Monthly Archives: August 2013

Lynn’s rugs

I had not wanted to live in an expat community during this year in Morocco, but as I trudge up the hill toward the suq, I begin to see some advantages.  I am wearing a pair of linen trousers and a linen shirt, both of which belong to Lynn-the-textiles-expert-who-is-leaving-for-Doha. I still don’t know Lynn’s last name or even her email, but over the next few months, I will be wearing her clothes, drinking out of her mug, eating her spices.  Channeling Lynn.  At the same time, I will be regretting my failure to record her impromptu lecture-demonstration on Moroccan rugs and textiles.


Lynn’s first career was as a spinner and knitter in the United States, and she achieved national recognition for her work.  When I came by to look at her rugs and her give-aways, she was packing up some of the journals that featured her work.  She showed me some exquisitely fine hand-spun lace knitting she had done, and (like all true spinners) dismissed my inability to work with a drop spindle.  “It’s easy—and so convenient!”  Convenient, yes; easy, for some.  Give me a wheel any day.

“What brought you to Morocco?” I asked, but I should have known.  It’s an old sad story.  Textile artists, like many other artists, can’t survive on their work. When Lynn realized that even the top people in her field could make a living only by traveling and giving workshops six months out of the year, she decided she needed a day job—and that day job, in academic support, has taken her on a twelve-year odyssey around the globe, with a two-year residence in Morocco.

I think about Lynn, not only as I wear her clothes, but as I look around at her rugs, scattered through our house.  We have an exquisitely soft, hand-spun, naturally colored brown-and-gray striped piece that I can’t bear to put on the floor.  “It could be a couverture (bed covering) or a rug,” Lynn acknowledged, and I imagine huddling under its fibers in the cold winter everyone warns us about.
Similar in coloring, but rougher to the touch is a goat’s wool rug I’ve put under my work table.  “Walk on it and the fibers will become shiny,” Lynn advised.
In the living room, we have a large rug, striped red, purple, blue, with one thin slice of bright orange.
“Those will be synthetic dyes, probably, because the orange is not available with the natural dyes.  That stripe, it constitutes a signature,” Lynn told me.  “The way it stands out, calls attention to itself: it’s a mark of individuality, idiosyncracy.”
On the other side of the living room, there’s a slightly older piece, hand-spun, all in red, with wonderful variations in color; the red comes from cochineal—crushed insect shells.  Remember the insects that live on Opuntia–prickly pear cactus?
There are rugs I didn’t buy, because we felt so short of cash: one rug that had a wonderful patched hole in it, from serving as part of a Berber tent; another where the colors were too bright for my taste.  There were other rugs Lynn wasn’t selling—she felt obliged to return them to the person she had bought them from, because she had had to work so hard to persuade the original owner to part with them.  There was the immense “aliens” rug—yellow and brown with other accents, full of humanoid figures.  “The prohibition on reproducing the human figure comes from Arab culture, not Berber society,” Lynn noted.  “But what would you do with this piece?  It needs to be hung in some monumental space.”  She described another rug as being “woven with time.”  The weaver used the same dye but left the rug exposed to the sun during the weaving process so that some of the coloring would fade, creating a two-tone pattern.

