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.

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?

 

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 Best Moroccan Food You’ll Never Eat (in a Restaurant)

Moroccan food has to be homecooked.  For the most part, and tajine joints aside, restaurants around here just don’t do it right, which explains the fact that Moroccans rarely order their own national food when dining out.  Instead they seem to have picked Italian food, or a version of it, as the national eat-out food.  Pizzas, paninis, pasta are standard fare in many popular eateries.  It makes sense, most people want a break from what they eat at home, something that is not spiced with cumin, ginger and paprika for a change, something you don’t sop up with bread.

Visitors to Morocco may surmise, from eating at restaurants that serve Moroccan food, that we Moroccans survive on a steady rotation of three different meals: Chicken Tajine with Preserved Lemons, Beef Tajine with Prunes, and Couscous (on Friday).  I don’t know how those three dishes became our national culinary representatives and ambassadors, given the variety of other superlative candidates.

Take for example, in no particular order:

1-Chicken Bastila:

This dish has it all, chicken stewed in saffron and spices then cleaned off the bone, eggs, almonds that have been peeled, deep fried and ground with cinnamon, sugar and rosewater, all wrapped in crunchy, buttery paper thin layered dough.  It’s sweet, it’s savory, it’s soft, it’s crunchy.  I could eat this every day.  Realistically Moroccans will only eat this on a special occasion.

The downside is that it’s pricey and time-consuming.  Not to mention the calories.

2-Fish Bastila:

For a long time I was a Chicken Bastila purist, until I finally got over my seafood phobia (someone once told me to be really careful when eating sardines, or the little bones would get stuck in my throat.  I did not eat fish again til I was an adult).  Even so this bastila is not super fishy tasting, it’s stuffed with shrimp, calamar and cubed white fish cooked with vermicelli and mushrooms.

3-Herbel: it’s like oatmeal, only good.  Moroccans eat this on Eid morning as a special breakfast.  It’s cracked wheat boiled for hours until it softens, then you add condensed milk and butter.  Some take it salty and others add honey.  It’s very satisfying and addictive.  Carbalicious.

Before:

After: creamy and delicious.  Even the Gerber baby approves.

4-My go-to Chicken and Rice recipe

You’re not likely to have this dish in anyone’s home, much less a restaurant.  The reason?  I got this recipe from my sister, who I believe got it from the Moroccan TV chef Choumisha.  Since then it’s always come through for me (although I have a tendency to forget about it for months on end, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment every time I remember that I know how to make this).    It’s distinctly Moroccan, yet the rice sets it apart from most Moroccan dishes.   No bread!  I don’t even know if my sister still makes this (do you sis?).  If not I may be the only person in Morocco who presents this on a regular basis.  And now I humbly pass it on to you.

You start with some old old North African standbys: garlic and onion, parsley and coriander, preserved lemon and sliced olives, turmeric, paprika, ginger and yellow stuff.  A tea glass full of half olive oil, half regular.  It makes this kind of salad that looks pretty remarkable as is.

But then you mix it with cooked rice, and use it a stuffing for chicken.  The juice from the chicken runs down and cooks into the rice.  I make plenty of the rice because that’s usually the best part.  There’s crunchy part.   If you come over to my house, I will probably serve you this (if I remember that I know how to make it).

5-The Big Salad

Every Moroccan family has their own version of the big salad.  It’s great especially in this weather (guess how hot it is here).  You just keep piling stuff on until voila, it’s a meal.  My favorite versions include corn, boiled eggs, cheese, avocado.

You know, I am also writing a post about homeschooling.  It’s a lot of work (the writing that is.  The homeschooling is a whole other ball of wax).  I don’t exactly know what I think about it, but writing is helping me sort that out.  Some blog topics are a lot of work, so we end up with post after post about food and pictures.  Fun, light, safe.  To do it justice I’m going to have to write about homeschooling in installments, complete with flashbacks to my own school days, psychological forays into what motherhood means to me, issues of identity and belonging (mine and my kids’), and how my husband saved me from near breakdown.  There’s a good book’s worth of material right there.  Stay tuned…

Mobiles for Morocco, and other projects

Peace and blessings of Ramadan to all readers!

