Sinful pleasure

May 4, 2010 by

There are cookbooks that will never see a kitchen, and cooks who never saw a cookbook. So was the case at Ville Maroc, when a group of writers with different ethnic backgrounds and “overactive imaginations”, gathered around a table on the patio eagerly waiting for a late lunch. After some time, someone took a peek in the kitchen and noticed that the cook had just started cutting vegetables.

“Moroccan cuisine is one of the most sensual in the world,” said the guide. That may be true, but nobody warned us it is the slowest to make. In Morocco everything takes more time… to talk, to prepare food, even their Internet. We were famished when Zeiba asked us, “What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?”

“The best meal I’ve ever had? It’s called a gastrorgasm,” said Harry. He gets credit for inventing a new word to add to my English vocabulary. No matter where people come from, they love to talk about food since it’s the focus of their day, and often the focus of their culture. It didn’t take long for our group to start talking about the sumptuous Italian bread dough, Hindu soup, Turkish Baklava, et cetera. We were so hungry that these orgasmic dishes almost sounded better then the real thing. The guide’s story was interesting, but like our meal, it was slow to develop.

“Moroccan women can spend a whole week preparing one dinner,” said the guide. This didn’t sound promising. “It’s a diverse cuisine with many influences, so a single meal can consist of as many as fifty courses. It took my grandmother a day to make Bstilla, a crisp pastry filled with chicken and bread. Then she would make lamb Kebabs, a series of salads, followed by Tajine (meat and olives in a stew). Then came the Couscous and Batinjaan- an eggplant salad, accompanied with fruit and honey. The meal would be capped with a hot cup of mint tea.”

When he finished his story, we felt like exhausted lovers ourselves. And then the real lunch came. The meal was a simplified version of what the guide had described about Moroccan cuisine. I don’t know if it was the best meal in my life, but this was certainly the most memorable conversation about food I’ve ever had.


Photos of our Memorable Meal!

May 4, 2010 by

Check out some photos from our amazing Moroccan chef ‘s in action. Click on the image below to view the gallery.

Menu of our Memorable Meal

May 3, 2010 by

Rouleaux au Riz & aux amandes


Tomates, concombres à la marocaine

Carottes à la canelle & l’eau de fleur d’oranger

Courgettes de Salé au vinaigre de Fes

Choux aux oranges


Agneau aux pruneaux et au sesame


Nevrines (?) d’oranges & de fraises

Thés/ Cafés / Gateaux

Here is the menu of the lunch Natasa, Gary, Josh, and I helped to cook under the very sweet supervision of Raja.

Lamb Tagine for 22 served only one hour late! Hoping Gary will add the recipe and  Josh will add some pictures. I am left wondering why the canisters of spices there, ginger for example, smelled both more subtle and more complex than the powdered ginger we buy in the US? And does anyone (Mabrouck — a little research project for you)  know what a nevrine is? Or if that’s not right, what the word is for those wonderful fruit desserts in glasses?

Traces of West Africa in the streets of Fés

May 3, 2010 by

Sometimes history can be read in a design stamped in leather or found in the syncopated beat of a song.

In the medina of Fés, we stood inside the old walls of a fandouk, an inn dating to the 11th century. The first floor, with its high ceilings and open central courtyard, was a combination stable and warehouse. On the second floor were the rooms where the travelers stayed. Some of the guests may have come all the way across the Sahara, traveling in caravans from water source to water source with their camels. To the medina of Fes, they brought gold, slaves, and kola nuts from West Africa. In that very courtyard perhaps, they negotiated their sales, then loaded up their camels and set out south again across the desert carrying blocks of salt and the teachings of Islam.

Gold, salt, slaves, cowries, and kola nuts that split open like red hearts at the touch of a fingernail and promise to end thirst and hunger for those who chew them–these were the trade goods that were loaded up at one end of the trade route and unloaded at the other, haggled over, bartered and bargained for. But other commodities came along, too, invisible ones, traveling back and forth until it is sometimes difficult to sort out who brought and who received, who borrowed and who loaned.

