Monday, August 13, 2018

Changed

My grand summer adventure in Morocco is concluded.  I have returned to America.  But my journey has just begun, and I am not done with Morocco yet.  In fact, there is much more ahead...

Last week, I awoke to a day in Marrakech of 108 degrees.  I never needed an umbrella during the almost five weeks there, but the skies outside of my apartment looked ominously dark.  I decided it was time to go.  In a matter of hours, I changed my flight, packed my bags, tidied my apartment,  lugged two suitcases and a carry-on down five flights of stairs, gave away perishable food to my apartment complex guard, turned in the keys, notified my teacher that I would not be able to make our evening lesson, texted my husband to pick me up at JFK that night, lugged my bags out to the avenue, hailed a taxi, and made my way to the airport.  Deposited in the departures area by my cab driver, I was immediately approached by a stranger to assist with my bags, but I declined with a la, shukran because these are not airport employees but rather some of the many who are just trying to make a living, yet, I had learned that in most matters I could fend for myself.  As I entered the terminal, the skies opened with a torrential deluge, thunder, and lightning, confirming for me that I had made the right decision.  This was the day.

The first leg of the trip was filled with turbulence, giving my seat partner the dry heaves.  I, on the other hand, managed calmly with a meditative inner peace acquired from knowing the difference between what can be controlled and what cannot.  Changing in Casablanca, I was reminded that in other parts of the world, polite queuing to go through security and customs is not the norm, but now I know how to elbow my way through to fill in the empty spaces and inch my way forward in a crowd of travelers no matter the bottleneck at the front.  I am grateful for the gift of letting go of what is not important.

And so, I bid farewell to my beloved Morocco with bittersweet tears, having accomplished what I set out to do - knowing enough Arabic to converse a little with locals and writing enough poetry to perhaps cobble together a small book - and learned what I'm truly capable of on my own.  Within a few days after my return, I started talking about when I would go back, much to my dear husband's consternation.  I know now that my purpose there is incomplete and returning is inevitable.

So I remain, one foot on each continent, an American as well as a Moroccan, a citizen of the world, a teacher as well as a writer, a Christian as well as a Muslim, both and all, no longer strictly mono-linguistic.  I am changed.  I am reminded of the adage, "You cannot step in the same river twice," meaning that the river is ever-evolving as the waters flow by, so a step forward from the same embankment on different days is a step forward into a different reality. I could not possibly be the same me after this.  I could not possibly look at the world in the same way, and that's a good thing.  My goals were met, but there is so much more to do with my one wild and precious life.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A New World Opens


“Jam Session” 25 July 2018, Café Clock, Kasbah, Marrakech
        What an amazing find!  A hip place in the southern section of the kasbah (the older part of the medina) – new juxtaposed against old.  Trendy music in a funky ambiance.  A cozy downstairs courtyard and seating, and a shaded terrace upstairs.  Vegetarian and vegan fare or meat, whatever your preference.  Activities every night.  Tonight, I’ll have dinner and take in a jam session.  I will come back tomorrow for a cooking class and maybe stay for evening storytelling.  I took a cab here driven by a fellow named Ahmed.  We talked in Arabic for the whole 20-minute ride: I told him I’m American; I am in Morocco studying Arabic; in America I teach English; my husband and daughter are in America; and I’m 54; he told me he is 46, that he has two boys – Elias and Hamid – and one daughter – Hima – and that his wife is expecting their fourth child (to which I replied, mabruk! Congratulations!), that his wife is Amazigh, that his wife and children are visiting the mountains now, that it is hot here in Marrakech, that I should teach English here in Morocco, and on and on.  I understood and was understood, and it was thrilling.  It is as if a world has opened to me.  Now, I watch the activity in the kasbah from this terrace and feel its light breeze as the sun begins to set, and wait as my dinner is prepared. 
 

