Posts Tagged With: tagine

The Turbanator

We left the hotel at about 9:00 this morning en route to an alfalfa farm (yes, there is a reason for this), and our first sight as we crossed a low bridge was a group of Berber women doing laundry in the river at the foot of the hill on which our hotel is perched.

No starch, please.

This gave us pause because we had sent out our laundry last night and thus could not altogether rule out the possibility that our teeshirts were in there somewhere.

Anyway, the alfalfa farm. Today’s itinerary is called “A Day in the Life of Tineghir”, and that day includes not only people doing laundry but people — which is to say, women — doing stoop labor in the alfalfa fields as well. We first picked up our local guide, a manic Berber named Mokhtar who knew the local ropes, had a 1000-watt personality, and whose clothing alone was worth the trip.

Mokhtar the Enthusiastic

You can see the fields — and three very out of focus women — behind him. Most local women, and a large fraction of local men, are adamant about not having their picture taken, at least not of their face, so this is about the best I can do. The most common exceptions are beggars, whom one can pay to allow a photo, and the families where we have our hosted visits.

This is backbreaking labor, scything the alfalfa at ground level with a small curved blade about a foot long, and laying out the sheaves for the men to pick up and load onto waiting donkeys. This being an organized trip, Mokhtar inevitably wrapped a couple of the women in our group in shawls, gave them a blade one at a time, and had them cut a few stalks while the rest of us took pictures and the actual working women no doubt muttered imprecations under their breath. Then Mokhtar drafted some of our men to pick up the bundles of cut alfalfa and carry them to a nearby donkey. I wonder if perhaps we could put together a tour group of Berbers, bring them to the US, and have them take pictures of each other pretending to be consultants or programming a computer.

Our next stop was a very old mosque and school that had fallen into disrepair and was now being rebuilt. Part of the reason it needed rebuilding was its location on a steep hillside, where erosion had pretty much eliminated the possibility of having any of the building columns remaining exactly vertical. But the place had a pleasantly ancient and spooky air about it, like something from an Indiana Jones movie. You can get the idea from these two shots.

It turned out, to our surprise and delight, that Mokhtar is a muezzin, the guy who chants the call to prayer from the top of a mosque five times a day. In the two weeks we’ve been here we’ve heard it dozens of times, of course, but usually at a distance and always in a cacophony of echoing calls from all the nearby mosques at once, competing as well with day-to-day noise from the street. But now we were by ourselves well away from any distracting sounds, and Mokhtar wowed us by chanting the call in the very room we were in.

He puts his all into it, drawing deep breaths, cupping his hands around his mouth, and closing his eyes to concentrate. It is far less jarring to hear it this way than in all the times we’ve heard it thus far. It seems to me almost a shame that it is almost always heard that way, because in these more intimate conditions its musicality emerged, and it was haunting and strangely beautiful.

Our religious duties fulfilled, it was time to go shopping for dinner. Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) is all about participation, so when I say that we went shopping, I mean that we were driven to an open air market and divided into three groups of five or six people each, each group given a shopping list and a 100 dirham note (about $10 US), and told to be back in 20 minutes with the goods. Bargaining would be necessary. Steve, Thumper, and we were the fruit group, assigned to buy 4 kilos (8.8 lbs) of apples and bananas and 3 kilos of oranges. Off we went.

Thumper brings home the bacon, or rather apples.

We thought the nearest fruit stand looked too touristy so we found another and were immediately distracted by pomegranates. We bought three big ones for the low, low prices of 7 dirham (70 cents US) because we could; at that price bargaining seemed superfluous and we still had 93 dirham left. So we looked first at the apples and decided that the quality was low, and maybe we were better off at the first fruit stand after all. We returned to it and, satisfied with the quality of the goods, started loading up plastic tubs with the required amount of each fruit. The stall had two scales, a modern electronic one and an old fashioned mechanical one with counterweights. We put items in and out of the basket till we had the desired weight of each of the the three fruits, and the tab came to 142 dirham.