The teachings of Islam traveled south with the traders, and when I hear the sing-song call to prayer rise above the medina of Fes, it recalls the little mosques in the villages of Mali and Burkina Faso and northern Ivory Coast, where men in long robes and leather sandals or slippers are hearing that same call and crossing the villages to pray. The stamped designs on the harnesses, saddles, and scabbards of the traders inspired the diffusion of leatherworking styles across West Africa in ways we are still trying to understand. When I meet up with these designs in the medina, on wallets that hang around a man’s neck or on slippers, they have the familiar look of acquaintances I have known before in some other place. Words, too, travel easily; there are many Arabic words in the Mandé languages of West Africa and words from African languages have surely found their way into Arabic.

It is hard to think of human beings being bartered and sold just like salt or gold or kola nuts. But of course they were. And people, even enslaved, carry with them their own words, their own stories and beliefs, their own knowledge of plants and food, and their own music and dance.

On our last night in Fés, as we sat at dinner in the medina, we were serenaded by two Gnawan musicians. They are descended from slaves brought to Morocco from West Africa, but I had no idea about their history when they began to play. Their black hats decorated with cowry shells reminded me of the hats some Malian praise singers wear. The three-stringed instrument one of them played was a larger version of the one-stringed lutes of the Fulani herders of West Africa. His percussive style was exactly like clawhammer banjo, a technique brought all the way to America by enslaved Africans. The iron castanets beat the time like the iron percussion instruments played all over West Africa. When the castanet player stood up to dance, I recognized the tune even though I had never heard it before. I felt they were singing to me, and this is the song I heard:

here we are, here we are,

still alive, still alive,

all these centuries later, here we are,

no longer slaves, still alive, still alive,

with the beat of West Africa still inside us,

so hear it, so hear it!

Silently I answered:

I hear you, I hear you, I hear West Africa singing inside your song.


May 2, 2010 by

Thoughts upon returning home (for this writer, home = Brooklyn, New York, United States):

As I did my damndest to leave all expectation at the border, I was surprised to discover the difference between Jerusalem and Fes for me: while both cities were impactful and fascinating, I experienced Jerusalem intellectually and Fes emotionally. Jerusalem ignited my mind, while Fes moved me to tears. Cerebral versus sensual. Head versus heart.

Re. the beginner’s mind:
Kaz: “finding ease in the chaos”
Gary: “finding joy in the humility”
Ognjen: “decolonizing our idea of a strange place”
Eddin: “how are we different from tourists, if at all?”
Carol: “If I hosted someone from Morocco in Illinois, what would I show her?”

Borrowing again from Susan Orlean:
“To be honest, I view all stories as journeys. Journeys are the essential text of the human experience—the journey from birth to death, from innocence to wisdom, from ignorance to knowledge, from where we start to where we end. There is almost no piece of important writing…that isn’t explicitly or implicitly the story of a journey.”

My first stop back in Brooklyn was to our local independent bookstore, seeking a Moroccan cookbook. I chose a lovely little volume with colorful photos, simply called Tagine, by Ghillie Basan. I then headed to the best Middle Eastern grocery store in town, Sahadi’s, on Atlantic Avenue, to purchase ingredients like fresh ginger, saffron, cracked green olives, preserved lemons (for which I thanked the salesperson in Arabic: shokran). But my favorite ingredient: the recipe called for the “freshly squeezed juice of one lemon,” and I realized that I had one from Aziz Bousfiha’s organic garden still in my suitcase (don’t tell the folks at JFK customs). Plucked from a tree in Fes, and, perhaps 30 hours later, squeezed into a chicken tagine in Brooklyn.

We’ll get back to Jerusalem and Fes, and reunite with our new, far-flung friends, one day—insha’Allah, g-d willing. Meantime, some storytelling of the non-verbal variety (click on the photo to access the whole album). Salaam!


Imaginary cities. Real bribes.

May 2, 2010 by

The trip to Essaouira from Casablanca took me three and a half hours, whereas it took the main group of writers six hours on the same road.

“How did you get here so fast?” the group wondered.

“Our driver was speeding the whole time.”

“And what about the police? They didn’t stop you?”

“Of course they did.”

“And what happened?”

“We just bribed them.”

“Did they ask for bribes?”

“Three times.”

