Ramadan reports, recaps and realizations

It’s been so long since I last posted that wordpress has totally changed their interface…have not even “checked my stats” in about 3 months, which if you’re a fellow blogger, you know how obsessive that can get.  I feel both flattered and kind of guilty that an average of 250 people visit my blog daily to find…nothing but a 3 month old post about the Amal center.  Well, you can all blame the Amal center for the complete lack of novelty on this blog.

Where should I even begin?  A few updates are in order.  The thing I am most thankful for in the span of the last 3 months is that, after a gruelling 5 month stint on crutches (bone cyst surgery), my daughter Karima finally got to walk unassisted, just a few weeks before her 11th birthday.  She journeyed very deeply into the world of disability, and just as she was starting to identify with that world, by God’s loving grace she came back again,  The layers are still falling off, as she adjusts to her body, which she has been afraid to harm, as she adjusts to being part bionic girl…as she receives permission from her doctor to do anything she likes.  Can I kneel in prayer?  She asks him.  Yes, by all means.  Welcome back baby girl.

And there is the Amal Center.  Such a rich theater to observe the human character.  Every day some new dynamic to learn and be aware of.  The women there, although they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have a very rich and complex culture and belief system.  It’s an intricate weaving of spiritual and cultural threads, sometimes hard to pick out one from another.  One thing is certain, their belief in God and His infinite mercy, and their complete acceptance of His decree is where everything they do emanates from.  Everything starts from that belief and returns to it.

Other times their beliefs border on superstition, for example, if someone comes to work in the kitchen, and right after that the Amal center receives a lot of customers, the ladies say that that person has “hot heels” meaning that a lot of people where hot on her heels.  The opposite is true as well, if a person comes to the kitchen and all of a sudden, there’s no sign of customers, that person has “cold heels”.  Everything is measured in terms of this increase or decrease of “baraka”, the blessing that emanates from the Divine.

And the ladies are fun to be with.  There is one lady there who would like very much to get married, and is getting to that age where no one asks your age anymore for fear of offending you.  She’s not shy about the fact that she’s getting into old maid territory, she’s boisterous and loud and jokes about it all the time.  At the beginning of Ramadan, she looks around at us and says:

“Here’s my prayer for this Ramadan, she lifts up her hands in supplication and tells us, everyone, put your hands up with me.  Oh Lord, I’m asking You, please, this Ramadan, send me someone who needs a woman to cook him harira soup every night.”

And everyone says “Amen!  Dear Lord please don’t let her down”.   So if you all out there are making any prayers this month, remember that in Marrakesh, in the Amal Center, one lady would really love to marry a good man and what’s more she will cook him some great soup.

Once we started getting customers at the Amal center, a lot of the customers turned into regulars.  It’s been really interesting to watch that community take root.  A few of the regulars would come almost every day, alone, but hoping to strike up some friendly conversation, and they would find the other regulars and sit there together for hours over a chicken tajine.  One lady we called “vegetarian briouate” because that’s what she ordered every single time.   Other people always came in small groups, so we have the “bankers”, the “call center folks”, the “university professors” and for some reason, lots and lots of doctors and medical professionals.  My husband said, “It sounds like Cheers over there”.

One day a couple of eye doctors came in, and after their meal, one of them generously offered free eye exams to any of the ladies working at the Amal center.  I said, joking, “That’s great because there’s just one blind girl after the other in that kitchen”.  And then the other eye doctor said,”May there be many, many blind people cause they are our bread and butter”.  I always suspected that that’s how doctors thought, just never heard it stated so bluntly.  Then one day a dentist starts to come to have lunch at the Amal center, and those ladies, if there’s anything worse than their eyes it’s their teeth.   They were obviously excited that the dentist might offer them some care at a reduced rate, since dentist work is not affordable to them.  When the waitress came back to the kitchen after serving him, they asked her “So?  Did you smile at him a bunch so he can see how bad your teeth are?”  and she said “I smiled til I scared the daylights out of him,  My teeth are so bad he couldn’t even look at them”.  Unfortunately they did not get any offers for dental care yet.