Hmmm. We only had 93 out of our original hundred, and we didn’t want to front any of our own cash unless absolutely necessary. So we handed the vendor the 93 and said, in English and French, that that’s all we have. He thought for a second, handed us back the three odd dirham, and said (in English), “Twenty.” I fished a 20 out of my wallet and gave it to him, and the deal was done: 90 + 20 = 110 dirham ($11 US), about 20% less than the original price. We had fruit. We had bargained successfully. (I would also like to note that we paid $11 US for over 24 lbs of fruit, which seems like an awfully good deal in general.)

Our next stop was a school visit, a common feature of many OAT tours. (OAT is affiliated with the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports a number of educational and cultural institutions at their tour destinations; a small part of our OAT tour cost goes to them.) Our school of interest was a Berber boarding school of sorts; I say “of sorts” because it is not a school per se, rather it provides boarding and study facilities for poor students who are brought there to attend nearby public schools. It does have a study area and a very small library, seen here. Needless to say, they accept donations of just about anything. (While on our fruit quest earlier, we had bought some pens and notebooks from another market vendor to leave behind at the school.)

The facility has dorms that support 140 boys from 7th through 12th grades, and there is a sister facility down the street that houses 104 girls; the girls’ school is only 5 years old. Admission is selective and takes into account primary school achievement, poverty levels, and other factors. The facilities are basic, clean, and spare: the sleeping quarters are basically large cubicals with lockers, each area holding two two-person bunk beds. There was a soccer field and a basketball court; a dining area, and a grand total of three computers. The principal walked us through as he talked about their history, how they operate, and what they hope to accomplish. One interesting feature is their association with a nearby vocational school; students who can’t cut it in regular school are allowed to continue to board there while attending the vo-tech school. It seems like a very good model for bringing education to a large socioeconomic segment that would otherwise remain illiterate and unemployable.

Time for another home-hosted lunch, this time with a barely-middle-class Berber family whose income seemed to come both from a small garden farm and from these visits themselves; they host about four a week, for which OAT of course pays them.

Our host was Achmad, who was definitely a wild and crazy guy of about 40. He lives with his brother, two sisters (both well past marrying age, for reasons unknown), and his 80 year old father. They were warm and welcoming, Achmad doing most of the talking; his brother spoke a little English and his sisters and father less. (French worked, though, and we used it a fair amount.) Our gift to them, as we have done before, was some NASA paraphernalia that went over very well, as you can see from Achmad’s enthusiasm:

“To the moon, Achmad!”

Lunch was excellent, a lamb tagine preceded by a first course that was completely new to us: angel hair pasta topped with cinnamon and sugar. Yeah, I know it sounds weird but it was really good: try it! It has the additional virtue of allowing you to pretend that you’re not eating dessert before dinner.

Achmad went around the table asking where we were from, whether we had children, and what religion we were. He was excited to hear that I am Jewish, and ran to get an old coin that he had found in the mountains to see if I could identify it. Here it is:


It’s about the size of a US dime and is featureless on the back. I have no idea what it is. Let me know if you do. (For all I know it’s an old rabbinical shirt button.)

The fun began after lunch: it was Dress Up Time. (One gets the sense that the family has done this before, which I expect they have about 100 times. Still, they seemed to genuinely enjoy interacting with us in this way.) Achmad got the ball rolling with his Ultra Macho Triple Decker Turban:

Now THAT’S a turban.

And it was not long before everyone got into the act, including me

Without question, my new Facebook profile picture

Notice also that I am wearing a black robe with a gold banded collar. That is because at Achmad’s behest everyone went Full Berber:

No tourists here, nosirree. But at least I know what to wear to my next business meeting.

That’s Alice on my left, Steve and Thumper on my right, and two of our other travel mates, Dave and Patricia. Dave got shorted in the turban department because everyone agreed that the white skullcap looked exactly right on him.

And then the music started: Achmad on a recorder-like pipe, sister #1 clinking a jar with a spoon, remaining siblings providing percussion on the tabletop and a plastic bread bowl. It was a Berber Shop Quartet, plus Dad in the background clapping his hands. There was dancing. It was surreal. It was also a total hoot, and I have it on video to prove it.

