Marrying a Younger Moroccan Man

Our Honeymoon

Even writing the title of this blog I know that some people will already be waiting to read about some gruesome detail of being tricked out of money or romanced for a passport – these stereotypes are unfortunately hardwired in Western consciousness. The stupid white woman who was looking for love and got duped by a handsome Moroccan – poor thing, she couldn’t see what was happening.

Well, it’s one year on since we had our wedding at Riad Ilfoulki in Marrakech, and 3 years since we first met, we’re happy, really happy and moving forward all the time. When I met Ali, I was happily alone, I had a good life, great friends and support networks, there were no gaps I wasn’t looking to be loved, I just met a guy (on holiday) that I cracked on with who spoke about interesting stuff that a lot of English blokes tend to shy away from; – life, the Universe and which flavour cheesecake you like the best! With Ali over time, getting to know each other better, I felt I had found a companion in life who wants the same things, and understands the bigger picture – he’s an advisor, hero, joker, and lover, and all round great guy who makes my life better, and he has values and principles I admire. But I need to talk about how it feels to be on the receiving end of prejudice when you’re living a life which can be seen as a cliche, a huge risk, simply unusual or breaking unspoken cultural rules.

I was surprised at the feelings that ran through the expat community here when I arrived to explore a life out here with Ali; ‘I’ve never seen it work in all my time here’ was one comment, not a great foreboding of a positive future. ‘I’m glad I wasn’t one of those who met a Moroccan guy – I’ve done it on my own’ was another comment from a woman who lives in Morocco on her own, without thinking about my own situation – a clear signal that you have ‘sold out’ if you didn’t tough it out without a local bloke.

Well I am ‘one of those’ and I think that I’m lucky to be with my Amazigh guy for many reason’s, one of them is the deeper appreciation of the culture here than you would have if you ‘did it on your own’. But more than that, I like the sharing, the shouldering of support, the fun times and silly things we laugh at, having a best friend and a confidante by my side. For me finding that kind of human relationship with a significant other is the real stuff of life, as much as achieving your dreams or personal ambitions. I don’t feel less for having done it, I feel more – but I also know I would have been ok on my own.

Ali seems to take all this in his stride, perhaps having worked with some Internationals who call him ‘Ali Baba’ and who are used to being waited on by brown faced people has created a state of unwitting acceptance, and for him I think he doesn’t care what people think which is a great gift in life if you can attain it – he is extremely positive as a person and focussed more on who he is and how he show’s up in the World than how other people are to him.

But I do get a bit weary of the looks, pauses and underlying patronising comments which can follow your announcement that you’re married to a Moroccan, especially when you say he’s younger. You can hear the cogs turning ‘sold out’, ‘how long until she divorces’, ‘she’s taken the easy way of living in Morocco – not toughed it out’, ‘why would he marry her?’.

I must admit that it’s taken me a long time to get over these voices in my head myself, the internal and external critics. I didn’t tell a new employer that I was going to marry Ali when I went for the job because I knew that they would see me differently – not the independent, intelligent and experienced person I am, but a quirky creative woman who’s ‘one of those’ who came over and fell in love with a handsome smooth talking muslim boy. It’s not how I want to be judged, for my relationship – I want to be seen for who I am, so I’m still careful about how I bring my situation into conversation, and maybe sometimes don’t help myself with a lack of confidence about talking about it.

Reading about prejudice it comes from several places; one is stereotyping and negative storytelling in society which people use to make quick decisions about another (a human way of quickly navigating around people and groups) these negatives can be combatted by changing the stories; another is the ‘them and us’ dynamic which is neatly expressed in the cartoon below – (us = the puritan imperialists with money, them = the barbarians who want to steal our resources) when you cross these boundaries you play with peoples understanding of social identity – hence the ‘he wants her passport, or money’ kind of thinking, finally prejudice is more likely to come from Authoritarian Personalities – these people tend to be hostile to people they see as inferior, and obedient to those they see have high status, rigid in beliefs and upholding of more traditional values (people from our older generations often seem to sit here, although it’s more about personality than age). If you want to read more you can here.

When we’re together (reaching across the water) I know Ali’s a great guy, I’m realistic that with any relationship there is a meeting of needs, ours is no different. It is difficult not being from the same place financially as it is culturally but Ali makes it so easy, he never really spends on much, he’s a dab hand at getting great second hand clothes that he looks a million dollars in because he is naturally stylish, he is ecologically conscious anyway so doesn’t believe in buying lots of new things when you can get good quality second hand that is often better made. He spends all his own money on other people, his mum whom he supports, our food, and with just a bit left for him he makes the most of it. I bought him clothes once from England and he made me take them back – ‘don’t do that again’ he said. And he looks for ways I can save money on things like bills – putting in a gas water heater and getting rid of the electric one, he’s come from a place where money was scarce, I’ve come from a place where you don’t always look at receipts you just buy – a throw away, instant gratification kind of society.

