Pomegranates, food for the heart

It’s definitely pomegranate season in Marrakesh.  Every city block has its own cart.  And at 6 dirhams a kilo (40 cents a pound) there is no reason to hold back.

pomegranate arils

Do you like pomegranates?  My kids love them, they scream with delight when I serve up a plate of the crimson jewels.  And I scream with delight internally knowing that my kids are crazy about one of the healthiest foods in the world.  Indeed, pomegranates have one of the highest levels of antioxidants of any food, three times the amount found in green tea.  Studies have linked pomegranate consumption to reduced blood pressure and bad cholesterol.  The flavenoids (a type of antioxidant) in pomegranates are effective in fighting both breast cancer and skin cancer, and a study has shown that pomegranate juice may slow the growth of prostate cancer.  The pomegranate also has anti-inflammatory properties, a high level of vitamin C and pantothenic acid.  The seeds present in each aril contain unsaturated oils (the good kind), and if you manage to chew them, you’ll be getting more than enough fiber.

Unfortunately, science has still not developed a protocol for picking out a good pomegranate.  It’s one of those obscure skills, like picking out a good watermelon, where many factors are in play.  The color, the amount of give when pressed with your thumb, the smell even.  It takes practice and a refinement of the senses to become a connoisseur.  There is always that moment of anticipation when we open up a pomegranate.    Will it be over-ripe and starting to ferment?  Under-ripe and still a little too tart?  Or will it just glorious; dark, sweet and juicy?

My advice is to just buy loads, you are bound to get some good ones.  Like human beings, a beautiful outside is no indication of what’s on the inside.  It’s usually the most undramatic and unassuming ones (fruits and people) that hide the most precious treasures.

pomegranates in Marrakech In Morocco, pomegranates are a beloved fruit because they are mentioned in the Quran as being one of the fruits of paradise.  In the chapter called “Ar Rahman” or “The Merciful”, the gardens of paradise are described thus, “in them are fruit trees, dates palms and pomegranate trees”.

The commentary on this verse addresses the fact that dates and pomegranates are mentioned distinctly, even though they are both fruits.  This is because dates are distinguished as being a source of nourishment, something a person could live on, while pomegranates are a cure for ailment.  Why would there be a cure for ailment in paradise?  The Sufi commentary points to the fact that some of the people entering paradise have spiritual imperfections, ailments of the hearts, and that the pomegranate tree is a symbol for the cure that they will find.

The Arabic word for pomegranate is rummaan, which in turn comes from a Persian word meaning “to illuminate”.  Indeed the translucent fruit catches and reflects light like a thousand dazzling rubies.  This celebration of light and perfection, each aril fitted to other with the precision of the world’s most delicate puzzle, encased in a dull, thick, leathery and bitter skin, is a perfect analogy for the infinitely complex microcosm that is encased in the human form.  It would only make sense that the pomegranate is a cure for the heart, both through its physical properties, and its spiritual ones.  There is a saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad that says “Whoever eats a pomegranate, God will illuminate his or her heart for forty days”.

So my dear ones, if you live in Morocco or on the Mediterranean basin, make pomegranates a daily delight, and eat to your heart’s content.  If not, then add this to list of reasons to visit.

Ramadan Night Prayers at the Koutoubia Mosque

I’m in a pre-mourning phase for Ramadan.  Today is likely to be the last day here in Morocco.  This evening we look for the moon, again.  If we see it, tomorrow will be Eid, a celebration.

Ramadan has made the transition back to Morocco, after two months in the states, very kind.  Most people are being the best they can be.  Those who generally “know better”, in Ramadan actually “do better”.  When I walk by, I can recognize the young men who might, if they weren’t fasting, make boorish cat-calls to me and any other female.  But because it’s Ramadan, they just lower their gaze (and I don’t need to puke, thank you very much).  Fasting and prayer are having a calming, pacifying effect on the whole country, and I’m so thankful for that.

One of the Islamic teachings about Ramadan is that “demons are chained up, and the gates of heaven are thrown open”.  It does seem that people are freed from their demons, because when you give up food, smoking, sex, drinking and drugs, for 14 hours a day, what demons are left?  In addition to these things, people voluntarily give up other vices, such as back-biting, lying and cheating.  I mean, who even has the energy for sin, when you are fasting in this heat?

So, substitute all that with prayer, reading of the holy book, increased devotion, increased charity, and really the gates of heaven ARE open.  This is God’s mercy,  the rahma, and we can get a taste of it even now.

One of the highlights of this Ramadan was going to pray at the Koutoubia mosque.  I don’t get much chance to pray in mosques, what with the kids and all, but when I do, I enjoy every minute.

I drove through the empty streets of Marrakesh, and really that was a treat in itself.  There is no other time when the driving is that pleasant.  The Koutoubia is easy to spot from afar.  The French colonials had the good sense to oriente several major avenues towards the Koutoubia, so it is, in a sense, the town center.

The Koutoubia mosque was built some 1000 years ago (ok, I’m a little loose with dates), by the founders of Marrakesh, the Almoravids.  It was then partially destroyed and rebuilt by the Almohads around 1150 C.E.  It stands at an impressive 69 m (221 ft) which was quite an architectural feat for its time.  Tonight, the towering minaret is all ablaze with lights.  Atop the minaret are 4 decorative golden balls, tour guides will often perpetuate the urban myth that highest ball was donated by the wife of Sultan Yaqoub el Mansour, who melted down all her gold jewelry, as penance for breaking her fast.  (I find this Arabian nights-esque tale rather implausible, as there are 3 ways of atoning for a fast that is broken for no reason: either freeing a slave, or if that’s not possible, then feeding 60 poor people, or fasting 2 months back to back).

The mosque was rebuilt a third time because the original orientation was not quite accurate.  Mosques are meant to face the direction of Mecca, or at least in the cardinal direction that is closest to the direction of Mecca.  However, many old Moroccan mosques faced due South.  This was what the Moroccans of old thought was the direction of Mecca.

The ruins of the old mosque remain, a large esplanade dotted with partially standing columns.  I am happy to find that this year, the ruins are actually being used for prayer space.  The Koutoubia has a capacity of 25,ooo people within its walls, but in Ramadan, even this is not enough.  So two large overflow areas have been designated, each with about 5,000 people.  In Ramadan, ALL the mosques are usually overflowing in this way, with sidewalks, even streets being converted to prayer space.

I join the 5,000 or so women in 1,000 year old ruins of the mosque.  I feel alive already.  I settle in and wait for prayers to begin, looking around at all the faces, young and old, rich and poor, all the colorful jellabas being worn, all the chatter and laughter.

Soon the call to prayer is made, the same call that has unfurled from this minaret, 5 times a day, every day for the last thousand years.  We stand, shoulder to shoulder, in long straight lines.  As the imam, or prayer leader, begins his recitation of quran a wave of joy comes over me.  He has a beautiful voice, which I recognize from quran CDs.  We spend the next hour standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting, sometimes listening to the imam’s melodious chanting, sometimes uttering our own silent prayers, always praising God, thanking Him, beseaching Him for His Mercy, Guidance and Forgiveness.

And lastly, thank you all for your loving, thoughtful, supportive comments.  I appreciate them more than you can imagine.  I am humbled and honored that you take the time to read this.

Peace from Marrakesh,  Nora.