Starting a Women’s Non-Profit in Morocco


Farewell Ramadan, hello Eid el Kabir.  Never mind that there are two months between the two.  Two months that were filled with back-to-school and all that that entails with three kids.  Plus there’s the whole women’s cooperative project.  We applied for Cooperative status back in May, and now, five months later, I can confidently say that I’ve been initiated into the high realm of Moroccan beauraucracy.   It’s everything they promised it would be, long, unclear and unexplained, and hopelessly rooted in the ’50s.   The application has gone through 4 different offices and now comfortably resides somewhere at the top level.  Each of us seven founding members is waiting to receive a visit from local authorities to check on us, to see if we are serious about creating a cooperative or something.  And there seems to be nothing we can do to speed up the process, so far only three people have been called on (they come to your house).

Luckily we have a good advisor at the Chambre D’artisanat (Chamber of Handicrafts) who strongly advised us to create  a non-profit instead of a cooperative.  They can both function in similar ways, we can have our training center and restaurant, except that in the cooperative the profit is divided up between the members, whereas in a non-profit it’s not.  It’s a lot easier to create a non-profit, and when I think about it, it’s more aligned with what we are planning to do.  We are planning to train local women in Moroccan cooking, making Moroccan sweets and Western baked goods.  The women are from marginalized situations, from the 10 we have as a starting group 3 of them are raising kids on their own, 3 are illiterate, none have finished high school, almost all are in abject poverty.  The locale we are planning to rent will be set up both as a training center and restaurant (it makes me so happy to type those words, I’m so excited about this project).

So we had our first general assembly a few days ago at the Chambre D’artisanat.  The great thing is that Moroccan cooking and pastry-making is considered a traditional handicraft.  Yeah!  This is exciting for several reasons.  There is a lot of government importance place on the traditional handicrafts like woodworking, leather goods, weaving, etc.  Morocco really has a lot of fine craftsmen and the government knows that this is one of the national treasures.  It’s exciting to be a part of that.  Plus any cooperative or non-profit that is created in the handicraft field is automatically exempt from taxes.  For our meeting, they let us use their super swanky facilities, check out the main door.


We had a good meeting.  We talked about how a non-profit is different than a business.   How we hope that it will enrich all of their lives not just financially but in several ways.  Those who are illiterate will receive classes from the get-go to learn how to read.  Those who know how to read will build on that, a few of the women have shown interest in learning English.  We will invite people with cooking expertise to come give workshops and demonstrations.  We will have trainings in hygiene and provide the women with all that they need in terms of medical tests, uniforms and cleaning products to be thoroughly in compliance with hygiene standards (if you’ve seen some of the local restaurants and the staff who work in them, you’ll appreciate this point.  No soap in the bathroom, is all I’m going to say).  We also talked about having high ideals and long-term goals such as: using local products and ingredients and eventually sourcing organic ingredients, supporting other local craftsment e.g. when we buy the furniture for the restaurant it will all be locally made, going back to old methods of cooking (which are invariably healthier).  I told the women not to be scared of the immensity of the project, that the responsibility will be shouldered by all of us.  (Uh, I think I was speaking mostly to myself as I kept repeating those words several times during the meeting).

For me, this project is immensely personal and exciting.  It’s creative: dreaming anything up from scratch is.  I need this level of creativity in my life, and Morocco needs it.  And if I can use my creativity compassionately then it’s perfect.  There are also challenges for me here to be faced, such as delegating tasks.  There are a lot of people who want to volunteer with this project and I need to organize them into teams, an advertising team, a crew to work on the space, etc.  I’ve had some freakouts about this project, I get scared that it will be too much or that I won’t be able to give it as much as it needs to be a success (not unlike those dreams I used to have when I was pregnant.  I think freaking out about things means they are real to me).  Honestly switching from the idea of a cooperative to a non-profit was a huge relief, it feels right.  It doesn’t feel so much like I am trying to open a restaurant (people in the restaurant business keep telling me how hard it is, I believe them) , rather that I am helping set up a training infra-structure for marginalized women that will sell food as a way to support itself.