“Cooking Class” 26 July 2018, Café Clock, Marrakech
Cooking class today with head chef Mohammed began with coffee and a discussion of the menu.  We chose Zalouk - an aubergine (eggplant) appetizer, Harira soup, seven-vegetable couscous, and a dessert of macaroons.  Then, we went shopping in the medina souks for our herbs, spices, and vegetables. 
While out, I tried some fresh buttermilk made from goat’s milk – ladled from one of the two storage containers on the back of the seller’s motorbike into metal cups later rinsed in a bucket of water on the ground.  It tasted sour, like yogurt, but not bad.  Mohammed showed me the butcher shop, with its carcasses hanging in the open air and cuts of meat bloodying the counter.  Live chickens were pulled from cages at the other shop and placed, squawking and flapping, into a basket against the counterweight on the other side of the scale.  Unrefrigerated eggs are purchased loose from carton flats.  Cats slink by, trying, like us, to avoid being hit by motorbikes or donkey-drawn carts.  All of this must be accepted, and my American sensibilities suspended, to proceed. 
We return, and I am offered Moroccan spiced coffee for a short break before we begin.  It tastes like the chicory coffee from Café du Monde in New Orleans.  We take our items upstairs and begin.
First, we wash all and chop the herbs and onions.  We boil tomatoes and roast the eggplants on the open burner.  We prepare the soup stock with onions, tomatoes, herbs and oils and prepare the flavorings for the eggplant, which is all finely minced and re-heated on the stove.  Meanwhile, the couscous is prepared with water to rise and then with salt and oil.  Finally, the soup ingredients are added (chickpeas, tomatoes and water) up to the rim of the pot and left to boil while the couscous is steamed over boiling vegetables.  To add flavor to the couscous dish, we caramelize sliced onions with raisins.  We take a leisurely break for a banana yogurt drink, and then, as the food is finishing, we mix date paste, butter, sugar, and coconut with a little baking powder and roll the macaroon balls in powdered sugar to bake.  All the while, I listen to the music and the voices rising from downstairs and the sounds of the kasbah outside.
Mohammed serves the meal.  He joins me as we each spoon the vegetable couscous into our mouths from a shared serving dish, and he pours me tea with the cookies, which we share with a group of young French students at the next table. I am ready to try out my new cooking skills and language on others.  I am becoming like a local.


“Dinner with Friends” 1 August 2018, Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech
        Tonight, I was to meet my teacher Saida at the Carre Eden mall for a lesson.  Instead, she and her friend and fellow teacher, Fatima, met me outside the Koutoubia Mosque, and we spent our evening in the Jemaa el Fna market in the medina.  The market was packed tonight, and we had to fend off hawkers with "la, shukran," (no, thanks) over and over among the crowded evening souks to get to the specific destination to which I was leading my friends.  I introduced them first to my soup-connection, Abdoul.  He was quite delighted to see that I brought friends and ushered us to a place of honor on the benches and tables arranged around the giant soup pots, taking my bowl from the young worker to serve it to me himself, with a hand to his heart in gratitude.
         The soup was so hot, served that way, like tea or coffee, to encourage taking time to eat slowly, savor, and talk with friends rather than rushing on.  That is one of my favorite things about Moroccan culture.  So much about the daily routine is intended to make people stop what they are doing and be human beings, to take them out of their attention to tasks and encourage attention to inner self and community.  Though the sun had set, the temperature was still so high, and I patted myself with my scarf again and again.  I didn't need the soup, really, and it just brought about that much more perspiration, but I couldn't resist.  It was as delicious as usual, and I feel that I could return there day after day.  
           After, I led Saida and Fatima on another quest.  This time, I brought them to my favorite spot for cooling off and watching the activities from the edge of the marketplace: Cafe Argana.  We walked all the way up to the third floor for the best view.  The entire market was lit up with thousands of lights like the fireflies I miss from home, abuzz with the life of seller and buyer, snake charmer's flute and musicians' drums and singing.  The cafe was also alive with conversation and the clinking of glasses, the waiters in their crisp, white shirts and black aprons hurrying back and forth.  We chose ice cream and cool water.  There, they helped me practice my Arabic by narrating the goings-on, teaching me new words, and quizzing me on what I have learned.  Saida had to do double-duty as translator since Fatima speaks little English.  We laughed and ate and lapped up our ice cream like teenage girls at an American Friendly's restaurant.  We took many giddy "selfies" and looked out on the market from the balcony.
          Finally, we meandered through the market and stopped to listen to a group of desert musicians.  An elder from among them placed a traditional hat on my head and led me in a dance while my companions laughed and filmed us.  I thanked him with a few coins, and we stayed awhile longer, laughing, clapping, and dancing together until it was so late that I knew I had to find a taxi or I would have trouble getting one willing to take me all the way to my neighborhood.  Our final walk through the crowd and the souks out to the taxi stand was a slow one as we did not want to part.  They each made the sign of a heart with their fingers to let me know that they have a big, big love for me.  I feel the same, and that is the reason I am here: to connect with other people, to love one another, to make peace in this world.


Saturday, August 4, 2018

Morning Music and Afternoon Coffee


Lying in my bed looking at the blue sky and sunlight through my curtained window, I hear the daily constant of nearby construction.  Each day there is the banging of steel girders and of mallet on wedge as bricks are pounded into place.  But today my attention is drawn out the window into the courtyard below by two turbaned street musicians, one with a simple, hand-held, bendir snare drum and the other with a traditional ghaita flute.  They are walking the streets playing for money, and I watch as a young boy hands them a coin through a gate and another from a first-floor window.  They protest that the amount is not adequate and there is a heated exchange until the boy runs away and the other closes the window.  As they walk away, they suddenly look up to see me in my fifth-floor window.  They wave, I wave, and I close the window and retreat.