  1. Good and wonderful things are happening…a few people are in fact interested in homeschooling in Marrakesh.  Whaddya know.  When this seed first planted itself into our consciousness, I prayed that God would send the right people and resources if this were meant to be.  And alhamdulillah, things are in fact coming together.
  2. Amanda (blogger Marocmama) is running a wonderful charity campaign called “Mobiles for  Morocco”.  She is collecting mobiles for the babies at a home for abandoned babies here in Marrakesh.  Read more about it at http://marocmama.com/mobiles-for-morocco  (she lives in the US by the way).  The babies spend so much time in their cribs, mobiles with interesting shapes and soft music would be very stimulating to them.  Please send Amanda your new or used mobiles, or a cash donation.
  3. The next step in the cooking classes project (cooking classes for poor mothers here in Marrakesh) will be, inshallah, to equip these women’s kitchens!  They are learning how to cook, but what good is that when they don’t even own fridges or ovens (for the most part).  Most do their cooking on little camping style burners and even with such meager equipment, they manage to whip up amazing Moroccans goodies like tajines or fried bread (mesemn).  We are hoping to buy the necessary fridges, ovens, pots, pans and appliances that would push these women into another category of cooking.  For Moroccan women, their kitchen is their pride and their creative outlet, and we want to encourage that.  Eventually they may be able to turn their cooking into a side business, cooking for special occasions in the neighborhood.  If you’d like to contribute to this project, please contact me.  We already have a generous donor from Germany who has gathered 500 euros towards this.  Yay!
  4. In other news, our littlest child is not so little now.  He turned 4 last month!  No more toddlers in the house (but still plenty of crying).  The other day Amin (his older brother) got a cut on his toe, so I gave him a little foot bath to soak it in.  When little Yousef saw that he said “Can I have a bloodbath too?”.  When he got better he said “Ok!  I’m back on my foot”.  He cracks us up, and I am glad his brother and sister are old enough to also appreciate the cute things he says and does.
Here is a photo taken at a recent visit to the home for abandoned babies:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ladies cooking:

Birthday boy with the birthday tarte he requested:

 

Marrakesh homeschoolers, are you out there?

The school year is over, Karima just completed 3rd grade and Amin kindergarten.  My usual ambivalence towards conventional modern schooling, and the Moroccan school system remains.  On the one hand, both kids are learning Arabic and French.  The teachers are loving and kind, competent and doing their best with 30+ kids per class.  My kids go to what is purportedly the best school in Marrakesh.  And it’s true that the students I have seen from there do stand out, both academically and as having some extra spark in their personalities.

However my husband and I are getting an inner calling that it is time for change, major change.  We are thinking along the lines of a homeschooling cooperative, where small groups of children (5-6) can receive good quality, personalized instruction from parents and tutors.

One of the main reasons we are living here in Morocco is so that our children can receive a deep grounding in the Islamic tradition.  We want the children to spend a good deal of their time, especially these younger years, chanting and memorizing the Quran.  We want them to receive transmition of sacred knowledge from an illuminated being, a spiritual guide who can inspire in them great love for God.  This should be the top priority, and at the moment, it’s not.  They study “Islamic Ed” in class, and there is some benefit.  But Quran memorization is assigned as homework, then tested in class.  That’s not really how we want the kids to see Quran, one more thing they will get in trouble for not learning by heart.

We also think that the children can keep up with, if not exceed, the Moroccan curriculum for Arabic and French via an approach that is more based on the communicative method.  As a product of Moroccan schooling, I can’t tell you how many hours I spent learning Arabic grammar.  But never once did I have any sort of in-class discussion in Arabic, never once did I read a great work of Arabic literature and give my opinion on it (apart from the Quran, I’ve only read one Arabic book cover to cover and in my mind there is something wrong with a school system that is not focused on reading).  So for all my years studying Arabic grammar, I’d like to say I’m fluent, but truth is I’m not.  It feels unnatural for me to speak Arabic and I probably can’t speak 2 complex sentences error-free.  In fact, when you speak to most Moroccan students, they say Arabic is their least favorite subject (math and science are usually their favorites).  Most of my friends who are very fluent in Arabic claim to have picked up their fluency from watching Arabic cartoons!

We envision a language class based on communication: teacher asks students what they did on the weekend, and doesn’t correct their grammar when they answer, instead she responds to the content.  That gives the student confidence that she has communicated successfully in the target language.  The method should be based on reading, lots and lots of interesting, age-appropriate books.  Games such as Bingo and board games are a great way to acquire lots of lexical chunks without pressure.  Skits are another fun and creative way to live a language.  After all, we learn a language for two basic reasons, to communicate orally and to read the best works in that language.  We do not learn a language to become expert grammarians.