He wants to spend as much time with me as possible, and that also creates a bit of conflict as I like to explore, travel, meet friends for dinner – we’re used to having all those freedoms in my world. In a typical local Amazigh marriage from his town things are a lot more home based, there are roles for everyone, and people don’t eat out – he’d never been to a restaurant with a woman before he met me. However Ali is emotionally intelligent, he has got his own head round the fact that us English types like ‘experiences’ and ‘events’ and ‘eating out’, that our life experiences are different, so we find a way to compromise on those things, which gets easier the more we know and trust each other. However as a true warm hearted Moroccan, he also reminds me that sometimes the most valuable times are actually quiet times with good food, and the people we love and care about (in our case the trio of Ali, Me and Ruby – our hairy dog daughter) that you don’t need a lot of outside whizz-bang stimulation to be happy – that happiness comes from the inside and doing things for others like cooking nice food. When I met him I’d had many years of that external stuff spending long days at work and rewarding myself with nights out, so part of what attracted me was the desire to get back to something more real and meaningful, the pivotal moment was when I was in a belly dancing restaurant in Marrakech the owner of my riad recommended I visit, and I just felt I’d much rather be having a proper conversation and a giggle with Ali at home than in this restaurant with dressed up people spending too much on dinner and ogling girls in glittery bikini’s. Ali for me represented what’s real and good in the world not the stuff we get excited by and doesn’t mean anything really, he’s my spiritual guide in some ways – I still struggle with this balance, but at least I recognise it.

One of the sweetest things Ali has done, which is quite natural for him because it comes purely from his heart, is to send in a picture of both of us to National Geographic for a competition – it was to illustrate the possibility of love across cultures and ages he said, he had written ‘look at me and my wife, different cultures, different ages but we still love each other’ it really touched me that he would think of doing such a thing so proudly, it’s a shame it didn’t get published so I’m publishing it here.

My wish for the next year is that I find ways of communicating the positivity of our situation to others to help alleviate prejudice which may be founded on old stories, and not wait for the put downs, and that I can continue my work on being a better human being, guided by my lovely muslim, moroccan, 32 year old husband.

Happy Anniversary Ali – you make the world a better place for me and many others. I’m happy to have you in my life.

Comparing the North and South of Morocco

This Summer we stayed in Morocco again – having enjoyed last Summer’s easy temperatures late August saw temperatures soar into the late 40’s and 50’s apparently because of the thermals from the Sahara. However, although hot, we’ve had plenty to discover with exploration first to the North and the Northern beaches, cities and towns, and then to the South again to the gorgeous Ghris Valley with its warm Berber villages and endless date palm groves.

Here are some of the differences I saw:

THE NORTH – Cooler, more modern with a rich history to explore

Spanish and Arabic Influence
The North is a place which is much more Spanish and Arabic in influence, you won’t find many locals who speak French quite as fluently as they do in Marrakech for instance – and people look different to the more Berber and Sub Saharan inhabited areas, with lighter skin and sometimes lighter eyes and more Spanish or Arabic features. There are also more Spanish inflections in architecture as cities such as Tetouan have been both Spanish and Moroccan at different times.

Striped Traditional Dress
The traditional dress is distinctive and worn mainly by the more rural Rif Mountain women who you see in the markets and in the mountains going about their daily life. The main feature is a vertical striped woven apron typically in red and white which serves as both a tribal signifier for the region, and useful protector of clothes, set off often with a straw hat with colourful pompoms adorning it. You’ll find lots of opportunities to buy these along the coast and in the more touristy towns like Chefchouen.

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More Plugged in Cities
Towns such as Tetouan appear a bit more flashy in a sense, people are more concerned about money, cars and appearance; a kind of Miami of Morocco, but not unappealing we really quite liked it and it was cleaner than Marrakech (which can be said of a lot of the North) with the exception of the old medina which is a bit run down but houses some really great example of Spanish influenced riads. Towns are predominantly white in the North a stark contrast to the earthy hues of the south, its a very different looking place.

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Larache was a drive through for us but seemed to be really well groomed and pretty and off the tourist trail generally, although there is a renovated Roman site, Lixus, which is an interesting stop – with a visitor centre which is nicely designed and has two rooms of exhibits and facilities (although the Cafe is now closed). At the top of the hill at Lixus you can view the river and city and imagine you are a Roman Emperor or Empress for a moment, or that Hercules is coming to find the fabled Golden Apples from an orchard which was believed to have been situated near Lixus.

Lots of Historic Monuments to visit:
Meknes was well worth a stop (albeit impromptu as our car broke down), the legacy of the fierce Sultan Moulay Ishmail dominates the old town which features a Palace, Cavalry, Sudanese Slave quarters and many ornate arches (some of the decoration for which was taken from Palais Badi in Marrakech I believe). There are many stories including those about the underground prison which sounds fit for a Minotaur with its labarinth of underground tunnels. Legend has it no one ever escaped this prison and that some members of a French team who set out to map the tunnels in modern times also got lost somewhere in the darkness. Meknes has 3 old medina’s to visit; one Berber, one Arabic and one Jewish which are each quite distinctive – we stayed in the Arabic old town at a nice riad – Riad Zahra quite near everything and wondering the streets you can see the tradition of embroidery at work, with spools flying and beautiful patterns adorning shop windows. I was less comfortable in the old Berber town, I’d prefer to go with a local or a guide there as it’s a bit more off the beaten track and you don’t want to get lost there.