After a cold, delicious midday salad from Les 2 Freres, listening to a mentally-ill elder shout vehemently at passersby from the curb, I retreated to my familiar neighborhood café, where my barista held out his hand, so pleased was he to see me after a number of days’ absence.  We exchanged pleasantries, I ordered my usual qahwa nuss nuss, and I sat outdoors in the shade to study my textbook.  At the restaurant, my usual server and the owner had also been pleased to see me.  I ordered and paid in Arabic, but we also asked each other how we have been: kayf halik? Alhamdollah. Wa kayf ahlan? Ana bikhayr. Before my arrival there for my meal, I stopped at my local grocer and bought toothpaste in Arabic: anaurid maejun al’asnan?  He smiled and held up different brands and sizes for me to choose from.  I pointed and confirmed what I wanted: saghir (small), na’am (yes).  Now, I drink my coffee and study and write and listen to jazz and watch people walk by and think of how lucky I am in all respects.  There is a newspaper on the chair, and I can just about make out the headline: “22.5 million Moroccan users and 26 million cell phones and 16 million activists in the network.”  Since I don’t yet know the grammar, I’m not sure exactly what the headline is telling me, but… I can read a headline of an Arabic-language newspaper, and that’s enough.  And the old man steadily shuffles down the street sitting, from time to time, on the piece of cardboard he carries and taking a break to shake his finger at and reproach the people who come and go for whatever reason he imagines he must.  His sudden yell at one point scares a cat up a tree.  Now, the café owner has arrived for the evening shift, and he sees me and stops to come shake my hand and say hello.  

These things feel ordinary and comfortable now.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Marketplace


I walk out to the avenue to catch a taxi.  As I stand on the side of the road checking my phone, I realize that I am about to step on a dead cat and her kitten, decomposing in the dried grass under the African sun, the kitten’s mouth still searching the mother’s belly for the milk that would not come.  In Morocco, cats are everywhere and welcomed, but there were not enough scraps for this one.  Today is my last class at the language center.  I would like more, but I did not arrange for more, and now there is no spot for me.  I could join a group, but they are more advanced.  I don’t want to slow their progress, so I decline.  I feel awkward.  I have brought my camera today.  I ask another student to take a picture of me and Saida in front of the board with my writing in Arabic on it.  

Instead of going home, I wait for bus #1 in the opposite direction.  It is a long wait.  A young woman and a middle-aged one, both in head scarves, sit along side me on a low concrete wall near the bus stop.  When they see the bus coming, they get up and motion for me to join them.  On the ride to the marketplace at the medina, young women sit next to me, and we each fan ourselves with whatever we can find.  I ask when we near it whether this is the stop for Jemaa el-fna, and they say la, not yet.  At the next stop, I make as if to get up, and again, la, with the gesture to remain seated.  The third time, it is the stop, near the Koutoubia Mosque, where all the buses come and go, and the taxis, and the people who live in the medina, and the tourists, and the alhudhiuwn who drive the horse-drawn carriages, lined up in three separate queues all along the colonnade.  I walk past them all and enter the massive, open marketplace.  

It’s Friday afternoon, so it is not as crowded as it would usually be since this is the Muslim sabbath.  I know where I want to go.  I walk around the outskirts of the cluster of vendors to avoid the hawkers, the snake charmers, the henna artists, the monkey handlers, the musicians, the poor and the drug addicted, all of whom want my attention and my money.  I head straight for Café Argana for lunch and a view of the activities.  Just before I reach it, a fruit vendor invites me to buy some of his goods, but I decline.  I round the corner past the oranges, mangoes, and peaches displayed at vendor after vendor when I feel something warm running down my leg.  For a moment I am horrified to think that I have released some fluid from my body, but I realize that it is black tobacco juice along the side of my right leg, trailing down to my ankle and into my blue canvas shoes.  I look around but there is no sign of where or whom it came from.  

I enter the Argana, past the doorman, past the brass fittings, past the hostess, and to the counter, where I take a paper napkin from the display and stoop to wipe my leg.  I move up the three flights of stairs and am escorted to a seat on the balcony facing the square, where I eat a meal of green olives spiced with harissa, fresh bread, fresh orange juice, salad nicoise, and a coffee.  From here, I can see the locals and the tourists shopping, and I watch the food vendors setting up their metal pole frames and canopies for the evening meals.  I write.  I take pictures.  From this vantage point, I can see the whole square and hear the music of the snake charmers and performers.  

