You know you live in Morocco when…

…you preface every business or casual meeting by listing all the possible ways you are related to the person you’re meeting with.

…this text message makes total sense to you “ba9i 3andi shi7aja”.   And forget about google translating it.

…you get in the right-hand lane to turn left.  It’s a wide turn.

…you don’t see flies as disease-carrying yucky germy varmints, rather as moderately annoying household companions, like puppies or toddlers.

…bread + x = a meal    {exceptions: couscous}

courant d’air (cross-breeze) is your biggest mortal enemy.  Window open + door open = pneumonia + imminent death.

…you buy your car kleenex from the guys at the red light.

…when someone hints at having a “coffee”, you’re not sure if they’re referring to an actual cup of java or to a bribe.  Awkward.

…you finally realize that there’s never a bad time to tip.  The guy who pumps your gas, the lady who mops the public bathrooms, the boy who delivers a gas bottle to your home.  When in doubt, err on the side of tipping.

…you alternate between feeling really sorry and awful for the street beggars and  feeling invaded and used by them.

…you have a room in your home called a salon, it’s your nicest room and it’s for guests only.

…you learn cursive in kindergarten.  During the French half of the day.  And Arabic alphabet during the other half.

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

This year Ramadan runs from about July 20th to August 19th, so right in the middle of summer holidays.  Marrakesh is usually bursting with tourists at this time of year, despite the scorching heat.  I have seen groups of sunburned, dazed and confused looking tourists walking around, probably not too sure about what’s going on, except that Macdonalds seems to be the only restaurant open for lunch.

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

What’s going on is that everyone is fasting from 4 a.m. to 7:35 p.m.  and that each individual is in a somewhat different state, and the whole country has collectively shifted gears.  I can only imagine what it must be like to experience this as an outsider, but I’ve tried to put together some points here that might help you make sense of it.

1-Don’t pity us.  Yes, I know it’s 47 C outside here in Marrakesh (that’s 118 F)  and you can about boil a pot of that famous mint tea on the sidewalk.  I know that this Ramadan has the longest daylight hours in the last 33 years.  It sure must seem like we are suffering terribly.  But here’s the thing: we like to fast.  We look forward to this all year long.  It’s like a beloved is returning to us.  My dear non-Muslim friends, I appreciate your sympathy.  “It must be really hard” you tell me.  And it is.  You apologize to me, wishing you could offer me a glass of water.  And I thank you sincerely.  But I wouldn’t trade a moment of this in for anything.  No need to apologize, I’ll drink that water later, for darn sure.  But right now I am emptying out, disengaging, and so is this whole country, all for a chance to come a little closer to the awesome and mysterious Divine.

2-Don’t call the ambulance just yet.  It’s not dangerous to fast.  Ok for some people it is, and they shouldn’t be fasting.  In Morocco diabetes is of epidemic proportions, so on average there is at least one person per family not fasting.  Pregnant or nursing women are excused from fasting.  But you’d never know that a good 10-20 percent of people aren’t fasting, because Muslims would feel weird eating in public.  For the rest of population, those blessed with good health, I’ve never heard of any risk or danger from fasting.  It does mean downing water all night long though.

3-Don’t feel like you’re torturing me by eating in front of me.  It’s really ok.  Go ahead, drink that glass of water.  No, I’m not drooling over you salad.  Fact is I’m around food a lot during the day.  The kids still need their breakfast, snack, lunch, snack and all that.  What I’ve noticed thought is that when I’m fasting, food is like dead to me.  I’m just in the zone.  I’m not attracted to it in the least, don’t crave or obsess over it as I do when I’m not fasting.  And I think this applies to most people.  So when I see non-Muslims eating during the day, it’s not a big deal for me.  The general rule is you don’t have to hide it, but you shouldn’t flaunt it either.  Seeing tourists sitting in restaurants eating lunch doesn’t bother anyone, but seeing someone walk down the street chugging an ice cold Pepsi, ouch, that does hurt a little.

4-Do try to get invited for ftour.  That would be of course the breaking fast meal around 7:40 p.m.  It’s such a family oriented event in Morocco, and there is always much care and love put into food preparation.  Moroccans eat a small meal at break fast and another dinner later on.  The ftour is almost the same for the whole country, dates and water, some kind of soup either harira or barley, boiled eggs with cumin, chebbakia and slilou which are some complicated sweets that I won’t bother describing, and a smoothie like avocado and milk and sugar.  It’s a shared ritual for sure.  If you want to have a very Moroccan experience this is definitely it.

Gathered for the ftour meal

5-Don’t smoke in public.  Yeah I’d put more emphasis on this one than on not eating/drinking, for several reasons.  One is that there are smokers all around you who are in some state of nicotine withdrawal and that’s more intense than mere food deprivation.  Two is that the actual smoke can break people’s fast.  Of all the cranky fasters, I’d say the deprived smokers can be the worst, so bad in fact that there is a specific term used to describe a smoker who is losing it during Ramadan “maqtou3”, literally “cut off”.  A blanket term used to explain the occasional flaring of tempers in the late afternoon.