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Tangier was a quick stop for us this time, we drove directly to the Caves of Hercules, where the Greek and Roman legend Hercules was meant to have rested his head on the way to complete his 12 challenges. There is one cave you can go into for free which still takes your breath away when you go down into it to emerge looking at a cut away rock face which frames an azure sea.

Great Beaches:
Going up North in July in August is a challenge as there are so many Moroccan tourists coming back home for the Summer that the beaches can get pretty packed, although there is a holiday vibe about the place with large stretches of sand peppered with umbrellas and donut and tea sellers strolling up and down. We were lucky enough to be shown around by Ali’s Nephew who is a dentist up there and has good local knowledge, so we ate at some pretty fantastic seafood places in and around Martil on Tetouan. One in Tetouan was really outstanding in its choice of seafood – the best Prawn Pil Pil I’ve ever had, but to look at it you would have just driven past it. Others had more of an upscale stylish restaurant vibe. The nephew (Simo) also took us on a drive to a quieter beach which is a lovely drive with the coast on one side and Rif Mountains on the other, these less discovered beaches are also becoming popular in the Summer months but are worth visiting and I can see will become quite upscale over time.

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Local Delicacies
There is a kind of chickpea flan called Karane or Kalinti which is Moroccan / Spanish in origin, sprinkled with Cinnamon we tried, it makes a really delicious snack and is sold by the slice freshly baked by street vendors. We found this in Asilah and Meknes and I’m sure its in the other Northern Cities in different forms – but I’ve never seen it in the South.

THE SOUTH – warmer, rural with a rich culture and landscape

Berber, Roman, Jewish Influences
While Arabic and Arabs are obviously an important feature across Morocco the Berber populations dominate in these Southern regions alongside Jewish tribes. Within Berber or we should say Amazigh culture there are different tribes also, some more from Mauritania or further south originally. Europeans have also influenced these areas quite heavily from the Portuguese to Italians (via Romans) and European Jews who both have left legacies and monuments in the local area, as well as influences in the way people look. One friend of the family claimed his mother had blue eyes (an Italian throwback) and you will find when you are driving in the more remote places that the locals call out to you ‘Romani’ – short hand for a European.

Black Taharout Traditional Dress
As you drive through the towns of Kalat Maguna, Tinrir and Goulmima you will see the women wearing various different forms of wrap which are used partly for badging and partly as a cover up and general purpose wrap, blanket and throw. They vary in small ways from place to place, with a uniting feature of being made from black cloth. These shawls become part of daily life providing protection from the heat and harmful rays of the sun, or offering a make-shift covering to those (usually children) who need to take a nap and they can be beautifully decorated with embroidery and mirrors, or they can be more sheer and lace like. While fashion is a bit more important to the younger next generation, most women in the region have been wearing similar clothes for centuries.

Rural Building Skills and Rural Life:
The towns and villages of the Ghriss Valley have mostly been built using the earth from the land which when mixed with straw and baked into bricks creates a warm and empathetic addition to the landscape around it, as well as providing practical warmth as a building material. You can see old Ksours (walled villages) which use this technique and feature many recurring Berber architectural themes in the construction. This use of local resources including the local wood is very attractive but many of the old Ksours have not been well maintained so have been shut down so they don’t cause harm, in their place families have moved into new homes which are a bit more practical but thankfully still retain some traditional features. We were lucky enough to be taken around by a local friend who is a builder and decorative artist, he showed us some of the more recent building with traditional skills and the paint work he had carried out using traditional pigments which you can find in the ground like a rich burnt sienna colour he had painted on one wall.

Warmth of the people:
People here help each other, they are so friendly and welcoming – I was invited into tea many times with strangers, fed with bountiful local produce and watched as people who have been born into an arable way of living lead their day. One thing I noticed was the balanced and important roles of men and women and in particularly the strength of women in these areas, physically their days are long and there are very few convenient short cuts but they take everything on whether butchering sheep or carrying large bales of animal feed on their backs. It’s a badge of honour being strong and getting on with it here, a far step away from the traditional European view of muslim women who are demure and repressed, although there certainly are rules when it comes to husbands and wives.

Nomadic Life
We met nomads and shepherds in these parts. Rachid was a camel hurder, he hurded 60 camels which we had happened upon during a trip down to the river for a walk and possibly a swim. It was a beautiful sight, seeing the camels drinking from the river living naturally in the wild. Rachid’s living is hurding camels which he then takes to Camel souks to sell, the largest of which in Morocco I’ve heard is held in Tan Tan on the coast every year.
Aziz a nomad was a pixie like fellow who popped up at our car window for a chat and a lift, he told the tale of how he faces frequent theft of his goats, and that the gang that stole his last goats ended up in prison and then stole again as retribution when they came out and had left him bound and gagged. Apparently excepting for rustlers, when he is not there the goats do not move, they know their place in the mountain when he comes down to town for a rest and something to eat he usually finds them there when he returns.

