Moroccan cooking 101: How to make tagine

Anyone who has ever traveled to Southern Spain, Turkey, North Africa or Middle East knows that the food is quite magical. Food from these regions generally contain an array of fresh spices abound in flavor such as saffron, cumin, ginger, paprika, black pepper, cinnamon, mint and garlic. Mouthwatering fresh fruits such figs, dates, oranges and pomegranates can often be found added to freshly prepared tagines and couscous. Delectable olives, delightful almonds and mouth-burning harissa (a capsicum-pepper sauce which I adore) make any meal legendary.

The warm, gentle climate of Morocco provides an abundance of fresh vegetables as well (such as pepper, beans, tomatoes, artichokes, eggplants, onions, beets and pumpkins) which are common side and main dishes throughout Morocco. Being a world cuisine lover, I found Morocco to be a culinary paradise and was not once the slightest bit disappointed in the fantastic, fresh, exciting and worldly food I found.

My first night in Morocco was spent at a gorgeous Riad (see earlier posts) which served my first true Moroccan tagine, the famous Moroccan stews containing chicken or lamb with an assortment of fresh vegetables and spices that are cooked in a conical earthenware pot creating a lovely, tender and moist stew. I chose the chicken tagine with almonds and lemon over my beloved couscous (a type of semolina, small circular rice that is also served usually with a stew). After eating detestable plane food for the last twenty-four hours, my first Moroccan meal felt like heaven. I was also surprised to learn that Morocco, an Islamic country (over 99% Muslim) produces fantastic local wine. I ordered a half-bottle of Moroccan red which was delicious: Full-bodied, bright, with a smooth finish. I went to sleep after hours of travel feeling happy and full, anxiously anticipating my next Moroccan meal.

My visit through the local souq showed me exactly where these fresh, delightful ingredients come from. Vendor after vendor sold spices in all colors and flavors by the bag, and olives, nuts, figs, dates and fresh vegetables were at each and every corner of the market. I could have spent hours and dirhams passing through the souq and sampling up everything they had to offer. No wonder why Moroccans are such good cooks! In fact, each region and every city is known for its unique dishes and influences. This is probably not a surprise given that the distinctive flavors of Moroccan cooking come from a variety of origins such as Portuguese, Jewish, Spain, Persia, Senegal, France, Berber North Africa, Italy and Turkey—all countries that have ties to Morocco.

Some of my favorite market delights:

The couscous:

The dates and figs:

My week-long stay at the CCS Home Base in Hay Riad, Rabat, was another week of culinary delight. For an entire week, we had breakfast, lunch and dinner prepared by two native Berber cooks and we ate like kings and queens. Here are some pictures of our meals:

Lunch:

This gorgeous dish is called a bastilla. It is a multilayered pastry made out of phyllo dough and filled with a crushed mixture of toasted almonds, ground chicken, cheese and spices. Finally, it is topped with a dollop of cinnamon to give it a dessert like taste and appearance. It takes hours to prepare and looks were by no means deceiving….It was incredible!!!!

Here is a photo of the nummy inside:

Another favorite meal we had was the long-awaited Moroccan couscous, a quasi-religious experience in Morocco and what also just so happened to be one of my all time favorite meals thanks to that year spent living in France. Apparently the preparation of couscous takes an entire day and usually is made to feed an army thus it was usually made for the volunteers on the last day of the week’s stay: Friday. Here are some pictures of this amazing meal:

Our fantastic chefs preparing the couscous:

A close-up view of the finished product;

Ready to eat!

One of the highlights of my week stay in Morocco was our two-hour cooking class held by CCS at the Home Base. We learned how to make two main staples of Moroccan life: Moroccan Mint Teat and Chicken Tagine.

Throughout Morocco, mint tea is a way and tradition of life. Moroccans, like many others around Asia and parts of Africa, love their tea and tea time is a sacred time in Morocco that cannot be denied. Usually tea time happens in the late afternoon from 4-6 PM however tea time can happen anytime in Morocco, and to be invited to tea is a big honor.

Throughout the day, we could see Moroccans have traditional tea in the medina, in the souq, in the CCS Home Base and at our volunteer placements. Outdoor cafes serve tea as well however it usually isn’t the labor and love-intensive home-made Moroccan Green Mint Tea.

One afternoon at CCS, we learned how to make this Moroccan treasure. Here is how it is done:

Traditional Moroccan Mint Tea

preparation time: 20-30 minutes

Boil Water on the stove

When boiling, pour the hot water into the tea pot, rinse and dump out. This warms up the pot.

Add two tablespoons of Green tea into the hot pot.

Pour a cup of hot water into the pot and let stand for one to two minutes.

Don’t shake the mixture, and pour it out into a cup. This is the soul of the tea.

Add another cup of hot water to the tea pot and shake.

Pour the contents into another cup. You will notice that the tea is a different color (this is because the tea leaves open and may have some dust or dirt on them, so you shake the leaves to get rid of the “bad stuff”). You take all the poured cup(s) of this tea and dump it out into the sink.

Next, you go back to “the soul of the tea” which is the spare, original tea that was not mixed and poured into a reserve cup. You pour the cup of tea into the teapot and fill with more water, leaving some space on top for the fresh mint and basil. Bring to a boil.

After boiling, you add a handful of fresh mint and basil, then add a lot (Moroccans like their mint tea very sweet!) of sugar, perhaps 4-5 larges tablespoons.

To mix, pour the cups into tea glasses and then pour the contents once again back into the tea pot. You do this 4-5 times (no joke!).

Finally, the tea is ready to serve. You pour the finished product into glasses (not mugs) as the Moroccans prefer and get ready to sweeten up your mouth! Enjoy!

Voila!

———————–

Chicken Tagine with lemon

Preparation time: 1-1.5 hours

Note: It is best to have a traditional tagine earthenware pot to make this but I am sure you can improvise with a large saucepan and tight-fitting lid (yet may want to leave a crack open while it is cooking).

Here is a picture of a tagine:

Heat the tagine on the stove (i.e. the clay pot or else a large saucepan)
Add 4 tablespoons of oil and heat
Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt along with 8 pieces of chicken parts (@ a whole chicken).
Cook on medium high

Chop a fist-full of fresh cilantro along with two to three cloves of fresh garlic.

Flip the meat (continue on medium high)

Chop one white onion.

Add the below ingredients to the tagine and the after adding, flip the meat:
1 heaping teaspoon of fresh grated ginger
1 heaping teaspoon of cumin
1/4 teaspoon of black pepper
1 teaspoon of saffron
1 tablespoon of the cilantro/garlic mix
1/2 of the chopped onion

Flip the food and then add the other half of chopped onion on top of the tagine ingredients (you want one half of the onion to cook underneath the meat).

Add one preserved lemon*.

Add another heaping tablespoon of the cilantro and garlic mix.

Last step: Add one cup of water to the mixture; cover the tagine and let boil. Then turn to low heat and simmer for 45 minutes. ENJOY!!!!!

*You can either buy preserved lemon or make it yourself. To make it yourself: Cut one lemon into fourths. Add salt into each lemon section. Preserve pieces of lemon in a closed jar for two weeks at room temperature and shake every other day. When ready, take seeds out and place small pieces with rinds inside the tagine.

The finished product:

———————————————

I was so impressed with my newfound knowledge and with the delicious taste of the tagine, that I actually went on a mission to buy a real clay tagine the day before leaving Morocco. I have no idea what on earth I was thinking. Tagines are fragile and cumbersome. Not something you want to try to carry back on multiple international flights. But I was a woman on a mission. I had to have one!

With little time left in Morocco, I opted to hit the nearest shopping mall, a place called Margene, which unbelievably enough contained what I call a Moroccan version of Costco warehouse. I walked in and the place was packed with local Moroccans going about their shopping. There I was, of course the only blond-haired woman, searching for deals and salivating once I found them. I found my tagine, for $15 as well as a boatload of Moroccan spices such as cumin, ginger, saffron, etc. All for the meager price of $1 per enormous year-long-lasting bag! I stocked up knowing that even Target charges the outrageous price of $10 for a tiny bottle of two-use saffron. If I could have filled my entire suitcase with spices, I’m sure I would have done it (yet I probably also would have (a) smelled up my suitcase to beyond repair (b) got busted at customs for it.

