Tuesday, March 11, 2014

MOROCCAN CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS-PART II (INVITATION TO A CIRCUMCISION)

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 TRADITIONS-PART 1

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.

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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

WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD


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

Thursday, February 27, 2014

THE THURSDAY MARKET IN BNI AROUSS

The road to Bni Arouss with taxis crossing the condemned bridge

The Thursday Bni Arouss market (Khmis Bni Arouss) is worth the trip up into the Rif Mountains. From Tangiers, you start off on the highway or the old main road and end up on small secondary roads, which have seen better days. Cars play a game of chicken as to which one will go off the paved road into the rough shoulder. Along the way, you pass modest homes, swank palaces and even a garage for “exotic cars.” With that description, the garage owner was advertising that he serviced and repaired Porsche, Ferraris and other luxury sports cars. Exotic cars on bad road? Palaces in remote villages? You may wonder at the contradictions which have only one explanation, the drug trade. The Rif has the mysterious quality of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.—all is not what it seems--green hills and fat livestock.

Let me make it quite clear, my husband and I were there to buy vegetables at the market, not the local weed at a Bni Arouss café. You also wonder how we came to know about Bni Arouss, a place Garmina the GPS, had trouble finding. Garmina kept showing our SUV traveling cross country instead of on a proper road. The answer to your question is that our housekeeper is from the Bni Arouss tribe and she wanted us to experience what she considered the best Thursday market. History buffs will recall that the Bni Arouss tribe protected Moulay Ahmed El Raisuni known as the “sultan of the Mountains.” Raisuni became a player in the 1904 presidential elections when he kidnapped Ion Perdicaris, an American citizen.


Bni Arouss ladies wearing their traditional clothes

On the way, we stopped for coffee at a truck stop featuring fava bean soup (bessara) for breakfast and fish brought from nearly Larache for lunch. It took us two hours to reach Bni Arouss. We parked the car on the main street, hired a car watcher and headed into the market. This market had it all—vegetables, fruit, household goods, hand woven djellabahs (the all-purpose hooded robe), handmade agricultural implements, sidesaddles for donkeys and my favorite item, real handicrafts from the region. We soon filled our three large bags with fruit and vegetables. We hired a porter with a wheel barrow when our arms grew too tired. Having filled the wheel barrow up, we went back to the car and launched into our second round. Then, my husband bought three hand carved wooden serving spoons for $2 dollars and received instructions on how to soak them so they would not crack. I bought the local hand woven cloth that the Rif women wear tied around their waist as an apron for a $6 dollars each. I also wanted to buy a characteristic straw hat from the Rif (shishia) but the price in the market was too high. The local ladies were asking $25, whereas the Tangiers price was $5. If my husband had bought one without me, the price would have been better. Once a foreigner appeared with him, the price jumped.

The mother of our housekeeper

When we returned to the car, our housekeeper’s mother was waiting for us with one other daughter. I complimented her on her shishia and she offered to give it to me. I insisted on paying for it and bought it at twice the going price. That was fine with me because the object was to give her some money in a way she would accept. She then said that she wanted to show us the local river and the broken bridge. So, she left her donkey in town and hopped into our car. She was a very agile woman, for someone who had raised eight children. She explained that the road stopped at the bridge and the only way to get to her village on the hill was to walk or ride a donkey. She pointed out her home, a whitewashed cottage with a red-tiled roof. I promised to visit her the next time we came to Bni Arouss. My husband prompted me to add “God willing” (Inch Allah.) Since I’m not sure that my donkey riding skills are up to the steep climb, I’ll walk there with her, Inch Allah.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

FURNISHING A RIAD IN TANGIERS

The central courtyard unfurnished

Furnishing a traditional Moroccan home (riad) in Tangiers requires area knowledge, cultural awareness and unassailable resilience. To set goals, benchmarks and schedules is a sure path to madness. The same goes for trying to achieve absolute authenticity. At first, the downstairs, where ornate plaster and intricate mosaics predominate, was to be “beldi.” (Beldi is a tricky Moroccan concept, which can mean antique and traditional as well as antiquated and rustic.) The upstairs was to be mixed. In the end, both floors turned out to be an eclectic mélange of new and old, cheap and expensive, Moroccan and foreign. To cite one example, the drapes, upholstery and carpets come from Morocco, the Middle East, Central Asia, India, and the United States. Some areas, such as the central courtyard are still awaiting an influx of inspiration and funds.