When I talk about the project, it strikes a chord with a lot of people.  At this point in history, it’s time for women to shine.  To learn, to grow, to speak, to be heard, to live in safety, to believe in our power.   To nurture our spiritual bond with the Creator, ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, the Compassionate, the Bestower of all bounty.


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!

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.

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!


Paula Wolfert in my Kitchen

Everyone who knows Paula Wolfert seems to have a great Paula story.  Here’s mine.

It was about 2 years ago.  I was dropping off a good friend at the Marrakesh airport.  After we said our goodbyes and parted ways, I glanced down at a counter and noticed a shiny credit card.  I read the name, Paula Wolfert, and it sounded so familiar, like a household name, but I couldn’t quite pin it down.  I looked around and spotted likely candidate.  I ran up to her and asked if she’d dropped a credit card.  She said she had and I handed it over and that was that.  I walked away then it suddenly came to me who she was.  Again I ran after her and asked, “wait, are you Paula Wolfert who wrote Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco?”.  She said “Yes”.  I was so excited, I told her how we’d grown up with that book in our kitchen.

It was that book, with its detailed description of how to shop for and prepare Moroccan food, that unraveled many mysteries for my mother and later for my sister and me.  When my sister and I decided to make bastilla for Eid, we used the books detailed instructions on how to prepare each layer, the chicken cooked in saffron, the eggs and the sweetened ground almonds, all of it wrapped them in thin, crispy warqa dough.  We did not have a Moroccan grandmother to pass on the old ways to us, but this book was often a good stand-in.  Paula was not just another cookbook author, she was one of us, a foreigner who had come to Morocco, learned the ropes, and lived to tell the tale.

Already in my mind I couldn’t wait to tell my mother that I’d met the woman we’d sort of grown up with.  Little did I know that Paula had gone on to write many, many other cookbooks, and that she had developed a loyal following.  Her fans were people who enjoyed doing things the traditional way, cooking in clay pots, tracking down the best cumin and saffron, steaming couscous for hours…

Then Paula told me that she not been back to Morocco in 27 years!  And that she had now come to find new (old) recipes that she hadn’t featured in her first book.  Food and Wine Magazine was going to run an article on her journey re-discovering Morocco.  She mentioned that one of the recipes she had come to pin down was Seffa, that steamed angel hair pasta with chicken dish that is my favorite.

It just so happens that we have a beloved housekeeper, Malika, who is an amazing Moroccan cook.  I mean the kind of woman who, whatever she puts her hands into, turns out delicious.   I told Paula about Malika, and the next thing you know I was inviting Paula and the magazine staff over for a cooking demonstration.  Yikes!

I called my mother and gleefully exclaimed, “you’ll never guess who I just me at the airport…”.  My mother was equally pleased, and she called up Paula at her hotel and the two of them talked for an hour.  I’m sure they had many tales to tell.  Both my mother and Paula came to Morocco at a very different time.  I remember my mother with her jellaba and basket, headed to the markets to do battle, haggling in a foreign language for the purchase of each and every item that crossed our doorstep.  Before the big chain supermarkets made everything easy and infinitely less interesting.

The day of the photo shoot came, and there we were, Malika, Paula, Emily Kaiser (the food editor), Quentin Bacon (world famous food photographer), his assistant whose name escapes me at the moment, and myself.  Malika was dressed in a beautiful turquoise caftan.  My daughter, who was then 7 years old, was so excited about the photo shoot and made sure she was wearing a beautiful gold caftan.  (She kept asking, “do you think they’ll put me in the magazine?”).

