IHP Climate Change Spring 2015: Morocco Country Blog
Khobz Babies, Medina Mazes, & Sahara Sandstorms
Food in Morocco
Moroccan cuisine was definitely an immediate and obvious departure from Vietnamese cuisine; as soon as we landed in Casablanca it was out with the rice and noodle soups and in with the khobz (pronounced “hobs”, meaning “bread” in Arabic). Khobz, we quickly learned, is the versatile edible utensil of Moroccan cuisine, served at all meals and for all occasions. We quickly developed what we called our “khobz babies” as our stomachs grew from all of the immense quantities of bread we were consuming, but all of our meals were so delicious we didn’t even mind- too much.
Breakfast in Morocco can be summed up as bread with a side of bread. Most of us had rhifa, a combination of a pancake and a tortilla, upon which we often drizzled honey or spread cheese. Baguettes with honey and cheese usually accompanied the rhifa, and sometimes other types of corn bread or pancake-like snacks were also included. We learned that different types of bread for breakfast is the Moroccan standard.
For lunch and dinner we discovered tagines, couscous, pastilla, and so much more. The traditional Moroccan way of cooking involves using a great clay pot called a tagine, in which all of the meat and vegetables are cooked together. Then, the whole family eats together from the tagine by using bread as a scooping utensil. Each person, we learned, has a designated “zone” from which to eat: the triangular portion of the circle directly in front of oneself, almost as if the tagine was split into invisible slices like a pizza pie. In orientation we learned not to eat outside of our zones, and while most of our homestay families followed this rule, some of our host mothers did push more food into our personal zones in an effort to encourage us to eat more. We would use the bread to scoop up meat, usually chicken or beef or sometimes fish, sauce, and vegetables such as carrots, squash and tomatoes. We also had some of the best couscous of our lives: a traditional Moroccan dish made from rolled wheat pasta and often served with vegetables. The pastilla is another traditional dish, usually served for lunch or dinner but more like a dessert pastry. It is a flaky, almond-based pastry served with meat inside, traditionally pigeon but also sometimes served with fish or chicken, and dusted with sugar. Delicious!
We also had plenty of snacks and constant delights in Moroccan cuisine. We found the oranges to be sweet and delicious, and orange juice was fresh-squeezed on almost every street we walked down for less than a dollar a glass. Moroccan bakeries proved professional pastry-makers, with everything from chocolate croissants to rolls to simpler cookies – all about ten cents apiece. Morocco impressed us with ice cream as well, from tiny cones to enormous gelato sundaes. We enjoyed it all, from Casablanca to Rabat and back. The flavors and colors of the food in this country were exciting, varied, and never boring. Morocco is definitely a worthwhile stop any time for a tagine at dinner or some “gazelle-horn cookies” for dessert!
Above: Tagine with couscous, meat and vegetables (right) and tagine with vegetables and the standard basket of khobz (left).
We began our month in Morocco in Casablanca, exploring the downtown and medina area, visiting the beautiful Hassan II Mosque, and hanging out at the beach!
“Casa” is the economic and business center, as well as the main port city of Morocco. Our walk to the mosque was right along the medina wall and beside the Atlantic Coast. You could feel the cool breeze coming off the water and the sun shining. It was a welcome change from rainy, humid Hanoi.
Arriving at the mosque, we immediately saw the tower standing tall and beautiful against the blue sky. We wandered around the outside area to soak in the views, as it cost $10 Dirhams to enter and we didn’t have the appropriate head coverings for women.
Some fun facts: Hassan II Mosque is the largest in Morocco and the 7th largest in the world. Its minaret stands 210 meters tall and is the tallest minaret in the world! The plans for the mosque were made in the late sixties, after the death of King Muhammad V. His son, King Hassan II, expressed a desire to honor his late father by creating this grand Mausoleum. Construction began in 1986 and was finished in 1993.
This is a fountain located in the main plaza outside of the mosque. The fountains were turned off, so people were sitting on the edge taking pictures or just hanging out.
This was an intricate and beautiful design in the walls of the mosque.
One of the most informative and fun field trips we went on was to the Silver Food Processing Plant. We were given a small lecture beforehand on how the factory operated and what went on behind the factory doors. Once we suited up in our shoe booties, hair nets, and smocks, we were granted entrance to the inner workings of the plant. We got to see the entire process of canning fish – from the very beginning, fish traveling down conveyor belts, to the when the tins were mechanically sealed and loaded onto a truck for transport. The plant smelled (very) strongly of fish and the floor was covered in dead fish blood, but overall the place was clean as a fish cannery can be and a really relevant site visit given what we had been learning about Marxist political theory and labor.