With unlimited funds, a local cabinet-maker would have carved the furniture and a local decorator would have produced a “beldi” look. With two retirees on a fixed income, alternate sources were in order. These sources were: Carved wood that did not fit the intended space recycled into furniture; items from second-hand shops and flea markets restored by the night watchman; furnishings from my husband’s apartment in Casablanca repurposed for the riad and new rustic furniture from outdoor markets used to meet immediate needs.

$1000 Table (Left) and $100 Table (Right)

To give an idea of prices, a new hand carved table for the Moroccan salon costs about $1,000. A second hand “mocharabiye” table from the flea market runs around $100, depending on one’s haggling skills. For drapes, a Tangiers decorator proposed raw silk from Spain at $50 a meter in colors of her choice. She came highly recommended because she does quality work and meets deadlines. However, with 11 ft. ceilings, her services would have consumed the entire decorating budget. Instead, double-width cotton in the colors of the stained glass windows fit the bill at $7 a meter. The fabric was from the wholesale fabric market in Casablanca (Derb Omar). A local upholsterer, found through a Muslim brother in the Tangiers Bird and Flower market, made the drapes. The upholsterer’s work was acceptable but his brother, the drape installer, was not up to the task. He sang in a cabaret at night and had trouble staying awake during the day. We loved his Arabic love songs but his brother had to rehang every curtain.

Tangiers has a whole gallery of second hand dealers (brocanteurs) on the Rue de Fez but the prices they set for foreigners are high. Casa Barata, also known as Souk Barata, the huge flea market in Tangiers, has some interesting items if you are willing to walk for miles to find them. The days, when beautiful English furniture sold off by expats wound up in Casa Barata, are long gone. A local brocanteur on Avenue Hassan II in Tangiers was the source of a Bavarian bone china dinner set. He had tempting French oak furniture and Art Deco pieces left over from the French Protectorate. However, it was tough to buy from him because he was seldom open. Sometimes, the old gent who parks the cars in front of his shop can find him. Ould Mina, the flea market in the Hay Hassani district of Casablanca, is open for business seven days a week. The dealers there buy out whole houses and sell for reasonable prices. By buying in bulk, shopping on weekdays, going with a Moroccan niece, dressing in an inexpensive djellabah, and opting for good rather than great pieces, I obtained better prices than most foreigners.



Cedar doors recycled into a desk

The carved wood pieces that did not fit the intended space were the most satisfying to design and commission. From a set of massive cedar doors meant for the entrance to the courtyard, a Casablanca cabinet-maker produced an executive desk and four square tables. From two cedar doors destined for the entrance to the Moroccan Salon, a cabinet maker in Tanjia al Balia, the neighborhood up the hill from the riad, made an armoire for the dining room.



Rustic furniture bought at an outdoor Market
Every open air market has simple unstained furniture in cheap local wood (bois rouge) for sale. This furniture came in handy when the first guests announced their imminent arrival. These items are a good example of the second meaning of the word “beldi”. We are replacing this country furniture as well as the mattresses, which my husband’s nephew bought for them. The mattresses felt as if they were made of Styrofoam. Maybe they were.


The Night Watchman who also paints and restores furniture

The color scheme for the Riad came from the primary colors in the stained glass windows and in the zellige. The walls initially were painted in “Stuc de Venise”, an elaborate paint job that produces a mottled Tadelakt effect and a shiny, mirrored surface. Unfortunately, Stuc de Venise is fragile. If it cracks, it cannot be patched. We then tried another Italian paint that imitates Tadelakt and that can be retouched without repainting the whole room. That turned out to be prohibitively expensive. As I write, we are still experimenting to find interesting paint for the walls at a reasonable price.

