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.

Pics of the new place

Here are the pictures of the space we rented for the Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant.  We went on a Sunday, a few of the actual women who will be training there, their kids, and a couple of volunteers, to see the space together.

Here is the front entrance.  The glass bricks are nice but will be replaced with glass windows for more connection between indoor and outdoor.  There is a lot of garden space, some of it will be paved with bricks to make a larger outdoor seating area.

Amal Women's Training Center

This is part of the indoor dining area.  We don’t have electricity yet, and this was at the end of the day, so I could only take pictures of this front room. The other room that is visible there will have a display area for the baked goods.  In addition, there will be another dining room, an office, and a classroom where the ladies can learn to read/write.

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Detached from the main villa, there are some rooms in the back.  We’re thinking that these would be the ideal place for the training kitchen.  Little Si Mohamed discovered a rickety old ladder, we had a hard time getting him down from there.  He’s right in the terrible two’s all right.

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Little Chaima climbed the orange tree and picked as many as she could reach.  In the end her family went home with a bag full.   I smiled to think that this place is already yielding “fruits” and that seems like a good sign.

DSC_0051Fatiha, a dear friend and future trainee, with Melissa, a dear friend and volunteer.

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That patch will  turn into an herb garden (inshAllah Godwilling):

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A little orange party:

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There’s a bit of work to be done.  Some of the place was well-kept and some of it is in disrepair.  Tomorrow I have a meeting with a builder to start in on the alterations.  I’m excited because I connected with the perfect person to help out with this project.  I was talking to Meriem, the young woman in the picture above (holding a shoulder bag).  I was telling her how I want to put together Sponsor Packets to present to potential sponsors.

Then she said “Oh, I’ve done that for a few projects at the University”.

I said “Wait, what did you study again?”

“Economics”

“And now you’re done with school?”

“Yes I have my Bachelor’s and I’m taking time off now”.

“Um, would you like to work on this project…for free?”

“YES!”

I’m so happy, both for the project’s sake and for Meriem’s.  I know she’s a smart, resourceful and hardworking person and will bring a lot of energy to this venture.  I’m much relieved to have someone of her caliber and skill set on board.  This project has been like this, serendipitous connections and unfolding of new things.  It’s so beyond what I might do or dream for it, it’s so much bigger and more beautiful.

 

Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant

Doesn’t that sound good!!???  I’m so very excited and happy to announce that this dream is finally coming into reality.  I’m in excitement overdrive right now about the whole thing so bear with me.  

Last time I wrote about how we had decided to establish this project as a non-profit.  We had a general assembly, elected a board of 7 members from among the women.  Naturally, it made sense for me to be the president or director of the non-profit, Lalla Khadija is the treasurer, and a lovely woman named Meriem is the secretary.   After we did all this, we had to iron out our statutes.  We stated as our basic goals:

To establish a training center in Moroccan cooking and pastries for at-risk women to rescue them from poverty.

To establish a simple restaurant to sell the products of the training center.

Then we put together a dossier that contains the statutes, the list of board members, the minutes from the general assembly, and photocopies of each of the members’ ID cards.  All of this of course in seven copies, each page notarized, as is the custom here in Morocco.  A person’s signature here is worthless unless it is notarized.

But we still needed one crucial document to establish this non-profit, and that was a rental contract.  That’s right, to register any kind of business or non-profit in Morocco one first needs to have a rental contract.  If a person is a homeowner then they can use their home address temporarily.  But none of us are, so the final step of renting a place was crucial for us.