For most Westerner’s this practice can be a shock, but for people from my part of the world bribing is part of our daily routine. Our police tend to be underpaid and therefore, try to supplement their meager incomes with bribes. Our traffic cops only earn about $100 a month but can make as much as $150 a day. We call this phenomenon, “police paradox”. I told my group that I thought our driver was lucky. He only had to pay one bribe for speeding. In my country, he would have had to pay one bribe for speeding and a second bribe – for bribing.

The group seemed surprised by the bribing…. and I was surprised by something else.

“Why couldn’t you get a visa for Algeria? It was easy for me!” I told the group.

“We don’t know. It was weird. It took so long for them to review our documents.”

“Why didn’t you offer them a bribe? Maybe you didn’t get their cue.” I said.

I didn’t have any problems getting one. The officer at Algerian embassy told me that my documents were fine, but “as of today” the price for an Algerian visa went from 25 to 45 euro.

“I can show you the new prices,” he said. Since he was in Uzbekistan and I live in Kazakhstan, his cue was obvious.

“No problem,” I answered. I paid bribe and got my visa. Too bad we didn’t make it to Algeria… I heard anything can be bought in that region – visa’s, marriage certificates, and even diplomas. I imagined how I get a backup driver’s license.

More interesting here

Casablanca: between tradition and modernity

May 1, 2010 by

This national road near the Atlantic Ocean divides Casablanca into two parts. West of the road, you find the city’s wealthy districts. East, its poor ones. The encounter between the donkey and a car fixes the paradoxical beauty of Casablanca, where people from different social classes and eras meet at this border.

 Casablanca : entre tradition et modernité

Cette route nationale près de l’océan Atlantique trace une frontière invisible entre les quartiers ouest plutôt riches et les quartiers est plus populaires. La rencontre d’un âne et d’une voiture fige la beauté paradoxale de Casablanca où convergent les populations, les classes sociales et les époques.

Casablanca: jumping into the unknown


Dozens of kids diving into the Atlantic Ocean near Hassan II mosque. A moment of recklessness and pure joy.

Casablanca : saut vers l’inconnue

Une dizaine de gamins plongeant dans l’océan Atlantique près de la mosquée Hassan II. Moments d’insouciance et de joie pure.

Editing by Jennifer Zoble

“In Western countries, you have the clock. We have the time” (Arabic proverb)

May 1, 2010 by

6 p.m., Saturday 24 April. I’m walking along the tiny streets of the Medina, in Fes. One hour left before a collective talk, I have time for a haircut. From among the many barbershops along the streets, I choose one at random.

–          How much for a haircut?

–          Well, 20 or 30 dirhams?

–          You mean, 20 or 30 dirhams?

–          I don’t know, which do you prefer?

–          I guess the cheaper would be better.

–          OK, please come and sit down.

The vague barber is around 25 years old. His clients are young, with trendy, tecktonik hairstyles that contrast with the traditional Medina. Perched on a shelf, a TV shows a Spanish soccer match between Zaragoza and Madrid. All the eyes, including those of the barber, are focused upwards. When the ball approaches the goal, no noise, no breath, no haircut.

–          When do you think you will be starting with my hair? I ask.

–          Five minutes.

Five minutes later, the barber is still cutting the hair of the previous client—that is when he is not watching TV. But the match is interesting, the seats are comfortable, why should I complain? Another client brings me a mint tea ordered by the barber. Embarrassed, at first I refuse. I argue that I should be considered a client like the others. I’m told that I will offend my host if I don’t accept the gift. This discussion takes another five minutes.

The barber and I begin to chat. He knows Toulouse, the so-called « pink city » of France. His name is Ali and he’s proud to be a lifelong resident of Fes. With lazy scissors dangling over the head of his client, he describes the places I should visit. He makes one cut per minute. The word “productivity” would be lost on him. He talks about the mint tea. How is it? Do I like it? My Western habits surge and I ask when he will be finished. “Oh, five minutes,” he replies.

Now, he is shaving his client. In Fes, a barbershop is a real barbershop, hair and beard included. It is also a café for sports when goaaaal, Real Madrid leads 1-0. All the clients stand, Ali the maniac of the scissors ceases to be a barber for, well, five minutes. Those five minutes lead to another five minutes which lead to another five minutes which lead finally to half an hour and now it’s up to me.

–          Please, could you make it fast? I have a meeting soon.

–          Don’t worry, it will take only five minutes.