Anyway, I had loads of fun at the Moroccan Costco and successfully managed to get all my beloved spices and the tagine home safe and sound. Now, if I can only find the time to actually make a tagine or even more so, one that is edible! I’m sure my husband and friends would be impressed! 🙂

Here is a photo of my Moroccan Costco:

The cumbersome to carry purchase:

Our final Moroccan Cooking 101 experiment was to make those delicious deadly pastries: Phyllo dough, filled with either the crushed almond, cheese, chicken mixture OR carrots, garlic and cheese, OR feta cheese and spinach mixture.

Here are some pictures of our group learning the drill:

Preparing the “stuff’ to stuff the phyllo. Here is the carrot mixture sautéing in oil and butter of course:

More ingredients to stuff your phyllo (the crushed almond, cheese and chicken mix):

Stuffing and rolling the phyllo before it is either baked or fried:

In the meantime, for those readers who I’ve made really hungry, here are some recommended Moroccan Cooking sites found in my copy of Lonely Planet Morocco:

This site offers a compilation of different recipes and sites. It also has great information on Morocco:

http://www.al-bab.com/maroc/food.htm

Here is another one with over 370 recipes….alas…if only I had the time!

http://www.astray.com/recipes/?search=moroccan

Finally, if all else fails….find a good local Moroccan restaurant and eat without the work!


Coming Next…..I want to wrap up my week in Morocco with a post on my visit to the ruins and one on Morocco today. Stay posted!

Morocco SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

The Trials and Tribulations of Teaching English as a Second Language

About two weeks before my departure to Morocco I received the long-awaited email answering the great unknown: My volunteer placement for my program in Rabat. Before signing on with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), I knew the deal. Volunteers would not find out what their placement was until two weeks before the trip. It is standard protocol for CCS and although it may sound strange, it actually makes a whole lot of sense.

In order to really make a difference, there is no way for the organization to know exactly what volunteer work and service will be needed at the time of a volunteer’s arrival. This is especially true since most volunteers like me sign up at least three to six months ahead of time. As a past CCS volunteer, I knew the drill and was not concerned. Once a destination is picked, the rest would follow. Each country offers similar kinds of work such as placements in an orphanage, a day-care center for underprivileged or disabled kids, a nursing home, a hospital setting or teaching English to those in need. I had already done the nursing home last year in Costa Rica and surprised myself by loving it (see earlier blog posts filed under Costa Rica). However, I was game for anything.

As expected, my email came approximately two weeks before my flight to Morocco. I would be teaching English to local Moroccans at an organization called the East West Foundation that works with Moroccans and other Africans living in Rabat who want to learn English to improve their lives. The job sounded interesting enough (although for some reason I personally craved the chance to work with kids). I would be teaching my own class and would have to prepare some lessons in advance. Lessons? What? Then the panic hit. How would I prepare lessons when I had no idea what level I would be teaching or where the students were at? Furthermore, how would I plan lessons when I could hard plan the last two weeks left at home in Minnesota with two kids and a husband and nothing at all packed. I took a few deep breaths, remembering CCS’s words to be patient, open-minded, and flexible. Ok, I could do that, but still how on earth was I going to find the time to prepare for teaching this class?

I sent off a few emails to past volunteers at the East West Foundation and received many helpful and positive responses. Everyone who had worked there loved it and had plenty of advice for a stressed out, over-tired mom like me. I tried my best to print out the best ideas and bought a book called “Teaching ESL The American Way”, and quietly thanked myself for my past ESL experience ten years ago teaching English to illegal immigrants at a church and tutoring Somali girls at a charter high school. Sure, it was ten years ago but I could do it again successfully, especially if I was under pressure.

The days before I left for Morocco were a blur. I could hardly get everything in order before I left, let alone any lesson planning. But I remained optimistic and tried to ease any fears or concern. I’d be fine. I knew how to work in the spur of the moment and make things happen.

I arrived a day and a half early in Morocco which I spent on my own, discovering Morocco and adjusting to the time change (Morocco is six hours ahead of Minneapolis). On Saturday, I did a five hour excursion to neighboring Casablanca which was fantastic and then headed over to the CCS Home Base late Saturday afternoon to check in and get settled. There were five volunteers already there who had been volunteering in Morocco for the past few weeks. One woman was from Canada in her mid-twenties, another woman from New Zealand in her thirties, an American woman in her eighties from the East Coast, and a semi-retired couple from Canada. The new batch of volunteers coming in for my program included a twenty-five-year-old woman from CCS in New York (who is amazing and just so happened to be in a wheelchair, an amazing accomplishment in itself), a grandmother and her grand-daughter and friend from the west coast, and a well-traveled quality manager from New York in her thirties like me. We had quite a diverse group of people (ages, backgrounds, geography) which added to the fun and adventure of the trip.

Sunday afternoon we had a group meeting to discuss the volunteer placements for the week. CCS Morocco was currently working with three NGO’s inside Morocco:

1. A group that worked at the Children’s Hospital to provide entertainment and care for the children in the asthma ward (and give their worn out parents a much needed break).
2. A local NGO called “Ibny” (which means “my kid” or “my child” in Arabic) which provides care and education to the street children of Rabat who the NGO is trying to keep off the streets (in 2009, a survey conducted counted 2000,000 beggars on the streets of Morocco. Sadly enough, many parents use their children and even drug them to get money). The objective of this NGO is to get kids off the street, fed, bathed and in school, for a few hours a day.
3. The last volunteer opportunity was at an NGO called Femin Pluriel, a women’s association created in 1999 to offer courses in English, French, computers and other subjects to help improve the lives of women.

Apparently the placements at the East West Foundation were put on hold for awhile so I was slated to work at Femin Pluriel helping Gwen teach English classes to beginners. I remembered the words be flexible, be patient and be open-minded and decided to go with the flow on the change in plans. It wouldn’t actually be that different from the East West Foundation, just a different kind of clientele (mostly educated, unemployed women looking to learn English and improve their lives).

Monday morning I spent some time pouring over the CCS internal library which provides a wealth of information on ESL courses, sample lessons, vocabulary and grammar books. I decided to bring a few good books along in my bag and then headed to the CCS van that would drive us to our placements. First stop was the hospital, followed by the school which hosts Ibny, and finally we were at the gray stone building that held the offices and classrooms for Femin Pluriel.

Photo of road leading up to Femin Pluriel:

View from Femin Pluriel of surrounding street:

Entrance to Femin Pluriel:

I felt my stomach drop as we left the van and rung the bell to be let in. What would it be like? Was I prepared? Would I have enough to teach? All these thoughts raced through my head as we walked into the first floor office and were kindly greeted by two of the woman who ran the administrative side of Femin Pluriel. We took a small tour of the space which featured a classroom at the front, a long library with tables in the middle, and another classroom and computer lab in the rear. It was a nice space with tons of books in French, Arabic and English. Apparently Femin Pluriel has speakers once a month as well usually on women’s topics.

Gwen and I were lead to the classroom area in back near the computer lab where we set up shop and waited for the arrival of our students. Slowly but surely in they trickled in: Four women and two men in all ranging from their early twenties to late thirties. Overall the women were a highly educated group who were fortunate enough to go to university yet were still looking for steady employment (unemployment in 2010 was 8.6% and GDP is $4,600/person). Although education in free in Morocco, if you don’t have the grades to get in to university than you are pretty much out of luck (unless you come from a wealthy family). One of the problems with the educational system in Morocco is that many feel it doesn’t prepare graduates for a real job meaning there is a disconnect between degreed graduates and new employees.
Learning an important world language like English greatly increases a woman (and man’s) ability to find a good job, especially in commerce and the government. That is where Femin Pluriel comes into play: By offering daily classes in English at a small fee taught almost exclusively by volunteers.

The first class went much better than expected. I was extremely thankful for those grueling years of French because teaching English to beginners completely in English would have been impossible (or at least for someone like me who is not a trained ESL teacher). Thus for the most part we were able to teach the class in English and I could clarify things in French. It worked out very well! The students were delightful and very appreciative. We had lots of laughs, especially when we involved a little charades into the mix, and I truly enjoyed the work.