I’ve been looking for spaces to rent since about May/June.  I’ve hired samsars (kinda fly-by-night agent that helps locate rentals), knocked on doors, found places that I got excited about but that weren’t meant to be, and spent probably 100s of hours day-dreaming and obsessing about “our space” (and the project in general, I even had very realistic dreams that we rented such-and-such a space).  I made a lot prayers, especially the prayer of asking for God’s direction in making a decision salat al istikhara.  It goes something like this:

Allah, if you know that this matter: renting this house for the women’s center, is best for me in my spiritual and worldly affairs, in this life and the next, in the immediate and the long-term, then will it for me, make it easy, and then put blessing in it for me.  And if You know that this matter: renting this house for the women’s center, is bad for me in my spiritual and worldly affairs, in this life and the next, in the immediate and the long-term, then drive it away from me and drive me away from it, and will goodness for me wherever that may lie.

A beautifully simple and liberating prayer.

Everyone I met and told about this project also would make prayers of ease and blessing.  Allahumma yassir, Allahumma barik.  We work and strive in this world of cause and effect, but ultimately where things are truly determined is in a realm far beyond us.  I never know who’s prayer is being answered or if it is a confluence of collective prayer…

Finally, the right space for our project materialized.  It’s the downstairs of a villa in the Gueliz area.  It has a wealth of light and all out good vibes.  The street is lined with trees, the house is south facing so receives good light all day, there is a nice garden for outside dining and an herb garden, and plenty of space inside to create a great training kitchen, dining area, and display area for the pastries (I’ll try to post some pics soon).  Thanks to private donations, we were able to pay the first year of rent in advance!

We are overjoyed with the space.  The villa is old and needs some work, but the general feeling there is that it’s a safe and beautiful place for these women to learn and grow.  Honestly it feels like a haven.  The next phase is to make the necessary alterations and aesthetic improvements.  An architect friend is kindly donating his time to draw up a plan of the space and make suggestions on how to proceed.  Then next week we will bring in a builder to start tearing down some walls, putting a few doorways and windows in, etc.  By the end of December, inshallah, we’ll be ready for equipment and furniture.  Then the actual work and training can begin, yeah!

At this point, like I said, we’ve received some very generous support for the rent and repairs.  We are now looking to raise the funds needed for the equipment and furniture.  I’m appealing to you, dear readers and blogging community, for this support.  I’d like to invite you to be part of this project with any donation that is possible to you.

I’m planning on asking some of the major equipment companies in the Food Service industry if they’ll sponsor our training center via some kind of donation of equipment and/or discount.  I’m talking about Promark, Arcade Equipment and Foyelec.  We don’t need a lot, but there are minimal pieces of professional equipment that we need like a big refrigerator, good range top and oven (I could go into great detail about what we need, I’ll save that though for a future post).  Maybe one of my readers is somehow connected to one of these companies.

Here is the bank info for the Amal Women’s Training Center and Moroccan Restaurant:

Bank name: Attijariwafa Bank
Account number (R.I.B) 007450000806500030059496
SWIFT code: BCM.AM.AMC

Here’s our name and address:

Association Amal pour la Cuisine et les Gateaux Marocains
Villa Simone
Angle Rue Allah ben Ahmed et Ibn Sina
Quartier l’Hopital
Gueliz, Marrakesh, 40 000 MAROC
 
Phone number: +212 613 10 84 60
email: amalnonprofit (at) gmail (dot) com 
(website coming soon!)
Facebook: AmalNonProfit 

Please support these needy and at-risk women with whatever donation is within your means.  Peace and blessings to you all.

Remember him?

 

He came into life under difficult circumstances.  He is Saeeda’s son (name changed for privacy).  Such a curious, funny, quick child.  Since his birth, his mother, who is unmarried, drew the veil of secrecy around herself and her child in order to protect them both from scrutiny.  With time however, she introduced him to her family as “the son of a woman who can’t take care of him”.  The family just adores him.  With time, many of them came to understand that he is in fact her son,   By that time, they all were in love with him already, they were able to come to terms with it in a palatable way.  The story is a still there “to save face” in front of others… neighbors, strangers.