I have a curious feeling of deja vu. I suggest that Ali use clippers. I’m half bald, no need for scissors. He agrees and begins to clip away but after well, five minutes, he’s clutching again his dear scissors.

–          It’s OK for me, you made it perfect.

–          Give me another five minutes.

Ali is over-cautious. He seems to cut my hairs one by one, and I suspect that sometimes he cuts only air. I’m resolving to ask no more of him when a client enters the shop. They speak Arabic. Saved by the bell?

–          Too late, he is my last client.

I don’t believe it! He refuses a real client with real hair for me! What about business? I tell him I’m finished, I’m already late, but he insists. Not done yet. Goal for Zaragoza, 1-1. Five more minutes lost. Ali is for Real Madrid, so he cuts now with less enthusiasm. I believe it’s the perfect moment for my escape.

–          I have to go right now.

–          Give me five minutes please.

The roles seem reversed, it looks like I’m doing him a favor. After nearly an hour, I finally have my new haircut. Ali adds some pomade, delicately shapes my sideburns, shows me the results with his mirror, asks me ten times if I’m happy, takes up his scissors for a final retouch, On no give me five minutes for a very ultimate retouch following the ultimate retouch. I finally stand and pay him 50 dirhams. He gives me 30 dirhams in change.

–          Keep it all.

–          No. We said 20 dirhams, it must be 20 dirhams.

–          Stop that, I have to go.

–          Just give me five minutes, I owe you the change. Or maybe you want me to shave your beard in five minutes.

Damn it! We finally agree on 30 dirhams. I’m late for the talk, but when I arrive everyone admires my new haircut. I give you all the credit, Ali.

I will meet Ali again in the Medina on the last Tuesday before our departure for Casablanca. He insists on inviting me for a five-minute drink.

Editing by Jennifer Zoble 



« En Occident, vous avez l’heure. Nous avons le temps » (proverbe arabe)

Samedi, 18h, dans la médina de Fès écrasée par la chaleur. Les venelles remplies de passants étouffent l’atmosphère de la plus belle ville du plus beau pays du monde (à peu près). Pour être en harmonie (à peu près) avec tant de beauté, je décide de me faire couper les cheveux. J’ai tout mon temps avant une discussion collective prévue dans une heure. Beaucoup de salons de coiffure au mètre carré, j’ai l’embarras du choix. Ma décision est entre les mains du hasard.

–          Bonjour, combien pour une coupe ?

–          (Silence) 20 ou 30 dirhams.

–          Vous voulez dire 20 ou 30 dirhams ?

–          Comme vous voulez.

–          Disons que je préfère toujours l’option la moins onéreuse.

–          Alors va pour 20 dirhams.

Le coiffeur approximatif a environ 25 ans. Sa clientèle se compose de jeunes au look très occidental. Le style tecktonik a franchi la Méditerranée et tranche avec l’aspect médiéval de la médina. Perchée sur une étagère, un téléviseur diffuse les images du match de Liga opposant Saragosse au Real Madrid. Tous les regards, y compris ceux du coiffeur, convergent vers le haut. A chaque action, plus un bruit, plus une respiration. Plus de lames de ciseaux qui s’entrechoquent.

–          Quand pensez-vous commencer ma coupe ? Je demande.

–          Dans cinq minutes.

Cinq minutes plus tard, le coiffeur suspend toujours ses ciseaux au-dessus de la tête du client quand il ne regarde pas la télé. Le match est intéressant, les sièges sont confortables, que demande le peuple ? Un garçon dépêché par le coiffeur m’apporte du thé à la menthe. Embarrassé, je refuse, arguant que je suis un homme parmi les autres. Mon refus serait une offense, précise mon très diligent hôte lors d’un débat contradictoire de cinq minutes.