Inside Femin Pluriel: Our classroom

A lovely collage of pictures featuring traditional Moroccan village dress:

The rest of the week was more or less the same, except for the arrival of a new student: Yosef, a twenty-one-year-old security guards who just so happened to be a long boarder on the weekends and illiterate. Yosef was my inspiration. He was abandoned by his parents at six years old and sent to Rabat to be raised by his uncle. He never went to school and somehow managed to survive with a joie de vivre or joy of life that was infectious. His smile was so big and so enthusiastic that his presence in the classroom was hard to ignore. Although he didn’t know how to read or write, he still showed up for class every morning with his enormous grin and desire to learn. He work up every morning at 4am for his job as a security guards, then took two hours off in the morning to attend the english class, then headed back to work until 6pm. Now that is dedication! He had only been coming to classes for a few weeks and had already learned a great deal. It was truly wonderful to help him and the others out.

Our last day came before we knew it. I felt bad to be leaving so soon after we had just gotten to know our new friends and make some progress. We had talked about food, about hobbies, about jobs and about life. It was a great learning experience for us as well. As the class was ending, a fresh pot of Moroccan mint tea appeared along with some homemade Moroccan biscuits and sweats. Traditionally tea in Morocco is something that happens every day from 4-6PM and cannot be rushed. Yet the door bell rang and our van was waiting. It was time to say goodbye and hope that somehow we had ever so slightly made an impact on their lives.

Our students:

Friday morning I had the opportunity to visit another work site, the asthma ward at the Children’s Hospital.

Packing up our bags of fun for the children:

There are only two Children’s Hospitals in all of Morocco: A country of 33 million people! Thus families of ill children often have to travel very far away from home in order to receive care for their children.

Picture of the outside of Rabat’s Children’s Hospital:

The volunteer work needed at the hospital was mainly entertainment (coloring, playing, drawing, singing, reading, etc) of the children in the playroom so their wary, tired parents could get some kind of break. I enjoyed this experience immensely.

Inside the playroom at the hospital:

Although the children are sick and being treated for asthma, they still are just kids and were smiling, laughing and playing with rigor and energy. It was a perfect place for me being an energetic mother of two! I played ball, I tickled and hugged them and just showed them that I cared. The mothers watched carefully from outside the playroom and a few times I caught their eyes and were rewarded with a kindhearted smile of appreciation. As a stay at home mom, I know exactly how important it is to get a break away from the kids and even more so, for these moms who were far away from their homes and villages holed up in a small, not so clean hospital room for sometimes weeks on end.

I also enjoyed speaking with a couple of interns as well as one of the doctors about their lives and work in the hospital. I was amazed by how gracious these people are to work in an overcrowded, understaffed hospital for probably a lot less money than they would receive being a doctor here in the United States. I am always amazed by the incredible people I meet when I volunteer. It sure brings hope that there are good people in the world who care about others and not only money. Truly inspirational people that keep me motivated to come back again and volunteer and help out in any way I can, even if it is small. This kind of rounds up my review of volunteering in Morocco. It was not so much what I did but everything that I learned and everyone I met in such a short time. I hope that somehow they felt the same and I was able to give them something, even if it was small. Perhaps a glimmer of hope?

Me and Mohammed, the CCS Country Manager:

My favorite quote posted inside the CCS Home Base:

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

My Day at the Hammam

Whenever I travel, I try very hard to use the “third eye” approach and follow the all important mantra, “When in Rome”. Before going to Morocco, I asked past CCS volunteers about the highlights of their experience and visit in Morocco. I heard over and over again from the women that I must go to the hammam.

Ok, what on earth is a hammam? A hammam is a traditional, communal Moroccan bathhouse. Communal? Indeed! That is a cultural shock in itself going into a bathhouse and disrobing in front of a bunch of Moroccan women strangers. But after hearing about the hammams, I knew that I’d have to suck in my pride and modesty and just go for it. If Moroccan women go on average once a week and it is known as their most beloved beauty secret, then I would have to give it a try.

My day at the hammam was planned for Friday afternoon, which was the end of my volunteer program and my last full day in Morocco. I worked that morning in the dirty, filthy Asthma ward at the Children’s Hospital (and yes I loved it!) and was ready for a little R&R after being around dozen loud and busy children.

Around 3 PM, I gathered my essentials: Shampoo, Conditioner, Hair brush, lotion, towel, and 100 dirhams (equivalent to US$12) and headed to the hammam for the experience of a lifetime.

I was dropped off at the corner and walked hesitantly towards the discrete entrance. There was no awning or writing anywhere on the outside to tell me it was the hammam. Just an ugly, old looking building complete with dirty whitewashed siding. I obviously was out of place and thankfully a delightful Moroccan woman approached shy me and asked me if I’d ever been to a hammam before. I told her in french (thank God I spoke french!) that this was my first time. She gently lead me in and brought me over to the main room where I was to disrobe. Immediately I felt a bit queasy as everyone inside was naked except for their underwear. Even the women working behind the counter at the cashiers were in the nude! I had to continually remind myself that it was only the human body. No big deal. I’ve had babies. This couldn’t be all that bad, right?

The kind Moroccan woman showed me where to put my stuff and then gently asked me, “Vous voulez une dame”? (ie. Do you want a “woman”). Thank goodness I did my homework and read the Lonely Planet explanation of a hammam. For 50 DH, or roughly, US$6, you could hire a tabbeya or bath attendant to scrub you down. Of course I hired one!

Next, we passed through the three rooms starting with the cold room first, followed by the medium temperature room and ending up in the hot room, where I would get my scrub down. The hot room was tiled in white, heated marble and amass in thick, lush steam. There were probably about six other women there in the process of bathing and I of course was the only western woman present. I thought I’d feel awkward but to my surprise I felt fine. It helped having my nice Moroccan friend next to me, who chatted with me the entire time.

Once inside the hot room and situated sitting on the delicious heated floor, the real pleasure and pain began. My entire body was loaded up with savon noir (black palm soap made with resins from olive) and then the attendant began the process of exfoliating my sensitive skin by using a el-kis or a course glove. The first five minutes were absolute hell. She scrubbed me so hard that I thought my skin would fall off and bleed. But to my surprise and shock, once the savon noir was off, my skin was shiny and new, and not even the slightest bit red. Thankfully after five minutes of torture, my skin warmed up and the scrubbing no longer felt like I was being attacked by sandpaper. Instead, it was heaven. I was tossed and turned around like a limp, rag doll, thrown around the heated floors and scrubbed, scrubbed, scrubbed. Every single inch of my body (except of course for the private area) was scrubbed and it took a good 45 minutes until she was done with me.

I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the fact that my arms would occasionally flop across her enormous, sagging breasts (sorry not trying to gross you out but this is true! She wasn’t wearing a top either!!!!), and I tried to relax. Once I got past this fact I thoroughly enjoyed myself in the hammam and never felt so clean before in my life.

After the scrub down, buckets of hot, medium warm and cool water were dumped over my head and then I got a nice long head massage and shampooing. By the end of it, I was thirsty as hell and was so relaxed I could hardly move. I didn’t spend much time in the medium or the cool room and instead went outside to the lobby area to get dressed, slowly but surely.

I paid my “dame” and gathered my belongings, of course, after meeting another kind Moroccan lady who wanted to know all about my experience and what I thought. We talked for a good fifteen minutes and then I was out the door, hair wet and pulled back into a ponytail and feeling young, fresh and clean!

(Sorry folks…no pictures here of the hammam! ha ha).

The Moroccan hammam has been a tradition for ages. Both men and women go to the hammam but of course there are separate ones for each gender. Moroccan women are known for their beauty treatments and secrets. They prefer to use all natural products for their beauty maintenance such as olive oils, henna, ghassoul (clay), eggs, fruits, vegetables and plant-based products. Perhaps that is how they achieve such beautiful, perfect skin! If only we could have the same kinds of traditions back in the States! We’d all look like queens!

Later that afternoon, as a farewell gift we received henna that was applied artfully by Khadija at the Home Base. Henna is a tradition in many parts of the world such as Africa, India and some Arab nations. Traditionally it is done for weddings as a symbol of beauty but now it can be done for other occasions as well. Henna derives from the henna plant which can be found in the Sahara desert and is mixed together and poured into syringe-like instrument. It is applied wet using traditional designs and art onto the hands, palms, and legs. Then you have to not move and wait at least an hour or so for it to dry until you can gently peel it off, leaving a beautiful reddish (or black depending on the henna you use) design on your skin. I’ve been told that it lasts about two to four weeks. So we will see! Here are some pictures of its application:

The arms:

The legs:

A close-up of the work while it is drying:

Once dried and peeled off, the end result (note the staining is darker on the palms than on the rest of the arm):

I tried to fool the kids when I got home by telling them I got a tattoo. They were quite alarmed so of course I told them I was just kidding. It has been a fun conversational piece yet I’m ready for it to fade away!

