Sunday, May 26, 2013

Food, Glorious Food

I've always been a picky eater ... there are so many foods I don't like ... and that has kept me from being adventurous in my exploration of new foods. I just can't help it that my taste buds are so finicky and I marvel at those who try anything and like almost everything. My self-imposed dietary limitations sometimes caused me to go hungry in Morocco which is practically a crime in a culture that prides itself on having great food and puts such a hearty emphasis on eating. But little by little I ventured into previously unknown food territories and am proud to say my food experiences have expanded ... somewhat.

In Morocco, food is plentiful, fresh and joyfully prepared and consumed. Every edible bit of an animal is diced, sliced, and pounded into submission before being boiled, barbecued or roasted. While I don't look at fruits and vegetables with the wary resistance I hold for meats (especially organ meats) I have tried some foods I never saw before or ventured to eat while living in the states. I count those occurrences as small personal victories.

Moroccans love to eat, often eating 4 meals a day, and sometimes partaking in a full meal before going to bed. And Moroccans are such generous hosts and hostesses, imploring you to eat, eat, that not to do so seems rude. With so much emphasis on eating I tried many foods I would not even consider putting into my mouth under other circumstances. As a result I feel unreasonably proud of myself for discovering and heartily enjoying camel burgers (from Cafe Clock, of course), for taking a tentative bite of the eye of a sheep (only because I didn't know what it was), for sipping a broth made from the knee joints of a cow (I didn't like it) and for learning to accept avocados perched in my fruit salad as opposed to a leafy green salad. To most people this must seem unimpressive but to me trying these previously untouched foods was anything but.

One summer I practically lived on sardines as I camped throughout the north of Morocco and I now have a new-found respect for the satisfaction they yield because it's so disproportionate to their size. I still won't eat sardines from a tin but put a pile of fresh sardines in front of me with a side of fries and I will dig in with relish. I also grew to love the juice made from carrots and oranges that refreshes like nothing else and I always enjoyed a side dish of Zalouk, made from roasted eggplant and unfailingly delicious.

I realize most people have a much more expanded and enjoyable food experience in Morocco and I understand my food preferences are limiting. But I take pleasure in knowing that my mother, rest her soul, who struggled to get me to eat something new throughout my childhood, would be so proud had she lived to see me venture outside my culinary comfort zone.

Eat, everyone, eat. Morocco's food table is laden with freshly prepared offerings you won't find anywhere else.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shaving Omar

This story is a revision of an earlier post, entitled The Man With the Gravelly Voice and was reworked as part of a writing class I attended this winter. I hope you enjoy both versions.

At first glance the ancient walled city of Fes, teeming with insistent hucksters, littered byways and gauntlets of beggars, seems anything but spiritual. But Fes, the Spiritual Capital of Morocco, offers a path to unveiling the imponderable mysteries of life through the unforgettable characters who reside there. Finding room in your heart for these unique individuals offers a profound spiritual practice. But take heed for the path offered is strewn with endless opportunities for judgement which demand suspension before Fes will allow a glimpse into its raison d'etre.

Opportunities for value judgments  as plentiful as cafes and Coca Cola, abound in Fes. There, on a busy street, sits Hakima the bearded lady. She lolls her truly filthy self where she cannot be missed and constantly picks at the ever present scabs on her hairy outstretched legs. The mean beggar lady stations herself around a well traveled corner with her extended hand and obsequious manner. Deposit a coin into her insistent hand or she will maliciously berate you with her raging sense of entitlement. Watch out for Naima, the once beautiful femme fatale with cartoonishly rouged cheeks and smeared red lips. Her propensity to wield the sharp knife tucked inside the sleeve of her galabah gives rise to your impulse to immediately distance yourself from her.

A testosterne fueled cadre of men add their own special element to the mix of bizarre characters in Fes. Omar, an outlandishly wretched man, led me to see beyond his never-ending drunken stupor and oily rags to glimpse the elusive and filtered light Fes offers.

The young men of the medina made sport of Omar and took perverse pleasure imitating his lurching gait and his gravelly voice. These locals pushed him and baited him as he shuffled up the road in search of handouts and his next fix of mind-altering substances. I invariably gave Omar a wide berth when I saw him approaching. But Omar would always surprise me whenever our paths crossed for no matter how far I attempted to veer away from him he unfailingly spotted me and offered up a compliment -- in English.

"You have beautiful eyes" he would growl through the thronging crowd.

