Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Old Postcard with a Circumcision Procession

Circumcision is one of the three major ceremonies in a Moroccan man’s life. The others are birth and marriage. In fact, a Moroccan circumcision is similar to a wedding: The young man is dressed like a bridegroom and the ritual follows the outlines of a marriage ceremony. It is an important ritual because Muslim women are not allowed to marry uncircumcised men. The ceremony can be simple or elaborate, private or public according to one’s preferences and circumstances. It usually occurs between ages one and seven. Families may wait until they can afford to give their boys a good party. If the family opts for a party, it will be after the incision has healed. The boy is meant to feel like a Prince during his passage from childhood to adulthood. Processions on horseback such as in the photo above are still practiced in families with the means to do so.

The circumcision to which I was invited had no procession on horseback. The honoree, his mother and sister, took the front stairs to descend into the living room of their home. Only female family members and friends were invited to this ceremony. All the servers, entertainers, dressers and photographers were women. The few men present were relegated to the anteroom, where they waited to drive their relatives home. My Moroccan-American husband told me that this ladies’ night out after the operation did not exist when he was a child. His parents had a small circumcision party for him with both men and women guests. Perhaps, it is a customs in Northern Morocco and not in the Gharb where he grew up.

This circumcision was on Moroccan time. I arrived at the specified time of 9:30 PM and waited until midnight for the young gent, his mother and his sister to join the party. Guests arrived in rich caftans

This is the sort of dress and makeup worn by the mother and daughter of the honoree

These are the sort of sweets served at circumcisions

and impressive jewelry, often acquired when they married. They made grand entrances and seated themselves at ornately decorated tables. While we waited for the honoree, waitresses in matching outfits paraded around us with trays of sweets, soft drinks and party favors. An all-female orchestra played traditional songs at a level usually found at heavy metal concerts. Dinner was served at 1:30 AM and the party lasted into the night.

Before the arrival of the little gent, waitresses dressed in black pants, black vests and white shirts, passed food and drink on huge silver trays. Despite the modern dress, they reminded me of medieval pages at a royal banquet. They walked solemnly in a line to bring soft drinks, sweets and party favors on huge silver trays. The drinks consisted of water, mint tea, fruit juice, and soda pop. For hors d’oeuvres, they passed out pastries, chocolates and dates stuffed with walnuts. For party favors, each lady received little Korans on miniature tripods, little hands of Fatima, red boxes filled with pastries and pink baskets filled with sugar coated almonds. While awaiting the honorees, women got up to dance. They were terrific dancers but I looked like an aging hippie reliving the 60’s. I did my best teetering on borrowed gold sandals.

At midnight, the little gent appeared with his mother and little sister. The boy was dressed in a white two piece rob (gandoura) with gold braid; the mother and daughter wore in matching red silk caftans

The sort of throne used during the circumcision

with matching embroidery, belts and crowns. The ladies in the family were camera ready with elaborate coiffures and professional makeup.

A beautiful mistress of ceremonies of undefinable age led the mother and the boys through various rituals and set up many photo opportunities. She also serenaded the little honoree in a voice that threatened to shatter the tea glasses. At one point, four strong women in white caftans hoisted the little boy into a litter or palanquin. It was a splendid contraption reminiscent of the Taj Mahal. They proceeded to parade the little boy around the crowded living room, knocking into chandeliers and guests as they went by. The little boy loved it. He laughed and waved like the best British Royal. Then the boy, his mother and sister sat still on a large throne for more picture taking. As he sat, the little boy sucked on his pacifier and twirled his leather slippers (belga). For one part of the ceremony, he had to hold rose petals for what seemed an eternity and scatter them over his mother’s head. It is difficult to imagine American children being so poised and compliant.

Before they served the lavish meal, the waitresses covered the embroidered tablecloths with plastic sheeting. No plates, forks or napkins appeared. That worried me because I am not an expert in eating with my hands and I was wearing a magnificent wedding caftan lent by a friend. (I had arrived in my best party dress but was told that it was not good enough.)

There were two main courses, lamb with apricot and almonds and roast chicken. Most of the ladies were unable to do justice to the tender chicken. Dessert consisted of fresh fruit and more rich pastries. Throughout the meal, five lady percussionists filled the room with heavily amplified sound. According to a Moroccan friend, they played music and sang popular songs from the time of her grandmothers. Two lady photographers and a female videographer recorded every single minute of the event. The hosts did not want to publish their photos on the internet so I have made do with generic photos.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Moroccan bread in a traditional bread basket (tbug)

This is the first in a series of posts on Moroccan customs and traditions as they have affected this writer, an American living in Tangiers. This compilation does not claim to be exhaustive, definitive or accurate for all Moroccans. My informant is my Moroccan American husband, who grew up in the 50’s in a traditional family in Kenitra. That said, all of these customs are still being practiced. Following them is meant to keep you out of harm’s way and bring you Baraka, good luck. I welcome your comments on the similarities with American customs. Whatever your practices, I hope that they bring you great Baraka.