Lynn was particularly interested in a transitional moment in bouchereite: rag rugs produced by Imazighen (Berber) women.  “There’s this explosion in creativity,” Lynn asserted.  “All of a sudden, there were these industrial scraps available, and they were cheap, and so the sky was the limit.  It wasn’t like working with wool that you had to shear and clean and card and spin.  The rags must have felt like a windfall, a nearly free resource.”  In her collection of bouchereite, Lynn tracked the way weavers would create a sense of motion in their work: the blue river, she called one piece, for the meanderings of blue rags down the middle of the pattern.
Another piece that she called the red trellis showcases the traditional diamond pattern that Lynn insisted was vaginal—“I have a picture of this old weaver woman, her knees wide, holding open her vagina: it’s a classic diamond, I’m telling you”—and a recording of lineage, a weaver recording her family back through her mother and her mother’s mother.
Lynn prized the oddities, the idiosyncrasies in rugs: “These are the places where you see a woman, weaving in isolation, making a statement, creating something personal.  The workshops that have been set up more recently make women’s lives much better by offering them a community in which to work, and providing a clearer market for their goods, but there’s a loss in terms of creativity.  Instead of a single woman making her individual decisions, there are set patterns that are taught and maintained.  They’re all good—I just happen to like seeing the individual weaver at work.”  But the transitional moment passes.  “After that initial explosion, the spark goes out,” Lynn said.  “It’s as if the women suddenly looked up and recognized what they were working with: garbage.  Call it recycling, repurposing, call it what you want, but it’s the same old story: you don’t get any real resources after all.”  Now there’s a Marxist-feminist analysis: base and superstructure as seen through the lens of gender.

Someday, once we acquire a car and my Darija improves, perhaps we’ll go rug-shopping for ourselves, for the education of it.  In the meantime, Lynn’s rugs have moved into Omar’s house, and together they offer a beautiful, comfortable back-drop to our lives here.  And that’s even before considering the linen towels, sheets, and pillowcases Lynn gave me: suq finds that I hope to replicate, if my fingers can ever become as knowing as Lynn’s, as quick to feel the differences among linen, cotton, and synthetics.  “This piece,” she said, showing me a prize she would take with her to Doha, “came from Hungary: you can tell by the design.  I love to see these fabrics travel, to imagine the route that would bring them to this little suq in Ifrane.” Fabrics and people, wandering through this landscape.


Learning (in) Darija

When you spend two hours a day with someone, that person starts to feel a little like a friend or a family member. Youssef finds this easiest in relation to Jeremy.  “Aji!” he calls to Jeremy.  “Gliss!” (Come here! Sit down!)  He pats the chair next to him emphatically.  Jeremy looks at me sideway and I nod: yes, you need to go and sit down, at least briefly.  Jeremy does so.  Youssef then tries to carry on a one-sided conversation: “Ki deir? Mizian? Hamdullah! Sahebi?”  (How are you?  Good?  Thanks be to God.  Are you my friend?)  I nod at Jeremy, and he obediently nods at Youssef.  Friends.  Youssef gives him a hug.

Before long, Youssef has raised the ante: “Khuya.” Jeremy is now his brother.  (People on the street also call each other “my brother” or “my sister,” but in this context, it’s a little more intimate.)  Before we came, I worried some about the famous Moroccan love of children.  I wasn’t sure Jeremy would appreciate being loved by people he didn’t know well, but while he’s a bit timid at present, he’s taking all the love in stride.  Still, he scrambles off to play again as soon as he thinks he can get away with it.

In many ways, Youssef seems more traditionally Moroccan than many of the people we meet here in Ifrane. Most Ifranis have at least moderately good French, for instance, even people who only made it through 3rd grade.  Youssef has some words of French, but not enough to communicate clearly.  (He doesn’t speak much English either, which makes it hard to ask about new words or concepts.  And occasionally, the translations he offers head in the wrong direction: “God needs you” instead of “May God help you.”)  Like “the country people” Ifranis describe, Youssef doesn’t change his watch with the official changes in time.  (Morocco follows daylight savings time, but goes off DST during Ramadan, and then returns to DST at the end of Ramadan.  We changed our clocks with the official time, but Youssef didn’t, with the result that for about a week he turned up an hour before we expected him.)  Less traditional, I imagine, is Youssef’s passion for linguistics: he just finished a master’s degree on using technology to teach modern standard Arabic to foreigners; he’s hoping to start a new degree in Fez come the fall—perhaps a national doctorate (as opposed to an internationally recognized PhD).