Take my own example in English.  My good mother taught me to read when I was 7.  It just so happened that I got hepatitis and was forced to stay home from school for a whole month.  Most productive month of my childhood!  My mother patiently taught me to read from good old “Ted and Sally”,  “See Spot Run”, and all that.  Thank you mama!  By the end of the month I could read.  Henceforth, my sister and I received a continuous supply of good English books that my parents hauled over from the US.  All the Little House on Prairie books.  The Narnia series.  The Lord of the Ring series and so many others.  My father read to us out loud every night too. (Just one more chapter, pleeeease!)  We were not distracted by television, we did not have one.  No computers either back in the middle ages of my youth.  (Although maybe if we’d had a TV, I could have improved my Modern Standard Arabic from the cartoons!)

I never attended a formal class in English until I got to university.  In my freshman year, I thought I should take Freshman English, to make up for what I’d missed out on.  The first day, the professor convinced me not to take the class.  “You’ll be really bored,” he said.  Instead, I took the CLEP test that gave me college credit for both levels of Freshman English.  I am not saying this to boast, I am just using this as an example of how powerful reading is.  We can’t overemphasize its importance.

Back to the homeschooling co-0p idea: the kids should be able to explore creative outlets as part of their daily activities.  Art, music, drama and sports.  School nowadays focuses so much on the left brain.   What about the right brain, and the rest of the body?  To paraphrase Ken Robinson, it’s as if modern education sees our bodies as  just transportation for our brains, slightly to one side.  Our son Amin is the prototypical right-brainer.  He loves to dance, he is someone who needs to dance every day.  He puts on his favorite music, something like Ravi Shankar tabla music, or Chinese sword dance music, and he just dances, usually with no one watching.  He is also the boy who is so drawn to images, he can “read” comic books for a good 45 minutes at a time, i.e. just look at the pictures and get a whole story from them.  At the same time, he’s not a very language-oriented person.  Concepts like “tomorrow” or “next week”, questions like “what day is today?” are hard for him to conceptualize.  I’m loathe to send him to the Moroccan school system that will have him sitting at a desk up to seven hours a day, learning abstract notions in two foreign languages.

I also think that when the kids aren’t so caught up in school, there is lots of time to explore.  Our children don’t even know their own city that well.  We’d like to take them to see all of Morocco, and eventually another country like Mali or Senegal.

I could go on and on, and I probably will in future posts.

Calling all Marrakesh parents interested in alternative homeschooling!  If you resonate with any part of this post, please contact me to begin a conversation about an alternative education cooperative.   It’s a lot of work, but it’s a creative project of massive importance.  Please write me at nora@clcmorocco.org and please repost this on any relevant sites.

Day of Sorrow

Thank you to all those who wrote to ask if we are ok.  Physically, yes, we don’t live anywhere near Cafe Argana on Jema el Fna.  But I am so stunned by the events that happened today.  First we heard reports that a Buta gas bottle had exploded in the Cafe.   Such a horrible thought.  But even more horrible is the reality that emerged as the day went on.   Not a gas bottle but a criminal act; an official death toll of 15.  We heard from a friend who happened to be in Jema el Fna at the time of the explosion.  He was one of the first to rush in and help evacuate the stunned victims.  He spoke of the French mother who had lost her 10 year old daughter.  Heartbreaking.

Moroccans today are outraged at this act.  Callers on the local radio channel Radio Plus that covered the event all day were all adamant in condemning this crime.  Their message is clear, one voice saying, this is NOT from our ways, our religion, or any religion.  All are calling for justice.

For those in Marrakesh who want to help, there is an urgent need for blood donations, especially O- at the Hopital ibn Tofail.  There are as many as 20 critically injured victims being cared for there.

L’hôpital de Marrakech A Besoin de Votre sang , spécialement O- (universel)
Centre de Transfusion Sanguine Marrakech Menara
Adresse: Hôpital Ibn Toufial Hôpital
Marrakech .
Téléphone fixe : 0524 43 89 48
Faire circuler ce Message SVP

I pray for those souls that departed today, may God’s mercy and gentleness envelop them.  For all those who lost beloveds, I cannot fathom your pain, my heart is aching for you on this day of sorrow.

How you can help

poor single mother in Morocco

Chaima, Khadija and mom pose for their first family picture ever.

So now what?  Thank you all for your overwhelming responses to Sa’eedah’s story, both by email and in the comments section.  I am blessed to have this little community of blog readers who take the time to really read and feel the stories.  And care!   It makes blogging a worthy use of my time.