“No, dammit, you’re coming in late on the down beat. Now take it from the top.”

We get more Berber Immersion tonight, as we are having dinner at a Berber camp using the food that we bought earlier today. I’ll report on that in my next posting. (Postscript: never mind. The Berber “camp” turned out to be a hotel with a Berber-style tent next to it. But the meal was very good — we bought the fruit for dessert! — and the music, a three piece percussion band with castanets and drums, was excellent.)

We leave Tinighir for tomorrow for our next destination, the town of Ouarzazate. We will be having a discussion session with an imam there. Ouarzazate is also the home of Morocco’s native TV and film industry, and is thus known as — I swear this is true — “Mollywood”. I have no idea what kind of stuff they produce, but I can imagine some locally themed programming that might appeal: classic movies like The Sound of Muezzins, racy fare like Fifty Shades of Ochre, and TV series like How I Met Your Mullah and the crime drama CSI: Middle of Nowhere.






Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Getting Our Just Deserts

I’m typing this from our tent in the middle (more like the western edge) of the Sahara desert on Wednesday October 7, but it will be at least a couple of days before I can actually post it, there being, well, nothing here.

This morning we left our beautiful hotel in Erfoud with a certain amount of reluctance, knowing that we would be trading our enormous comfy air conditioned rooms for extremely non-air-conditioned tents located far deeper into the middle of nowhere than we already were. So I had this brief word with the staff, shown below, thanking them for their hospitality. (How many hotels do you know keep camels on the grounds?) And so we set off, divided up into a convoy of four 4 x 4s instead of our bus because the latter would not do so well on sand dunes and generally functions much better when there is an actual road.

“And next time, don’t forget the mints on the pillows.”

This region is known for its fossils, and so our first stop was a place that receives the quarried fossil-rich slabs of sedimentary rock (not granite) and turns them into exceedingly cool tabletops, counter slabs, fountains, etc., all swimming with the particular Precambrian creatures that were endemic here. They fall mostly into three types: ammonites (which look like nautilus shells), trilobites (which look like giant sow bugs), and a long pointy cylindrical squid-like creature. (We would actually have gotten our own granite countertops in this style, but they were astronomically expensive.) in any case, the factory guide showed us the raw stones, the cutting and polishing process (diamond drills), and so forth, all culminating in the inevitable showroom where they assured us they would ship to the US. There was in fact a lot of interesting stuff, and several of our group bought things Steve and Thumper bought a set of fossil-laden dishes, while we bought a couple of small ammonites variously for Alice and the teenager who lives across the street from us and looks after our house while were away.

“Huh, I could’ve sworn we had Han Solo frozen in here.”

Our next stop was a Berber town where we visited a rather poor household, of which there are many. This was a family of a mother (at left below), father, and five children, two of whom were grown and married while the other three were still at home. One of those three had Down’s Syndrome, which led to a discussion of how they handled and treated him. And the answer was: they don’t. It is considered a failure, essentially a mark of shame, to have had such a child, and so they let him wander the streets, sometimes not seeing him for days at a time. This is arguably an improvement of how some local families treat such children, which is by chaining them up in a back room so no one can see them.

This led to a discussion of health care — Momo translating all the while — which is free in this country if your income falls below a certain threshold (which hers does).

Our hostess’ husband is a porter, who earns very little. She makes ends meet by weaving and selling fabrics and dresses, one of whom she demonstrated on one of our group, as you see here. It was wound pretty tight; our travel partner/dressmaker’s dummy reports that she would have a hard time moving around in it.

I should mention that no visit to a Moroccan home is complete without achingly sweet mint tea, and this was no exception. We smiled with pleasure as the enamel of our teeth dissolved, and thanked our hostess for her hospitality. (More about the Berbers later.)

