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.


A handful of pebbles

Re-reading my last post, a few things dawned on me: one is that, although I never regret taking a picture, you may not feel the same way.  Blurry and boring, could have been the title of the post.  I vow to redeem myself…

But while you’re waiting (for me to redeem myself), let’s do something useful together.  Let’s have an (extremely short, I promise) lesson in Darija.  And what is Darija you might be wondering?  Well it’s simply the Moroccan dialect of Arabic.  It’s Arabic, minus any vowels, mangled beyond recognition, un-writable, fun, changing, current, loving, formulaic and spiritual (I say all that in the most affectionate way possible).  After all, it’s my second native language, along with English.

Our word for today is one that is appropriate to say  in any of the following situations:

your friend just

a) had a shower or went to the hammam

b) finished off a great couscous

c) bought some new clothes

d)put a down payment a new house

You get the idea

And what you should say, when in Morocco, is besseha (alternately, in text message darija “bss7a”, yes, 7 looks like the Arabic letter “ha”, a deep guttural “h”, but sorry, I can’t help you more than that with pronunciation via this blog, I just don’t see how that would be possible).  This simple word conveys a multitude of meanings.  A literal translation gives us “with health”, something like “to your good health”, or “wear it in good health”.  It means “I’m happy for you” , “congratulations”, “good for  you” and “you deserve it”.

It also has a deeper level of meaning.  In Morocco, where people just don’t have a lot, well, envy can certainly arise.  When you see someone (say your best friend) with something newly acquired, whether a new haircut or a newly re-decorated living room, what is your FIRST inward reaction?


Is it pure happiness for that person?

Or do you feel a slight pinch?

Do you immediately wonder how you can get the same?

Or does envy bubble and boil, like salt eating up a snail?

Does your inward reaction match your outward reaction?

Do you want your friend to have a life as good as yours?  Or even better?

Well, maybe it’s a little of everything.  But for me, a true and pure happiness for others is a goal, perhaps a lifelong goal.  When I find people with this quality, I inhale really deeply, maybe I can soak up some of their kindness and sincerity.

From what I’ve observed in Morocco, and in my own self, is that saying a word like “besseha” can put out the fire in my heart very quickly.  Maybe pure happiness for others’ blessings is not your/my first instinct, but maybe we can train our hearts to do this.  Saying besseha, to me, is like saying “I purify my heart from envy for your blessing”.  It’s like stomping on the fires even as they are lighting.  I say it as much for my own benefit as for my friend’s.

Words are so inadequate, and yet they’re what we have, and they are a miracle.  They are like small stones that we give and receive from each other…some are common pebbles, some are semi-precious, and others are rare gemstones.  “Besseha” is somewhere in there, in the mix, a discreet little gem, not the most magnificent, but a good token to exchange often and freely.

And the response to it is: Allah ya’teek sahha, which means: “may God give you health”.  An equally expansive and magnanimous expression, one which does not focus on oneself, or even the blessing, but rather on the Source of the blessing.

Much love from Marrakesh, and “besseha” on your latest blessing, whatever it may be!