Malika started to work her magic, turning the noodles, chicken and almonds into work of art.  Quentin snapped away while his assistant wrote down information on every photo he took.  I was so pleased that Malika was getting her chance to shine, she certainly deserves it.  Making Seffa (or Chaariya medfouna) is a long process.  Angel hair pasta only takes a few minutes to boil, but it takes about 3 hours of steaming to turn al dente.  During this time, it absorbs the flavors of the chicken that is bubbling away in the bottom of the steamer.  Malika showed how she gets the most flavor out of saffron: she heats up the threads in a pan and then crushes them between her fingers.  She also demonstrated the steaming technique, skillfully turning the pasta onto a plate every 40 minutes or so to toss it and throw on more butter.  Here’s a photo of the same dish, made at a later date:

The next day, my mother invited Paula and the crew out to her farm in the country.  There we hired a couple of local ladies to demonstrate another rather labor intensive Moroccan dish called Treed.  Emily told us to look for the magazine article 12 months later.  “We prepare articles 12 months in advance so that when we run them, it’s the same season as in the photos”.

Let me just say that we were all very comfortable with each other.  Paula is extremely down to earth, real and loving.  It all came together in the most serendipitous way.

So, 12 months later I began to look for the magazine article online.  I did not see anything until a few months after that.   Finally the article appeared, I showed it my daughter Karima and to Malika the great cook.  Although Malika and Karima’s names had been switched, and the chicken had turned into lamb, it was fun to read about our cooking day together, it honored Malika and included a nice photo of her and Paula.

I thought that was the end of the story…until Paula published her highly-acclaimed newest cookbook.  This one:

Well, then, a friend of ours who had spent 3 months in Morocco returned to the States and wrote us, “someone gave me a beautiful new Moroccan cookbook and I opened it up and there was Karima”.  (Just so it’s clear, Karima is our daughter).  She snapped a photo of the page and sent it to us.  I don’t think I knew that Paula was also working on a cookbook when we saw each other, so this came as quite a surprise.

Soon after that, Paula sent 2 copies of the cookbook, one for me and one for my mom.  It’s really beautiful, part coffee-table book, part cookbook.  I’m amazed at the depth of Paula’s research into Morocco history, regional characteristics, obscure cooking tips and spice categorizing.  There was a very dear picture of Karima in the book , as well as a few pictures taken from the cooking demo with Malika. (If you want to see the pictures of Karima, Malika, our steamer, and a very blurry me eating Seffa, you’ll have to get your hands on a copy).  I showed the book to Malika and she was fascinated by all the different recipes.  I asked her if she liked being in the book and she said “shweeya (a little), I like the other people’s recipes better”.  Come on Malika, give yourself some credit!

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the book, which ties in nicely with the blog post I wrote a few days ago.  It sums up what I appreciate the most about Moroccan cooks, their ability to make something fabulous out of almost nothing

“Moroccans put much store in what they call baraka, which means good fortune.  And in culinary terms, baraka can also refer to an ability to start cooking with very little in the way of ingredients and yet feed many people from the food pot.”

The photo of Malika and Paula Wolfert is by Quentin Bacon.  

A Wonderful Death

Baraka is the Arabic word for blessing (of course, it’s so much more, but you know…semantics).  I feel blessed to speak darija (Moroccan dialect of Arabic) because that means that I can participate in the daily Moroccan baraka exchange.

Each and every thing or action can either have baraka or not.  For example, food that is purchased on an honest income, prepared with love and prayers, shared among as many people as possible is said to have baraka.  Food that  is bought with questionable money, or processed in an unnatural way, or consumed greedily without praise of the Creator, without sharing with or offering to those around us, is said to be devoid of baraka.  The first kind of food makes you healthy, physically and spiritually, will never make you ill, will strengthen your body for doing good things, will strengthen bonds of friendship and unite hearts.  The second kind will weaken you, make you anxious and leave you wanting.

Our daily exchanges can have baraka.  Take, for example, this exchange I had with a man who is a car guardian.  This is when I get in the car to drive away.  I am giving him 20 cents for his car guarding, and he’s helping me navigate out of my parking space into traffic.

Me: Salam alaykom akhoya.  Peace be with you my brother.

Guardian: wa alaykom salam. And with you peace.

Me: bismillah.  In God’s name.  (hand him the money)

Guardian:  Allah ya3teek el khair.   God give you good things.  (another way of saying “thank you”)

Me: Allah y3awnek.  God assist you.