In conclusion, let me pass on a lesson I learned in buying appliances, large and small for the riad: In Morocco, it is best to pay a higher price for top of the line American, German or South Korean appliances from a chain store. We have used the Comptoir Metallurgique, Electroplanete and Marjane. In buying electric/electronic items, avoid big souks like Derb Ghalef in Casablanca and Casa Barata in Tangiers. At a chain store, you can get a warranty, by taking your receipt to a uniformed guard at the reception desk who will stamp it. Do not lose that warranty. We have repaired or returned almost every item we have bought. The worst offenders were the Chinese vacuum cleaner that did not aspirate and the French coffee pot that did not drip.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

THE THURSDAY MARKET IN ASSILAH



In early February 2014, my husband and I decided to escape our Ice Palace in Tangiers and head for the famed Thursday market at Assilah. (Nowadays, most weekly markets are on Thursdays in order to provide fresh vegetables for the Friday couscous.) Assilah is a small fishing village an hour from Tangiers, known for its summer arts festival and its Iberian charm. Instead of using the highway to get there, we took the N1, the old route along the Atlantic coast. What’s the hurry when the sun is out and car heater works? That way, we passed the new tourist resorts being heavily promoted in Tangiers. What we saw did not encourage us to invest: The new resorts lacked any sense of place and the old resorts lacked any sign of maintenance.

Once in Assilah, we sought out a Moroccan GPS unit, in other words, a savvy local. Our US GPS unit, affectionately known as Garmina Burana, is still learning Morocco and sometimes just goes blank. We found our Moroccan GPS, a young man heading in the right direction. In return for a ride, he told us to continue on the N1 south (toward Rabat) for about 3.5 km. We were sure that we were going in the right direction because we saw determined housewives pushing locally-made shopping carts on two wheels covered in plaid plastic. (If you speak French, check out Gad el Maleh’s comic sketch on YouTube called “Le GPS marocain.”)

 

The term “market” does not do justice to the place. The Thursday market is more like a temporary city. The market used to be in town on Avenue Hassan II but it outgrew its urban location. Now, those arriving in a motorized vehicle park in a dirt lot at the entrance to the market. A separate lot in a green field is reserved for the vendors’ donkey carts. The stalls stretch on two sides of a country road and up a small hill. Shoppers dodge delivery trucks, police cars and those determined housewives, as they cross from one side of the road to another. One side of the road affords glimpses of green fields and the Atlantic Ocean. The other side is bordered by a line of tall trees. In other words, the setting is attractive, especially when the sun is shining.

You can find anything you want at the Thursday market from guaranteed organic vegetables to Chinese-made plastic containers, grilled sardines, or a single shoe in search of its pair. The first stalls after the parking lot are full of used articles, such as bales of second-hand clothes from the US. (These are pronounced “baal” in Moroccan dialect.) The only item to catch our interest was an ancient telephone with a brass earpiece. We have heard that the flea market is better in the summer when the Moroccans living abroad return with European goods for sale. They finance their vacation that way. In season, we see them leaving the port of Tangiers with goods piled dangerously high on top of their vans.

After the flea market, the vegetable and fruit stands start. As we walked, we sampled local delicacies (dried figs, almond nougat, and marinated olives) for free and bought most everything we tasted. We also tried the latest products of Moroccan greenhouses, strawberries and bananas. The strangest delicacy we tried was Juma, a local fruit found in the mountains that looked like a hairy South Sea idol with a green headdress. After the vendor stripped off most of the hair and bark, we ate the white inner core of the fruit. It tasted like heart of palm. Our vendor assured us that it was full of vitamins and good for stomach aches. 



We walked for miles carrying armloads of produce and wished that we had one of those shopping carts. Suddenly, someone approached us with a wheel barrow (bruouetta). For under a dollar, he wheeled all our purchases to the car. My husband gave him more than he asked for and, in return, he blessed both our families for generations and generations.