When it is time to pay for my meal, I am mortified to learn that they do not take credit cards.  By scrounging in my pockets for loose change, I have just enough to pay the bill.  But I have nothing for a tip.  I apologize twice, and the friendly waiter assures me it is no problem.  Down the stairs and out the door, I cross the square along the outskirts again, avoiding the ever-increasing crowds and scooters zooming diagonally past.  I make my way to the nearest ATM, take out a few hundred dirham, looking over my shoulder at the beggars parked on the steps nearby.  I need change.  I search a bookshop for some small, inexpensive paperback but cannot find one I like.  I browse the cheap bracelets with their Fatima hands, but I already have three of those.  I decide on a two-sided tabla pellet drum and a small Amazigh doll for my friend’s nephew and niece.  The seller wants three times what I should pay, and I haggle him down to my price, telling him that I want “the Moroccan price” not the tourist one.  He is a tough bargainer, but I win out.  

Armed with the change, I return to the Argana and up the stairs, surprising my waiter and shaking his hand to transfer to it the tip that is perhaps a little higher than I need to.  I am trying to make a good impression of an American woman in this country.  Before I leave, there is one person I want to see.  I walk along and in between the food vendors - the souks - knowing as I do that I am going to be harassed by the hawkers they employ to bring in customers, so high is the competition for business.  Again and again, I wave them away with la, shukran – no, thank you.  Eventually, I see him.  My soup guy from four months ago.  

We ate here two nights in a row because it was the best soup we’d ever had.  It is early, and he does not yet have business.  He is sitting and talking with another man.  He does not even yet have his apron on.  A group of musicians and dancers is performing nearby, and he has many distractions, so he does not notice when I sit down on the bench seat at the metal table.  I look directly at him, remove my straw hat and my sunglasses, and he recognizes me with astonishment.  I ask, “Do you remember me?”  He says that he does, and to prove it, talks about me coming there with my zawj (husband).  He is so delighted that he puts his hand to his heart in a gesture of peace and immediately gets me a bowl of just-made soup from a large tureen.  I’m not hungry, but I cannot turn him down, force myself to eat it, and it is as delicious as I recalled.  I declare it bnin and he is tickled.  I tell him ana asmi Ellen, and he tells me his name is Abdoul.  We smile and nod before he goes back to his conversation.  

After the soup, before I leave, I look around and take in the scene and then surreptitiously film it with my phone.  It is not common for Muslims here to allow their photograph, and I haven’t asked permission.  Making my way back out of the marketplace, I stop to get some dates, top of the line Medjool kind from all the dried fruit available at the vendor.  I speak in Arabic and wish him jumma Mubarak, good sabbath, which surprises and pleases him enough for him to bestow on me a handful of ras al hanout, spiced nuts, as a gift.  More vendors call me to them, but I leave with a smile, a wave, and la, shukran.  

I leave the square and follow the colonnade back to the bus stop, passing again the horse-and-carriage lines.  Just as I pass one, the horse releases a forceful jet of hot piss so that I must veer to the left to avoid its splash zone.  A man waiting on a bench sees this, and we both smile and shrug our shoulders.  

I sit at the bus stop next to a little girl and her jidda, grandmother.  I pull out my camera and begin to shoot the traffic going by: the yellow petit taxis, the motor scooters, the bicycles, the cars and pickup trucks, the carts led by donkeys, and all of the people weaving their way in and between it.  I take close ups of architectural details that interest me.  In this way I try to capture the scene.  I notice the little girl staring at me and I smile and speak to her, asking her how she is doing – kayf halik and commenting that it is hot – har.  She sees my ankle bracelet, and I point to the Fatima hand on it as well as on my other bracelets and earrings.  Now, her grandmother is interested too.  I point to my tattoo of the Amazigh yaz symbol for “the free people.”  The grandmother’s eyes widen and she points to herself, indicating that she is Amazigh.  She places her hand on her heart and then gives me a thumbs-up sign.  We smile at one another.  

I decide that the bus is taking too long, that I am hot and tired and want to be in my own place.  So, I walk out from the curb and hail a cab.  When I lean into the open window to negotiate the price, he tells me something so exorbitantly high that I balk and step away.  He then asks what I’m willing to pay, and I tell him the amount, a fourth of what he has offered.  I point to the meter and insist that he use it.  He declines and I walk away, hailing a second cab as I hear the first driver calling after me.  This younger driver accepts the use of the meter, but before I can get in, the first cab nearly tries to butt me with his fender and beeps for me to get out of the way.  A scooter takes this opportunity to wend its way between the two cabs, nearly crashing into me.  I remain calm, standing there in the middle of the busy street, and let the first cab and the scooter pass so I can open the car door.  I turn back to look at the girl and grandmother, who have been watching all of this with interest, and we wave to one another.  