In practicing vocabulary, Youssef and I talk about families and where we come from.  Youssef was born in Errachidia; he lives with his two brothers in Azrou.  Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 9.35.43 AM
One brother is a greengrocer; the other sells furniture like Moroccan banquettes.  Youssef occasionally drives a truck for this second brother, picking up furnishings from El Hoceima, for instance, on the Mediterranean coast, and grabbing a few hours on the beach in the process.  Back in Errachidia, his father used to sell vegetables in the suq; he’s now retired. Another brother brings truckloads of produce from Agadir (on the southern Atlantic coast) to sell in Errachidia.
Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 9.41.20 AM
If I recall correctly, there are four brothers and three sisters in total.  One of the sisters lives in Rabat; I lost track of the other two.  But I’m struck by the geographical distribution of the family, given the importance of family within Moroccan culture.  Still, one of Youssef’s nephews is going to marry one of Youssef’s nieces—Darija makes it clear that this is cousin rather than sibling marriage—a practice still quite common in Morocco.

Family vocabulary is very important in Darija, so it’s interesting to see what the structure of the language allows and emphasizes, and what it obscures.  There’s no simple word for cousin, for instance: instead, one specifies the relationship through the older generation.  A cousin is “son-of-a-paternal-aunt” or “daughter-of-a-maternal-uncle.”  An American “blended” family is hard to describe in Darija.  To talk about my much-loved stepmother, for instance, I have to refer to her as my father’s second wife, which has rather different overtones.  Talking about my stepfather is a little more shady: “Your mother’s second husband?” (Really?)

Youssef and I work on an imaginary family tree.
Fatima and Hamid are the grandparents; they have four children, two girls (Ouam and Amina) and two boys (Khalid and Mohamed).  All four are married: Ouam to Abdellah; Amina to Qasm; Khalid to Nizha; Mohamed to Ismaa.  I read the family tree from the wrong direction, left to right, taking the women ahead of the men. When I ask about terms like sister-in-law, Youssef points me to the mother-in-law relationship.

“No, I want to know how to describe the relationship between Ismaa and Nizha.”
“There is no relationship there.  No word to describe it.”
“Really.  Besides, they hate each other.”
“What do you mean?”
“This woman (pointing to Nizha) always hates this woman (pointing to Ismaa).  At least if the brothers share a house.”

Ah, the light dawns.  Brothers share the family house, and their wives are structurally in conflict with one another, struggling for dominance, disagreeing over how family resources and space should be managed.

Youssef isn’t done.  “But the worst is this one.”  He points to Fatima, the matriarch.  “Both of these women (Nizha and Ismaa) hate her and she hates them.  They must work for her, and she may be terrible to them, making trouble for them with each other and with their husbands.  The older women are especially bad: no education, nothing in their life but the power to make their daughters-in-law miserable.”

Wow.  I make a face at Youssef to show I’m a little taken aback.
He nods and grins.  “You won’t find this in any books, but this is what I say.  This is what I see.  It’s not so bad now, but in the old days it was very hard.”

Talk about names within the family leads to a discussion of how affection is expressed.  Parents are called by their titles: El Haj (marking those who have been on hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, but the title is used more generally to indicate respect); a Lalla.  Children kiss their parents’ hands; parents kiss their children’s (bent) heads.  On the street, of course, there is the double kiss–cheeks pressed together on both sides of the face–and often an embrace, mostly between people of the same sex.  Youssef imagines I want to know how to say ‘I love you,’ though I don’t think I’ve asked this.  “The young people use ‘bgheet’ (the same as ‘to want’) but the old people don’t say this word.  They show love by helping each other with burdens or giving a hand down a steep path, but they don’t say the word.  The young people–it’s the opposite.  They say the word, but they don’t show it!”

Youssef and I are very different from one another, and Youssef works, often visibly, to overcome the strangeness our family represents.  When we invite him into a different part of the house, beyond the public area of the Moroccan salon, he pauses and then physically pushes himself forward into this inappropriate interior.  When I bring up one of the famous secret prisons from Morocco’s “years of lead,” he startles, but again pushes on: “In this context” of tutoring, he states explicitly, “we can say anything.”  The statement demonstrates openness and tolerance even as it marks a political gulf between us.