Our short time in Casablanca was fun and a great transition from Vietnam. We learned that haggling was a must in the bustling and sometimes overwhelming medina, that you had to be more careful and self-aware in public, and that our time here was going to be very different from Vietnam.
Excited, culturally shell shocked, and perhaps still a little numb from our 30-plus hours of travel two days before, we said goodbye to Casablanca and made the short and scenic (you think you’ve seen wildflowers) drive to Rabat.
Twenty steps into the Medina, aka the old city, and I was already doubting my ability to make it back out. Imagine an elementary school, an open-air market, and a neighborhood block party plopped down on top of each other, sometimes literally, along zigzagging strips of narrow, high walls, reminiscent of an October corn maze. This was our Moroccan home.
Even though we were more or less nomadic for our tenure in the Western Kingdom, moving from city to village to city every few days, by the time we packed up to leave for Bolivia, each of us knew the ins and outs of this city within a city. And not just its cartographic layout. We were becoming familiar with its character, too – its quiet afternoons, bustling evenings, and the 11:00 PM dinner rush… the reasonable price for a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice or a camel leather bracelet… how to politely refuse a street-side vendor and, for the amazing females in our group, how to minimize street harassment. Five times a day, we’d hear the call to prayer, and on special occasions, we’d witness it from the rooftop of our elaborated tiled and decorated classroom.
For any of you readers who haven’t experienced the unparalleled synergy of the call to prayer, allow me to set your expectations low with an inadequate explanation: informed by the relative position of the sun, the low tone of a man’s voice can be heard over a loudspeaker attached to the top of one of the plethora of mosques strewn between shops and homes around the city. The bustle of the town is momentarily broken. Then, with no particular order that I was capable of perceiving, more voices would join the chorus. Five, ten, twenty? Soon, there was no way to pick out which voice was coming from where. For a few moments, the whole city would vibrate, and you’d be surrounded by a rumbling, shared prayer. And then, nothing but fading echos.
Once in a while, when we weren’t in class, on a site visit, spending time with our host families, or trying to somehow write a political economy paper without internet connection, we even made it out of the Medina. There were three options. Exit the Medina to the North or West, and you find yourself a few hundred meters away from a picturesque ocean scene–rocky cliffs, sea spray, vivacious fishermen, and sunsets included. Exit via one of the many small portals to the East, and find an antique castle set against a slow moving river bordered by wide walkways, heavily frequented by families over the weekends. Leave the Medina to the South, and find yourself just outside of downtown Rabat. There you’d walk down streets lined by confused sets of buildings that couldn’t decide if they preferred the French or the Arab identity. You’d also run into the train station that, within 4.5 hours, can take you either to the Spanish influenced, Pacific/Mediterranean city of Tangier, or south, next to the High Atlas mountain range, to the tourist hub of Marrakech. But let’s be real, when you left the Medina, it was for coffee and Wifi.
More than the 5-bread-breakfasts or Turkish toilets, what stands out to me most is the relatively mellow vibes of our home in Rabat, compared to any other large city we visited, and what a truly unique micro-world we got to experience.
Many students viewed the homestays in Rabat as a great way to become immersed in the life of a Moroccan family living in the old medina. Something that made the homestays in Rabat so great was that we all lived within the medina walls of Rabat, meaning that no one was more than a ten minute walk from their peers. After class we could spend time meeting each other’s families, sharing meals and tea time together. Having the opportunity to see inside many medina homes, as well as meet different families, allowed for greater understanding of what Moroccan life is like.
The homes in the medina are amazing, filled with colors and tiles all over the walls and floors. From the outside they appear as small doors with little to be desired, but inside these wooden doors revealed inviting and warm houses. Many of us slept in rooms used as salons, on couches used for entertaining during the day and then turned into beds at night. At our homestay, we had a large curtain in place of a door, and were able to hear the soap operas our Moroccan mothers loved so much running late into the night. Despite the noise, we were able to sleep very comfortably. The many warm blankets and pillows made the couches turn seamlessly into beds.
Most of us had the pleasure of living with younger siblings and quickly learned that they stay up much later than the kids we are used to babysitting! We became accustomed to eating dinner around 9 or 10 PM, and then spending about an hour so entertaining the little ones. The language barrier required many hand gestures and facial expressions, but we felt we were able to create special bonds with our families despite the lack of verbal communication. We were sad to leave our families and life in the medina, but were told that we are now part of our hosts families, and are welcome back anytime!
