Let’s win some cash for women who need it

Dear blog readers, it’s been an eon since I blogged, but the good news is, I’m still alive, I was only in cyber-hybernation.  It’s almost like there’s too much going on, I can either live, or blog, nawmean?  The Amal Center continues to blossom and grow in a beautiful way.  I was there yesterday for the tsunami wave of couscous customers. It was epic.  All 180 of them seemed to have agreed to arrive at exactly the same time, which was 12:47 (hashtag invade Amal?).   To make matters more…interesting, we were working with a newbie crew: our 5th class of 16 women just started a few days ago.  They are a very cool group of ladies, beautiful souls and smiles, lots of potential there just waiting for the right conduit.  And yes, the chef used his chef voice.  Yet, amazingly, things went smoothly, and there was much eating of couscous and merriment.  Only one customer got scary mad (she was served couscous in a white plate, not a tajine.  I totally get it, it doesn’t taste the same. Amends were made quite hastily, and she ended up relaxing and enjoying a pot of tea in the garden for a good while after her meal).

Anyway, I need your help.  See, me and Amal Center have been selected for a contest, called “Women for Change”.  It’s kind of a bummer that there has to be a competition among organizations working for good, but that’s how things work.  We need people to vote for Amal, if we get the most votes by October 15th,  then we win a prize of 25,000 Euros.  The money would go entirely towards funding small businesses for some of our graduates.  I can’t tell you how excited I’d be to see some of them run their own businesses.   The link is here (and I’ll include it again at the bottom if you just want to keep reading)  http://www.fondationorange.com/Nora-Belahcen-Fitzgerald-2744  (You’ll hear me speaking French, subtitled back into English that is, in places, syntactically French).  I’m speaking French here because the competition is run by a French company, the Orange Foundation (related to the Orange phone service provider).  We will not know who got the most votes until the actual awards ceremony on October 16th, in France.  I’d love to win this for my dear sisters, they truly deserve it.

Nearly 60 women have now graduated from the Amal cooking training course, around 80% of them are now employed in good jobs.  In each graduating class, there have been one or two who have the ambition and drive to be entrepreneurs.  In October, we’ll be running our first Entrepreneurship Incubator, a 2-week course were 15 of these women will learn about business from a number of professionals.  The idea is that they come out of the course with their own business plan.  It would be awesome to then have this prize money to actually fund some of these projects.

Someone asked me today if I think that the problem with women’s situation in Morocco is society’s mentality, and that we have to change that in order to advance women’s status.  Here’s what I say.  Women need the tools to be empowered economically.  They need training, skills and work opportunities. That’s a concrete, achievable goal.  They need to know that nebulous, abstract things like society’s mentality are mental constructs and false barriers to success.

Some of the trainees at Amal Center told me about a really powerful exercise that they did in one of their group life-coaching sessions.  The life coach gave them each a mirror, they were asked to look at themselves in the mirror and say, The way I see myself is more important that the way society sees me.  The way I see myself is what defines me.   Several of the women shared with me how powerful this type of thinking is for them, and how they realized they should stop worrying about how they are perceived, and start to work on what they actually want do with their lives, their life plan.

That’s why I’m harassing you now again to vote for me, which is really a vote for them.  Please also harass your friends and family to vote.  We have until October 15th. Here’s the link again.   http://www.fondationorange.com/Nora-Belahcen-Fitzgerald-2744

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First day of cooking at Amal center

 

 

 

 

Now that the remodeling is DONE at the Amal center, we’re focusing on equipment, furniture and beautification.

I chose traditional round wood tables instead of square (more practical) ones.  In the end, beauty and soul win out over sheer practicality for me.  The idea of sitting around a table is very symbolic, as opposed to parallel and perpendicular lines.  The round table is the heart of every Moroccan family’s home, it generously allows you to fit one or two more people around it.
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Here’s some detail on our Moroccan couches.  I love the 16-pointed star and it is one of the core elements of Islamic art.DSC_0292

 

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Here’s the reception area before: this is the first thing you see when  you come in the front door of the Amal center.  You can see right into the bathroom.  Totally wrong feng shui.DSC_0076

But now…by moving the door over to the side, we maintain the flow of energy.  We scored this awesome sweets display case from Kary’s Cupcakes after they closed down.  
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Remember the kitchen before?
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And now!  Thursday March 28th was the first day we cooked anything here at the Amal Center!  It feels SO GOOD to see this.  My heart is full of joy and gratitude that this dream has actually manifested.  And I’ve realized that although these women have difficult stories, the Amal center is not a depressing place, it’s full of joy and REAL HOPE just like its name.  For myself, the volunteers and the trainees we are all just blown away by this experience.  The intention, the prayers, the doing of it all and now this joyous beginning.  DSC_0304

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Did I mention how hard it is to make the warqa dough?  I’m in awe of our trainer Sabah.DSC_0307

 

Here is the fantastic professional food processor that we were able to buy from the benefits of the American International Women’s Association of Marrakesh (AIWAM) fundraiser.  DSC_0296

 

Here’s our side garden beforeDSC_0068

And now…it’s not scary anymore, yay!DSC_0302

 

 

 

 

Our dear children’s space coordinator Shauna has been working every day for weeks and weeks…and all sorts of volunteers have left their mark here in the kid’s corner.  The Amal center will be opening *very soon* insha Allah.
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Preparing for Ramadan 2012

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

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

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

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

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

From my mother’s garden:

Mother’s roses and painting:

The one who is almost 5:

There are never enough pics of roses:

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

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

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

Peeling them off so carefully:

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

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

She stood and deep fried them for hours:

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

Crispy, syrupy, almondy goodness!

The 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.

 

Light and color

Every day is the beginning of a new year, is the way I see it.  A constant, simple wish of mine, for myself and my family, is to have more light and color in our lives.  It shouldn’t be too hard in a place where the sun shines over 300 days a year.  May this year be the year the sun shines through our lives.

 

 

 

Get well soon, Moroccan style

My dear husband is not feeling so good…nothing better than the old school remedies to help him get well.  Real honey (including actual bee parts), pomegranate (the world’s strongest anti-oxidant), some garlic lightly fried in olive oil and a cup of green tea (no sugar of course).  And the prayer for healing, Lla ba’s, tahoor inshallah.  May this illness not be harmful, but purifying, God willing.