In the cab, the driver and I hold a short conversation in Arabic and I note that he is playing American music.  I ask him to play something Moroccan.  I watch out the window as we leave the medina behind, zip through Gueliz and out to Mabrouka, my neighborhood.  As we approach it, I indicate for him to turn yasar – left – at the light, and the driver asks in Arabic if my husband is Moroccan – zawji almaghribi?  I answer no, that jinsiati amreekya – my nationality is American – and that is where my husband is, that I am talaba and l’taellma alearabia – I am a student and I am learning Arabic.  He is surprised and nods.  I say, qif – stop – and he pulls over.  The fare is ½ a dirham above the price I offered to pay the first cab driver who turned me down – the equivalent of about 50 cents more.  I am not to be trifled with.  This driver is happy with what I have paid along with the small tip, and I exit with mae salama.  

I walk through the courtyard and climb the five flights of stairs to my apartment.  I am glad to be home.  The marketplace is energizing and exciting to visit, and it is full of obstacles.  To successfully navigate it as an American woman on my own, I have had to be confident, alert, savvy, and firm.  I have to be cautious with whom I converse and for how long and what I say, lest I give the wrong impression.  The marketplace is a good metaphor for life in general.  This day was like life, too.  Sometimes you get spit on, harassed, you are uncomfortable, and you almost step in dead cat.  Other times, you can relax and put your feet up, enjoy good food, be on the receiving end of a kind smile, and be accepted by strangers.  All in all, it was a good day.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sweet as Sucar

Some thoughts from the past few weeks...

7 July
Yesterday was my first full day on my own without a translator.  It was harder than I thought it would be.  As it was Friday, most shops were closed from 12-3 for the sabbath.  In the afternoon, I went up to the avenue to buy an onion for dinner and some toilet paper and paper towels and bottled water.  I asked for papier toilette and got what I needed, but the word I had for napkin was wrong.  I then tried papier macula and made a mouth-wiping motion.  He understood, my local grocer, a kind man maybe in his 40s.  After depositing my items at home, I went back out and found a taxi.  The driver was kind and helpful.  I showed him the name and address of the shop.  I’m in a residential area, so I had to walk a bit to find and flag down a yellow petit taxi.  I asked him to use the meter, which he did, no problem – mashi mushkilah.  He picked up another passenger along the way, a Moroccan man, so I just listened to them talk.  It cost only 14dh (about $1-2).  At the computer store, Bestmark, I used the few words I have – salaam alaykoum (hello), ana makenedharsh b darija mezyaan (I don’t speak Darija well), and katehdar b lingliziya (do you speak English?).  Fortunately, they did speak a little.  I successfully purchased a router for the apartment and paid for a service plan for a month and the whole only cost about $50.  A young woman and man helped me.  She asked if I was working here and I explained that I am a student (ana talaba).  I decided to rest at nearby Cafe al Ousra with a qahwa nuss nuss (half coffee, half milk) to check my email and watch the Brazil vs. Belgium match.  A coffee with a small bottled water is only 9dh (about $1).  I felt so good at that point that I might as well have landed on the moon.  

Deciding to walk home, I first made my way down the avenue, turning right to connect to Rue Lt. Mohammed Zeroual.  I had to walk along this busy highway in the heat and was glad for my trusty straw hat.  Because my friend Hassan told me it was smarter to cover my legs and shoulders, I wore jeans and a white sleeveless sweater with my kimono cover-up.  The route took me past a high hill and walled fortress on my left.  Finally crossing the intersection at Blvd. Abdelkrim al Khattabi, and taking the first exit off the roundabout, I turned left down a quaint, quiet residential street and found the black door, 102 Bis, Arset, entry to the salmon building of Lessane Arabi Center where I will begin my lessons on Monday.  Snapping a photo of it, I walked back down the lane, confident that I could get there again.  I took a photo of every turn on the way back home, so I could retrace my steps.  Before setting out on the next 30-minute leg of the journey, I stopped at a small, neighborhood, bodega-type store and bought a lemon-flavored water for 4dh (about 40 cents) from the little boys working there.  The shorter route took me through a construction site and abandoned lots with piles of garbage, a stray dog, and a homeless man.  Deciding it was unwise to continue, I hurried through and back out to the main road of N9, turning left onto N7 at the roundabout past the McDonald's.  I saw that there were some cafes, pizza shops, bakeries, and a sushi place.  I saw women in short dresses with no scarf and envied them as I continually patted my cheeks and brow with the sleeve of my kimono.  I also saw women in hijabs and kaftans and thought, “Why must we be so uncomfortable in this heat?”  The road was long and the walkway uneven with broken pavement or just dirt and stones.  But it was not long before I reached Acharaf Avenue and the auto lavage (car wash).  On the left was a hair salon, and on the right the Café R & M, where I asked a man standing near the crowded entrance and he told me that Belgium had just beaten Brazil.  I continued past Les 2 Freres eatery and then saw my local grocer just past Damane Cash and Zidwi fast food.  I thought to myself, “This is my neighborhood.”