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Beautiful journeys
There are some great routes you can take out of the town of Goulmima, past Tadighoust and into the mountains through the Ghris Valley, where you can stop at a local village, some of which have old Ksours which seem to be carved out of the mountain, or take a picnic down to the river. Its a rich arable land full of Pomegranates (called Romain here after the Romans who most likely brought them here), olives, figs and of course dates including the increasingly popular Medjool dates. The irrigation systems alone are worth a visit for the more engineering minded, the ones in Goulmima were apparently created by a Jewish European and have created rich groves of palms and lush gardens along the back of the town and the old Ksour which transformed the local area.

Local Delicacies

Among many of the local delicacies to be enjoyed are local breads such as Khobz Shayma which is created to a secret recipe using herbs sourced locally. Homes often have their own small livestock and fresh fruit and vegetables are freely available at the local souk, local dishes tend to be Chicken stuffed with olives and vermicelli, lamb with prunes and lamb barbeque skewers. Some of the biscuits made by local women are worthy of a high end patisserie as making biscuits tends to be one way to show love and demonstrate your skills in the kitchen.

This has been a whistle stop tour of literally some of the first early observations when you go North and then do South but you could write a book on it! Like any country the people and landscapes are so diverse it’s sometimes difficult to say it’s one country – but one thing that unites all of Morocco is the Moroccan hospitality you find on the way.

Ramadan and Water

Last week it was 43 degrees, that meant staying in mostly, keeping out of the sun and sleeping on the bottom floor of the Riad to avoid using the air conditioning. Thankfully its a bit less hot now and we don’t have to cold shower the dog! But it’s also Ramadan – meaning the opportunity to cool down with a glass of water in the day is taken away.

I’m not a Muslim but I do go along with Ramadan in Marrakech for many reasons really; firstly cultural empathy – its not a great feeling if you are stuffing your face on the street or in a restaurant while those around you are hungry and thirsty which is a lesson in awareness. Secondly – intrigue, why did the prophet Mohammed so many centuries ago communicate the benefits of fasting? How does it relate to today? I’m told by my husband who is muslim that its partly to clear the dead cells that your body needs to get rid of, but also obviously to concentrate the mind on other things and more spiritual pursuits. Fasting has become the thing to do if you are seeking a healthier balance and to manage your weight in the West – but it’s something Muslims do regularly, not just during Ramadan as part of a culture of cleansing.

The third reason is to explore the concept of abstinence and sacrifice, which during Ramadan is not just limited to no water or food (before sun-down) but also other daily distractions including sex which many limit for the whole 40 day period. There is a focus on self discipline, prayer and also the giving of alms. This has two effects; it does make you think, and you notice the lack of things you normally have to make your life more comfortable and sustain you.

I started to imagine how much water must be saved during Ramadan during these hours of not drinking, but I also remembered that in Islam water that is used to cleanse as part of the prayer ritual and a kind of purification, so does that make up for the water that would have been drunk?. It just gets you a lot more focussed on water overall – it’s the one thing you can’t wait to have at sundown, just waiting for the Imam to sing, and it makes you realise how difficult it is to even spend 1 day without water.

My husband believes I’m a one woman threat to the environment and he’s right, having grown up in rainy lush England where fresh and delicious Welsh valley water was piped to our Birmingham home, I took water for granted, only a hot Summer and hosepipe ban one year highlighted a potential shortage, but even then we still could drink water freely and have a shallow bath or a shower even if our cars were a bit dusty and gardens baked. I’m pretty bad with water, I confess that I still leave the water running while I clean my teeth out of habit, I have the shower on all the time when I’m in it rather than stopping it when cleaning with soap and showering after or in between, I like to run the water during washing up rather than soaping the dishes then swilling them all at once. These are ingrained habits and a lack of consciousness on my part.

In the countryside here in Morocco, and of course in the desert, water is still at a premium, you don’t have pipes to get rid of washing up water, you have a bucket, you don’t have a running shower you have a bucket Hammam outside or inside, and it’s not always warm. When you put this against lives in the developed world where one of the latest trends in Essex where I was last living was the garden Jacuzzi to supplement your walk in power shower – it hits home how vastly different our world is from one person’s experience to the next.

In the Quran there is lots written about water, there was a belief, now scientifically proven, that everything sprang from water, “And God has created every animal from water: of them there are some that creep on their bellies; some that walk on two legs; and some that walk on four. God creates what He wills; for verily God has power over all things (Quran, 24-45)”

Today we know that as babies we are 75% water and as we grow older the body of an adult human being is made of approximately 60% water. Animals contain on average 60% water while vegetables up to 75%. Human brain is composed of 90% water. This means that humans talk, think, do, write and invent on the basis of water – and it might explain why I’ve been less able to concentrate for long periods.

So I will spend my Ramadan being thankful for water, and trying to become more conscious, people here see water as sacred, water in Islam is considered as a gift belonging to all equally, which has to be managed and distributed with equity among all living beings, humans, animals and plant life. There is even an Islamic law or right concerning water named Safa after the place where Abraham (Ibrahim) and his wife and baby son set down on a search for water and were eventually saved by the Zamzam well (great name!) which magically sprang up at baby Ishmaels feet.

Climate change will challenge us all, to think differently, part of this is not just a technical challenge for innovators, but a behavioural challenge for us all – maybe non muslims need a kind of secular Ramadan to reflect on this from time to time and appreciate the value of the simple things.

To learn more about water and culture you can visit The Water Museum in Marrakech.