After all that walking, we were hungry. So we headed to Casa Garcia, our favorite restaurant in Assilah. One pass, two passes along the seafront and we established that the Casa Garcia we knew had closed. Or so we thought. We turned to go home and spotted the new Casa Garcia on the ground floor of an attractive white apartment building with traditional blue shutters. The new Casa Garcia is at the corner of Avenue Prince Heritier and Mellilal; tel 05 39 41 74 65). We went inside and found that Casa Garcia was now a trendy pan-Mediterranean place. It sported the usual nautical decor and a red, white and blue overturned dinghy spilling out the fish of the day. The anchovies in vinegar matched our memories of the place. We were astonished, though, at some of the new prices. A dish of eels cost $40.00 a serving. If you want to see what the old Casa Garcia looked like, watch a tribute to the owner, Antonio Garcia Riquelme on YouTube.

Monday, February 17, 2014

THERMAL SHOCK



Few houses in Morocco have a central heating system or a central water heater. Those who can afford to heat their homes use split systems , space heaters or nothing at all. Most hot water heaters are individual units, which run on propane or butagaz. Electrical hot water systems are readily available but expensive to run. Moroccans just seem to endure the cold months with chimneys, makeshift heaters and heavy blankets. We have gone to fancy dinner parties in Moroccan homes where everyone kept on his or her coat. The prevailing attitude is that it is not that cold and that, in any case, this too will pass.

Our traditional Moroccan home (riad) is no exception to the rule. Most rooms have split systems and the glass roof over the atrium acts as a passive solar heating system. It is always warm in the upstairs living room facing the Mediterranean.. For heating the water and the steam bath (hammam), we have a huge boiler run on propane. The boiler is a Rube Goldberg device, which required written instructions at first to turn on and off. With the doubling of the cost of propane, most Moroccans run their boilers on timers set to turn on for short periods. We also have solar panels to heat water but, as we quickly learned, it takes a lot of sun to provide enough water for one bath.




When we arrived back in Tangiers in mid-January 2014, we found that we had no heat or hot water. The hot water was easy to fix. We just had to order two more propane tanks. Fixing the split system proved more difficult. As you will see below, the search for a heated bedroom turned into one of those Moroccan sagas. All ends well but it takes time and connections.

I first called the company that had installed the split systems. Perhaps because I started calling on the weekend or perhaps because the owner of the company did not recognize my GSM number, I was unable to reach him. His secretary took messages in fluent French but no one called back. Everything is personal in Morocco, even business. After five cold days, we drove for two and a half hours to Kenitra, where my husband’s nephew owns a heating and A/C company. We made phone contact and persuaded him to come to Tangiers with his wife and young daughter. By the way, the nephew has no heating and only intermittent hot water in his large, modern apartment. As the French say, the cobbler’s children always have the worst shoes. 

The nephew fixed all of the spit systems except for the most important one (to me) in the master bedroom. It seems that the unit was wired only for A/C, not heat. After driving the nephew and family back to Kenitra, my husband called the local company that had sold us the split system in the bedroom. My husband connected with the owner on the first try and he came out promptly to fix it. Unfortunately, every time we tried to use the split system after his departure, we blew the fuses in the bedroom. We called the electrician who could not solve the fuse problem but who rigged up an electrical connection to the solar water heater. This did not work. The water was hot in the tank on the roof but cold when it reached the spigots in the bathrooms. 

So we went to plan B. We moved into another bedroom with a working split system and called the nephew again. He advised us to replace the old American system in the bedroom with a new Korean one. As much as it hurt our American pride, we agreed to buy the Korean unit. 

The nephew set out with the new unit and two technicians at 6 AM one morning. Halfway to Tangiers, the driver grew drowsy and stopped by the side of the road to sleep. As all three men slept at a rest stop, a car sideswiped them and drove away. Then they got lost in Tangiers. By 10 AM, my husband and I were very worried. We finally reached them by phone and arranged a meeting point by the Tangiers train station. Once they arrived, I had to think of what to feed them. I had expected the nephew but not his assistants. I had planned to serve hamburgers because it’s the new craze here but I had just enough ground beef for three people. That was when I discovered the reason why Moroccans eat tagines—a little meat goes a long way. Our maid turned out a delicious tagine with meatballs and eggs that fed six people easily. 