Saving Bread

In my husband’s family, no bread was ever thrown out and children were expected to finish the bread they tore off the round loaves on the table. To waste bread was “Haram” or sinful. My husband’s mother also taught him to pick up any piece of bread he saw discarded on the street, kiss it and put it in a safe place. In my neighborhood in Tangiers, we save all the stale bread on a window sill. Periodically, an elderly man collects it and sells it as animal fodder. In markets, you can see big bags of this bread being sold.

Slaughtering a Sheep

In Tangiers, it is customary to slaughter a sheep after each floor of a house (la dalle) is built. In any case, that’s what the construction workers told us. Our two story house with a basement equals three sheep. We didn’t have to provide the barbecue, we just gave the meat to the construction workers. While we waited for the top floor to be built, we kept the last sheep as a natural lawn mower. Hercules, the sheep grew enormously fat on the lawn, which consisted mainly of wild spinach or mallow (bakula). (The gardener had made a mistake with the grass he planted, a long story for another post.) In any case, by the time the holidays (Eid) were approaching, my husband’s nephew decided that Hercules would go to his family in Casablanca, not the workmen in Tangiers. However, Hercules would not fit in his Volkswagen. So, the workmen ended up eating the sheep after all. Unfortunately, Hercules was an old sheep by then and the meat was very tough. It broke my husband’s bridge and that was the end of the natural lawn mowers.

Moroccan Bakoula, or common mallow
Saying Grace before a Meal:

Before each meal, my husband’s father said: “Bismillah” (Praise be to God.) That was the signal to dig into the food. This was an eagerly awaited signal for the children in my husband’s large family. At the end of the meal, his father said: “Alhamdullilah” (Thanks be to God.) Also, at the end of every meal, his father turned to his mother and said: “Latek Sa’ha”-(May God reward you with good health) and he would specifically praise the dish she had prepared. This custom worked for my husband’s parents, who stayed happily married for 75 years. At home in Tangiers, my husband does the same. So far, so good.

Feeding Everyone on Fridays

In Kenitra, my husband’s mother would provide couscous to anyone who knocked at the door around lunchtime on Fridays. (On Friday, the Holy Day, couscous is usually served after midday prayers at the Mosque.) In Tangiers, we always provide a copious couscous to any and all visitors to the house on Fridays. When you are building a house, you feed a lot of workmen. After couscous, it is customary to served tea in a glass. (The glass is so you can see if the tea is properly brewed. Otherwise, you throw it back in the pot for a bit. You always throw the first glass back in the pot.)

Friday, March 7, 2014


Camels enjoying some down time between tourists

This post is about my neighborhood in Tangier, Morocco. Called Baie de Tanger (Bay of Tangier), it faces the Mediterranean on the outskirts of town. As you look out the windows of my home, you see camels grazing. Technically speaking, for those who count humps, you see dromedaries grazing. You may ask what dromedaries are doing so far north. They are for the disembarking tourist who must have his photo on camelback right away. You will notice that I chose the camel/dromedary as the logo for this blog. It is to remind me to write about the unusual in Northern Morocco.

Camels are not the only animals outside my windows. Cows, goats, sheep as well as stray dogs and cats roam nearby. My husband and I have become experts at recognizing which animal left his calling card at our front gate. Animals share the huge open area in front of our house with humans. The humans stroll, pick-nick, and exercise there. This area is said to be part of the old Roman settlement of Tingis (which means “marsh” in Berber). According to James Richardson, a mid-19th century traveler to Morocco, the ruins are the remains of a Roman bridge and of an artificial port where the Roman galleys docked. (Like other bits of Tangier lore, I have been unable to confirm this information.) Recently, some Emirati investors wanted to build an artificial lake in this space. The project died either when Morocco lost the bid for a World Expo in 2012, or, when the investors went through some hard times, or both.

The View from the House

Looking further out, you see two hotels. On the left side of this photo, the Hotel Tarik will rent you a cheap room for a very short time. On the right side of the photo, the Hotel Movenpick will put you up in style and let you gamble in the largest casino in Africa for as long as you have money. Across from the Movenpick is an abandoned property with luxuriant vegetation. It once belonged to Walter Harris, the London Times correspondent who reported on the “Morocco That Was” at the turn of the twentieth century. When Harris died, the property became a casino until Generalissimo Franco closed it. It then became a Club Med. Now, the fate of the property is uncertain. Let’s hope that any redevelopment saves the trees and restores the old villa.