Magic, Genies and Marrakesh

When I was growing up Magic was Paul Daniels on the TV pulling rabbits out of hats with Debbie McGee on his knee and Genies were the things that granted you 3 wishes and could be summoned by rubbing a lamp.

In Morocco these mean completely different things, its an ancient and magical land and Islam also is full of stories about the ‘jinn’ which are nothing like Genies although they sound the same. There is also the underlying threat of black magic or the ‘evil eye’ with most people knowing of someone who has fallen foul of another’s bad wishes. I’ll tell you the stories I’ve heard, but recently I’ve also had a bit of a close encounter which makes me more aware that there may be indeed some things that aren’t so easy to explain logically – but then again life itself is a bit bonkers if you really think about it.

The ‘Jinn’ are spirits the concept of which existed pre-Islam and come in three forms angels, jinn and demons. Jinn are a collective and the roots of the word are to hide or conceal as well as a type of ‘Jinn’. They are believed to inhabit dark, desolate and unclean places, deserts or drains, there are Jinn who inhabited the world before Adam (stronger and faster humans who have the same need to procreate and eat, have longer life-cycles but may be invisible to the human eye) and those who operate more like heavenly beings good or bad. All in all its not entirely clear, Ali tells me that they believe that God put a screen on our eyes which means that you can’t see these beings, in Quaranic verse they are referred to as ‘smokeless fire’ which could mean a kind of energy. Mohammed was said to have made revelations to the human type Jinn. According to scholars such as Ibn Tayymia the Jinn were believed to be generally “ignorant, untruthful, oppressive and treacherous”. He held that the Jinn account for much of the “magic” that is perceived by humans, cooperating with magicians to lift items in the air, delivering hidden truths to fortune tellers, and mimicking the voices of deceased humans during seances.

It all requires a bit of imagination, and to some extent historic understanding of the context from which these things arose when there was no science as such so people needed ways of understanding where disease and misfortune might come from. So on to the stories;

1. The girl who can’t get married because a ‘Jinn’ has blocked her.
This is a story about a girl I know of who believes that a Jinn saw her while cleaning the loo at her brothers house (inhabiting dark and smelly places is the favourite pass time of the Jinn remember) and decided she was beautiful and wanted to keep her for itself. She is still not married and she is attractive, so she goes to a Fquih (said Fkir) (someone who knows all the Black Magic stuff) for help with breaking the bond. Even more scarily I have heard that if you wake up with henna on your hands, that’s it you’ve been married to a Jinn. Eek!

2. Couples breaking up
I’ve heard a few stories about magic being used to break couples up from some quite reliable sources, one story was of a young French couple who came to live here and hired an old maid to help them with the house and cooking. The story goes the husband fell for the maid and was utterly infatuated, he left his pretty young wife and their baby to be with her even admitting he felt like he had no control over his emotions, he was literally singing outside the window of the maid in a kind of delirium. The person who told me the tale, told me to watch out where you eat food and who prepares it because they can add in spells to your food to create a break up (or to make you like them). Another way to create issues with a couple is to do some nasty black magic thing with a cat where the cats mouth is sewn up – I can’t remember the details but it makes the couple literally fight like cat and dog.

3. The Jinn in the cupboard
This is my story so we have been noticing some funny things in our house, toilets not working, light bulbs going, mice ..you could put that down to normal stuff, or bad luck. But then over the past 8 – 10 days we’ve had a friend in the wardrobe, every night between 2 and 4 the wardrobe doors start to move a bit to make the jewellery hanging off them swing and clatter against the wood. The first night or two I thought it must be a cat, or a mouse, or the wind – but I checked all options looking inside, closing all windows etc and with no other explanation, it happened again from once to 4 times in the night. Then one night I looked over from my bed and I saw a really brighter than Halogen white light shining through the crack in the cupboard doors, it was so bright it was shining through my red glass beads on the door to create a beam of red light. Clearly at this point I grabbed the dog and my bed cover to sleep downstairs. I thought everyone would think I was mad (or madder than usual) when I told them, but they have believed me in the main and offered advice. Ali also heard it so it helps (although he’s still keen to see the bright light!).

The advice I have had has ranged from making sure you close the loo at night, putting the Quoran and some salt under your pillow, playing Surat (Quoranic prayers) on You Tube and making sure you don’t have anything in the house that might connect you back to someone who might want to still keep hold of you. One friend who I was surprised was well up on Astrology told me that Mercury is in retrograde so lots of things can happen (especially if this happens in your sign) including technology going wrong, it apparently causes havoc with computers – she said wait until Dec 6 and things will have moved on. There is also the thought that we might be located on a burial site and that these sites are probably very old.

So – not sure I’m fascinated but I know that it doesn’t any of it make logical sense! But then a lot of straight up people have told me stories before. I checked some old maps on line and one from 1886 does seem to suggest that where we are, just outside the medina wall is in fact an old Cemetery site.

Well it will either pass on the 6th, or we’ll move – let me know your own stories!

Lamb and Quince Tagine

I love this dish – its not an everyday thing really, it’s a treat as there are a few steps to it, but its worth it! I learnt this recipe from Aisha, my husbands mum who comes from Goulmima and is needless to say a brilliant Moroccan cook, mainly because food is the main pleasure in life here, cook well and you’ll never be hungry or lonely!