By this point we were far enough into the desert that the rate of camel sightings was climbing noticeably, and so it was no coincidence that our next stop was a camel farm, one specializing in camel milk. They had a small herd of the beasts, the lactating females penned with their offspring but kept separate from the males, who were uninterested in the milk but very interested in — wait for it — humping. (Rim shot) So to milk a camel (an activity that thankfully they did not offer to teach us), you first have to shoulder the hungry camel children out of the way so that you (the farmer) can grab the teats and spritz the milk into a waiting metal bowl. It took two guys, as you can see here: the guy with his back to us is holding the shiny bowl while keeping the disgruntled juvenile (at left) out of the way, while the guy on the far side of the camel is spritzing. It’s a lot: it only takes a minute or two to get 1 1/2 liters (~3 pints), and you see the result in the picture that follows.

Very fresh, yet strangely unappetizing

It is very white and creamy looking, and tastes — yes, we tasted it — rather like plain old whole milk.

I should say something about camel vocabulary here (I mean out vocabulary, not the camels’, which is mostly limited to FNAAAAUUURRRRNK, though I may be spelling that wrong. The main point that I need to convey is that these are not actually camels, but rather dromedaries. In the immortal words of humor poet Ogden Nash:

“The camel has a single hump, the dromedary two. / Perhaps the other way around / I’m never sure, are you?”

It is in fact the other way around: dromedaries have one hump, and those are the guys you see around here. The two-hump animals are technically Bactrian camels. But everybody seems to call the dromedaries camels except when they’re trying to look smarter than you. I’ll continue to call them camels for convenience. (But I reserve the right to correct you if you call them camels, because I am a hypocrite and want to look smarter than you.)

As we headed deeper into the Sahara we saw more and more of less and less. Here’s the view out my window as we drive; the other car is one of our convoy. We tend to drive in staggered formation so as to avoid eating each other’s dust, of which there is an infinite about. The terrain is mostly flat, a mixture of hard-packed orange sand and black volcanic rubble. There is an occasional milkwood tree or patch of rough scrubby grass. The Atlas Mountains lie in the distance, and there is the occasional field of sand dunes, some the size of small mountains. We traverse a few of these, which is great fun in a roller coaster sort of way, but overall it would be an understatement to say that the landscape is uninviting. The weather is of course hot, though not blisteringly so: no higher than the mid-80s, time bone dry. But the sunlight is like an ultraviolet laser that fills the sky, very very intense.

And of course, amidst the expanse of nothing, there are camels:

We stop for a lunch at a restaurant that incongruously emerges in the midst of a filed of sand dunes. Here’s the scene as we arrive:



The walls are canvas over a frame, the interior walls and ceiling embroidered hangings. The interior space is appointed in traditional style, and if you have a mental image of Aladdin walking among cushions and the embroidered walls to round tables with ornate silver tea sets, you are pretty close to the mark. Lunch was quite good, a beef tagine.

We continued on til a stop at another Berber village, these Berbers being if rather different ethnic heritage. Remember that Berbers are ethnically very heterogeneous, some being pale skinned and of European provenance, others descended from sub-Saharan Africans. This group is descended from slaves imported from Sudan and Mali, and they put on a musical performance (“colorful native dances”, as we cynically characterize them in these trips) in which they played drums, castanets (that’s what they’re holding in the picture) and a stringed instrument. They danced a shuffling line dance while chanting nostalgic songs about the pre-slavery era, e.g., about returning to Timbuktu (which is in Mali, to answer a question it may never have occurred to you to ask).

The performance involved inveigling the audience (i.e. the 16 of us) into getting up and participating in a circle dance,my he Sudanese version of Hava Nagila. I gave in, but frankly would rather have been in Timbuktu myself.

Still further on we encountered a Berber cemetery, seen here. Primitive and sad, with way too many 4′ long graves, indicating that children were buried the. The headstones are I carved rough stone, with no information at all about the deceased. The only fact that each grave conveys is the sex of the departed, which is indicated by the position of the headstone: when positioned in the way that you (the reader) are used to, there lies here a male; when turned 90 degrees, a female. You can see a few of the latter in the photo, e.g., all the way in the back, about a quarter of the way over from the right.