Coming next…Finally I will discuss my volunteer experience teaching English and also a day spend at the Children’s Hospital. Stay tuned!

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

Dating 101: Rock the Kasbah

Once again, I found myself at the city’s beloved landmark of beauty: the Kasbah des Oudaias. A Kasbah is a fortified area that once housed the ruling family, its guards and everything needed for living under attack. Nowadays, Kasbahs are still a beautiful place to live, with its traditional whitewashed and brilliant blue blue painted buildings and stunning, winding alleyways with gorgeous, lush gardens and views of either the landscape or in Oudaias case, the magnificent blue sea.

With Khadija as our tour guide, we spent the afternoon exploring the lovely Kasbah and all its splendors, including the hidden Moroccan dating game. As mentioned in my earlier post (Islam 101), dating is forbidden in the Islamic world. Premarital sex and even kissing the opposite sex is a no-no. However, with the advent of modernity and the constant throng of romance seen on the Internet, TV and Western movies, a new kind of dating in Morocco has been created: Secret Dating.

When walking through the lush gardens of the Kasbah, I was shocked and stunned to see young lovers, somewhat hidden from view, in the process of making out. Per Khadija, this is the new secret dating game that can be found throughout urban Morocco.

Here are some examples:

The lush gardens offer the perfect place for hidden romance:

The gorgeous flowering trees offer perfect protection from the sun:

Per Khadija, this is what is going on. For Muslims, dating is strictly forbidden. If you are interested in getting to know someone from the opposite sex, then technically you need to meet them in a public place with a third person present, usually a member from the family such as a brother. Thus if you are in love with someone or even just like them a lot, generally in Morocco you skip the whole dating game and go directly to marriage (of course after asking the young woman’s father for her hand).

However, for some Moroccans, this is beginning to change, especially among the young generation (like the ones seen smooching in the photo above). Dating is done completely in secret, meaning the parents have no idea, yet it always takes place in a public place such as the Kasbah or another favorite, the beach.

Here is a photo of the beach dating scene. Note the hijabs and jellabas, not your typical beach wear in a western country:

Another interesting fact Khadija told me about dating: It is only done IF there is a future of marriage ahead. You do not date just to date. Instead, you start at the end game of a relationship. You start when a man tells you that he wants to marry you. Once it is determined that you will get married, then you can start going on your secret dates. During the secret dating process, you always go to public places and never go to a private location because to do so may dishonor the woman. Normally the secret dating game goes on for about six months until an engagement. Finally, it is never acceptable in Morocco for a woman to ask a man out. It simply does not happen.

Khadija herself has been involved with a man, who she has been secretly dating for two years now and will eventually get married. Her parents do not really know about him however her friends do. She is an educated, career-driven woman yet she remains traditional at the same time and respects her religion.

Khadija told us a very interesting fact. Apparently over the last four years that CCS has been open in Morocco and had volunteers, six volunteers have met and married Moroccan men! One even met her future husband in only two weeks and neither one could speak the same language. Amazingly enough, they are still married today (and hopefully they can at least communicate now). Thus, bottom line: Love can happen anywhere, even in Morocco!

(Note: Non-Muslims can intermarry. However, a non-Muslim must convert to Islam in order to marry a Muslim).

Here are some more lovely photos of the Kasbah as well as the beach in Rabat. Two romantic places for a public secret date!

Coming up next….more posts on Morocco!

CULTURE SOCIAL GOOD

Women in Morocco

One thing I was extremely curious about was the role of women in Islamic Morocco. Before going on my trip, I did my homework and read an excellent book by a well-known author and sociologist, Fatima Mernissi called “Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood”. The book is a memoir depicting in beautiful, poetic detail Fatima’s early childhood and life in a Moroccan harem during the 1940s up until the independence from France in 1956.

In those days, most Moroccan households were traditional harems or enclosed households in which extended families lived together under one roof and practiced the tradition of women’s seclusion meaning women stayed and lived in the harem and rarely left. Mernissi describes harem life in exquisite detail from her point of view as a prepubescent girl. Harem life to her and especially to her mother and the older generation is like living in a prison. A women can not leave the harem without a male’s permission and it is completely enclosed by a large wall so no one can see in or out. The harem is kept by a gate keeper who protects the women and makes sure no one gets in or out without permission. There is a strict code of behavioral conduct and practices that must be followed inside the harem. For instance, all family meals must be taken together and women must dress and behave a certain way. The men had the power, especially the older ones and there was a strong hierarchy among the women themselves based on age, importance and status. Married women were treated better than divorced women who were looked down upon. Women spent their days inside the harem splitting up the household chores and also doing various activities such as traditional embroidery and crafts. They were let out only to go to Koranic school (where they studied only the Qur’an and not other subjects) and go to the hammam once a week (a traditional Moroccan bathhouse). Some harems involved multiple wives for the men such as the harem of Fatima Mernissi’s grandmother, however, the traditional of many wives began to subside during the 1940s. The 1950s brought huge change to Morocco with its emancipation from France in 1956 and harems slowly but steadily began to die out. Today harems are a thing of the past yet they continue to have a lot of allure and mysticism for the tourists who could only imagine in their heads what such a place would have been like.

During my stay in Morocco, we were fortunate to have an hour long discussion on women’s rights and the role of women in Morocco by the CCS Home Base Manager, Khadja, a native Moroccan from Agadir (a small town south of Rabat which is famous for Argan Oil). Khadja is a thirtysomething women who encompasses both traditional and modern Morocco. She was a past Peace Corps volunteer and is fortunate to be the only women in her family to have continued her education past middle school. She is a highly educated women which is striking in a country that has only a 56% literacy rate overall and and illiteracy rate among women of 64% (much higher rate in the countryside). Thus to be from a small village and to finish her degree at a university represents an amazing accomplishment for Khadja. Obviously she is very bright as well as very lucky that her traditional parents allowed her to move away from the village and continue her education.

A photo of me and Khadja, an educated, modern Moroccan woman wearing her traditional hijab and floppy sun hat, just like me!

Morocco is one of the most complex places in the world. It represents an intricate, complicated melange of both the Western and Arab worlds that is often hard for a foreigner to understand. Being only eight miles off the coast of Spain and having centuries of invasions from the Romans, the Spanish, and the French, Morocco provides an amazing mixture of cultures from Mediterranean countries and the Arab world. Combine this past with the present day changes in the world due to technology (i.e. the Internet) and access to the good old satellite TV, and Morocco is faced with immense pressure to move forward into more western, modern culture.

Of course the traditions remain. Islam is THE most important influence in a Moroccans life and dictates more or less how a Muslim Moroccan should live and behave (for example, premarital sex is forbidden, drinking if forbidden, a man can still legally have up to four wives, etc). Yet, things are changing in Morocco, especially among the youth. and especially for the young, modern Moroccan woman.

When you walk along the street nowadays, you can find the entire gamut of attire starting from the full-fledge burka (which is very rare), to the more traditional jelaba and caftan (long robes), to the more western clothing (jeans, sweater, blouses) either with or without the hijab (veil or head scarf). Some Moroccan women, especially in Casablanca, would even wearing high-spiked heels and skinny jeans with a color-coordinated hijab. The contrasts in apparel were striking and very confusing, especially for a western woman like me. It is a known fact that the Qur’an states it is obligatory for a woman to wear a hijab. However, nowadays it is becoming more of a personal choice rather than a religious obligation. I would say that overall, most (perhaps 75%) of the women wear the hijab however it is truly beginning to change and it is not necessarily worn for religious reasons anymore. Sometimes it is worn as a fashion statement.

As you leave Rabat (the country capital) and cosmopolitan Casablanca and enter the countryside and the small villages, every woman wears the hijab and almost all wear traditional dress. As with any place, change in rural areas takes long thus the countryside is much more traditional.