What you’ll need: – for the lamb Tagine
2 medium red onions
Half a kilo of lamb leg cuts
4 cloves of garlic
A fingernail of fresh ginger
2 tsps of Turmeric
Half a tsp of Black Pepper
2 tsps of Salt
A pinch of saffron
4 desert spoons of olive oil

What you’ll need: – for the quince
Half a kilo of quince
4 desert spoons of sugar (or honey if you prefer)
1 desert spoon of cinnamon

The Quince
Peel and cut the quince into quarters then put into a pan of water to start cooking
Wait until they start to soften (test with a knife) then add the sugar
Continue cooking to allow the quince to absorb the sugar
After about 30 minutes add cinnamon and turn up the heat slightly to start to reduce the water into a sauce

The Tagine
Chop the red onions into tiny squares and fry in olive oil until transparent
Add the lamb and your garlic and spices (except for the saffron)
When the spices are melded, add about a half a pint of water and leave to cook in a pressure cooker for about 30 minutes (while the quince are also cooking)
After a while add about another pint and a half of water to the pot
When the water and spices have melded again, check the lamb is cooked and strain and retain the sauce, keep the strained bits from the sauce to one side.
Put the strained sauce in a saucepan and the lamb in a Tagine.
Add a pinch of saffron for colour to the sauce and reduce it down so its less watery and a lovely brown colour
When ready (about 5 – 8 minutes) pour the sauce over the lamb in the Tagine
Arrange the caramalised quince over the top in a circle.

Enjoy!

The Hidden Beauty of Goulmima

These days everyone seems to want a new experience that isn’t ‘touristy’ and is ‘off the beaten track’,the town of Goulmima in the province of Errachidia is a real tropical desert oasis the home of an old Berber Judeo Ksar in agricultural land fed by the Wadi Gheris and overlooked by the High Atlas Mountains. You won’t find much on the internet about this place which is part of it’s charm, it is waiting to be rediscovered.

I have been lucky enough to visit twice, and as a place to stop on the way to desert adventures it beats the most popular stop Skoura hands down (unless you have the money to stay at Dar Ahlam of course – but even then, I still prefer Goulmima). So why is it so great as a little town, well you get the full experience if you stay with a Berber family, as this is the home of original Berber tribes who still live in many ways like they did centuries before with the same cultural traditions.

One thing you notice straight away are the tribal shawls of the local women called Taharouyt, every woman has one, embroidered black material, often with additional mirrored features or foil coins sewn onto the edges for a tinkling effect – there are new designs out every year so if you are young woman you want to have the latest thing (a mix of tradition and modern consumerism!).

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The people are so lovely in this town, warm-hearted Moroccans to the core, and the best cooks – food and fire is the centre of life here, the baking of daily bread and Moroccan pancakes a common ritual and many houses have their own livestock, sheep fattened up for Eid (the main festival that follows Ramadan), chickens and a couple of goats. I was staying with family there over Eid, I found the preparation and respect given to the animal the night before slaughter quite touching; although seeing the killing was daunting, friends and neighbours come to help with the laborious process of butchering and preserving the animal. I was told a common chat was to ask what you found inside the sheep, the answer usually includes some ridiculous element, a fridge, an oven, a boot, a million dirham…sadly inside our sheep was an undigested plastic bag, a sign of the times.

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If you are lucky like I was, you will be invited to a Berber wedding – now this is something else, usually at least 3 days long. The bride and grooms family begin separate celebrations, with a Henna night for the ladies which includes the main females at the party, and features along with henna a big meal of roast chicken and lamb tagine with prunes – ensure you have a kaftan with enough room for expansion! With Moroccan weddings (like my own) everything is arranged pretty quickly, its not like English weddings which require at least a year’s planning, a Moroccan wedding can be turned around in days with a few friends and phone calls to arrange bands, music and a tent.

The stand-out feature is the singing and drumming, the singing ritual involves the women singing on one side and men singing and drumming on the other, this goes on at times throughout the wedding, and creates a kind of euphoria, you don’t need alcohol – you get high from the drumming and energy around you. On the day of the wedding, all the men are invited to eat, and then the women separately – while they are waiting the women sing and start dancing, tying their scarves or Tahrouyt just under their bums, this has the effect of creating the need to wiggle. Big and beautiful shimmying bottoms if you know anyone in Morocco are seen as very attractive – my puny white bum just doesn’t cut it I’m afraid.

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All this goes on at the Brides house with her friends and in parallel at the grooms house with all the friends, family and hangers on gathering to enjoy the feasting and dancing. The band gives way to a DJ playing ‘Tschk Tschk music a kind of eletronic arabic beat’ this is a signal for the younger girls decked out in Kaftans to join in the fun. Then at some point in the night well after midnight, there is the dancing of a suitcase, this case is then driven to the brides house to pick up her belongings (and dowry), arriving at her house I saw a girl with her face covered kissing goodbye to her father (a real tear jerker) then we brought her back in a motorcade for a ritual which involves the application of henna to the hands of bride and groom.

