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!

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Everyday Marrakesh

Beyond blue jeans and plastic, journeys into traditional Morocco

I don’t blog often enough.  I’d like to.  I write a lot of things…in my head.  They are perfect little morsels, full of wit and truth, that seem to disintegrate by the time I am sitting at the computer.  I get bloggers block often.  Blogger’s blahs.  Since I write with my real name and make only very weak attempts at veiling my identity, blogging makes me vulnerable.  I think about all the people I know from the different spheres of my life reading this, good golly!  Instead of throwing caution to the wind, I wrap it closely around me.  The more people subscribe here or stop by, the more nervous I get about the next thing I am going to write.   (Then again, as my friend aptly pointed out, I’m not exactly Oprah Winfrey, when it comes to audience size).

What makes blogging even possible, sustainable and enjoyable is the feeling that the more I write, the more my true voice emerges.  (sounds so self-indulgent it makes me cringe).  It’s great practice anyway, even if “the voice” doesn’t always show up.  People respond well to true voice, it resonates with all of us.  I may not have a huge readership, but I always feel like you all who are reading this really engage with it and respond in ways that are deep, appreciative and real.  Just take a look at the comments you all leave.

I like to read a variety of blogs.   Some are witty, self-deprecating and sardonic.  Others are excellently word-crafted, obviously written by someone with actual literary ability.  Some contain spiritual writings.  Others are gorgeously designed and well-photographed.  Some blogs have all the bells and whistles, twitter feeds, giveaways, buttons.  I didn’t use to get blogging.   Why would we put so much loving labor into something that, for the most part, we are not paid to do?  But I get it now, it’s about taking a little extra time to savor life and share it with all those who might resonate with our way of seeing.

Now I’ll show you what I actually came on here to blog about.  Believe it or not it wasn’t about blogger’s block.  It was about travelling in Morocco, and how every time I travel I really appreciate this country.  There’s so much I haven’t seen, there is a lot of natural beauty and there are people living the old traditional ways.  Blue jeans and plastic haven’t yet taken over every inch of this planet, and we need to witness as much of the old ways as we can, in my opinion.   A recent road trip took our family to Tafraout (about 5 hours south of Marrakesh).  It’s located right where the mountains meet the desert, and it contains elements of both.

In Tafraout, the houses are built on, under or around boulders.

The landscape is both desert and mountain. The color palette is pretty much earthy brown and sky blue.  The houses tend to blend into the rocks.

A couple of doors.  When I was a kid I remember a lot of doors being made of corrugated metal like this.

See the windows in this house?  We were told how in these type of houses, the two larger windows symbolize parents, while the smaller one underneath is the child.

More doors and windows, the textures are so gorgeous.

On our boulder climbing adventures we found a totally fun mushroom shaped rock.

And managed to climb into it and get a peak of the village below.

There’s not much green in the landscape, the Argane trees are the only prolific shrub.  We saw thousands of them.

Inside one of the houses, the passageways were dark and sinuous…the one below struck me as especially symbolic, full of portent.

Every house had its own storage room for secret stashes of argane nuts.

Waiting to be transformed into liquid gold.  Each family has claims to a certain number of the wild Argane trees on the hillside.  The villagers all respect this code, and the families go out and harvest the Argane seeds when they are ready.  I’d always heard that Argane seeds are collected after goats have eaten them and left them in their droppings.  It turns out that this is somewhat of an urban legend.  The locals we asked assured us that that they harvest the seeds themselves.  The goat way leaves a certain “smell” to the oil and a real connoisseur can tell by one sniff if the Argane has been through a goat or not.

This window is just beautiful.

Funny story about the owner of this shop.  Even though we were 5 hours from Marrakesh in this remote village, the shop owner recognized me, we’d been to the same junior high in Marrakesh.  It turned out to be a serendipitous encounter as he was a big help to us.  He showed us around the area and took us to see the traditional mosque he was in the process of restoring at his own expense.

At sunset we went out to see the famous Tafraout painted rocks.  It turned out that “painted rocks” wasn’t meant figuratively, like Arizona’s painted desert.  No, these were huge boulders painted garish blue and pink.  It hurt to look at them, and I refused to photograph them, except for whatever showed up in this photo.  Apparently some Belgian artist came along a while back and went out to the middle of nowhere and started this massive endeavor of painting boulders, you know, like a huge ugly art installation in the middle of God’s glorious creation.  This had the effect of drawing tourists to the area, and since that time, the locals have kept up the tradition by repainting the rocks when they fade.  My husband and I were speechless with dismay.  The rest of the landscape was really open, sandy, quiet, expansive, much like hubby’s native New Mexico.

After spending a few days in Tafraout, we went somewhere very different, Merlift beach.  Since it wasn’t tourist season, we had the town and the beach practically to ourselves.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who read the Beirut post and this one, do you prefer to look at photos in a slideshow or just like this?

The Adventures of Aisha, Fahd and Farid in Beirut

Yes, the title begs some explaining.  You see, I have once again hit the trails, the blog-workshop trails that is.  As I call it, seeing the world, one blogging workshop at a time.  This time we are in Beirut, Lebanon.  The city is so vital, chaotic, engaging…and I’m sure I have some very deep and interesting things to say about it…but these are not those things.  This is a fun post for my kids.