The three men removed the old unit and carted it off to repair. They installed the new unit, which worked perfectly from the start. At last, we had heat in our own bedroom. Before I could wallow in this new-found comfort, the nephew issued a solemn warning: Beware of thermal shock! He explained that we had to keep the new unit at a fairly low level so that we would not be affected by the sudden drop in temperature. No problem. I just put on my overcoat when I leave the bedroom. 


  

Meanwhile, we have decided where to put the repaired split system. It will go in my husband’s study, which has become his important room, the local equivalent of the American man cave.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

RELAX, PRAY AND HEAL in MOULAY YACOUB



To escape from cold, wet Tangiers, we spent last weekend in Moulay Yacoub, a thermal spa and pilgrimage site located 12 miles west of Fes, Morocco. In Moulay Yacoub, the climate is warmer and drier than in Tangiers and the sulphurous waters reach temperatures of 129 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot enough to take away anyone’s chill. We stayed in Fes and were able to eat at outdoor cafes in February. 

Moulay Yacoub deserves to be better known outside of Morocco. Most English language guidebooks devote little space to it and foreigners bent on seeing the top sights have little time for it. Yet, in Morocco, the waters are renowned for their curative properties, particularly with skin diseases, respiratory ailments, rheumatism and arthritis. Even if you are in splendid health, you can always use a little respite from the rigors of a grand tour or, in our case, of building a house in Tangiers. If you are in ill health, a prayer to Moulay Yacoub, the Sufi saint who is buried there, may hasten your recovery. Certainly, that’s what the many pilgrims to the Marabouts (the tombs of holy men) are counting on.

Driving to Moulay Yacoub offers gorgeous vistas of the Sais plain and the arid hills surrounding it. As you leave Fes, you pass through experimental farms, then the road winds up to Moulay Yacoub. In early spring, the fruit trees are beginning to blossom and the hills show bands of green among the stark grey ones. 

  

Moulay Yacoub consists of two thermal establishments, low budget pools (anciennes piscines) in the village dating back to the 1930’s and a modern upscale establishment built in 1989 and financed by a Saudi Prince. Be warned that you must go down (and up) 500 steps to the old pools and that women and men bathe in different pools. The 1939 Michelin guide to Morocco mentions that “the pool for the poor, where people splash around outdoors in very little clothing, is particularly animated.” In the old establishment, If you value your privacy, you can bathe by yourself (baignoire individuelle). Both facilities (the pools and the individual tubs) are cleaned once a week on Monday evening. They can get fairly grungy toward the end of the week because so much personal grooming takes place on the edge of the pools. Think hammam and not a western swimming pool. 

The modern establishment allows co-ed bathing in its large indoor pool. It offers six day treatment packages for respiratory diseases at 1000 dirhams and for rheumatism at 1950 dirhams. (The exchange rate at presents fluctuates around 8 dirhams to the dollar.) If you want a medical treatment, you must also submit an order from your physician and pay 140 dirhams for a consultation with the spa’s physician. The best beauty value is the “skin-deep” package at 850 dirhams, which offers a cream scrub, a facial, manicure, pedicure and dip in the pool for 850 dirhams. The wellness package offers an individual Jacuzzi, jet shower, sauna, massage and dip in the pool for 550 dirhams. We opted for two wellness packages. Make sure that you read the list of treatments before you sign up. There are special prices for two or three day stays, which we discovered to our chagrin after signing up for one day. (www.moulayyacoub.com)

The modern establishment does not take reservations. You sign up when you arrive, pay cash or by credit card, change into a thick terry cloth robe over a mandatory bathing suit and await your turn. Then, attendants in white lab coats take you around to your services you have ordered. In between services, there is time to relax on comfortable lounge chairs. The establishment could use a paint job in places but is otherwise clean and well-run. Most of the patrons on a weekend were older people from Fes relaxing after a hard work week. Most of the women wore modest bathing suits or knee-length garments. If you are hoping for a Thousand and one Night setting with odalisques lounging languosly, you will be disappointed. The closest you’ll get is the sight of a few young Fassi women in the latest bikinis. YouTube has a short jaunty video on Moulay Yacoub, that will give you an idea of the place.