We left it there – about 5am after everyone had surrounded me as the stranger for more singing, dancing and drumming, I was suprised it was 5, it didn’t seem so late!

Apart from the local customs and rituals the beauty of Goulmima’s date palm groves is worth witnessing, you can walk for a long time without seeing buildings or from one house to another. This is where the most prized dates are grown and food and fruit are in plentiful supply. You can also explore the old Ksar the origins of Goulmima where many local families began their life here in small dark thick walled houses, now these families have been given land to build houses near the tropical gardens. A short trip from Goulmima there are many nice places to visit; an outdoor Oasis pool between Goulmima and Errachidia full of kids in the Summer, a thermal natural Hammam on the road to Fez, and the Mountains and river for sunset views and picnics.

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This is the real Morocco for me – the rural places far away from the main cities and the tourist trail. If you want more tips or a place to stay, tap me up.

Finding ideas in a developing market

I’ve spent many years running innovation projects in developed markets, so I’m all too familiar with the need to look outside for innovation inspiration. It’s great thrusting yourself into a different culture especially an emerging or developing market to pick up new ideas, you see them everywhere especially when you are fresh off the boat and starry eyed.

Here are a few I’ve spotted while I’m over here:

1. CHOOSE YOUR OWN BBQ
Of course everyone in the developed world is obsessed with veganism and meat free Monday’s, and quite rightly, but if you are eating meat still (and it was only the other year that the American BBQ trend was in full swing) then at the very least you want some transparency. I came across a place near work here that while not as cool looking as a UK fresh fast food outlet, had an interesting idea – pick your own meat for the BBQ. The meat was in a fridge much as you get at the grocers, but you could pick what you wanted and how you wanted it done. I imagine this as an expanded concept for supermarkets that already have a rotisserie, maybe something you could do front of store a kind of ‘farmers market’ meets BBQ grill concept.

2. THE REFILL MAN
There are people on the streets here who trundle around the residential streets with a cart filling re-used plastic bottles with cleaning fluids of your choice, for anyone who hasn’t been here – cleaning is a national pass-time so its a good business to be in. I wonder if there is something in this idea for us – maybe a ‘top up van’ like the fish van which used to stop on the green near my home in Wivenhoe, you bring your empties and get a top up of what you need commodity wise.

3. SCRUBBING
We are in a clean eating and cleansing phase in developed markets whether its cleaning your house, pairing down on stuff or eating only fresh food. So I think that the Moroccan ritual of scrubbing could become popular if introduced elsewhere. Why? Well if you scrub everyday as I do now with a glove, to get rid of old skin you genuinely feel cleaner than you ever have, smooth and you look better (especially if you then apply Bio Argan oil before bed). Surely it’s time for personal care brands to own the ultra clean beauty routine.

4. MINIMISING WATER USE
Rather than filling a bowl up with water here to do the dishes, they have a small pot next to the sink with warm water, washing up liquid and a sponge. So you sponge down your dishes and rinse them briefly in cold water saving washing up liquid and water. My friend Lila told me when she visits her family in Algeria they ask her why she doesn’t take her toothbrush to the shower – they make use of every drop of water!

5. FRESH TEA
Why do we drink dry tea? Its so much tastier and better for the health to add in fresh herbs, some of my favourites are thyme and rosemary, in addition or instead of mint and all with a base of healthy green tea. Thyme in particular is said to have many health benefits including being really good for a delicate tummy.

If you’re interested, I’m working with a local luxury travel provider here to offer ‘creative camps’ for companies interested in inspiring teams by taking them out of the everyday and into a different culture.

Millennials boycott brands fuelled by facebook

Facebook is incredibly powerful in Morocco, with no other online market places – its home to most buying and selling public activity. It’s also very easy to rally millennials around a cause, in the last few months price hikes by; Sidi Ali (bottled water), Afriquia (gasoline) and now Centrale Laitière (dairy products), have been dissed with consumers encouraged to vote with their feet and their wallets, supported by Moroccan celebrities.

Young protesters first launched the boycott campaign against Danone’s Centrale milk products on April 20 under the slogans “Say No to High Prices,” and “Let it Spoil.” and the boycott is still ongoing. It has come to embody unified Moroccan citizenship speaking out against rising commodity prices.

Centrale Danone Purchasing Director Adil Benkirane has apologized to consumers for characterizing participants in the online boycott as betraying the country and its products. Adil Benkirane shared a video on Facebook, expressing his regret when Danone claimed his view was not a company one: “I have read the reactions about my statement, and I know I made a mistake,” he said. Benkirane expressed his remorse for hurting the Moroccan citizens: “It was not my intention. What I meant was that the farmers needed all of us and our support,”.

It shows how sensitive price is here in a poor country where every dirham counts, and the power of the public vote in taking down what is perceived as bad corporate behaviour. The after effects for Danone will be severe here – although the brand has lowered prices again, switching will already have happened, plus consumers are rumour-mongering about all of Danone’s dairy products – ‘don’t eat that yogurt’ I heard someone say the other day, ‘they use pig in the processing’, no quicker way to put a muslim off a product than fake news which makes the product something that can’t be consumed.