It’s been almost two years since his birth, since that day when she was penniless and homeless and still weak from childbirth, and we were able to open our home to her for a few weeks.  Things have gotten so much better.  I have had the great pleasure of working closely with Saeeda over the last year in the context of our baking endeavor.  Often times she had her son on her back, and when he was older, scampering about with the pots and pans.  I can honestly say she is one of the best mother’s I’ve seen.  She talks softly and reassuringly to her son, a soothing narrative of what they are doing together.  She takes great care in preparing his special food, soups and baby bottles.  She keeps him clean and well-dressed although she has very little money.  She laughs at the 100 funny things he does, her own small rewards.  Her eyes just shine when she looks at him.  She doesn’t get impatient, she always gives him time.  Being around them both is very soothing and joyful.  Everything in her life has always come to her at great difficulty, even the circumstances around the birth of her son.  But even the burden of being a single mother in Morocco is nothing compared to the love she has for him and the joy he has brought her.   I can see that he is clearly her dearest treasure.

 

Death by Chocolate, the Cheesecake Version

 

 

 

 

When you live in Morocco, it’s handy to have a few super powers.  Driving stick shift…is not a super power. It’s a plain old power.  Driving stick shift, during rush hour, behind a mule cart and right up next to a flashy 4×4, a guy trying to sell you box of tissue while the light is red, while tuning out the arguments of 3 or 4 kids (is it pronounced pokemon or pokeman?  No!  It’s not a man, it’s a monster)… is a super power, one that few give credit to.

Another, much less vital super power I’ve discovered I possess is the ability to bake any American dessert with Moroccan ingredients.  I have cracked the code on many classics, such as Chocolate Chip cookies, for which I have sourced actual chocolate chips in both dark, milk and white chocolate (you can only find them in the deep recesses of the medina, at a professional baker supply store).  I’ve also discovered a decent substitute to brown sugar, which is cane sugar (Marjane) mixed with a few spoons of sugar honey (Miel de glucose).  Works like a charm to give that must-have butterscotch flavored chewiness to the cookies.  No need to thank me, frustrated fellow bakers, it’s just what I do.  I find this super power useful when my American friends complain about the food here.  I just say, man up and make it yourself!  If you’re gonna make it around these parts, you better crack the code too.  That’s my PSA for y’all.

One strange thing about my super power is that I can never outpower my sister.   Just when I’ve reached a new level, she’ll show up with like, oh, Cinnamon Rolls from scratch (I’m not gonna write from scratch anymore during this post, because there’s no other way to bake around here).  Funny story about that, once my sister was over and we made brownies.  That day my husband had a guest from the states and we served the brownies for dessert.  The guest said “so you guys brought the box of brownie mix over from the states?”.  And we were like “are you kidding me?”.   There’s like 5 ingredients in brownies, all available from the local store and they take about 10 minutes to mix.  Box mix is for sissies 🙂

That said, there are some things that I like to have from the states.  One is a set of measuring cups, since most American recipes are measured in cups, not grams (there are ways to convert between the two, some websites, don’t get me started).  Anyway, I have my measuring cups.  Another is some good quality vanilla extract.  I like the Trader Joe’s brand that is alchohol-free.   That’s about it, seriously.  2 things.  As far as cooking in general, I like spice mixes like Mrs Dash.  I stock up on those if I get to the states, or my family and friends bring them over.

Everything else I can either make, find or do without.

So, this past Eid, I decided to put a new twist on my Moroccan-made cheesecake.  (My sister did, and since I can’t get ahead of her, I have to at least keep up).  Chocolate Cheesecake!

1.  I think the ingredients speak for themselves here, but just in case not, let me introduce them.  Sable are our Graham Crackers, Carre creme (the squares) is our cream cheese, Perly is our sour cream/yogurt, Nestle is sweetened condensed milk.  That Choco Pasty stuff is dark chocolate, the real kind, don’t go for “Sucre Chocolate” which only has 5% cocoa.  Eggs and butter are, naturally, universal.