We reached our camp at about 4:15PM, a cluster of a dozen semipermanent canvas-walled one-room tents at the edge of a field of sand dunes. They’re primitive looking from the outside and basic but comfortable on the inside: the canvas hangs on a wood and wire frame, and the floor is wood with a large carpet. Each room has a flush toilet and very basic cold shower. There is a generator or solar-powered batteries in the c amp (I don’t yet know which) so we have electricity at night; there is a single lightbulb but also an electrical outlet so we can charge our various devices overnight. So in ither words, extremely basic but not altogether roughing it. The main problem is the sand, which is everywhere and gets into everything; we have zippered screen doors front and rear that work reasonably well to keep the outside outside.

Not the Hilton.

But make no mistake, we really are in the Sahara desert. If you need any additional convincing, here is the view out our back door.

You might correctly infer from that image that strolling into town to do some shopping is not a realistic option. But it is all very exciting and interesting. We received a cooking lesson (tagine) in the late afternoon, followed by a very good dinner (tagine, do you see the pattern?). The skies are quite beautiful here as you would expect, the Milky Way a glorious highway from horizon to horizon across the zenith. So I gave a little astronomy lecture, enthusiastically received, and led a star party, pointing out constellations and stars to end the evening.

Tomorrow: camel ride! We have been cautioned to wear long pants for this, so I suspect that some apprehension may be warranted.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Patty Cake, Patty Cake

OK, OK, I might as well get this out of the way first and vaporize my Sophisticated Traveler credentials once and for all. Remember what I said about djellabas and sombreros being a thing? Here are Alice and me in an act of public self-humiliation:

Nope, we are DEFINITELY not tourists. Nothing to see here. Move on now.

Nope, we are DEFINITELY not tourists. Nothing to see here.

We will not speak of this again.  Moving right along….

You probably think of Morocco as an Arab country. You have a lot of company if you do, including the government of Morocco itself. But in fact the country is 70% Berber, a very loosely-defined and heterogeneous ethnic group that is not Arab and in fact views the Arabs as invaders…which they were, in about the 8th century. The Berbers came from just about everywhere in the hemisphere; some resemble dark sub-Saharan Africans, others lighter-skinned Europeans. There are even a smattering of Jews among them. (Though very few: practically all of the country’s 300,000 Jews left for Israel after its founding in 1948, and only about 3,000 remain. There are too few of them to even bother persecuting, unlike the Shia Muslims, which are somewhat second class citizens in this Sunni country.)

And by the way, do not call Berbers Berbers: their name for themselves is the Amazigh, or “free people”. The name “Berber”, in fact, is of unclear origin; one theory is that it is related to the word “barbarian”. They are not too crazy about this theory, as you might imagine.

We are in Chefchaouen right now, in the Rif mountains in the northern part of the country. This part of Morocco was long considered something of a backwater; King Hassan II, who ruled for about 50 years until his death in 1999, was very “south-centric” and an Islamic traditionalist. (The giant mosque in Casablanca whose pictures I posted yesterday is named after him. It holds 100,000 worshipers — that is not a typo — and has a 4000 car underground parking garage. I do not know if they validate.) His son and successor, Mohammed VI, as rather more westernized and very much the reformer. Politically, this northern part of the country now gets more attention; religiously, a wide variety of traditional Islamic strictures have been loosened, the mosques are turning out a cadre of more moderate imams, and women in particular have benefited from more educational opportunities and more balanced marriage and divorce laws. More on this topic later.