Here is a brief history of Women in Morocco:

Before the arrival of Islam, women lived by Aljahilia or “The Period of Ignorance”. Women had no role in society except for men’s desires or as a slave. The arrival of Islam in 622 AC, marked a drastic change for women’s lives. Women received three basic rights dictated by the Islam religion: (1) The Right to live (2) The Right to be honored and respected as a mother, and (3) The right to own a business and work. These rights enormously effected women’s lives and their treatment in society by men. Women were gradually enabled to rise their status remarkably yet of course they still weren’t and still aren’t equal.

The independence of Morocco from France in 1956 also represented a significant change for women and women’s rights. One of the biggest changes was the ability of women to go to school and receive an education. Before 1956, women were only allowed to attend Koranic schools which taught them mostly about religion and did not learn sciences, math, arts, history, politics, etc. However, still today there is lot that needs to be done in regards to women’s education as only 64% of women are literate and in the countryside nearly 90% of women are illiterate, with the biggest issue being that most girls stop their education by eleven or twelve years old.

Changes are happening in Morocco, especially since the change of power to the current king, Mohammed VI, who succeeded his father Hassan II upon his death in 1999. Hassan II was known as to rule with an iron fist and all dissent on his power was repressed. Thus deep resentment of the monarchy grew up until his death and the takeover of his son, Mohammed VI, who quickly vowed to right the wrongs of the era known as the Years of Lead. In 2004, Mohammed VI instituted the much anticipated Mudawana, a legal code that dramatically changed women’s rights by protecting and guaranteeing women crucial rights to divorce, custody, property and inheritance rights, and child support. Before this law, there was no limited marriage age (meaning women could be passed over to marry before puberty), and women needed their father’s permission to marry. Also, women had no choice whatsoever when in comes to divorce. Only a man could initiate the divorce. Since this law, the following changes have happened which dramatically improves a woman’s life in Morocco:

1. The legal age for marriage starts at 18 years old.
2. Women can sign their own marriage contract without their father’s approval.
3. Men can still marry up to four wives, however, the law states that each wife must be provided with her own residence. Also, if a man wants to take on a second wife, then he must obtain the approval from his first wife.
4. Divorce is now a choice for both a man and a woman. Now women can initiate a divorce yet she still needs her husband to sign the divorce paperwork unless it is a case of domestic abuse.
5. A husband now has to pay child support and if there is a divorce, the inheritance must be split in half.

Obviously these changes has greatly enhanced a women’s life in Morocco, yet there is still quite a bit of work to be done. A woman still cannot freely go into a cafe without getting uncomfortable, negative glares by men. The cafe is a man’s world in Morocco. A woman who has a child out of wedlock, is sent to the city to have the baby where the baby is abandoned to an orphanage because premarital sex is considered a sin in Islam. Women cannot wear a swimsuit on the beach. Instead, she must wear either a jelaba into the water or the more modern ones wear a shirt and pants.

However, there is hope that change is coming. Women are more likely than men to use the Internet and Moroccan women have become the most avid Internet users in the Arab world. Also, in 2007 there were 34 women elected to the Parliament, representing 10.4% of all seats, which is just slightly behind the 12.5% of women in the US government.

As expected, the new family law (the Mudawana) has also brought about many social changes in Morocco as well. The rate of divorce has increased with leaps and bounds, and the average age of marriage has gone from early twenties to 28 or 29 years old. Only time can tell whether these changes are good or bad but overall it can only be better for women to have more choice.

Probably the biggest challenges to women and to men overall in Morocco is the high levels of unemployment (13% and growing), the high level of illiteracy, and the large population of people that are living below the poverty level (19% per the World Bank). In a country where the average salary is only a meager US$1677 per year, there are going to be some challenges going forward if things do not get better. Even the highly educated Moroccans are not able to find a job so there is a general sense of restlessness in the air.

However, Morocco is unlike its fellow Arab countries and the people have great respect and admiration for their King. Most demonstrations and protests have been extremely peaceful and well-organized, and are a daily occurrence in Morocco. Whether the masses gets fed up and demands change, only time can tell. At least the King seems to be on top of things and is doing what he can to please the crowd. It will be interesting to see what the next decade brings to Morocco. Who knows, maybe the hijab will be a distant memory of the past in 2020 or then again, in Morocco, where tradition, culture and religion are the center point of life, maybe the hijab will remain a crucial part of a woman’s wardrobe.

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

Three Continents in Two Days

Hello Readers! Bon jour! Salaam!

I’m back and I survived two crazy, insane days traveling from Africa to Europe to the United States, three continents in two days!

Needless to say, I am extremely exhausted and overwhelmed. The last two days have been a whirlwind. I left Morocco on Saturday morning (changing my flight for $250 during the middle of a protest —no worries, a tame one—so I could leave Rabat at 8 am as opposed to 3:30 pm and spend an afternoon and night in Paris). This supposedly “easy” visit to Paris ended up being nuts. I completely forgot about Easter holiday in Europe and Paris was ungodly overwhelmed with hordes and hordes of people and tourists—everywhere. Almost, well not quite, but almost like India (then again nothing can ever be like India).

These stories will come later of course since it was quite an adventure. I just wanted to let you know that I’m back, safe and sound, all in one peace, so far no illnesses, except for being tired.

This week I will be working on my upcoming posts…..
Women in Morocco, Dating 101, My Day at the Hammam, My Volunteer Experience, My Impressions of Morocco.

So please stay posted!

In the meantime, here are some funny pictures from my crossing of three continents:

My Henna in Morocco:

Lunch in Paris (wine withdrawal!!!!!):

Dinner in Paris (wine again….ok I was in a Muslim country for a week):

Almost home:

France Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

Islam 101

Photo above of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the third largest mosque in the world.

One of the greatest things about Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) is their three-prong approach to international volunteerism:

Volunteer work (which is generally the morning activity)

Cultural learning and education (which comprises of education on politics and culture, cultural activities (such as cooking class, musical performance, etc), and cultural tours.

Cross-Cultural exchange (meaning sharing your culture with the locals and learning about their culture to educate and change perceptions).

I find this approach to be an excellent way for a volunteer and foreigner to totally immerse with a new and different culture. The learning and the week is extremely intensive yet it is quite amazing. I feel like I’ve just completed an entire class on Moroccan life, traditions and culture all in only a week’s time!

A few days ago, we spent the afternoon talking with Mohammed, our Country Director, about a hot topic: The religion of Islam. It was an extremely fascinating discussion that took us over two and a half hours, and although I learned a lot it still felt like we had just touched the surface of this amazing, complex religion. For an American and for someone who knows very little about Islam (and religion in general, to be quite honest), our discussion with Mohammed was very enlightening and surprising.

Before coming to Morocco, I knew very little about Islam except of course what I had heard about in the media or read in the papers. I believe there is a very bad perception and understanding of Islam in the the Western world. Many believe Islam equates to terrorists and that it not at all the case. It is only a very small percentage of actual Muslims who are terrorists and these are the extreme cases (just like in Christianity we have the far far religious right wackos who go off the deep end). Thus for me to learn more about Islam and to meet and develop friendships with Muslims, was in itself a very “thirdeyemom” (aka eye-opening) experience and it truly changed the way I feel and view Islam.

Ok, so here is a summary of what I learned on Islam (this is Islam 101) as well as my own thoughts, reflections and feelings on this great religion. Of course it is not all inclusive! It is just the information I gathered from our lecture with Mohammed and from asking tons of questions.

Lesson one: What is the meaning of Islam?

Islam can be literally translated to me “submission to God” and represents the peace you obtain when you submit to God.

It is the second largest religion in the world (after Christianity and followed by Hinduism) and it the fastest growing religion i the world (due to the high birth rates in large Muslim countries and also the high level of conversions to Islam. Last year there were over 20,000 conversions to Islam in only the United States!).

Some facts:

20% of the world’s population are Muslims.

Of the Muslim population, 20% (only) are Arabs (this is a figure that surprised me as I believed there to be more. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population and there are also a small population of Muslims in India – 140 million).

95% of the Arab world are Muslims.

There are two different groups of Muslims in the World:

1. Sunni (75-80%)

2. Shia (minority and mainly found in the Gulf countries).

Lesson two: What are the Five Pillars of Islam?
1. Testimonies (or beliefs) which are called “Shahada” in Arabic.