Entrance to the Villa Harris

Looking out the windows past the hotels and the marsh, you see the coast of Spain. On a clear day, you can watch the ferries from Spain coming into port and the container ships cruising on the horizon. At night, you can follow car headlights on the cliffs of Andalucia. At present, few pleasure craft are visible close to shore. Tangiers is building a new Marina in the old Port so maybe we’ll start seeing a greater diversity of maritime traffic. 
The Pleasure Boat Marina in Tangier under Construction

The beach, within short walking distance from the house, is a vast expanse of freshly raked sand dunes. Since police on horseback patrol the beach, it is safe to sit, sunbathe or play soccer. Unfortunately, it is not safe to swim in the water. In fact, the authoritative French-language daily “Le Matin” named the four beaches along the Bay of Tangier the most polluted in Morocco. Tangier has been working on a new sewer system since the early 2000’s but the system is not yet optimal. A few kilometers down the coastal road, a new canal for waste waters is known locally as the “river of s…t.” People who bought the luxurious apartments next to the canal do not appear to have occupied them. In all fairness, there are pristine beaches close to Tangier on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic sides.

Our development, which is also known as Lotissement Tingis, started out as plots of land given or sold at affordable prices as a reward for services to the State. The original owners held onto the plots until land values increased substantially and sold them to a mix of foreigners and Moroccans. A big advantage of buying is this development is that property titles are available. This is not always the case in parts of Morocco previously colonized by Spain. Owning here also came with regulations for the size of the built area, the color of the exterior paint and the deadlines for completing construction. It is not clear that all our neighbors have obeyed the many regulations. Once our house was built, my husband started to work on obtaining a “quitus”. This is the auditor’s final discharge certifying that all conditions had been met. Obtaining the quitus involved a staggering amount of paperwork. (Without it, we could not sell our house.) Initially, the developers said that they would obtain the quitus for us but finally, my husband went to the registrar of deeds (la Foncière) and obtained it himself in a few days.

Many of the houses in “la Baie de Tanger” are still unfinished. When I inquire as to the reason, neighbors often say that the owner is “in Switzerland.” I later discovered that meant that the owner was in jail. There are other reasons why houses have not been completed. The man across the street, who owns a ceramic tile factory, had to stop building because his brothers stole his share of the inheritance from their father. The same neighbor, by the way, had tried to sell us tiles at inflated prices. Another neighbor came by to look at the house under construction and it was hate it at first sight. He left the concrete shell to his general contractor in payment for the work to-date. 
The house that inspired hate at first sight

Unfinished House in the Neighborhood

The unpaved street running past our house

Most of the streets in the development are still unnamed and unpaved. The only mail reaching our gates is the water and electricity bill. This piece of mail from Amendis arrives promptly and must be paid immediately. Otherwise, service is cut off. The bills are baffling--the amount on the paper bill never matches the amount online, requiring frequent visits to the crowded Amendis branch office. Other than water and electricity, the only other municipal service is garbage collection. We carry the garbage to a dumpster strategically positioned at the edge of the marsh. By the time people pick through it and the dumpster gets stolen again,, the neighborhood garbage ends up on the ground.

As for paving the streets, the developers at first assured us that the roads would be paved when the concrete shells of the houses had been completed. Now their story is that the funds had been on hand but the Municipality had to spend them on more important public works. Meanwhile, the taxis that operate inside the city limits (petits taxis) will not take us to our door. We have to walk down the hill from the taxi stand at Tanja al Balia (Old Tangier) or get off at the nearby clinic and slog along a rutted road to our house. This is a problem when coming into town with heavy suitcases, so we arrange for someone to pick us up at the airport.

Walking up the hill from our home, you come to Tanja al Balia. It’s a low cost housing zone (zone economique) but the price of land and apartments is higher than in our development of single-family homes. The views are even better than from our house, and the community offers everything you need to sustain life. For example, it has small shops where artisans make from scratch whatever you want out of wood, iron, plaster or cloth. The Thursday market has a good selection of food, hardware and cooking utensils. Tanja el Balia also has a traditional bath house (hammam) but, at present, it has no water. A swimming pool, gym and supermarket complex, scheduled to open a few years ago, is still under construction. Let’s hope that its owner is not in Switzerland because it would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

From the house, you can walk along the beachfront to Cape Malabata or to downtown Tangier. On a warm weekend, the whole town is strolling Spanish-style (known locally as “mchiou ‘l bulévar”). In the more modern version of this tradition, young men cruise slowly in fancy cars along the same boulevard. At those times, getting anywhere takes patience. You might as well take your time and stop at the plentiful cafés for coffee or mint tea. On your way downtown, you can even stop for a burger at a MacDonald’s decorated in Moorish style. If you walk in the opposite direction toward Cape Malabata, you will pass sleek new resorts catering to foreigners and to Moroccans living abroad. When you reach the lighthouse at Cape Malabata, disregard the sign in French saying “Entry Prohibited.” People are sitting at tables inside the lighthouse area and enjoying the stunning views of the Bay of Tangier. When the sun is shining and you look at that view, you are glad to be in Tangier.

Cape Malabata