He’s happier to talking about the Green March, celebrated each November 4-6 in Morocco.  During the Green March, some 350,000 Moroccans (escorted by 20,000 army troops) marched into the disputed territory of the (then Spanish) Western Sahara: they marched singing, carrying Qurans and Moroccan flags.

images images-1
image from Morocco World News                       image from

“My uncle was a part of the Green March,” Youssef tells me, exultantly.  “He was so happy: they were all so happy!  Marching, singing!  It was a wonderful time!”  The Western Sahara, cannily annexed without bloodshed during this Green March, continues to be a vexed political issue, underscored by a 16-year war and ongoing conflict with the Polisario front, but it’s clearly important to Moroccan patriotic feeling.

When my tutoring sessions with Youssef come to an end, we take some photos to help us remember our time together.
Youssef wants photos with Jeremy and James; James insists on taking a photo of Youssef with me.  I can feel Youssef’s discomfort despite Jeremy’s presence between us.
Once the photo has been taken, Youssef leaps away and then steps back to tell me I am like a mother to him.  I would have chosen younger brother rather than son (is this vanity on my part or immaturity?), but I take his point.  He has coped so well with this strange family, has worked diligently at this odd relationship with an uncovered, inappropriately dressed older woman.  A lalla Betsy: Ms. Betsy.  How do we resolve this odd, uncanny friendship?  Through the model of family.  Khuya: my brother.  Umi: my mother.


Lalla Aisha: women’s ceramics in the Rif

We had originally decided not to visit Lalla Aisha to see her ceramics because the village where she lives was over an hour away from the village where we were staying.  (“Lalla” is an honorific, something between “Ma’am” and “Lady.”)  We didn’t want to spend 2-3 hours driving on rough roads.  But James was recuperating slowly, so  we decided to stay an extra day and make the trip.  The drive was rough in places, but also breathtaking, weaving up the side of mountain, running along a mountain ridge, with the sun gleaming beside us.


We arrived and were offered Moroccan tea with cookies, then proceeded to converse in a hodge-podge of languages.  James was a big hit, throwing out his scarecrow arms and legs, mugging for his new friends.  They tried to teach him how to ask for manly tea in a café, and when James entered into the spirit of the joke, trying to pronounce the words with macho enthusiasm, they laughed till they cried.  The children looked on, baffled at their father and our hosts alike.  Lalla Aisha’s grown son told us how relieved he was that we could stand a joke.  “Some visitors, they come and sit here with their long faces.  We’re not always sure they’re human.”

The lesson started with a trench in the field behind the house and workshop.  Grab some clumps of dirt (also known as raw clay).
Break up the clumps into fine clay dust.
Sift out any remaing lumps.
Add water to make… clay.
Knead the clay to make it smooth and consistent.  Think about what shape you’d like to make.
Our whole family wants to make mugs.
Jeremy gets a little extra help from Lalla Aisha, which means he has time to make a candlestick as well.
After the pieces are made, and as they begin to dry a little, Lalla Aisha explains how to decorate them with slip and pigments: both of these made from dirt or stone she has dug up a little farther from the house.

These stones produce the slip and pigment.
The mug is covered with slip before being painted with a darker pigment.
SONY DSCDark stone is crushed, then water is added to make a pasty paint.
Paintbrushes are made from animal hair with clay handles.
The work is absorbing and lots of fun, even if James’s mug is the only one to pass inspection.  (“We might actually fire and sell this one!”)
We won’t be taking our less polished work with us: there’s no time to fire and finish the pieces.  Instead, we have the simple pleasure of the process.