There was one moment that wasy very significant to me.  We needed business cards, and so I’d gone to get some made at the printers.  I tried to come up with a few words that would sum up the two “wings” if you will, of the Amal Center.  One being great home-cooked Moroccan food, and the other being the social aspect of helping women.  So I chose the words “Amal Center for Culinary Arts in benefit of Marginalized Women” (in French and Arabic).  I felt pretty pleased with myself, showing up with 1000 business cards printed up and ready to hand out to customers.  I gave some to the women…then about half an hour later, they came to me and said “Nora we have to say something but please don’t be offended.  We read the cards and we don’t like the word “marginalized”.  We feel like people will think that we are ladies coming off the streets, that we had gone astray or something.  None of us want to be referred to that way”.  I was stunned.  And embarassed.  Because for once the two worlds that I was operating in finally overlapped…on the one hand, I am working with these women every day, I know who they are very well.  On the other hand, I’ve taken it upon myself to be a spokesperson for them to a world that they don’t have access to, in languages they don’t speak.  And I realized how careful I need to be in checking with them how they want to be represented.

I’m sorry to say that in the end, because it was convenient, we used those cards anyway, then got another batch that says “women in need” instead of “marginalized women”.  That’s the wording that they all approved.  The word marginalized sparked A LOT of debate.  Customers came to us with suggestions for other wording.  One woman, upon hearing about the women’s resistance to the term, asked them :

“Did you have an education?”

“No”

“Do you have health care?”

“No”

“Do you have any social security?”

“No”

“Do you have enough money to meet your basic needs?”

“No”

“Well, let me just say that you ARE marginalized.  You are not enjoying your full rights as a citizen, and that is the point of you being here, to change that!”

The reason I am speaking about all this in the past tense is that since Ramadan started, obviously the whole lunch scene died down.  Then the Amal center will close for August.

With Ramadan coming 11 days earlier every year, this year we started fasting on July 9th.  Started out in Marrakesh with some 110 degree weather (45 C).  That means we are dealing with two things, the fast, which is physically challenging but not as challenging as people who aren’t fasting perceive it to be.  Then there is the heat, which, even without fasting, is incredibly exhausting and makes normal activity really slow and difficult.  So what do people do?  They settle in to survive the long haul.  They alter their schedules in whatever way possible to make the fast doable.  Obviously the builders across the street aren’t going to work their usual shift of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.  They defer to common sense and have two possible shifts: from 4 a.m. to about 11 a.m. or they start right after the sunset meal and go until the crack of dawn.  It’s busy all night around here.  Not to mention the various calls to prayer in the early morning…one to gently awaken people, remind them to eat a little something…one to announce the first thread of light, stop eating and go to prayers…the different readings of quran reaching us from neighborhood mosques at all hours of the night.  That’s the real Marrakesh night life.

I read a few teaching stories about the benefit of fasting in the extreme heat.  One of them was about Aisha, the prophet Muhammad’s wife, who would choose to fast voluntarily on some of the hottest days.  When she was asked why, she said “When the price is cheap, there are a lot of buyers”.  I love that.  I have to admit that I have always “bought when the price is cheap”, i.e. when the days are short and cool, I will fast any days that I missed from Ramadan or any voluntary days.  But experiencing this fast in the long, hot days and knowing its worth is amazing.  There’s no breezing through this.  There is only surrender to it and the hope that this is door to God.

One realization came to me during the first few days, when I was both hungry and thirsty and kind of weak, not much energy and it was playing on my mood and making me feel kind of down…then I thought, there are people for whom this state is everyday reality, there is no feast at the end of the day.  At that point all I could do was weep.

This difficult fast, it breaks me appart from the cocoon of comfort that I surround myself with and never question.  The cocoon where every small whisper of hunger is immediately shushed, every pull and taughtness of thirst is immediately eased.  Where the illusion of MY strength, MY doing in this world remains unchallenged.  It’s such a welcome upheaval.  There’s no more wonderful thing I’d rather do in the company of a whole country and a whole portion of the world right now than partake in this collective subduing of the ego.

And I’m thrilled that this is the third or fourth year in a row that I can share of little of Ramadan on this blog.  Each year a little different, and I am blessed that this blog allows me to reflect on the flavor of each Ramadan (so to speak).

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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.