Who knew there was a chivalrous side to this foul smelling town drunk? I wondered, did he offer up kind words to his blind girlfriend? Yes, Omar had a woman in his life who served to imbue him with humility and a brief dignity whenever they made an appearance in public. I would see them walking arm in arm up Talaa Kbir and Omar always walked a little bit taller and straighter when he and his lady friend were together. No one dared to mock him or provoke him during these promenades. Some unspoken rule applied during these moments of pretend sobriety with everyone willingly participating in the charade that here was a typical couple out for an evening stroll. Omar's girlfriend couldn't actually see the wreck her man had become and during these special occasions everyone else organically agreed to suspend their own ability to see as well.

One day the rumor mill about Omar's death reached me. This was no surprise because lately his increasingly gaunt face had begun to look like carved, charred wood. Whatever it was that Omar ingested or drank to get through each day had finally done him in. And then I recalled a scene I had witnessed about a week prior to his demise that now seemed particularly poignant and helped me to see things differently.

Opposite my house sat a much used public fountain. Omar perched on the wide tiled curvature surrounding the fountain while a fellow drunkard hovered over him. The perpetually cold water ran out of the spigot as Omar's bristly face was audibly scraped clean by his pal. Here and there, rivulets of watery blood ran down Omar's face from the unsteady hand of his volunteer barber and the certain dullness of the razor. Once again I was taken by the way Omar submitted to the ministrations of someone who took time to tend to him and the aura of dignity such attention created. This was the last time I laid eyes on this man with the gravelly voice.

When I learned about Omar's death I wondered what was to become of his blind girlfriend and his companion who shaved him with such attention. I wondered who would miss Omar and mourn his passing. And suddenly I realized I would mourn him because Omar had given me something that had been eluding me for so long. My heart ached as I realized that on that day at the fountain all outward manifestations of Omar's miserable choices fell away. All I saw was a flawed but vulnerable man with a desire for a clean shaven face.

I miss Omar, may he rest in peace, because I think he saw me before I saw him. I like to think his comment about my eyes was more about what my eyes are capable of seeing rather than an attractive physical attribute. I now recall Omar's humiliations, pain, and suffering as if they were my own. I experience Omar's brave attempts to rally and his repeated failures to correct his mistakes on a visceral level. I view Omar's struggles with a tenderness that penetrated some of the hardened places in my heart for his journey was just a gritty version of my own.

Monday, May 20, 2013


I wake up each morning and carry my coffee mug a few meters down the street to get coffee with milk from Haj. He puts far too many sugar cubes in my coffee but somehow, over the years, he has gotten it into his head that this is the way I like it. I don't do anything to dissuade him of this notion. I like that he thinks he is in possession of the perfect coffee recipe for me.

If Hassan's little shop is open for business, I might buy a piece of cake for 1 dirham. Sometimes I buy a petite pain au chocolate from a nearby shop or a greasy, sinfully delicious beignet if the line isn't too long. Needless to say, I am hepped up on sugar after such a decidedly unhealthy breakfast and ready to tackle the long to-do list for the day.

Sweets abound in Morocco and I don't hesitate to partake. Between all the walking and stair climbing and housework I manage to accommodate the extra calories and always burn off the sugar before it can attach itself to my frame. I grew up on sugar laden products and I guess I find some comfort in making it part of my day again. There is an old song, sung by the McGuire Sisters called "Sugar in the Morning" that I can't help but recall as I take my breakfast back to the house. It goes like this:

Sugar in the morning

Sugar in the evening
Sugar at suppertime
Be my little sugar
And love me all the time

Now Sugar time 
Is anytime
That you're near 
'Cause you're so dear
So don't you roam 
Just be my honeycomb 
And live in a heaven of love.

Life can always benefit from some extra sweetness, don't you agree?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Blind Ambition

I close my eyes and gently brush my fingers over the pinholes in the gray scrap of cardboard, unable to decipher the braille. The sentence trails crookedly across the dense paper. Each pinhole is precise on one side, a ragged burst on the underside. I want the mysterious words to penetrate me just as the characters pierce the makeshift tablet. I want the words to remind me that there are many ways to look at a situation.

During the years I lived in Morocco the world I operated in routinely caused me to take a new look at situations. Notions about what is right and wrong, what's polite and rude, and especially procedure were constantly challenged. In the beginning I felt duty-bound to show everyone how procedural disintegrations should be handled, especially on the job. I would generously offer good old American problem-solving techniques to help establish best business practices. I believed my analytical approach would help create order out of chaos and everyone would benefit from the lessons I offered. But in Morocco my approach proved to be an exercise in futility because in this ancient kingdom, operating procedures exist but merely as a suggestion.  Detours, officials and maladroit navigators inevitably make you veer off course. Ultimately, arrival at the final destination by any means possible defines success, and the methods for getting there too numerous to count.