It’s dark by the time we’re done, and we drive slowly over the rutted path.  Hayat has driven us here in her 4×4, since our car would not be able to manage the road.  There’s some conflict about the piste: Lalla Aisha wants her neighbors to contribute to repairing the road but they say she should bear all the cost, since she’s the one who has foreigners coming to visit.  In the dusk, some boys on a nearby hill throw a rock at the car.  Hayat’s son shouts at them, and Hayat tells him sharply to be still and quiet.  “Just stupid boys,” she says.  But there’s a bit of tension  in the car, and as we take the road home, through the dark now, Hayat is concentrating hard on the road.  I think about how much courage and agility it must take for her to do the work she does, translating between cultures, living on the cusp between comparatively wealthy visitors and impoverished neighbors, and I’m grateful for the charm and graciousness with which she has welcomed and cared for us.


The art of the tagine

As you probably know, “tagine” is the name for any dish cooked in a tagine: this kind of a pot.


There are a variety of classic Moroccan tagines (lamb and prune, chicken and preserved lemon, etc.), but since we’re vegetarian, we asked Hayat to teach us how to make a vegetarian tagine.

We start with olive oil to coat the tagine, then a base of onions.  Note the absence of a cutting board.  Most Moroccan women do all their chopping with the vegetables in their hands.
After potatoes come the carrots, cored to remove the woody center.
Then squash and green beans.
Add peppers and tomatoes (the tomatoes peeled and seeded).
Add parsley and cilantro, finely chopped, and finely grated garlic.
Then come the spices: pepper (1 tsp), paprika (2 tsps), turmeric (2 tsps), ginger (1 tsp), salt (2 tsps).  Garnish with several sprigs of fresh rosemary, and drizzle generously with olive oil.

“It’s so beautiful, it’s like a painting!” says Jeremy.

You put the top on and cook the tagine on the stove (or a fire) until the vegetables are soft and well-flavored.  (I like it cooked a little less than is typical for Morocco.)  The indentation in the top of the tagine cover is filled with water to help keep the food from drying out.SONY DSC

Et voila!  (I failed to take a photo of the finished tagine because we were so busy gobbling it up: you’ll have to use your imagination.)


This is a cooking lesson, but it starts with a pronunciation challenge.  The starting ‘r’ is at the front of the tongue; the next consonant is pronounced like a French ‘r’, in the back of the throat.  All together now: rghaif!

OK, you can also call it msemmen or milhui.  That’s considerably easier for me, at least.

The starting ingredients are very simple: sifted flour, salt, water, oil.
Hayat told us apologetically that her sister would have to do the first part of making the dough: the proper ratio of flour, water, and oil is a matter of long experience, measured mostly by feel–we wouldn’t have a chance of getting it right.
Kneading, on the other hand, was fair game.

After a considerable amount of kneading–about 20 minutes, shared among us all–the next step was to grab a handful of the (remarkably light and fluffy dough) and squeeze it out between your thumb and index finger in the shape of a little ball or a balloon.  This was harder than it ought to have been for us; we needed some help and a lot of practice.
The little balls of dough then sit and rest for a while: 30-60 minutes or thereabouts.  Then you take one at a time and start to press it out into a circle on a well-oiled surface.  The patting is very gentle, expanding the circle little bit by little bit.  Again, this was harder than it might seem: we had heavy hands, apparently.

The best moment, though, came when Hayat’s sister picked up the edge of this circle of dough–extended as far as it could go, we thought–and pulled it out to the very edge of this round table, and then did the same in all four directions.  We literally gasped at the unexpectedness of this move.  Not a move we could really replicate, however:
Imagine an unbroken circle of dough, extending much farther in all directions.

Next, you drizzle a little oil on the dough, and you fold in the edges, shaping a square with several layers.  That square–the rghaif or msemmen or milhoui–is then fried in oil (preferably olive oil) and enjoyed hot off the stove.