Farewell Ramadan

Ramadan has left us for another year…so sad to see it go, although it was a tough one.  For all of us in Marrakesh, having day upon day of intense heat, hardly ever dipping under 45 degrees, well let’s just say it was a Ramadan to separate the men from the boys.  When we go outside in that heat, simply breathing becomes a laborious task, struggling to draw a breath like one struggles to draw water from a well.  It made most of us do as little as possible.  And that is hard too.  Not only do you give up your food and your water, but also your sense of pride in any accomplishment.  I barely walked this Ramadan, let alone worked out.  I had high hopes of reorganizing parts of my home, re-stacking the books in the bookshelf, clearing out the little storage room, but had to just let all that go. It was a “being” month, not a “doing” month.  I’d never thought of Ramadan that way, but this one took me to a new place, a difficult place.

With Ramadan coming 11 days earlier every year, I’ve fasted short days in winter, cool fall days where we all say to each other “I don’t feel thirsty or hungry at all, it’s like I’m barely fasting”, and more recently, the relentless summer heat.  Whereas Ramadans before this were like a cool stream running over me, cleansing and calming, this one was like being in the pounding surf, with nothing to do but hold on.  And yet, this Ramadan had the most potential for transformation.  When else do we get a chance for everything in our life and world to change?  When else do we get a chance to explore our limitations in such a painfully real way?  Our city, Marrakesh, had record high temperatures this year, and yet the feeling of all of us fasting together made it all the more wonderful.  When you go out, you see people with wet towels on their heads, you see someone with a hose offering the service of drenching anyone who needs it, you read it in people’s faces.  There is such a feeling of camaraderie under these circumstances of duress.    It’s not the month of spiritual devotion I imagined for myself, the heat made it difficult to do as many prayers and reading of the Quran as I’d hoped, and yet I found goodness and blessing in the intensity of it, the bending of my every desire and hope into this giving up and letting go.

Ramadan is a month where Muslims are content to be fully Muslims.  We are reminded everywhere of our aspirations towards God; charity increases, mosques overflow with worshipers, even the radio stations start to play devotional music of all kinds: Berber, Gnawa, Andalusian, Nasheed.  The instruments and melodies vary greatly, but the words don’t, “La ilaha illa Allah… Mohamed habibullah… There is no god but God…Muhammad is a beloved of God”.

When I am fasting my thought process slows down, although often my thoughts are clearer and deeper.  But I become incapable of multi-tasking, especially right around the time of breaking fast.  One day my husband and I broke our fast with a date and water, and then went inside a mosque to pray the sunset prayer (maghrib).  As I was praying I became aware that my purse was not by my side.  As soon as the prayer ended, I started to look for it, and realized that I had taken off my shoes at the door, but instead of leaving my shoes on the doorstep and taking my purse inside, I’d done the opposite.  Of course, I don’t expect anyone to steal my purse from a mosque doorstep in Ramadan, yet I was relieved to see it there, because I had stashed both my husband’s wallet and my own, our phones and the keys to the car in it.  Honestly…

As I said before, I don’t feel like I “did” enough this Ramadan, but still I hung my hopes on the saying “A moment of sincerity can purify the heart” or something to that effect.  Luckily I wasn’t left to my own devices in this respect.  So blessed that in Marrakesh people really turn out for Laylat al Qadr, the Night of Power, which is the best night of Ramadan, maybe of the whole year.  This is the night when Archangel Gabriel spoke the first words of the blessed Quran to Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.  The Quran says that prayer during this night is better than a thousand months of worship.  We don’t know when this night is exactly, only that it’s one of the last ten nights of Ramadan.  The only real way to know is to sense it, and to stay in a quiet enough state that if it were that night, you could feel something different and special about it.

In Moroccan Islamic culture, most people generally accept the 27th night as Laylat al Qadr, and so it’s celebrated with special food and whatnot, which I don’t particularly care about¸ because really, it’s a night for prayer and I don’t care if I’m eating couscous or beldi chicken or whatever.  If you must know, I made lasagna that night and I can assure you that’s not traditional Moroccan.  What’s really great about that night is that the mosques don’t stop prayers all night long.  So it wasn’t that unusual that a friend of mine picked us up, me and my daughter, at 1:30 a.m. and we headed for the Koutoubia mosque, where we joined a good 50 000 people in prayer.  Every mosque was the same, full inside and out onto the streets, all night long.