Before I left my kids made some paper dolls for me to take to Beirut.  The idea was that I would take pictures of the dolls in different places in the city.  In case you forgot, I have as many kids as there are (distinct) dolls in these pictures.  So three.  The dolls (not my kids) are named Aisha, Fahd and Farid.  They’re part of something called Flat Stanley.  As for my kids, in this post I will refer to them by their nicknames Sousou, Moonboy and Meemers (you know who you are).  Apparently you are not supposed to blog your children’s real names.

For Moonboy who loves music….here is your guy “Farid”, he joined the Wailers band, what instrument should he play?

And Meemers, the girl who may be a great lawyer some day…can you read the sign next to Aisha?

And for the little acrobat monkey Sousou, do you see the monkey shaking hands with Fahd?

How about this monkey, do you know how they made it?  Who else do you see in the glass?

Oh look, now Aisha wants to be a monkey too!  She’s swinging from the trees.

Ok now Farid is being a traffic policeman.  They really need those here in Beirut, the traffic is awful.   I bet you can read the sign in Arabic and English Moonboy.

Sousou, do you remember when we go to the bank and you press all the buttons for me?  Now Fahd is helping me.

They made the signs for this cafe from license plates.  Pretty cool huh.

Kids do you remember Christina?  She’s with me here in Beirut too (she’s a blogger too, remember?).  She wants to give you kids a big hug, but she can’t, so she’ll just have to give the dolls a hug instead.

Aisha, Fahd and Farid are so hungry now. They’re going to eat Lebanese food, mmm, this one is called Koosa Mahshi, it’s like zuchinni with rice and meat inside.  Sahteen!  (that’s how they say besseha here, bon appetit).

Aisha is showing the most beautiful mosque, very different than Moroccan mosques isn’t it?

Thank you kids for making these dolls, they made me think of you often and of all the things I wanted to show you from Beirut.

 

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!

 

I live for olive

Olive season has just come to and end…and by olive season I mean that the olives ripened, were harvested, and either pressed for oil or cured to turn them edible.  Did you know that both black olives and green olives come from the same tree?  Here is a very ripe olive from our family farm.

Did you also know that harvesting olives by hand is a labor intensive business?  In Morocco it’s all done this way: a large plastic is laid out under the tree, then you take a long bamboo stick and start to beat at the olives to knock them down.  Eventually you have to climb the tree to get to the higher branches.  Olives yield about 16 liters of olive oil per 100 kgs of olives, depending on how much the trees were watered.  The more they were watered, the juicier the olives.

I will never forget when I was 8 years old and I spent a whole day knocking all the olives off a particular tree.  At the end of the day, I had very sore hand and about 20 kgs of olives.  I was very excited to lug my harvest down the road to where they would buy them from you for about a dirham per kilo (like 6 cents per pound, for those of you who are allergic to the metric system).  I walked back with more than 20 dirhams in my pocket (2.5 dollars).  I’d never been prouder of my earnings (maybe even to this day :-).  It didn’t occur to me that those olives actually belonged to my parents, and that technically, I owed them like 90% of the money.  They kindly didn’t point it out either.

Everywhere in the Moroccan countryside, you see olive trees, and under them there is wheat or barley growing.  Each farming family gets olive oil and flour for the entire year.  This way they have fresh bread and olive oil, which, along with sweet green tea, is a meal unto itself.  Talk about local, sustainable, organic and vegan….This is how it all once was.

 

Road trip snapshots

Road trip in Morocco means roadside cafe tajines.  The best ones are prepared in the morning and slow cooked on charcoal for a good 3 or 4 hours.

Onions, meat, veggies and olives.  My favorite part is the caramelized/burned onions that you scrape off the bottom of the tajine.  When I was pregnant with my firstborn I craved nothing more than one of these beauties…alas roadside tajines are not common in California.

Agadir is one of Morocco’s newest cities.  An earthquake in 1960 completely destroyed the city.  Since then it’s been rebuilt, and it’s retained a newish, cleanish aura.  We went there at the end of December and found the resort town eerily empty, not the usual bustle of sun-seeking tourists.  Welcome to the worldwide recession folks.

I love a good stone/adobe wall.   Solid, real, beautiful.  Whenever I see one I get a good look, because this building technique is fast disappearing, giving way to the fast, cheap and durable cinder block.

Along a dusty alley in Southern village I discovered this giant bag full of Argan shells.  Once you go south of Marrakesh you see a LOT of Argan trees and the oil is sold everywhere.  You’ve heard this all before, but let’s give a recap on why Argan oil is such a high-profile oil.  For one, the trees only grow in Morocco and in some areas of Mexico.   And it’s supposed to be great for you, whether on your skin or on your plate.  I use Argan oil on my skin on a regular basis and the thing I like most about it is it’s a dry, non-greasy type of oil, unlike olive oil for instance.   It’s good, not miraculous, but good.