One semester at The American Language Center where I taught English I found myself taken aback. I walked into the first day of my Wednesday afternoon class as a blind student was led into the classroom. Really? I thought. I have no training to teach the visually impaired. This must be some mistake and I knew who to hold responsible. During the afternoon break I hurriedly sought out our Director of Curriculum and the man in charge of class assignments.

"Si Omar," I opined as I burst into his office, "One of my students is blind!" Si Omar raised his head from the task before him and met my indignant gaze. His eyes softened and his forehead creased in sympathy. "I know," he acknowledged with a empathetic sigh, "Poor girl." His eyes met mine for a brief second before turning his attention back to his paperwork. Clearly there was nothing more to say.

The Director's refusal to acknowledge my awkward position vexed me. But in the final analysis my vexation gave way to a rush of shame when I saw the arrogance behind my thinking. My unbridled exasperation at being caught unawares by this situation would eventually be rendered immaterial the day I finally realized The Director clearly and correctly indicated the bigger challenge was the student's, not mine. But initially I considered myself the wounded party.

Certainly I felt ill-prepared to teach the blind but there sat Nejmah, bravely presenting herself to an unfamiliar world she needed to grope through, ready to exert extraordinary effort. How selfish, how utterly audacious of me to whine about what boiled down to my own lack of confidence. But that day in Si Omar's office I snapped my mouth shut as the fruitlessness of my complaint seeped in. I acquiescently backed out of Si Omar's office, quietly closed the door and headed back to work through my predicament.

Throughout the following months I tried my best to match Nejmah's efforts. I researched ideas for teaching the visually-impaired online. I assigned partners for Nejmah so they could read exercise questions and reading comprehension passages to her. I photocopied homework pages so Nejmah could take them home and have someone read the exercises to her and record her answers in her workbook. I tried to think of activities that didn't rely on sight. I made a conscious effort to expunge the words "see" and "look" from my instructions and I hoped against hope that somehow the lessons were imparted to all of my students.

When the day for the final exam arrived, someone from the administrative staff escorted Nejmah to the library to patiently and laboriously read all the questions aloud and record her answers. Ultimately, it took several hour long sessions to complete. When all the questions had been asked, answered and recorded, the exam was handed to me for grading and my own moment of truth. Had I actually taught anything?

I placed Nejma's exam in a pile of papers to mark from my other classes and took everything home. That evening I picked up Nejma's exam, red pen in hand, and held my breath as I marked her paper and tallied up the score: 69! Nejmah had squeeked by. I dutifully recorded her grade in three places when it hit me; Nejmah had been given an exam for the wrong level. All those hours of sitting for the final wasted. This was unacceptable.

The following day I marched into the office of the Curriculum Director, exam in hand and bristling with righteous indignation. "Si Omar, do you remember the blind student in my Beginning 3 class?" He searched his memory for a few seconds. "Oh yes, what about her?" I paused for my dramatic reveal. "Si Omar, the student was given the exam for Beginning 4!" The Director didn't miss a beat and volleyed back, "Well did she pass?" Completely perplexed by his response I could only nod my head. He cocked his head, lifted his shoulders to his ears and held the palms of his hands out. "Well then," he said, "no problem." I was dumbfounded. That's it? Were no corrective measures called for? No investigation into how this had happened in the first place? What kind of institution was I working for?

Unable to leave the situation alone I sought out the person who had administered the exam to make him aware of his mistake but his reaction only added to my consternation. "Eywah," he chuckled. "That explains why she kept saying she never studied that in class. Now it all makes sense."

Huh, I thought. Imagine that. The final outcome was the only thing of interest here. Never mind how we had arrived. Forget that this student had been tested on something she hadn't studied and practically said as much. Forget that I was untrained in meeting the special needs of my student. Nejmah had successfully passed and no further action or discussion was warranted.

Once again I trace my fingertips across the well-defined pinholes on one side of the cut of cardboard. My hand reads the message from left to right. I slowly turn the card over to feel the irregular holes on the flip side and trace the mysterious words as an Arabic reader would; from right to left. Two approaches to deciphering the code but the passage itself remains unchanged.

It just depends on how you choose to look at it.