Rabat to Merzouga
For our spring break, half of the group split off to see the Sahara. Most tourists have fantasies of deserts, camels, oases and nomads when they think of Morocco – imagery very different from the urban reality we had been living in Rabat. Our desire to experience the desert led us across the country on a four-day adventure. We started with a five-hour train to Marrakech. Marrakech was larger and darker than any Moroccan city we had seen thus far. The main square of the city, the Jemm’a el-Fnna, was lit with fire from street performances, and naked bulbs hung over tents displaying every sort of food imaginable. As a large group of foreign, female travelers we were accosted by every vendor we passed. Our role as tourists was well defined, and in comparison to the experience of living and studying in the Medina of Rabat, difficult to negotiate.
We boarded the bus to Merzouga at 5:00 that morning. The landscape that emerged during the twelve-hour journey ride was full of contradictions. Palm trees swayed alongside snow-capped peaks. The noise and crowds of Marrakech were quickly forgotten as we passed through dozens of dusty kasbahs perched on steep rock faces. Our group arrived bleary-eyed to Merzouga seventeen hours later. Jeeps from our hotel met us at the bus station and we sped off into the night. The jeeps looked as if they had been built well before our parents were born, and the entire car rattled violently as we sped across the flat, grey expanse. Thankfully, our hotel soon rose out of the barren landscape and we were treated to a delicious dinner before we fell into bed.
We were woken up before the sun rose and stumbled into the sand in the pitch black. Our guide led us towards massive dark mounds in the sand. As we got closer, twelve beautiful camels came into view, and as we got even closer, their smell assaulted our senses. I wish I could say that riding a camel came naturally to me, but we were all bruised and sore in no time.
The dunes revealed themselves slowly under the first rays of sunlight. The landscape was completely alien to all of us. It stretched indefinitely in either direction, and seemed to grow in size as the sun revealed itself fully. The dunes seemed to envelop us, and I quickly lost all sense of space and time. The sun grew hot very quickly and we made camp. Our incredible guide Youssef gave us tea and treated us to an incredible lunch of tagine and dates. We slept for awhile, and when we awoke, the wind was howling outside, shaking the tent and forcing large quantities of sand inside. Youssef stuck his head through the tent-flap and said “we go.”
There was a sandstorm raging outside. The sand felt like razors on any exposed skin and there was almost no visibility. We rode for several hours in those, almost unbearable, conditions. Youssef walked in front of the camels, seemingly unperturbed by the dramatic storm. He led the sometimes stumbling camels confidently through the desert. It is unusual to be so wholly reliant on another human being for survival. There were times when all I could see was his blue turban surrounded by swirling sand. We reached base-camp exhausted and absolutely covered in sand. The camp was surrounded by some of the largest dunes we had seen so far. We decided to climb them to watch the sunset. It was nearly impossible – for every step we took forward, we slid back several. When we reached the top, nearly an hour later, the dunes seemed to burn from the light of the sunset. It was exhilarating, and the exhaustion from days of travel that we had done to reach that point faded away with the last of the sunlight.
Our time in Morocco included an 8 day trip to Ben Smim, a rural village cushioned deep in the Atlas Mountains. The accommodation was a comfortable guesthouse perched on a grassy, sun-dappled hill. Our gracious host Mohammed welcomed us with a high energy acoustic performance by a local band and an outstanding meal cooked in a traditional Moroccan tagine. Most of the days in Ben Smim were bookended with home cooked meals at the guesthouse, which often included mint tea, khobz, honey, eggs, couscous, lentil soup, boiled carrots and veggies, roasted chicken and lamb, fish, fresh fruit, and dates. During downtime, many students valiantly fought impending plump bellies with hikes and runs through the countryside. Students also spent time journaling and reading on the grounds, sprawling out by day, and cocooning in fleece blankets wrapped taut by dusk. Others yet would head into the neighboring town of Ifrane in search of Wifi to register for classes, touch base with family, or gather research for ISPs.
The Ben Smim trip consisted of a handful of political economy lectures with our traveling faculty member, guest lectures by professors, engineers, and activists from the surrounding region, and site visits to a hydropower plant, a water bottling company, agricultural research centers, and several surrounding national parks and reserves. Two of my favorite lectors in Ben Smim were Mr. Mly Tahiri and Professor Naeem Sheikh from Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane. Mr. Tahiri spoke to us about the history of agriculture, water privatization, activism, and tourism in and around Ben Smim. This narrative not only provided me with a sense of place, but became the crux of my understanding of neoliberal policies in Morocco promulgated by the World Bank. Professor Naeem Sheikh offered us a thorough, accessible presentation of agriculture, resource use, waste management, energy systems, and the shifting sociopolitical landscapes Morocco bears.
As our time in the mountains came to a close, we each meditated on how the trip invigorated our living and learning community. Ben Smim is rife with unique environmental, cultural, social, and political struggles, and I am incredibly thankful we were able to learn about the village’s dynamic, rich history.