The prayers were beautiful, as they always are there, and ended in a long, soulful supplication.  Among the words that stayed with me are these: “oh Lord here we are, among us are young and old, male and female, healthy and sick, obedient and transgressors, have mercy on us all…Don’t deny hands that are outstretched to You in supplication, don’t deny hearts that yearn for You”.  (Now I wish I had recorded it somehow to share with others that weren’t there but wanted to hear it).  At one point the Imam breaks down in tears and can barely speak, and I think, here is someone who has spent all of Ramadan leading thousands of people in prayer both at night and before dawn, he has spent his entire Ramadan in an amazing state, and here he is in tears imploring God to have mercy on his soul.  And what of me?  And that was the moment I had waited for all of Ramadan, the breaking point.  And I think that’s all I can say about that because my words aren’t sufficient.

And lastly, I’d like to thank all the new readers of this blog.  During Ramadan I had the honor of having this blog appear on the WordPress.com homepage.  This is referred to, among wordpress bloggers, as being “Freshly Pressed”: for a fleeting 24 hours or so, the blog is viewed by potentially thousands of other bloggers.  A lot of you “liked” the last post, commented on it and subscribed as new readers, and all I can say is, I’m humbled that you would take the time to read this blog.  On the internet, words are seemingly endless, and our time is limited, so I’m honored that you’d use precious minutes reading what I have to say.  I can only promise you that my intention is to bring sincerity and beauty to these pages.  And as a happy coincidence, one of my good friends and favorite bloggers got Freshly Pressed at the same time!  (It’s pretty rare to be FP, out of a good 400 000 blogs, only a handful are chosen, so it was doubly thrilling that it happened to both of us at the same time).  Her blog is called http://towardbeginnersmind.wordpress.com and she writes amazingly well.  Here she wrote about how the weather is changing irreversibly in her hometown, but does so in a very human, passionate and skilled way.  It struck a chord with me because we are both from hot, dry places and the trend is that they will continue to get hotter and drier.  Marrakesh certainly saw some record highs this summer (49C/ 122F).  Will this reverse the tide of people who are making Marrakesh their home?

Speaking of making Marrakesh your home, I was bemused to see that this article http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20120723-living-in-marrakesh/2 about moving to Marrakesh had linked to my blog as an additional reference.  Thank you, it’s nice to feel connected to others via my writing in this way.  Some of the article is devoted to buying land in Marrakesh¸ which is not something we have done, so sorry, I won’t be offering any help with that.  But I got a great idea for a BBC show: our family is given 100 000 pounds and tasked with buying land in Marrakesh…it’ll be quirky and human…will we buy land in the Ourika valley, the Palmeraie, the Medina?  Will we buy land and build on it, or restore an old ryad?  It will be so enlightening for viewers who have the same dilemma.   Where is best to raise kids?  What is land really worth in Marrakesh?  Don’t tell me you wouldn’t enjoy watching that show!

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!

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!

Beirut

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Southern Gem

Our family of five recently took a vacation down to the south of Morocco, Agadir and the region called Souss.  It was special to be together and discover parts of Morocco we hadn’t seen before.  The kids are now at a great travelling age so there may be more and more travelling in Morocco posts on here, insha Allah.

There were a lot of gems on the trip, but as I was going through my photos this set jumped out at me.  It’s the tomb of a woman called Lalla T’ezza Semlalia.  We just came upon this in the middle of a pretty remote, deserted stretch of highway 2-lane road, and I was immediately drawn to the fact that such good care had been taken of this tomb.  In fact there is a  very large, lushly ornate mosque there that serves as a traditional center of Islamic learning.  I was heartened (in the very literal sense of the term) to see that this sort of center does indeed exist in Morocco.  We were told that anyone who wants to study intensively is welcome and will be given food and a blanket.

The Souss region is largely arid, mountainous, empty and open.  It’s gets more and more desert as you go south.  The Islam there is very traditional and strong, and seeing this tomb/mosque/school complex I got a feel for why this region produces many fine scholars.

What a jewel in the rough, no?

I’ve never seen anything quite like this, certainly not in the countryside.  A beautiful place to remember God and ask Him for a measure of virtue, mercy and nearness to Him, as He granted this woman.

The Arabic inscription on her tomb and also on the wall reads “every soul shall taste death”.  Although some may not choose to dwell on death, I appreciate any reminder, as one of my main goals in this life is to work towards what is called “husn al-khatima”, a good ending.

And then there was the mosque, with a large prayer hall inside and a very nice school and dormitory.

The serene interior, quiet now between prayer times.

I don’t know anything about Lalla T’ezza Semlalia, and didn’t manage to find anyone to ask in our short visit.  I’d be thrilled if someone who read this blog actually knows a story or two or about her.  Please share!