (mine and my kids’), and how my husband saved me from near breakdown.  There’s a good book’s worth of material right there.  Stay tuned…

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.

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.