2. Prayer

3. Charity

4. Fasting

5. Pilgrimage

These are all in order of importance.

Here is a look at what each pillar means:

Testimonies/Shahada: Means that you believe there is only one God and that the Prophet Mohammed is a messenger from God.

The life of Mohammed was fascinating. He was born in 571 AC in Mecca and was an orphan by age 6. He was raised by his uncle who taught him to become an honest and hard-working young man. People gained great trust and respect in him. At the age of 25 he met and fell in love with a wealthy, widow named Khadija who was 40. They then married and lived in Mecca. At the time there was no real organized religion in Mecca. However, Mohammed used to spend his time meditating in a cave called Hirae, where he was met by the angel Gabriel. Gabriel was sent by God to tell Mohammed to believe in only one God. Thus started the religion of Islam! In 622, Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina and this year marks the beginning of Islam and the Muslim calendar.

Mohammed became a prophet and died in 632 (thus he spent about 22 years of his life as a prophet).

He was the last Prophet to come. (For Muslims, there are 125,000 prophets sent by God and mentioned in the Qur’an. The first was Adam and the last one was Mohammed. Almost all the same prophets that are mentioned in the bible are mentioned in the Qur’an. For example, Moses, Abraham, Noah and Jesus). In the Qur’an, all Prophets are respected as they all had the exact same message: To worship One God. Jesus and his stories are also in the Qur’an (something I did not know!) and the Qur’an includes all the same stories as found in the bible EXCEPT one: The crucifixion of Jesus, because Muslims don’t believe it happened. Instead, they believe he was not killed but was risen to heaven. Muslims also believe that Jesus is our savior and will return some day. (Very interesting!)

In Islam: There are two important religious documents:

1. The Qur’an: The Word of God (recited by Gabriel to Mohammed who then wrote it down and recited to the people).

2. The Hadeeth: These are words of the Prophet Mohammed. Like the Bible, they were written down later. The Hadeeth was compiled and written 125 years AFTER the death of Mohammed.

Every Muslim, no matter what country you live in, uses the same Qur’an, written in Arabic. Translations are not considered as “pure”. The Hadeeth has many different versions thus it is not always followed exactly as “the word” since it is not technically as accurate as the Qur’an.

In the Qur’an, “Mariam” (Mary) is also a virgin and the mother of Jesus, however, Muslims do not believe that Jesus is the son of God. Also, Muslims do not believe that Jesus died for our sins.

In the Muslim religion, what helps you go to heaven is your good deeds or actions, not just by believing in Jesus Christ. The main sins are: Killing, Dishonoring your parents, Adultery, and Stealing. I asked about the meaning of the word “jihad”. It means “a struggle” to do something good. Thus in Islam, you are only allowed to fight and kill if you are attacked. Obviously this was taken to the extreme with 9/11.

In sum, there are many similarities between the Bible and the Qur’an, which surprised me. I had no idea.

Prayer:

In the Muslim religion, you must pray five times a day. The first prayer is at the Break of Dawn, the second is around noon (when the sun is in the middle), the third prayer is around afternoon, the fourth prayer is around sunset and the fifth prayer is at dusk when there are a few stars in the sky. The prayer times change each day depending on the movement and position of the sun. One knows it is prayer time when one hears the “muadhin” (person who makes the call to prayer) being sent via amplification throughout the city. The Muadhin makes the call to prayer from the minaret (tower of a mosque) and it can be heard anywhere.

The Call to Prayer is always the same and includes the following verses (all in Arabic):

1. God is Great – is repeated four times.

2. Bear witness that there is only one God -repeated two times.

3. Mohammed is a messenger of God – repeated two times.

4. Hurry up and pray -repeated two times.

5. Hurry up to salvation -repeated two times.

6. God is Great – repeated two times.

7. There is not God but Allah – said once.

Before doing prayer, Muslims must do the “abulations” where every part of the external body is washed, and clean clothing is put on. Once clean, a Muslim turns “qibla” or the direction of Mecca and recites the first chapter of the Qur’an (7 verses which are memorized), next a recitation of choice, followed by bowing and praising to God, and finally the different poses to show humility towards God (stand up, flex knees and then place forehead on the ground). These prayers are done five times per day. If a prayer session is missed (due to work or travel, etc) then it can be made up during the day.

Charity (“Zakat”): Is the belief that everything belongs to God and involves purification and growth. Muslims are required to pay 2.5% of their yearly income to the poor.

Fasting: During the month of Ramadan (which is the 9th month of the Muslim calendar and fluctuates yearly) means that a Muslim must fast (no drinking any liquids, including water and no eating any food) and abstain from sex, smoking, and chewing gum. It starts at dawn and ends at dusk. Every Muslim must follow the fast for the entire month except for sick, pregnant, nursing mothers, travelers, or women during their periods. The fasting must be made up after a person is well enough to do it before the next Ramadan. The object of Ramadan is self control.

Pilgrimage: Every able Muslim must make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your lifetime. This happens the 12th month of the Muslim calendar and only three million Muslims around the world are allowed to go (due to capacity constraints). Thus there is a lottery to go.

A final interesting fun fact I learned about Islam is the spiritual belief in the Jinns or spirits. Muslims believe there are three types of beings:

1. Humans who are created from clay.

2. Angels who are created from light.

3. Jinns who are created from fire.

Jinns are unseen creatures that can be either good or bad, and they can be found anywhere: A house, on someone’s shoulder, or even in the water inside the toilet! Jinns have a lot of power in Morocco and almost everyone believes in their existence and power. For more information on Jinns and life in Morocco, there is a great book called “The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca” by Tahir Shah. The book goes into great detail with perfect humor and wit about the complexities of living in the land of the Jinns.

The above commentary is meant to be a brief explanation of the important facets of Islam. It is an extremely complex topic in which I am by no means even close to an expert. In my opinion, it is really a pity that there is not more religious tolerance and understanding in the world. We can learn a great deal from others and their religions. We are all after the same goal in life! Ok, that is my food for thought for the day. (It feels like a great load has been taken off my shoulders to attempt to even discuss Islam!). My upcoming posts will discuss the hot topic of The Role of Women in Morocco (which will include some information on the how to date in Morocco….a rarity, but yes it does happen!).

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

Here Comes the (Moroccan) Band

Moroccan music comes in many genres (ranging from Arab, Berber, Classical and Popular) and is surprisingly diverse. Every region in Morocco has its own type of music thus there

A good site reference for the various kinds of Moroccan music can be found at:

http://www.al-bab.com/maroc/cult/music.htm

The music we heard today is called “Chaabi” (also known as “shaabi”) which means “popular” or “of the people” in Arabic. The music is pop music that has Arab, African and Western influences and is generally played at large celebrations and events such as weddings.

Here is a fun YouTube Video I found that demonstrates this energetic, rhythmic music.

http://m.youtube.com/index?desktop_uri=%2F&gl=MA#/watch?v=KR1yLZCqSHE

http://m.youtube.com/index?desktop_uri=%2F&gl=MA#/watch?v=Hia-w5q43tY

(Note: I tried to embed the links so you can easily view them but it does not work well using an iPad. Thus you will have to copy and paste the link above into your browser. I will fix them when I return home. The video is worth seeing!)

The musicians use a variety of percussion instruments such as the bender which is a goatskin covered wooden drum, the daff which is a wooden-framed drum, covered entirely with stretched goatskin and played on both sides, the garagab which are metal clackers resembling double castanets (one holds two in each hand), the naggarah which are double kettle drums made of pottery, the taarija which is a kind of handheld drum that is either cone or vase shaped and made of pottery or metal. There are also the tan-tan and tbilat, which are kinds of bongo drums.

Our visit with the band was absolutely fabulous and fun! We had just finished our Moroccan cooking class and were hanging out in the large living room when we heard the loud pounding and thumping of the Moroccan band. They had parked their van outside the Home Base and entering playing loud, rhythmic Chaabi music. Instantly we all smiled and the music brought our energy to a new level. The bank comprised of five musicians all playing different kinds of drum, singing and one playing a variety of percussion instruments such as the “moroccan symbol” which was the axel of a car wheel and he played this by wearing it on his head and pounding it with sticks.

Here are some pictures of our day with the band:

Here is the musician playing the car axel on his head! It was very heavy and he joked around a lot by placing it on volunteers heads and playing it.