The Rif

“What is this plant?” James asks.  It’s everywhere we look, growing right up to the door of the gite—a small rural guesthouse—or up to the fence-line a few feet from the door of the gite.  We brush against it on our way to the road; we look out over a sea of greenery
“Oh, do you really not know it?” Hayat asks (I’ve changed our host’s name, out of mild paranoia on her behalf).  The words are neutral, but her tone says it all.  Cannabis.  James is embarrassed not to have known, but the problem is less one of recognition than of incredulity.  Surely, this expanse of bio-matter could not possibly be marijuana.  Surely, an illegal drug would be at least somewhat hidden, tucked away behind other crops, shielded by houses.  The ubiquity of this plant beggars belief.

“When I was little,” Hayat tells us, “this whole area was orchard: fruit trees of all kinds, along with olives, and vegetables growing underneath. The trees have all been rooted out: nothing is allowed to compete with the cannabis.”
SONY DSCOf course, everyone knows that the Rif is full of cannabis. The guidebooks tell you explicitly, naming certain cities as places to avoid unless you’re there for the obvious reason.  They suggest avoiding certain treks because the police or the military might think you were a dealer or an aspiring dealer.  They warn that inhabitants of the Rif are unfriendly to outsiders because of the cannabis trade: some visitors have even been pelted with rocks to drive them away.

But I had worked hard to avoid the cannabis regions of the Rif: who wants to bring their children into an area associated with illegal drugs?  I thought I had found a Riffian cannabis-free zone.

Time to think again.

In the morning, we take a short hike.  As we follow the piste—the dirt road—up the hillside, we walk alongside a dry riverbed.  Snaking along the bottom of the gully are a series of hoses.  “Are people taking water from further upstream?” I ask.

“For their precious cannabis,” Hayat confirms.  “They treat it like a baby.  Better.  No one take water this way for their family: only for the cannabis.”

“Does that create conflict? Battles over water?”

Hayat tips her head sideways in partial acknowledgment.  “The big growers take their water where they like.  No one really argues with them.”

But the wells here seem to be running dry:


In the field southwest of the piste, people are bringing in the harvest.  This stage of farming is labor-intensive and precise: only the plants with slightly yellowing leaves are taken. Walking toward us down the road from a farther field, an old woman is bent double by the load of cannabis she carries.

“That is the old life,” says Hayat, referring to the weight of the woman’s load.  “Now women tell their men, ‘I won’t be your mule.  I won’t marry you if you expect me to work like that.’”

I feel I should be focused on gender politics, but I can’t get over the fact that the old woman is bent double under a weight of cannabis, specifically.


There’s a chapter in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire that has influenced my views on cannabis.  Pollan focuses on the transformation of the cannabis plant in the United States, with the war on drugs and the subsequent move indoors, to light- and water-intensive growing systems.  Pollan also includes a description of a marijuana café in Amsterdam, but somehow I feel certain he has never seen a seventy-year-old Moroccan woman bent double under a load of cannabis.  Pollan’s meditation on pleasure and desire and socio-political efforts to control the pleasure and wildness associated with cannabis seems very distant from this purely economic calculus of backbreaking labor in exchange for cash.

We pass a large pile of gathered firewood by the side of the road.  “In the old days,” says Hayat, “you could tell a lot about a woman and her family by the pile of wood she would build. Everyone would see and would judge you by the size of the pile, the tidiness, the structure of the pile.  It’s the women who go up onto the mountain and cut the wood and carry it down.  Sometimes a man, but mostly the women.”

“Doesn’t that cause trouble on the mountain, with deforestation and erosion?”

“There’s a ban on cutting wood now, but people do it anyway.  It’s custom.  In the old days, there were not so many people living here, so the wood harvesting made little difference to the mountain.  Now there are too many people, and how will they all live?”


We pass a tethered goat.  “Women would have to go and gather forage for the animals, too.  Life is easier now than it was then.  Many people have no animals, so there’s no need to gather forage.  Some people heat their homes with gas.  People can buy what they need with the money from the cannabis.  These days, a mother will say to her son, ‘Let us find you a strong woman to help you,’ and the son will say, ‘My wife doesn’t have to help me, she can sit at the mirror all day and make herself beautiful.’” (!)