6-Do appreciate the silence.  That last 30 minutes before the call to prayer that marks sundown.  The streets start to empty save for those last minute crazy drivers who know that traffic laws are not in effect at sunset. Then after the call to prayer, it’s a ghost town.  Not a soul is out and about.  In Marrakesh, a city of 1 million, there’s no other time where you could literally run down the street with your eyes closed and not get run over by anything.   Not by a bus, truck, taxi, horse-drawn carriage, mule cart, donkey, moped, bike or walker!  It adds to that special Ramadan “expect the unexpected” feeling.  One minute the streets are teeming with last minute shoppers buying baghrir, jben or avocados  for ftour, the next minute it’s like that dream where you are the last person on earth.  Savor the moment.

7-Don’t expect much.  In the daytime that is.  With the fasting day being 16 hours long, and it being August vacay mode, believe me there is no impetus for waking up early.  In our family we wake up between 9 and 10 a.m. and if you go out it’s like it’s dawn and you’re the early bird.  The shops around here don’t throw open their blinds til 11 or 12.  Cause they plan to open all day, close for ftour, and re-open at night.  As afternoon rolls by, you can expect some blank stares, people can just start to get spaced out.  Chapped lips, bad breath.  Crankiness.  Be compassionate.  Know that the fast is different for each person, they may be having a particularly difficult day.  Love them anyway.

8-Don’t be alarmed if you hear the canons roar.  The pirates are not attacking the coasts.  The city fires off canons to to mark the start and end of each fasting day, in case any doubt remained.  Some neighborhoods have air raid sirens that go off to mark the fast.  Where I live now I can only hear the canons.  This way even those who live far from a mosque can still know it’s time to break fast.

9-Do shake your head at the irony of it all.  Ramadan is a time of giving up food and drink for a certain time, but ironically we Moroccans consume a lot more food than usual.   There are always the special reports from the Ministry of Agriculture assuring everyone that there will be enough eggs and chickpeas to meet “the increase in demand”.   The shops totally cater to the frenzy as well.  This year maybe the heat slowed people down a little.  I do try to make the ftour meal special, but ours has lots of juice, fruit and salad.  Hard to resist this:

10-Do enjoy the nights.  Because in Ramadan, the nights are the real days.  There are night prayers in every major mosque that start about an hour after sunset and last for an hour and a half.  For Muslims, these prayers are the other half of the Ramadan equation.  After the emptying out all day, this is the replenishing.  I was interested to see a long line of tourists sitting near the Koutoubia mosque, enjoying the night breeze and watching the night prayers that are held in the open courtyard outside the mosque.  The courtyard fills with some 5000 people who stand, sit and prostrate as the imam recites passages from the Quran.  This is probably the most public prayer conducted year round so I can see why people would want to see what it’s like.  After the prayers, the streets, cafes and shops come to life all over again, and it’s a light, almost giddy feel.  After the inward breath and contraction of the day, this is the great expanse again.

Thousands of women in prayer at the Koutoubia mosque

For more advice on Moroccan culture and etiquette I recommend the book:
Cultureshock! Morocco (Cultureshock Morocco: A Survival Guide to Customs & Etiquette)

I wrote about Ramadan last year here.  Ramadan Mubarak!

Ode to the hadga

Ramadan is already a quarter over.  In Morocco, Ramadan is known as a time for, among other things, putting extra care into food preparation.  This post is an ode to the women who work in the kitchen all year around and go the extra mile in Ramadan, the hadga’s.  What is a hadga?  She’s a hardworking, thrifty, creative, resourceful woman whose work stands testament to her character.  The triumvirate she rules by is cleanliness, thrift and nourishment.  Here are a few ways to recognize a hadga…maybe you know one…maybe you are one…

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

I’m sorry to say that I’m most likely not a hadga. It doesn’t come naturally to me, I haven’t seen and lived enough of it to be it. It takes a lot of exposure to, and infusion from other hadgas, grandmothers, aunts…It takes a village and all that.  But I’ve personally witnessed every single one of these instances (and the list is only a thin-slice, by no means exhaustive.  Just when I think I’ve seen it all, I’m exposed to something else that leaves me in awe).  Chances are if you live in Morocco or have spent time here, you know what I’m talking about here.  What else can you add to the list?

 

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!

Natural highlights with henna and spices

A few months ago my daughter begged me to put henna in her hair.  Not just henna, but the full works, a mysterious blend of herbs and spices that strengthens hair and leaves it a coppery hue.  Our friend Lalla Khadija is one of those people who knows what to buy and how to use it.  She has her own family henna recipe and helped us purchase the right ingredients from a spice shop down near Jema el Fna.  I love the way that Moroccan women view such indulgences as henna, the hammam, and natural beauty remedies as necessities rather than luxuries.  That’s just how they roll.

This hair henna recipe contains 4 major components: the spice mix shown below, a red mineral called “lakar el fassi”, about half a gram of saffron, and of course freshly ground henna.

Can you spot dried roses, pomegranate peel, cinnamon sticks, lavender and cloves? These ingredients help darken the henna effect and scent the hair.