A number of you out there asked how you could help.  As I see it, single mothers like Sa’eeda and Nezha need both a short-term relief plan as well as a long-term life-transformative plan. The short-term plan is about survival.  It’s about all the little things we take for granted.  Nezha calls me about once or twice a month.  Several times she’s mentioned that her feet get so cracked that she has a hard time walking.  Now, I get the same problem in summer, it’s a small thing that can become very painful.  I advised Nezha to rub olive oil on her feet and wear socks all the time.  Her response? I’ll save up for some socks. She did not own any.  You can be sure that the next time I saw her I took her three pairs of socks.

For Nezha and her kids, being poor means a diet that consists mainly of bread, olive oil and tea.  My family’s morning omelets would seem an extravagant indulgence in protein to Nezha, who uses eggs as a rotation in her main meals, along with beans and the occasional bite of meat.  Nezha buys food on a daily basis, just the amount needed for the day’s meals, a dirham(10 cents) of flour, 2 dirhams (20 cents) of sugar, a potato or two.  Hot water is poured over used tea leaves to squeeze another pot out of them.  There are no leftovers (nor any fridge to store them in).

Every now and then, donations will come in for Nezha.  It is such a pleasure to deliver the treasures to her: 10 kg bags of flour and pasta.  20 cans of tuna.  Yes, most American cats and dogs eat a much richer diet than this family.  What would Nezha think of the cat food section at Costco?  In my mind, it’s hard for me to accept that both realities exist at once.  That what Nezha and her children need in a day (for everything, not just food) is the same as what an average American might spend on a latte and blueberry muffin (and maybe not even finish the whole thing).  Ok, I know, it’s easy to pick on US consumer habits…so let me just look at my own life for a minute, because I’m as guilty as they come.  There are enough inconsistencies and hypocrisies in my own spending habits, outings with the kids where we pay to eat, pay to play, pay for cheapy plastic stuff that I hate.  Yes, it is only due to my amazing levels of cognitive dissonance that I am able to do this.  (I can only hope that as I become more aware of others, I can eliminate more and more frivolous spending).  It’s not about beating ourselves up for every cent we spend, but yeah, it’s about our shared responsibility on this earth.

We must never underestimate the power of giving, even if it is 10 cents, a dollar, 20 dollars.  Of course there is always the debate over “aid versus trade” and does welfare make people lazy and are they going to buy drugs with it.  The short answer, in the case of these single mothers, is no.  As my father always says “if you err on the side of kindness and generosity, you won’t be wrong”.  In fact we must see each opportunity to give as a blessing for ourselves…that is one less dollar that we might have wasted and now we’re relieved of the burden of spending it.  Islamic teachings say that a good deed is rewarded tenfold, and sometimes it’s uncanny to give something away, only to receive a totally unexpected gift a few days later.  Wealth does not decrease through charity.  Giving away a portion of ones wealth only blesses and purifies the rest of it.  Give freely, give from what you love, there is enough for us all.

More concretely, here are some of my ideas:

1-Short-term help for three single mothers (Nezha, Chaima’s mom and Sa’eeda).  I believe there are a lot of people out there who would like to help with the immediate needs of these mothers.  What an honor for me to be the medium that connects between you and these women.  If you live in the US, please email me at nora@clcmorocco.org and we can discuss how to make a bank transfer.  I have a US account which facilitates things a lot, because I can withdraw the money from an ATM here.  Even 5 dollars helps a lot.  What would be great would be monthly pledges of 5, 10 or more dollars.  Some amount that won’t really affect you, but WILL affect them in a huge way.  If you live in Europe, I think it’s also fairly easy to transfer to a US account, but I’ll  have to research this.  I’d love to be able to offer something to these mothers similar to those “sponsor a child” programs, where the mother can count on a monthly contribution of 30-50 dollars for each child.

2-I will research what resources are currently available for women and girls in Marrakesh.  I will be your eyes and ears on the ground and compile the information necessary to assess what is needed in terms of infrastructure.

3-For the long term, I am reaching out to all of you for your ideas, resources, connections, experience, dreams, prayers…anything that comes to you for our common vision.  This is the MOST IMPORTANT PART.  In this whole process, my motto is “start small, THINK BIG”.  Even as we help someone survive day to day, we have to use these super-educated brains of ours to think creatively about poverty.  Vision.  Then planning and execution.  Don’t be paralyzed by your fear of imperfection.  So let our vision quest begin.

Morocco blog baby