Chefchaouen (hard to get all those vowels in the right order) is a beautiful hillside town, the buildings variously blue or whitewashed, making it rather Greek in appearance, as you can see here:


We are staying in a beautiful restored traditional guest house called a riad. The floors are all tile, the rooms ringing a 3-story mezzanine onto a central skylit atrium. In the middle of the floor at the bottom, where the front desk is, overstuffed easy chairs ring a low copper and tile fountain. The front door opens onto the souk, the bubbly warren-like marketplace full of strolling tourists and insistent vendors. Leather, woodwork, clothing, and tchochkes are the order of the day, and the streets are all blue. We took an early morning stroll to see relatively people-free streets like these:

chef-03 chef-02 chef-01

Here are a few locals of varying ages:

chef-07 chef-06

The souk takes on an otherwordly air at night, the street lights mixing with the blue walls, the vendors importuning the strollers through the maze of alleys, and the calls to prayer from the muezzin echoing from the minarets. Here are some night scenes (I may post more tomorrow):

chef-17 chef-18 chef-15 chef-16

That last photo is worshipers exiting a mosque after evening prayers. This particular mosque has some political significance, as it is in the vanguard of training and dispatching moderate imams to counter the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. (The term “fundamentalism” is somewhat misleading insofar as even most conservative Muslims consider the jihadists’ doctrines to be an extreme corruption of actual fundamental Islamic principles.)

After our morning stroll, we boarded our van and drove about a half hour into the mountainous countryside to have our first home-hosted meal. Our hosts were Mohammed (not the same Mohammad as our tour lead) and his sister Fatima; his wife was laid up in bed with a difficult pregnancy. They are a mixed Berber/Arab couple who operate a small farm/guesthouse, and upon our arrival put the women in our group to work helping Fatima prepare the meal. This included making the flatbread from scratch, followed by the couscous. This was all dutifully overseen by the men, who according to tradition and deeply-ingrained social custom did, well, nothing. One of our guys was selected to pour the tea, which is about the extent of the male role at mealtime and, indeed, just about any time. Meanwhile, the women were doing this: chef-10 chef-09 chef-12


   Alice keeps the home fires burning.

The bread-making involved a lot of patting and rolling and kneading and sifting and such (hence today’s title). In other words, we all enjoyed the benefits of rampant gender inequality. But the meal was delicious. In fact, here is a picture of one of the courses a vegetarian couscous:

We worked hard for this meal. Well, half of us did.

 We worked hard for this meal. Well, half of us did.

It is traditional to bring a small gift to the host on such a house visit. I brought along some NASA paraphernalia for this purpose: a NASA logo sew-on patch and a refrigerator magnet. Mohammad was very excited by this, and we had a pantomime conversation (he speaking no English) in which he made launching sounds and motions and was apparently asking me if I worked with rockets. I said yes. It later developed that he was actually asking me whether I was an astronaut. It was with great reluctance that I fessed up. But I still got major props:


Following the meal, Mohammed walked us around the property, down the hill to his neighbor’s scrawny marijuana patch. No, it is not legal here. No, he did not offer any to us, not even for the NASA patch.

We headed back to the riad for an hour or two break, then convened for an hour discussion with a local activist named Fatima (no, not the one from the farm), who works for an organization that is trying to modernize the situation of women in Morocco. Said situation being pretty bad at present, though not nearly so bad as in much of the Muslim world. There is in particular an enormous divide between urban and rural women (the population is about evenly split between cities and countryside): the latter are mostly uneducated, marry very young, and as I already indicated do pretty much everything to maintain the home regardless of whether her husband has a job (which a large fraction do not). The situation is changing, particularly since 2003 with the introduction of radically liberalized family laws. Women can now request a divorce (formerly solely a husband’s privilege), can require a prenup with a 50-50 property split, can demand alimony, and can have their husbands prosecuted for domestic violence. You will be unsurprised to hear that the divorce rate in Morocco has skyrocketed in the past 12 years. Fatima’s organization’s role in this liberalization process is promoting women’s education, particularly in the rural areas where at present a large fraction never go to school.

It was an interesting and animated discussion, attended by everyone in the group except one of the husbands, whom I suspect may be sleeping outdoors tonight.

We ended the day with a wonderful rooftop dinner, just Steve and Thumper and us, at a nearby restaurant recommended by our tour lead. It had the unfortunately schlocky name of “Alladin’s Magic Lamp”. But the food was excellent and we enjoyed it while overlooking the main town square during sunset, watching the nighttime town come to life and, once again, hearing the muezzins echoing from the minarets in every direction.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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