10 July
Yesterday, I learned that yulyuz is July.  I like my teacher, Saida.  She is 24, kind, and patient.  She is Amazigh and wears a head scarf.  She knows all the languages my friend Hassan knows and says that teaching is her dream.  I want so much for her to have her dream.

17 July
My teacher is as sweet as sucar.  When I talked to her about my daughter, she said, anti ‘umm hanun, meaning “You are a soft-hearted mother.”  We talk about many things in between lessons.  Morocco, America, teaching, learning, religion, immigration, freedom, destiny.  I drew her a map of the U.S. and she asked where certain cities are: NYC, DC, Miami.  We talked about different kinds of people, including Amish, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness – and what it is like for Muslims living in America.  Even as I write this I see her lovely smiling face surrounded by her hijab and I want to use the words amrykyh, almaghribi, kalimat, maktub, qadar, alhurrayya, nas.  I want to learn and remember just to hear her say, jayed, Ellen.  Good, Ellen.

18 July
I am walking to the bus stop, and it is already in the 80s.  I see that the bus is already there, but there is a red light.  The driver sees me and waits.  This is a small blessing but appreciated.  The bus is crowded.  No seats.  But there is an open window and a breeze when we are moving.  I close my eyes and enjoy this small blessing.  A woman bends to kiss the infant in her arms.  When she looks up, our eyes meet.  She smiles at me, another small gift this day.  There is a café near where I disembark.  I am early for my lessons.  I have time for a coffee and croissant, to sit for awhile to think, to see, to write, to be in the shade and in the shadow among men who do not notice me.  These are all blessings.

20 July
I am early.  Today, I treated myself to a cab ride.  I stopped at Amoud Patisserie and bought a Tarte Fine du Pommes for Saida and a less fancy apple turnover for myself.  There is the slightest of breezes and this is much appreciated as I sit here and listen to the midday/ sabbath call.  When I talked with Saida and told her how strongly I believe in charity and not eating pork and other meats, she asked, “Why are you not Muslim?”  How could I explain?  I don’t know the answer myself.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Food



Day 1: I lock Apartment 9 in Building C40 at Residence Najd.  I walk down the four flights, two flats on each floor, and out the front entrance.  I remember to turn right and walk out to the street, greeting the complex guard with, “Marhaban.”  In the street, I’m unsure whether to cross or turn and the guard – a middle-aged man with a bit of a belly stretching his short-sleeved, white, button-down shirt – rises from his seat under a shady tree and approaches me with a quizzical expression.  I say, “Makula?” and he motions his hand to his mouth, thinking I am looking for a restaurant.  I say, “La (no) …um …farmacie?” thinking that I don’t know the word for grocery but if I add the French for pharmacy, he will send me where I remember I need to get to.  He points to the blue gate across the street and I say, “Shukran.”  Happily, I walk in that direction and along a walkway, past some motorbikes, and out onto the main street. 
To my right is the produce and butcher shop.  I choose an avocado, a tomato, a zucchini, a peach, a bunch of grapes, a red pepper, a fig, and two oranges.  The fellow gives me a bag for my items and I give him a dirham note and wait for my change.  I go next door to the other grocery and begin to find the other items on my list.  I find coffee, honey, pasta, dish soap, water, olive oil, yogurt, bread, milk, and orange juice.  I cannot find cubed sugar or bar soap.  So, I ask the clerk for sabun (soap), and he offers me Dove or something Moroccan, so I pick the one that’s familiar.  I ask for sucar (sugar) and he shows me a bag of it.  I say saghir and he somehow knows from “small” that I mean sugar cubes and locates a box for me.  Last are eggs, but they are sold loose.  The boy helper begins to place some in a bag for me when I motion to them, and I tell him I want five – khamsa - because I honestly cannot remember the words for any of the other numbers.  The clerk tallies my items and writes the total on a paper that he shows me.  I give him another dirham note and gather my change.  Shukran,” I say. 
Returning along the same route, I notice a man praying on some pieces of cardboard between the motorbikes, and I remember hearing the muezzin calling everyone to prayer just as I was leaving my apartment.  As I pass the guard with my three bags, he nods and smiles, and I smile back.  He motions for me to go to the left and I thank him – shukran – and walk the rest of the way to C40 with a little lift to my step.  Up the five flights, I set down my bags outside the door, enter with them, and close the door behind me.  I have made my first successful shopping trip with my limited Arabic, and I feel like it’s one of the greatest achievements. 
I wash and put away my fruit.  I boil some water for coffee, and enjoy it with my one, succulent fig.  I’ve not been this proud of myself in a long time.  For dinner, I cut up my avocado and halve the red pepper, place them on a plate with some salt and olive oil and half the bread.  The avocado is not quite ripe, but I don’t even care.