At present, the only place to stay onsite is the Moulay Yacoub Hotel, which claims four stars. It has seen has seen better days. The bungalows that can be rented through the hotel are a better option, if you are travelling with more than one person. According to spa personnel, a new upscale hotel is planned for 2015. There is also the Hotel Lamrani and rooms in private houses but those are best left to the most adventurous and cash-strapped travelers. We opted to stay at Dar Ziryab, a bed and breakfast in the new part of Fes (Fes Jdid). It was conveniently located to the road leading to Moulay Yacoub.



Another reason to stay in Fes and commute to Moulay Yacoub is a gastronomic one. Fes has some of the best traditional food in Morocco and Moulay Yacoub has few options. There is a clean café on the site of the upscale spa and a passable restaurant in the Hotel Lamrani, near the old pools. After consulting with the local constabulary, we had rotisserie chicken and yellow rice at the Hotel Lamrani. (The police told us not to trust the meat.) Our bill at Hotel Lamrani came to 70 dirhams for half a chicken, rice, drinks, and mint tea.

Monday, February 10, 2014

MOROCCAN BREAKFAST



Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day in Morocco. You hear loud praises for Moroccan main courses but not enough about the Moroccan breakfast. At home in Tangiers, we wake up gradually to the sound of the call to prayer, the barking dogs, the crowing roosters and the construction workers next door. Then, my husband makes a daily pilgrimage up the hill to a bakery that offers both traditional Moroccan and French baked goods and pastries.

This bakery is in Tanja El Balia along the main road known as “Route de Tanja el Balia.”” As you go up the hill from the new train station, you pass the taxi stands and look for the Branch office of Wafa Bank. The bakery is to the right of the Wafa Bank and set back from the street. It may be a little hard to find the first time but do persevere because it is worth the effort.

You have to get to the bakery early to buy the Moroccan specialties: Beghrir, melloui, rghaif, semolina harcha, barley harcha and many types of round white and dark breads. (These same specialties are served at teatime or as part of a light supper.) If you tip the ladies who work behind the counter, you’ll spare yourself the inevitable wait. The place is always packed. Judging from the license plates on the bakers’ cars, they were trained in Europe.

Every day, we have something different. We may eat French-style with croissants, petits pains au chocolat or a baguette with café au lait. The breads and the pastries are as good as, if not better than, the puff pastry creations I ate growing up in Paris. To make sure the coffee and milk are hot, Moroccans put the breakfast liquids in thermos bottles. Finding a thermos bottle locally that actually keeps liquids warm has been a challenge.

Some mornings, we may just have a traditional Moroccan breakfast of sweet mint tea, bread, olive oil and olives. Moroccan breakfasts vary by region and by socioeconomic level. For breakfast, my husband’s father used to have barley soup. Others may serve you Harira. This is the national soup consumed every evening during Ramadan to break the fast. Eggs are sometimes served for breakfast. If you need a jolt of calories, try eggs and Khlea (meat preserved in fat.) For me, khlea is an expensive acquired taste but my husband loves it. He told me that his mother used to make huge amounts of khlea and store it for the winter in big ceramic jugs.

A variety of spreads and cold drinks appear with a Moroccan breakfast: Honey, fresh cheese, butter, jams, amlou and the inevitable Laughing Cow processed cheese. In Tangiers, I serve fresh orange juice as well as olives and olive oil from a relative’s farm in Ouezzane. When I can find it, I serve fresh goat cheese or the local white cheese wrapped in palm fronds (fromage beldi). The fromage beldi is also available at the Tanjia el Balia bakery.

As a guest in a Moroccan home, you will get the works. Under the laws of Moroccan hospitality, the breakfast table has to be full of appetizing treats. For me, homemade harcha is one of the big treats of staying in a Moroccan home. The top is crisp from cooking in an iron skillet.

The best breakfast I have eaten outside a private home was at Dar Ziryab, a beautiful bed and breakfast at 2, rue Lalla Nezha in the new part of Fes (www.darziryab.com.) In addition to French and Moroccan breads and pastries, they made a delicious Moroccan version of French toast dusted with confectioners’ sugar. The copious breakfast was served on tablecloths with traditional embroidery and with plates featuring Moroccan tiles (zellige). There were at least three kinds of jam, including a terrific marmalade.