So how should brands handle this kind of risk – be open and transparent, engage the consumer in the reasons why the change has come about, or give them a choice for instance raise the price or change the pack/size and packaging to keep the price the same. Gone are the days of top down manufacturing decisions, structures are flat now and that includes talking with the people, your shareholders who buy your product and pay your wages.

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This is my first Ramadan, I’m not a muslim but I’m keen to be empathetic and understand the concept of going without – sounds like a good idea in our modern age of excesses I thought.

So here I am a week in and these are the things I’ve noticed (bearing in mind I’m not praying so I can’t comment on that aspect and what it might bring to the party).

1. Feeling hangry
Yes the first few days are hard, you do feel a bit hungry and angry at times – but it gets a lot easier as your body gets into the rhythm. Your stomach shrinks so you can’t actually manage as much food when it comes which is a disappointment when you finally ‘break-fast’ in the evening!

2. The joy of food
The joy of food as the sun-down prayer is called is kind of off-set by the lack of joy in the rest of the day, you realise how much you depend on those small moments of pleasure brought by a cup of coffee and a biscuit, or a nice breakfast. Its not that you miss the food itself, you can get used to not having it, its more the emotional and psychological benefits food brings in terms of reward, comfort, sociability etc that you miss. Sweet things tend to be the go to pre-Iftar purchase, you can see the fevered hands of staff piling up boxes of sweet treats at Pain Quotedienne in Marrakech after 5pm, it’s these sweet treats which mean that most people don’t lose weight during fasting!

3. Mental effects
You feel more sedate – things aren’t as exciting, and you get a slight dizziness and fatigue. The calls to prayer start to mean a lot more if you’re not a muslim (time to eat, time to stop) and sound a bit more haunting than usual – I think they are more passionately sung. There are more outward shows of prayer in the streets which creates a kind of hysteric atmosphere I think. People seem to change their mood also, just before the Ftour in particular the guys seem to get more combative and provocative in the street, kids become more energetic. Women, they look tired no doubt from cooking up a storm every night!

4. Goodness effects
Thinking of others is a key part of Ramadan, however of course we should do this all year round. I have noticed a bit more empathy but funnily enough less to the people more to innocent animals. I don’t know if it was an effect or coincidence but we adopted a small black kitten that was screaming with runny eyes in the Jamal Fna – it was a funny moment as we’d just watch the mass prayer and had a conversation about actually what believing in God is – about what you do not how many times you pray, and hey ho we adopted a kitten.

Health wise it is meant to be good for you fasting, however, the lack of water is an issue – surely your organs need water it’s our life force, its that I’ve missed most – even down to having drier eyes and not being able to see so well at times. Water also is a great energiser, it makes you feel less tired, so fatigue is of course a side effect which is a problem if you have a busy job – I can’t imagine how people with hard manual jobs fair.

I’ll update this article at the end of Ramadan with the ding dong which is Eid, now – where are those pastries…

Creative in Marrakesh – The Montresso Foundation

Wherever you are in the World you tend to take your passions with you – mine is creativity and the arts, so being a curious explorer by nature I have found myself digging around to find out where I can go and who I can meet to satisfy my hunger for all things creative.

Marrakesh is constantly surprising me, most people come here and fall in love with Les Jardins Majorelle, but many also think – so what else is there? Historically the arts here have been heavily sponsored by the French, most galleries or residencies are French owned, that’s why I think British people are less aware of what is going on. There is a lot – a lot to see here… I’ve been here for nearly 6 months and I’m still discovering new places to visit, and its so open – people love talking about what they are doing and showing off their art space.

One such French conceived space is The Montresso Foundation and Jardins Rouge, it is a bit of a hike out of Marrakesh but well worth a visit. Montresso houses several studios, accommodation, lounges, a pool and a gallery – the site is peppered with sculpture and works of art. The thing is that land is still affordable here so these places tend to be ‘enorme’ meaning that the artists who work here can create significant and more accurately ‘large’ works.

Montresso accepts up to 8 artists at the same time, and sometimes houses 30 per season. And you are a lucky artist if you’re accepted, all materials are provided, everything you need is at your disposal – you don’t even need to think about food. In return for this generous cocoon for creativity the foundation keeps some of the work that has been created. The owner is a particular sponsor of street artists, reflected in the current exhibition of work by Jonone and other street artists such as Jace (a French street artist with work around the Marrakech Medina), and Henrique Berkirsch whose ‘Aziz’ character can be seen in Marrakesh as you step outside of the train station.

You can find photography, sculpture and painting here, personally I loved the photographic work by Wahib Chehata – an African artist who was inspired to represent the ‘Renaissance of Timbuctoo’ using renaissance techniques such as chiaroscuro while referencing iconic tableaus such as the ‘Pieta’ replayed with black Malian figures. Kouka who is half French and half Congalese also appealed to me, he works in paint on wood, and has created a character a ‘bantu soldier’ who is a recurrent theme in his work, in the les jardins rouge are the windows of an artists squat which Kouka painted with his soldiers, the building was being knocked down for luxury flats and these pieces set in concrete were salvaged – they appear like stone freedom fighters marching in formation through the fields.

If you want to visit the foundation, you can book direct for the 11am tours on a Saturday – if you want a creative tour I can organise this for you with a local travel provider, just drop me a line.