“Is the cannabis so bad, then?” I ask.  “If it makes people’s lives easier?”

“Some people have done well out of cannabis,” Hayat acknowledges. “They have been able to build houses, buy cars.  Others have not done so well.  My brothers—” (Hayat’s brothers grow cannabis, a fact she was reluctant to own straight out: “My brothers do what everyone else does,” she finally conceded, “though I am ashamed of this.”) “Once we were examining family finances, to pool our resources to care for my mother in her illness, so I know how much my brothers make, and it comes out to about 100 dirhams a day, which is not that much money when you think about it.”  Roughly $12 per day, $84 per week (assuming a seven day work week), not quite $4,500 per year.  Not that much indeed.  “My brothers still can’t afford to build themselves a house, though they’ve been trying for three years.”

Cannabis drying on rooftops:

A recent UN report on drugs and crime lists Morocco and Afghanistan as “the foremost source countries for cannabis resin” in the world.  Morocco has 47,000 hectares devoted to cannabis cultivation; Afghanistan has only 12,000 hectares.  Moroccan cannabis goes to Europe through Spain—so my old woman loaded with cannabis might well be supplying Michael Pollan’s marijuana café in Amsterdam.  Spain evidently manages to confiscate 34% of the hashish smuggled through its borders while Morocco stops only 12% of the cannabis moving across its territories.  (How exactly do they come up with these percentages, I wonder.  Is someone counting total quantity somewhere?  Is there a gentleman’s agreement about how much cannabis will be confiscated? “OK, give me 12% of that and then move on.”)

The government used to carpet bomb the Rif in an attempt to limit the cannabis crop.  What Hayat describes sounds alarmingly similar to napalm or agent orange: every plant touched by the spray dies; people are left coughing and ill.

But since the February 20th movement—the “Arab spring,” Moroccan style—the carpet bombing has ceased.  The sense I get from conversations with a number of people is that the government, alarmed by the protests, pulled back from active conflict in the Rif.  Now, the government lets the cannabis provide the social support it cannot afford to offer.  Cannabis provides jobs and brings cash to the region.  There are no other crops that Europe is so happy to purchase.

“The government did try a pilot program growing saffron here, and it was successful, but it was not well publicized,” says Hayat.  “I told my father and brothers that we should try growing saffron, but they laughed at me.  My father said we would need hectares of land to grow that crop successfully, but we only have tiny plots.  It would never work.”

Micro-cropping: cork tree with cannabis (the bark is stripped from the bottom of the tree and used to make stools and other useful things).

Still, others complain that teenagers go to work for these big growers, for the dealers, and they don’t finish school.  “Maybe they start smoking themselves, and then they’re trapped in a world where they will never really matter.  Their lives are wasted.  This is not support; this is abandonment.”

But no one says this very loudly.


We got tired of waiting for Youssef to produce the car we’re supposed to be buying, so we rented a wreck for a week and drove north to Chefchaouen.  This small town in the Rif mountains must be one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, so I will mostly let the photos speak for themselves.

SONY DSCThe drive north was brutal: the car had no air-conditioning, and the plains of central Morocco get hot-hot-hot in mid-August.  The roads, which are indeed much better than they might be, are still pretty bumpy, and the checkerboard of cultivated fields comes in a drier, more dramatic palette here than in the mid-Atlantic landscape I’m more used to.

We were very impressed by the cantilevered loading of hay and straw bales on these trucks: the load at times seems to be double the size of the truck carrying it.

By the time we reached the mountains, we were gasping for water and slightly cooler air.  Chefchaouen was a sight for sore eyes.

Chaouen is undeniably a tourist town, but it’s a relaxed tourist town.  We stayed in an apartment in the medina itself, and over the course of our visit,  we saw the shops and the townspeople relaxing with one another rather than performing for tourists.SONY DSCThis is not to imply that we were not busy being tourists ourselves, of course.  There was Jeremy’s favorite woodworking shop, where we spent so much time, we bought a nominal spatula out of sheer embarrassment.