Nous bavardons. Il connaît Toulouse, « la ville rose » dit-il avec un accent à couper au couteau. Il s’appelle Ali, habite à Fès depuis toujours. Sans que je ne lui demande quoi que ce soit, il me décrit les lieux incontournables de la médina. Ses ciseaux sont de plus en plus fainéants. Un cheveu par minute, les subtilités capitalistes de la productivité semblent lui être  étrangères. Au contraire, il s’appesantit sur le thé à la menthe. L’ai-je aimé ? Mes mauvaises habitudes occidentales me rattrapent quand je m’enquiers du temps d’attente. « Oh cinq minutes » répond-il avec le même air dégagé tandis qu’il rase son client. Ici, les coiffeurs sont aussi barbiers, coupe et rasage inclus. Ce sont aussi des tenanciers de café des sports quand buuuut, le Real Madrid ouvre la marque. Les clients se lèvent et Ali le maniaque des ciseaux démissionne de son travail pour, tiens, cinq minutes qui se transforment en cinq autres minutes qui deviennent cinq autres minutes qui s’étirent en cinq autres minutes qui, finalement, métastasent en une demi-heure avant mon tour.

–          S’il vous plaît, pourriez-vous vous dépêcher ? J’ai un rendez-vous.

–          Pas de problème, ça prendra cinq minutes.

J’ai la nette impression d’avoir déjà entendu cette rengaine. Je lui suggère d’utiliser la tondeuse à cheveux. Je suis à moitié chauve, pas besoin de pinailler. Il dégaine la machine mais après, tiens, cinq minutes, il revient à ses très chers ciseaux.

–          OK, c’est parfait pour moi.

–          Donnez-moi encore cinq minutes.

Ali est hyper-précautionneux. Il semble couper mes cheveux un par un et je le soupçonne parfois de chercher à scinder les molécules de l’air ambiant. Je n’ose plus lui demander d’accélérer quand un client entre. Sauvé par le gong ?

–          Trop tard khouya, c’est mon dernier client.

Je n’arrive pas à y croire ! Il refuse un vrai client avec de vrais cheveux en dépit de toute logique. J’insiste sur mon retard mais il s’entête. But pour Saragosse qui égalise. Cinq nouvelles minutes perdues. Ali, supporter du Real, manie les ciseaux avec encore moins d’entrain. Le moment idéal pour tenter une échappée.

–          Je dois y aller sans tarder.

–          Cinq minutes s’il vous plaît.

Les rôles sont inversés. Maintenant, c’est moi qui semble lui rendre service. En un peu moins d’une heure, j’ai enfin ma nouvelle coupe de cheveux. Ali est passé par la case gomina (un litre), rasage de mes pattes (délicatement), miroir pour me montrer que pas un poil ne dépassait (environ dix fois), s’est échiné en une dernière ultime retouche précédant l’ultime retouche en me demandant chaque fois si j’étais satisfait. Oui mon gars, tellement que je lui laisse 50 dirhams.

–          Gardez la monnaie.

–          Non, on avait dit 20 dirhams.

–          J’insiste. Je dois vraiment y aller.

–          Je peux vous raser en cinq minutes.

Bordel ! On transige finalement à 30 dirhams la coupe. En retard pour la discussion, je reçois les félicitations unanimes de mes comparses. Dédicace à toi Ali, tu es meilleur que Fabio Salsa (et bien moins cher).

Je rencontrerai Ali à la médina le mardi précédant mon départ pour Casablanca. Il insistera pour qu’on prenne un verre, juste cinq minutes.

Simple Life

May 1, 2010 by

The one-hour jaunt to the Sufi village is turning into a two-hour journey. Ibrahim Tijani, our host, came on time, but we didn’t. Once we’re on the road, Ibrahim stops in a grocery store, where people flood him with greetings. Who is Ibrahim? He is the son of the sheik of one of the biggest Sufi Tariqa in the world. A humble VIP, always smiling and concerned about our welfare. We’re about to buy water when the grocer protests. It is free for us. We’re with Ibrahim, you know.

The final two kilometers to the Sufi village are hilly and rocky, to the dismay of our minivan and its clutch. Once we’ve arrived, the driver worries, unsure that we’ll make it back to Fes. Ibrahim, however, is characteristically cool, and we grow cooler in his presence. But our delays have left us with little time. Ibrahim laughs, a child-like smile on his face. “You must have lunch here, otherwise people won’t let you leave.” He is 30 but looks 10 years younger.

Everybody in the village welcomes him, kisses him, touches him. It’s his first visit in several years, and the inhabitants have missed him. He is joined by his Russian wife and their two children. A beautiful family. We climb again—this time on foot—to reach a tree where Ibrahim used to nap when he was a boy. I like listening to him because we make the same mistakes in English. He studied in France for four years and struggles with prepositions. He tells us about Sufi rituals, his personal history. He adds plenty of anecdotes, including one about an American family that converted to Sufism and settled near the village. They wear Stetsons. Sufism is universal.