The volunteers learning how to dance in Morocco:

Me doing Moroccan dance:

Ken, the sole male volunteer, from Canada, dancing Moroccan:


Wearing the traditional hooded jelaba:


Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

A Day at the Souq

Every Moroccan visit requires a visit to the local Medina and Souq. The Souq (market) is not only a shopping expedition but a cultural experience in itself. That is where tourists go to shop and to see the Moroccans shop. It is not for the faint-hearted nor those who do not like crowds. The Souq is extremely overwhelming and non-stop eye candy. The sights, the smells, the people watching are amazingly intense. You can literally find everything including the kitchen sink at the Souq (but apparently it takes Moroccan “know-how” to find good old fashioned body lotion!).

Bargaining is a necessity in the Souq. Generally you take the given price and deduct it by 50 or 60% and start from there. It is extremely helpful to speak French or else bargaining can be quite the challenge. The prices are extremely cheap in western standards and it is hard to get out of there without buying too much.

After three visits to the Souq, however, I’ve reached full capacity and do not plan to go back. I’ve had enough! But I did get several great things to bring back home to share with my family and friends. Here is a photo journey of my buying excursion at the Souq:

Andrea and Khadija (our office manager) entering the souq:

Looking the other direction of the medina towards the Ville Nouvelle (new French part of Rabat city):

The old walls of the Medina:

Entering the Souq:

The couscous:

The jelabas (robes with pointed hoods) and caftans (robes without hoods and usually a v neck adorned and decorated) which are the traditional dress in Morocco. In Rabat, you see about half women wearing these robes and half wearing western attire. About half wear the hijab (head scarf) in city and some don’t. It is a personal choice even though it is stated obligatory in Islam. In rural Morocco, you would see everyone wearing hijab and dressed in traditional clothing:

You can even find outfits for belly dancing:

There are lots of shops that sell “babouches” or Moroccan slippers:

And tons of places to buy scarves and blankets (my favorite addiction!):

Moroccan lamps and lanterns are everywhere as well as cats (not for sale!):

The presence of the mosque is all encompassing, especially when you hear the Call to Prayer:

Yet you still can find lots of shops that sell lingerie (exotic and traditional), counterfeit sunglasses and pursues (Chanel seems to be a favorite), traditional shoe repair shops, skinny jeans and t-shirts. We even saw a small shop with four tvs inside where children and men were gathered round and watching shows. Plus there is always the presence of Moroccan mint tea (a specialty and an event in itself).

I especially liked the nicer shops found under the covered part of the souq as seen here:

The architecture inside the Medina was gorgeous as well. There were interesting doors, beautifully tiled terra-cotta roofs in greens and reds, and lots of pretty tiled fountains such as here:

Me taking a breather:

After a couple hours at the souq, the third visit, I bought five blankets, six pillow cases, a scarf and a “hand of fatima” amulet. The gorgeous silk blankets (which are enormous—fits a queen size bed) below costed me about 200 dirhams which is about $15! Who will be the lucky recipient?

And the colorful silk pillow cases ran about $5 each:

I could make a steal selling these at the Pottery Barn!

No more visits to the Souq….I’m “souq-ed” out!

Coming next….the role of women in Morocco and Islam followed by “experiences on the road as an ESL teacher in Rabat”

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

My Home Away From Home in Hay Riad Rabat

So where do you stay when you volunteer with Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) in Rabat, Morocco? Good question! No, we do not stay in some kind of crazy mud hut. I was pleasantly surprised to find that our home away from home, known as the “Home Base” is quite lovely. It is located in the nice, posh neighborhood of “Hay Riad” where all the ex-pats and embassies are located. It is quite a different experience than being in the medina, that is for sure! Instead of ancient, white-washed buildings, the neighborhood is lined in majestic palm trees and enormous, mediterranean mansions all huge, all with gorgeous, lush and tropical gardens and security guards.

Here are some pictures of the Home Base:

Our street:

View down the street:

Entrance to our residence:

The Home Base common area and dining room:

A tagine:

Lunch:

The Home Base garden:


The Home Base at night:

View from outdoor terrace into my room:

I must admit it was not at all what I was expecting. After staying in the old medina area my first night in Rabat, I was very surprised that this neighborhood exists. But as Rabat is the capital city of Morocco, of course there has to be a place for all the embassies and wealthy people to live.

Here are some pictures around the Hay Riad neighborhood:

Some of the gorgeous homes nearby:

Our home base used to be an embassy which opened for CCS in 2007. It is a large building that can accommodate up to thirty volunteers (there are about four bunk beds per room) however we are quite fortunate now as there are only ten of us here, meaning I only share a room with one other volunteer.

The rent cost is huge, especially in Moroccan standards. It costs about $3,500 a month which explains some of the high costs involved in short-term volunteering for CCS.

Our residence has a beautiful, tropical garden and yard space filled with hibiscus flowers, birds of paradise, roses, palm trees and of course turtles! (There are several ones living in the backyard so you have to be careful not to step on them!).

The main living space downstairs is lovely and has a traditional moroccan “coach” that is L-shaped, and the room is lined with large windows. There are also several “poufs” or moroccan ottomans around so you can easily kick back and relax.

We are served all our meals at the home base, which are homemade by two Moroccan ladies. Breakfast usually consists of french baguette or Moroccan crepes, fruit, hard-boiled eggs, coffee and juice. Lunch is served at one pm after we return from our volunteer work and is always traditional moroccan food such as tangines, couscous, lots of vegetables, soups and lentils. Dinner is then served at seven pm and is usually the same types of meals served as lunch (but of course different each meal and each day). The food has been quite delicious so I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

The nearby local grocery store is called Acima, and there are three in Rabat. You can buy all Moroccan spices such as in this picture:

And my beloved harissa, my favorite morccan spicy sauce (in red):

Plus there is a gorgeous nearby patisserie, french bakery:

Our general routine has been wake up (today I woke up unexpectedly at 5:17 am to the sounds of the muezzin (call to prayer) which could be heard through closed doors AND my earplugs! I of course went back to sleep!). After breakfast, we leave for our three volunteer placements: The Children’s Hospital, The school for street children and the Women’s Association (My placement where I teach English). We work for a few hours and then come back for a late lunch.

Here is a picture of our CCS bus:

After lunch, we have cultural activities and learning. Yesterday, we did a city tour (which I will discuss more later) and today we are having a two hour lecture on Women in Islam.

Then we typically have a little downtime which can be spent shopping, resting, reading or talking with the other volunteers, followed by dinner at 7 PM and a bit of down time before bed. It is an exhausting day, especially given the jet-lag and cultural immersion (it is difficult in itself being in another country and speaking another language, ie. french, all day).

Everyone is wonderful at the Home Base. All the volunteers are very interesting people. About half are from the US, three from Canada and one woman is from New Zealand. Our Director, Mohammed is fabulous and a super funny guy. He worked in the Peace Corps for several years and now works for CCS. He is extremely knowledgeable and we’ve had several fascinating conversations.

The biggest surprise of all has been our discover (of course from past volunteers) of the one restaurant in Hay Riad that serves alcohol! I totally forgot the rules about being in a Muslim country! Muslims are not allowed to drink thus finding booze can be tricky. We are lucky that Morocco is more “liberal” and “modern” than other Islamic countries as you are able to find alcohol. All hotels serve it and the one french “tapas” bar we found serves alcohol but only after 8 PM. We have been there almost every night so far!

Here is the one and only place to get booze in our neighborhood:

An important point to remember: This neighborhood is NOT TYPICAL Rabat. This is the wealthy area. Most Moroccans live in homes styled after medina area or in old apartment buildings. I will show more pictures of other neighborhoods later. I wanted to show you where we are staying and also that there are nice areas in Morocco! Most people wouldn’t believe that there is money everywhere, of course, along with lots of poverty.

More later!

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

My First Visit to a Mosque

The highlight of my visit to Casablanca (Casa) was by far my visit to the Hassan II Mosque. I met my guide, Anis (pronounced and named after the spice) who again spoke French and had a fabulous one on one tour of the mosque, which is the third largest mosque in the world (after Mecca and Medina).

The mosque was built from 1986 to 1993, and required over 10,000 artisans and 12,500 workers to complete the work. They worked day and night, non-stop.