Jeremy also loved the scent, soap, and potion shop:
There were artisanal workshops, where the master weaver took a liking to Jeremy; he was about the age of the weaver’s own sons, who were already helping out in the workshop.  We were particularly intrigued by the use of appropriate technology: bicycle wheels being used to wind weaving bobbins.
Why so many colors, James wanted to know, if you’re only going to paint the buildings blue?SONY DSCBut of course there’s all the interior colors and careful wood-painting (zouaq) to consider as well:

In the heat of the afternoon, we joined a host of other, mostly Moroccan tourists, trying to cool off at the Ras el Ma, the little waterfall just outside of town:

And we loved eating dinner looking down on the bustle of the central square:

But mostly, we loved the quiet early mornings…


and the sense that we were taking a long drink of something–color or beauty or peace–that we had been craving for years without ever realizing it.


Learning to cook in Morocco

The first step is learning to shop in Morocco.
For a family of vegetarians, the meat side of the marché is a bit of a challenge.  Oh, those little lamb and kid heads dangling at the bottom of the hanging meat!  And the delicacy of the sheep heads: brains, tongues… I prefer not to go there, even mentally.
But the fresh fruit and veg: let’s go there!
And the souk is far more extravagant:
Spices, anyone?

Here’s a water-seller who wanders the souk in conventional water-selling garb:
James is always impressed at the range of the souk: he finds specialized computer cables for a dollar.  A good bicycle runs about $100.  On the other hand, Zoë and I  bought watches at the souk on our first visit for about three dollars each, but both are now defunct.

Still, the heart of the souk is to be found in the fruit and vegetable offerings.  Here’s what we bought for somewhere between two and three dollars:
Jeremy has decided that we need to consume fresh-squeezed orange juice every day.  He’s willing to be the juicer, since the electric juicer that came with the house is broken.  We’ve started to buy a couple of kilos of oranges every time we go to the souk, and: yum!
Meanwhile, to make bread and pizza, we have to come to grips with clumpy “live yeast:”


And we were a little shocked to discover that Moroccan tea is boiled on the stove in the silver teapot! and that it takes six of these sugar cubes (sugar rectangles?) for each pot of tea:

Diabetes, anyone?  No wonder the children love it.  And I thought it was the fresh mint leaves…

The neighbor, then the house.

Al jar, thumma ddar.  When house-hunting, the Moroccan proverb says, choose your neighbor first, then choose your house.  Somewhere I read about an Islamic teaching that insists on the importance of looking after one’s neighbors, up to 40 houses in all directions.  That’s a sizeable neighborhood!

Said adapted this for us: choose your landlord first, then your house.  It’s more important to have a good landlord, one who will work with you, than to have the perfect house.  But we really like both our landlord and our new home.  Omar (that first letter is actually more guttural than it looks) is terrifically warm and welcoming; he also speaks fluent English, which makes it easier to appreciate how thoughtful and articulate he is.  Omar’s son actually lives in Philadelphia and did a master’s degree at Villanova, so we’re also all struck by the bizarrely small world we inhabit.

SONY DSC SONY DSCOmar’s house is unusual in several respects: it separates public areas (ground floor) and private sleeping areas (upper floor) instead of mixing them together; it has a well-equipped kitchen, including an oven (!) and a microwave; SONY DSC SONY DSCand it’s nicely furnished in a mixture of Moroccan and French styles.

We think it’s beautiful!

And the alternatives–kitchens without ovens, with only two encrusted electric burners–or dark, squalid, small apartments–make us all the more grateful to have found this!

Our one worry is the winter cold: Omar is replacing the hot water heater and refurbishing the coal-fired furnace, so we hope that all will be well.  Ifrani houses are not built for the cold, despite the reliably cold winters.  Puzzle that one out: my guess is that the cost of construction pushes builders into using the cheapest materials–cement bricks.  But more on building materials later….