With a Moroccan breakfast, you will not suffer hunger pangs for many hours. This is just as well because lunch in Tangiers is served Spanish-style in mid-afternoon.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

LE SALON MOROCAIN



In this blog, my aim is to tell you what it’s like to live in Tangiers, the good, the bad and the funny. But before I do that, I need to tell you how we ended up in Tangiers. I’ll give you the short version here and save interesting details for future blogs : My husband, who was born in Morocco and emigrated to the US years ago, inherited from his mother a lovely house with an orange grove in Kenitra, (Port Lyautey under the French Protectorate.) Unfortunately, by the time we decided to retire in Morocco, the town of Kenitra had changed since its heyday as the site of a large American military base. The quiet neighborhood of single-family homes, where his mother’s house was located, had been rezoned for high-rises. My husband sold the house, which was promptly razed to make way for a concrete apartment block. In 2004, with the proceeds of the sale, we bought land in a new development in Tangiers, called the Bay of Tangiers. In 2006, we started building a traditional courtyard home (called a riad) and we are still at it in 2014.

My role, as the American-born wife, has been to furnish the riad in a style that is traditional (Beldi in Moroccan dialect) enough to pass muster with my husband’s many relatives. (And I mean many relatives. He is the youngest of eighteen children who had children and grandchildren). I also wanted the house to suit my taste, which favors neutral colors over Beldi bling. My first decorating challenge was the Moroccan living room (salon marocain). The relatives vetoed the first fabric I purchased, a combination of soft blue and gold brocade, as not Beldi enough. Some have grudgingly accepted my second choice, a traditional geometric design designed and woven in Fes. That was Beldi enough for me but they all have told me pointedly that a better choice would have been Bejaa, a traditional brocade with intricate floral designs and bright pastel colors. To my taste, this color palette clashed with the primary colors in the Moroccan tile work (zellige). This is my second choice. Judge for yourself.

To understand what all the fuss is about, you need to know more about the salon marocain. It is the hub of a Moroccan home, serving as a living room, a dining room and a bedroom all in one. You receive guests in it, you and your guests eat in it and your guests sleep in it. In some households, there are two salons, the Moroccan one and the European one. The European salon usually has sleek leather sofas, modern coffee and side tables, and the TV. But the one that enchants is the Moroccan salon.

A proper Moroccan salon consists of a carved wooden platform with slipcovered banquettes, round tables for eating, corner tables for displaying decorative objects and small stools for holding drinks and food. The boxsprings for the banquettes come in different price ranges depending on how soft you want them. The hardest and cheapest ones are made of styrofoam. The banquettes are usually covered in bright patterned fabrics, with coordinated geometric and floral designs. As one Moroccan niece said, the colors should pop out at you. The braid around the pillows is subject to fashion. The best is hand woven in Fes to match the fabric. Some Moroccan households have two slipcovers for its Moroccan salon—silky for warm months, velvety for the winter. The sheer curtains over the windows are often embroidered to match the design of the cushions and mattresses. Over the sheer curtains, there is another curtain, often in a darker color with an elaborate clasp in the middle and fancy tieback on the ends.

The frame for the banquettes is made of wood and carved in traditional designs. The number of cushions determines the number of guests. If you have twelve cushions, you can receive twelve guests for dinner. Ours has 34 cushions so that we can entertain lots of relatives, if need be. When you sit down to a Moroccan dinner, you surreptitiously count the number of tablecloths on the round tables. That will tell you the number of courses so that you can pace yourself.

The sleeping arrangements in the Moroccan salon promote community. A family, husband, wife and children or brothers and sisters will sleep together end to end. Do not expect heating or air conditioning. The women may be wearing pajamas under their elegant caftans so they are ready for bed. In some Moroccan households, the unmarried sons sleep in the salon marocain.

To appreciate the variety of Moroccan salons, search in youtube.com under “salon marocain.”