The minaret (the tower) is the largest in the world (200 m above sea level) and is quite impressive.

Here are some more shots of the outside of the mosque and the minaret:

The colors of the mosque symbolize the colors of Islam: Green and White. Green symbolized peace and white represents universalism.

I was in awe with the immense beauty of the mosque and it’s exquisite detail:

This is my favorite picture…the sun just happened to capture me and lighten my soul:

The inside of the mosque holds a capacity of 25,000 people and the outside courtyard area holds up to 80,000 people.

This is the ONLY mosque in all of Morocco that allows tourists inside (due to ancient French law, not due to religious reasons).

The official religion of the Moroccan kingdom is Islam (Sunite Malekile) and there are about 70% practicing Muslims. In the Islam religion, there are five official daily prayers at: Dawn, Mid-morning, Mid-Afternoon, Sunset and Night. Each day a minute is added to the prayer time to reflect the change in the rising and setting of the sun. The call of prayer can be heard throughout Morocco and the first time I heard it, I was mesmerized. It is loud and melodic, calling all Muslims to come to prayer. An amazing event to experience!

The inside of the mosque is constructed with all Moroccan materials. The ceiling is made with Moroccan cedar that is sculptured and then painted in beautiful colors and images.

Here is a picture of the elaborately decorated ceiling:

The mosque has three levels. The bottom floor level contains the fountains of water for purification. Men and women each have a separate door to enter and separate rooms that contain 41 marble fountains full of water where Muslims wash every external part of their body before they are allowed to enter the mosque.

Women and men are completely separate in a mosque. Women are allowed only on the second level and there is a capacity of up to 5,000 women. Here is a picture of where the women stay:

Here is a picture of the “jalousie” or “moucharabia”, an intricately carved door made out of cedar where women can “hide” and not be seen:

Other interesting facts about the mosque:

1. The ceiling completely opens up so you can see and have contact with the sky which is extremely important for Muslims.

2. Le Mihrab: Is like the alter in a church where the IMAM (leader of prayer) heads the prayer. It is of course facing Mecca.

3. There are four positions of prayer, called in french, Les genuflections. First, you face Mecca and greet by lowering your head to show humility. Second, you place your hands on your knees. Third, you slightly flex your knees. Fourth, you lay on the ground on your knees with your forehead touching the ground.

4. Muslims only use right hand to greet and eat. Left hand if for doing the “other” dirty stuff involved with being a human (i.e. blowing nose, using bathroom, etc).

5. Muslims are called to prayer five times per day as mentioned above. However, Moroccans are the most modern Muslims in the world thus it is not obligatory that you go to the mosque five times a day to pray.

6. There are varying degrees of how religious a person is. Just like in the States.

7. Not all women where the hijab (veil). Many more women are dressing western nowadays.

What I discovered is that Islam is a very fascinating religion. Obviously it is a religion that is very misunderstood thus I look forward to sharing what I find.

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION

An Afternoon in Casablanca

After my experience in the Rabat medina, I was utterly exhausted yet for some reason, I kept on going like the Energizer Bunny. I couldn’t stop. I was mesmerized by what I’d seen and the Casbah was only a short walk away. The sun was beginning to set and cast a beautiful rainbow of pinks, reds and oranges against the whitewashed buildings of Rabat, and the Casbah’s grand presence was overwhelmingly alluring. So, instead of going back and relaxing I crossed the busy street, jay-walking, following the well-versed Moroccans and headed over to see one of Rabat’s oldest parts of the city.

The Casbah is a lovely, tranquil place to wander. There are beautiful, hidden alleyways and whitewashed buildings with varying hues of blues. It is mostly residential now and apparently many rich foreigners are buying up the picturesque homes. At the end, you enter and enormous open space which affords a spectacular view of the river and the sea. It is gorgeous and I could have spent an hour there just relaxing if it wasn’t for the hordes of teenage Moroccan men who were obviously on the prowl. I couldn’t help laughing that a young man who could practically be my child was harassing me in french and giving me looks! If only they knew I was almost 40!

Here are some photos of the Casbah:
View approaching the Casbah from across the street:

View looking down in central Rabat:

Inside the whitewashed walls of the Casbah:

The view of the ocean and Rabat from the Casbah:

I returned to the hotel at seven o’clock, extremely tired yet knew that I had to stay up. That is the number one rule of jet lag. You must remain awake all day long and if you sleep during the day, you are finished! So, despite the fatigue, I grabbed my glass of wine that I saved from my Air France flight to Rabat and headed upstairs to the Riad’s rooftop terrace. The view was spectacular and there was little noise except a couple of nearby chickens. I savored my wine and then headed downstairs for a delicious Moroccan meal of Chicken tagine with a seventy-year-old couple from Boston who were traveling with their thirteen-year-old grandson. It was their grandson’s first trip out of the US and he was in for quite an adventure (which included a trip to the Sahara desert for a camel ride, a hike in the Atlas Mountains and visit to Berber villages and a journey to magnificent Fez). Wow! The dinner was delightful and I enjoyed my first glass of Moroccan Red Wine. It was so ironic to be drinking wine in a Muslim country yet I was soon to discover that Morocco is much more modern than any other Islamic country in the world. The Muslims of course are forbidden to drink alcohol yet it is widely available for tourists and the large sum of ex-pats that live in Rabat and Casablanca.

View from the terrace:

The call to prayer could be heard five times a day from the minaret (tower) off in the distance (starting at 5 am and ending at dusk):

And the chickens could be heard at the neighboring residences:

It was lights out by 9:30 PM. I was proud of myself for making it so long! What a wild and crazy day! The United States, an eight hour flight, a visit to Paris for a cup of cafe creme, a flight to Rabat, a visit in search of body lotion to a souq and my first Moroccan meal! I’m tired just remembering all the things I did in a twenty-four hour period….nuts!

I slept hard for four hours, then was up for two (when I decided to write on my blog) then back asleep again until 7:30am. Not bad for my first night in Morocco!

Breakfast was served on the terrace. I was served a traditional Moroccan meal that included Moroccan crepes, mint bread, coffee and four wonderful, homemade condiments to put on the crepes.

Here is a picture of my meal: From left to right, the condiments are Honey, Strawberry jam, Apricot Jam, and best of all, olive tapenade! (I initially thought it was some kind of date jam but was pleasantly surprised):

Me looking very tired:

The morning view of Rabat:

I was really looking forward to the day ahead. I had hired a driver, Mohammed (same driver that picked me up at the airport) to take me to Casablanca (aka “Casa”) where I would meet a french-speaking guide and receive a city tour. Thank goodness I speak French because French is the second language of Morocco thus most Moroccans speak Arabic and French. English is rare.

The drive to Casa is about an hour south of Rabat, following the Atlantic Ocean. There is not much along the way except farms and countryside. Mohammed was very proud to inform me about the government’s great improvement plans to the infrastructure. A third lane is currently being added to the autoroute linking Rabat to Morocco.

I was still feeling jet-lagged yet Mohammed could not stop talking to me so I used the opportunity to learn more about Morocco. Some of the interesting things Mohammed told me include:

1. The name Mohammed is the most popular male name in Morocco and is given to the oldest son. Means “The Prophet”.

2. Fatima: Is the most popular female name. It means “Daughter of Mohammed”.

3. The government in Morocco does not give unemployment benefits. So if you don’t work, you are out of luck.

4. Average cost of petrol: 11 Dirhams/1 Euro per litre of gas.

5. In Morocco, now about 50% of women work. The generation before was only 1-2%.

6. Population of Casa city center is 5 million.

7. Rick’s Cafe is a HOAX! Movie Casablanca was fllmed completely in Hollywood studio. Producer had never been to Casa. There is a fabricated Rick’s Cafe in Casa. Tourist deal.

8. Casa hosts the first McDonalds in all of Africa. It opened on December 18th, 1994 (funny fact here: that is my guides birthday AND my husbands birthday…December 18th!).
Here is a photo of McDo:

We had lunch outside at a posh Parisien style cafe overlooking the beach in Casa:

Besides the public beaches, you can also go to one of the four main outdoor pools for the day:

I also saw this cafe which made me laugh because I am originally from the town of Excelsior in Minnesota:

Coming up in my next post….. My next stop was to the only mosque in Morocco that allows visitors inside.

Morocco TRAVEL BY REGION