Sitting under a tree, we survey the landscape. Ibrahim no longer wears his glasses in the village. “I see better surrounded by fresh air,” he explains. Women set a little table near us and bring our lunch. Fried eggs, olives, olive oil, honey, bread. That’s all. We devour the meal with our mouths, and the beauty of the mountainside with our eyes. During my week in Morocco, I ate couscous, tagines, and elaborate meals in elegant hotels. None of it was as delicious as this. Ibrahim tells us that the first principle in Sufism is unity with nature: we are everything, and everything is us. I believe him.

Editing by Jennifer Zoble



Ça soufi

La balade d’une heure jusqu’au village soufi  s’étire en une expédition de deux heures. Ibrahim Tijani, notre hôte, était à l’heure mais nous non. Nous devenons encore plus orientaux que les Orientaux. Les retards s’accumulent. Sur la route, Ibrahim s’arrête chez un épicier, puis des grappes de personnes curieuses le happent. Qui est Ibrahim ? Le fils du cheikh d’une des plus grandes Tariqa soufies du monde. Un VIP humble, souriant et sans cesse soucieux du bien-être d’autrui. Nous voulons acheter de l’eau à l’épicier qui proteste. C’est gratuit pour nous, on est avec Ibrahim.

Les deux derniers kilomètres jusqu’au village sont pentus et rocailleux. Pas du goût de l’embrayage à l’agonie et du mini-van hurlant au supplice. À l’arrivée, le chauffeur est inquiet. L’attelage brinquebalant ne tiendra peut-être pas jusqu’à Fès. Le calme d’Ibrahim déteint cependant sur nous tous. Nous restons zen. Nous n’avons pas beaucoup de temps pour la visite à cause des retards à répétition. « Vous devez tout de même déjeuner sinon les gens d’ici ne vous laisseront pas partir », sourit ibrahim d’un air enfantin. À 30 ans, il en paraît dix de moins.

Dès qu’il a posé le pied par terre, tout le village l’accueille, l’embrasse, le touche. Il n’est pas revenu depuis deux ans. Sa femme russe et ses deux enfants sont avec lui, figeant le portrait craché d’une famille modèle. Nous escaladons – à pied cette fois – jusqu’à un arbre à l’ombre duquel Ibrahim avait l’habitude de faire la sieste gamin. J’aime me bercer de sa voix, il commet le même genre de fautes d’anglais que moi. Il a étudié en France pendant quatre ans et comme un Français, il lutte avec les prépositions d’outre-Atlantique. Je l’apprécie de plus en plus. Il nous détaille les rituels soufis, son histoire personnelle. Des anecdotes émaillent sa conversation colorée, comme celle de cette famille américaine convertie au soufisme installée près du village. Il précise qu’ils portent le Stetson. Le soufisme est décidément universel.

Accroupis sous les feuillages, nous surplombons le magnifique paysage alentour. Noua allons déjeuner avec nos bouches et dévorer la beauté de la nature avec nos yeux. Ibrahim ne porte plus ses lunettes au village. « Je vois mieux, je suis en meilleure santé entouré de l’air frais de ma montagne »,  explique-t-il. Des femmes dressent la table et apportent en kit notre déjeuner. Œufs sur le plat, olive, huile d’olive, miel, pain. C’est tout. Pendant mon séjour au Maroc, je me suis régalé de couscous (beaucoup), de tagines (quelques-uns) et de moult délicieux repas sophistiqués servis dans nos hôtels luxueux. Aucun ne rivalise avec celui-ci, pris à même le sol et sans couverts. Ibrahim nous avait appris que les premiers principes du soufisme étaient l’amour et l’identification à la nature : nous sommes tout et tout est en nous. Pendant ce moment de communion et de partage simple, je le crois.

Sufi leader Ibrahim Tijani by JAKA BABNIK

May 1, 2010 by

Ibrahim is a leading local Sufi, head of the International division of the Tijani Tariqa/Tijaniyyah, a sufi order founded by his great grandfather Ahmed Al-Tijani, who died in 1815, and whose shrine is one of the most visited in Fes.