Boil it in water until, as Karima says, it looks like eyeballs. It smells so good though, edibly good.

This is "lakar el fassi" (translation: lipstick from Fez). I think it's pulling the real weight here, as far as color longevity.

When we added "lakar el fassi" to water it turned bright reddish orange. We also added about half a gram of saffron. See the cool gold flecks from the mineral?

We strained the "eyeball" mixture keeping only the nice burgundy colored water, added "lakar el fassi" and saffron brew, then stirred in the ground henna. It got too messy after this to document...

But what we got is a bright red goo, like clay in texture, that I smeared all over K’s hair.  It took a while, it was messy, we survived.  She kept it in for an hour then rinsed (also messy).  Her hair is normally dark brown, but it turned dark orangey red.  She was kind of shocked in the beginning, but after that wore off she grew into the look.  We’ve all been there, right ladies?  That’s just what we do.

Beware, henna does dry out hair, so if you already have frizz going on it’s not a good match.  It also has a strong smell…the rose petals and lavender help but the henna has a very distinct smell.

Voila. Natural highlights that have lasted for months, much longer than expected.

 

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.

Entering the Hammam is Not Like Leaving it, and Other Moroccan Proverbs

Moroccan derija (Arabic dialect) is very rich in proverbs, adages, sayings, idioms, etc. (wait, don’t all those words mean the same thing?)  Moroccan speech itself is formulaic, with specific greetings and responses exchanged depending on the situation.  To a sick person you say: may there be no harm (mai koon bas), the response being:  may God never show you harm  (lehla iwarreek bas).  Since I grew up in an American home in Morocco, I didn’t have all these “calls and responses” memorized, or internalized, till, well, last week actually.  It’s very awkward to come up blank in response to one of the greetings.  Shukran just doesn’t cut it.  You just have to be a quick study and add these  to your repertoire as you hear them.

Then there are proverbs.  Not quite of the same dire importance as the greetings, but they do add a layer of richness to the conversation.  Usually one person will say the first few words, and the other person will finish.  For example:

Safia:  “The best speech…”

Nora:  “..is concise and meaningful!”

(khairul kalami ma qalla wa dalla).  So now that I’ve memorized every last one of the greetings (not), I’ve moved on to proverbs.   Each proverb is a thin-slice of the culture.   Every time I hear a new one, I learn a little something new about Morocco, a tiny intricacy.

Some proverbs are funny, some are deep.  In fact, those two traits characterize Moroccans and especially Marrakshis.  Living here you quickly come to appreciate these two qualities.  Life’s pills are swallowed with a dose of humor and a measure of grace.

Of course, things like humor and widom-teachings don’t really translate, but translation brings us a step closer to some kind of understanding.  So here goes.

Entering the hammam is not like leaving it.  dkhoul el7ammam mashi b7al khroujou.

When you go into the hammam, it’s all good and dandy, but when you leave, it’s time to pay.  I’d like to add, you’re a whole lot cleaner too.  I’d also like to add that technically, you pay when you go into the hammam.  But you get the idea.  You’d be surprised at how many situations this saying is appropriate for.  English equivalent: It’s time to pay the piper.

The person with no cares, well, his donkey will give birth to a care.  lli ma 3andou hammou, twaldou lih 7martou.

For the person who can’t leave well enough alone.  English equiv.:  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Don’t go looking for trouble, or trouble will come looking for you.

One hand can’t clap.  yedd wa7da makat sefaqsh.

We all know this one: it takes two to tango.

The neighbor, then the house.  al jar thumma ddar.

When choosing a home, find good neighbors first.  An Islamic teaching says: take care of your neighbors and that means 40 houses in either direction!  I love neighborhoods where being a good neighbor is still valued and implemented.   When we lived in the old city (medina of Marrakesh), I felt like there was definitely more of that.  Once when I was pregnant, I casually asked my neighbor how she makes the Moroccan pancakes beghrir.  Well, me being pregnant + her being a good neighbor = she showed up with the pancakes about an hour later!  This is also the same neighbor who, when I casually asked her how to cook the two free-range chickens I had just bought, didn’t hesitate for a minute.  She came in, rolled up her sleeves and started washing the chickens (shudder…cleaning chicken makes you the boss of everyone in my book), then proceeded to make the most awesome chicken tajine, like it was no big deal.  From then on, I “casually” asked her about lots of things!

I compare you to who I see you with.  M3amen sheftek, m3amen shebbehtek.

It underscores the importance of keeping good company.  One of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad is (my own loose translation) A person is on the same path as his or her closest friend, so consider who your closest friends are.  English equivalent: Birds of a feather flock together (this is the closest I could get).

Last one, my favorite.

The one who serves a people is their master.  khadimu qawmin sayyiduhum.

This saying comes from the principle that things are often concealed in their opposites.  The one who is humble, who serves neither expecting nor desiring praise or benefit from others, who has a pure intention, is in reality the highest of the high.  Conversely, the one who grasps at power and glory, who desires that people think highly of him or her is in reality enslaved to his or her ego.

Now it’s your turn: add to this list of Moroccan proverbs, or share a proverb or saying from your own culture!