Day 5: There is a McDonald’s at the intersection of N7 and N9 in Marrakech.  It’s unlike any I’ve ever seen in the U.S.  It’s two stories, sleek and modern in design, with steel and wood and tinted windows.  It looks out of place here.  Alien.  I think I am like that McDonald’s, though certainly not as new and sleek.  But out of place.  Alien.  No matter how many years I were to live here or how well I were to learn the language, I would never completely fit in.  I am tempted to eat at McDonald’s even though it’s terrible food because at least I know what I’ll get there.  It’s easy.  But I’m not here to do things the easy way.  And even if I don’t fit in, I won’t be defeated.

Day 6: I have discovered the bus.  Hallelujah!  Returning after lessons, though, I took the wrong one.  No matter.  I ended up in Gueliz having a lovely lunch of couscous in a cool room with white tablecloths at my leisure.  What I had planned to eat for lunch at home I’ll have for dinner.  I can catch the bus back the other way if I pay better attention.  Sometimes, when life takes you in an unplanned direction, just go with it.

Day 16: I sit at a table for two, alone, outdoors at Les 2 Freres.  There is a carafe of water and a small glass.  There is a cruet of olive oil.  American and Moroccan dance music plays and the cars and motorbikes scoot by.  Flies are everywhere no matter how much I swat them away.  They land on the brown table and the small glass, the plate of spaghetti, the napkin, and my shoulder.  A woman in floral head scarf and peach caftan eats French fries at the next table with her curly-headed little boy in shorts, a tee, and sandals as he plays with his Spiderman action figure and toy police car.  He doesn’t like when I look at him and pulls a frown.  An elderly man in white, pinstriped shirt and grey trousers waits patiently in a chair for his takeout order.  Delivery boys and wait staff come and go past all of us.  I am waiting a long time after finishing my food for the waitress to present me with my bill.  The pace is slow in Morocco.  The heat makes everyone sluggish.  I stare across the street at the cinnamon and ginger-colored buildings with the couture shop and the optical center, listening to a Maroon 5 song, Adam Levine vowing he’ll only stay with me one more night.  A teenage boy in a Morocco football team shirt sits atop a two-tiered pallet of gas containers for the home and scans his cell phone.  A fly lands on my wrist.  I stare at it as a tabby cat creeps under the next table for shade or food.




Saturday, July 21, 2018

A Few Days in Tighza

Two weeks ago, I was in the mountains, in Tighza.  What follows are some observations from that time.

July 2, Afternoon - I am in the café, the only woman here.  I do not wear a hijab.  There are orange walls and a cement floor, with plastic white chairs set to face the tv screen mounted on one wall.  Seven men and one boy are watching Brazil play Mexico in the World Cup this afternoon.  Some men wear djellabas; some are smoking, some drink coffee, some check their phones, and some play cards.  Outside the café, a man is praying.  The announcer calls the football plays on the tv while the fans in the stadium maintain a steady cheer and the men in the café comment.  Outside, in the sun, on a prayer rug laid on the ground, the man’s head dips, forehead to rug, over and over.  He returns to the café.  A fly lands on a glass of coffee.  I try to be still, to resist the urge to swat it away, to have this man’s concentration.  Moroccan men are like this, this combination of serious devotion and good-natured socializing.  Moroccan men work.  They sweat.  They are industrious.  They begin at waking and work all day, in the field, in the shop, in the tannery.  Moroccan men cook.  They make tajine.  Their industrious hands slice potatoes, carrots, onions.  They serve food to guests.  They pour tea.  It makes them happy to do it.  It is a way to serve God.  Moroccan men pray.  Throughout the day.  They hear the call and set aside their work.  They go to the mosque.  Or they set out their prayer rug.  They fast at Ramadan.  They give to the poor.  They live their religion.  Moroccan men are gentle.  They speak with kindness.  They smile at strangers.  They love their children.  They use a gentle hand to caress their children’s faces.  Moroccan men love peace.  They greet one another with salam and a hug and kisses on the cheeks.  They put their hand on their heart when they say goodbye.  Moroccan men love to have a good time.  They play music together.  They gather on the sofa or the floor to eat, talk, drink tea.  They watch football in the café, cheering when their team scores, shrugging off the losses. 