2. Put the Sable biscuits in the food processor.  My food processor is about 13 years old.  Every time a new piece breaks of and I think about springing for a new one, I’m like, nah, just superglue it:

3.  Process till they look like sand.  Add about 50-100 grams of melted butter (1/4 to 1/2 cup):

 

 

4. Pat the crust into the pan like so.  It’s classier to just cover the bottom and not try to go up the sides:

5.  Food process the rest: the Kiri, Perly, Nestle, eggs.

 

6.  This is how chocolate looks when you’ve done absolutely nothing to it:

 

7.  Now melt it.  I ended up using 200g, almost the whole pack but not quite.  I wanted it chocolaty enough to overpower the cream cheese, but not so chocolaty that it’s bitter.  This is where you gotta love microwaves.  Sure we don’t know what the long-term effects are… but you make it up in clean dishes!

 

8.  Let the chocolate cool for a minute and blend it into the cream cheese mixture.  I love that this whole recipe take place in the food processor and you hardly have to do any work.  When you pour it over your crust it should look like this and very liquidy:

 

9.  It takes a good hour to cook on low heat.  Once it’s set, don’t let it overcook or it will dry out.  I went ahead and made a lemon cheesecake too.  I was interested to see that they behaved very differently in the oven, the lemon one really puffed up and the chocolate one stayed low.  I realized that the lemon juice I used to flavor the lemon cheesecake actually curdled the milk ingredients and gave a whole other texture, it was grainier.  The chocolate one tasted smooth as mousse.  Of course when I mentioned this to my sister, she’d already encountered the same phenomenon and solved it by using only lemon zest (not juine) to flavor it, and it didn’t curdle.  She’s so Obiwan to my Luke.  Yeah, yeah, we watched Star Wars and now every metaphor or simile is Yoda this, Darth Vader that.  

 

 

10.  Ta da!

11.  My attempts at food styling.  Couldn’t think of anything to top this with except for a blue morning glory.  The teapot is a bit of a show-stealer, all shiny and symbolic of Morocco.  Enjoy and remember, I’m not legally responsible for the 5 pounds you gained while reading this post.  

Eid, Drink, and be Merry

In the weeks leading up to Eid I was in a kind of fog, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that it was Eid again.  Life has been busy and I felt unprepared to shift into this other mode.  Buying a sheep, buying enough supplies to last us through the 10-day souk hiatus that follows Eid, tracking down something bright and happy to wearh (times 5), giving some thought to decorations and presents (again?), making plans to see tribe members (in our case, other than family our tribe is an ever-shifting crew of family-less souls that share our lives at the moment).  But amazingly, we managed to do these things, and they didn’t do us in.  It flowed busily but peacefully into this blessed day.  And I have managed to shift into that other mode, because you just can’t help but emerge into full consciousness at the sacrifice of an animal.  Oh, I remember now what this is all about!  I’m always amazed at how the most powerful spiritual experiences come from pattern interruption.  This Eid reminds me of the ultimate pattern interruption, death, only a breath away.

But as much as I like to ponder symbolism, Eid is no time to daydream.  It’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.  Today I felt like we were a pioneer family, all of us working to do our part.  Even the children were eager to help with the skinning, the gutting, etc.  When I saw my five year old chopping liver with a butcher knife I got this feeling like, yeah, maybe we could survive in the wild after all.  These kids are not squeemish.

A beautiful morning that brings the promise of rain.

I know we had some other kids somewhere…I’ll just have to photoshop them in later.

Veggies on the grill, on Eid?  Psych!

The little assembly line I set up for myself: marinating the liver and wrapping it in fat to make kabobs with.  It sounds awful but it’s such a big hit with the kids.  The fat keeps the liver from drying out on the grill.

He leaves the rest of us no excuse, methinks.

Entertainment for the night, a light saber show.  Feeling the force today.

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.

 

Farewell Ramadan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gathered for the ftour meal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thousands of women in prayer at the Koutoubia mosque

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

I wrote about Ramadan last year here.  Ramadan Mubarak!

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?