Guardian:  Seeri fid Allah.  Go in God’s care.

And that’s it.  As I type it in English it sounds so contrived, but you have to understand that in Arabic, this is actually completely natural speech.  This is just how people say “hello”, “thanks a lot”, “good luck” and “have a nice day”.  Every utterance is a prayer, returning the speaker to the divine, time and time again.  As I drive away from the guardian I feel so incredibly thankful that this is the case, I feel a little more alive, more humbled, more compassionate.

Most times when I have an exchange like this, I walk away feeling a little more light.  Then there are those exchanges that feel like the person reached in, took out my heart, plain cracked it open, washed it in light, and placed it back in my chest.  A heart unexpectedly broken in the best way possible.  Tears flowing at the most importune of moments.

And it can come from the most unlikely sources.  I’d like to tell you about someone who dazzles me with light.  She’s a woman who sells candy outside my son’s school.  Her name is Naima (not Naima from the baking project, it’s a common name) and she is one of the more joyful, exuberant people I know.  She’s got this cart that she had made, and it’s a child’s delight,  full of every kind of candy and trinket.  She pushes this cart to the school in the morning, noontime and afternoon school, as many as four times a day.  My son is a regular customer, both because he likes candy, and because I really, really want  to support her.  I often stop by after dropping him off at school, just to get a little dose of Naima to start my day off right.  I never know what the topic will be.  So I might ask her a question, like, “how did you get started with this cart?”  She’ll animatedly tell me all about how she got it made and  how she started out, and then she will offer the spiritual wisdom behind it.  “Honey, I’d rather make one dirham the right way than a million dirhams the wrong way!”.  Or if she had a day off, she’d say “Our body has a right over us!  These hands, these feet, they have their rights!  They’re going to bear witness against us if we aren’t good to them”.  She is smiling and animated, and has this amazing faith in God.  I doubt she can read or write, but she has a deep, strong wisdom about life, the human soul and our journey.

About 2 months ago, I came to the school, and I saw Naima dressed head to toe in white.  I was in total shock, because this is the color of mourning in Islam.  Even though I knew exactly what had happened, I couldn’t think of any other way of approaching her than to ask her “Naima, why are you wearing white?”.  She answered, “the man of the house died”.  This is a way of referring to her husband.  I stood there in total shock, and she told me about it.  She said “he wasn’t sick, so it was a total surprise.  He died a wonderful death, he didn’t suffer, his body was completely at peace.”  Her face is glistening with tears and at the same time she is smiling and there is that joy and light in her face.  “And you know, he died during the best times”.  (the first ten days of the Islamic pilgrimage month, considered to be the holiest days of the year).  Then, as usual, she shares spiritual insight, “we’re all just renting space on this earth, and once the rental contract is up, we’ve got to leave.”  But the words that stick with me the most are “a wonderful death”.  I’m amazed that anyone would use that particular combination of words, and I love it.  This woman endured the ultimate loss, the person that was closest to her,  and she was completely accepting of it, and could see that it happened in best way possible.  These are the fruits of a spiritual life.

Since then, it’s been so strange to see Naima every day, with her white jellaba, scarf, socks and shoes, busily selling candy to a 100 screaming kids or cheerfully chatting with the mothers after morning drop-off.  She’ll wear white for 4 months and 10 days, the traditional mourning period.  It’s a constant reminder of death.  We talk about it often, revisiting the story of her husband’s death.  And every time I am awed by how real her strength and faith are.  More often than not, we both end up in tears, and laughing for no other reason than that we enjoy each other’s company.  Exchanges of baraka are possible anywhere, anytime, if we are open to them.  If you’re not getting any love then you just have to be the one that gives it.  A kind word, a smile, a sincere prayer are what soften and open hearts.

The sufis say that a saint is one who reminds you of God.  With him or her you experience a higher level of reality, in an instant, effortlessly.  If anyone ever wonders where the women saints of Morocco are, have no doubt that they are there, making bread, raising children, pushing a candy cart around.