July 3, Morning - Lying in bed, I strain my ears for any indication of human activity in the morning light.  Finding none, I rise and look out the window.  From here, I can see three villages, their mud-colored structures blending into the hills.  Birds are singing, roosters are crowing, and a single donkey is braying and swishing his tail in his owner’s yard. A black and white cat steps along the wall below. I see no movement in the green fields, irrigated last night by lamplight, or in the village streets.  I might as well be the last person in the world.  I see Omar walking up the hill from his home to begin making my breakfast.  Omar is the cook for this mountain guest house.  He is skilled and sweet.  He doesn’t have enough English and I don’t have enough Arabic for us to truly communicate, so we use hand gestures, facial expressions, and nods.  He looks up as he walks.  We wave to each other.

July 3, Evening - The sun is setting over the mountain, and the café is full now.  One-by-one, the men have arrived, slowly making their way up the hill in their jeans and tees or polo shirts, the older men in djellabas.  Two little boys have joined us tonight.  They are playing their own card game.  The smaller one, Ali, in his red football jacket with the Moroccan star, always speaks to me in French, for all the good that does either of us.  Sometimes we just smile and wave.  The tall young man in a gray shirt has stepped outside for a phone call, the noise level in here too high for him to hear.  On occasion, a man will walk over and pick up the common prayer rug and take it outside.  The café door stands open for the last of the day’s light to save on electricity, so faithfully conserved.  The café smells like cigarette smoke, coffee, and mint tea.  But not alcohol.  One elder wears a light brown djellaba and leather slippers.  His incongruous baseball cap covers a head of white hair.  He moves his chair in position right under the tv.  Another elder sports nondescript work pants and short-sleeved shirt and a porkpie hat.  He is so delighted when the players score that he dances up to the screen and motions a kiss thrown up to them with a toothless grin.  Ali leaps to his feet and cheers for the overtime score on penalty.  The whole café is cheering now.  It’s two for two on the penalties.  Each misses the third.  Each gets the fourth.  England blocks the fifth and scores the final one.  The café erupts, and men playfully chase each other around.  They settle to a card game, and we walk up the steps for dinner.


July 4, Morning - In the morning, I join the men downstairs.  We have mint tea and fresh bread with olive oil.  I talk with Mohammed about politics.  We discuss racism, war, drugs, guns, safety, immigration, and social welfare.  When more men arrive for tea and conversation, he repeats to them in his language what he and I have discussed.  I don’t know all the words, but for the first time I understand the general meaning of what I’m hearing.  It makes me happy.  I ask about the stringed instruments I see propped against the walls of the front room, and Isslam picks up the banjo.  As he starts to play folk music, I begin to drum a beat on the sofa’s armrest.  Another man does the same, and Isslam sings.  I recognize the music from what I've been listening to for the past four months, and it brings tears to my eyes.  

July 4, Afternoon - Today, I’m in the kitchen with Omar.  I sit at a small, round, brown-and-tan, tiled table and slice and peel and chop – green peppers, eggplants, onions, tomatoes.  We boil the eggplant in an old-fashioned pot with a screw-on, compressor lid.  The tomatoes, onions, and peppers are sautéed in a tajine with spices and a little water and covered.  The remaining tomatoes, onions, and peppers are mixed with diced oranges for a salad with just a little olive oil.  Meanwhile, we are boiling arz (rice) and shredding fresh beets, to which we add a little orange juice.  When the eggplants are cooked, we drain them, add coriander, turmeric, cumin, saffron, and harissa as well as honey and olive oil.  We stir and mash, stir and mash.  We begin the plating around the edges – a little of the salad, a little of the beets, a little of the eggplant – and set it aside, covered.  Omar tests the eggplant dish with a torn-off piece of bread and shares it with me.  We silently agree that it’s just right.  In a little while, he returns to test the rice, which has been boiling uncovered.  He spoons out a little and puts the spoon on the counter, pulls a few grains into his mouth and nods that it’s done.  He turns off the heat and indicates that we will let it cool.  Merci, shokran, tanamert – we alternate with these different forms of “Thank you.”  When I am dicing vegetables, I ask saghir or kabir (small or big), and I am understood (saghir).  I ask for a bigger knife (sekeen), and I am understood.  Omar and I make lunch in this way.  

July 4, Evening - This afternoon, all the guests were working together in the kitchen with Omar to prepare dinner.  We peeled, diced, and sliced.  Some worked on the couscous.  Before everyone joined us, it was just me and Omar, he and I working on picking out the rocks from the dried lentils.  It was a quiet and sweet task.  It was a lovely dinner tonight.  Between us, we spoke English, Spanish, German, French, Arabic, Darija, and Tamazight.  I couldn’t help but notice how easily people flow in and out of languages.   Mohammed might speak Tamazight to Omar and then French to Dephanie and English to me.  After dinner, I joined the men in the front room and listened to their conversation, straining to understand any part of it, but at least becoming accustomed to the sounds, rhythms, and cadences.