Sweet Home Couscous

Couscous 1

The first week in morocco led me to a frustrating feeling of flatness which from past experience is easily ridden by honest hospitality. So under pretext of wanting to learn how to make couscous comme il faut I searched for someone who would be willing to let me into their home and around their dining table. Two days later I found myself on a bus heading south. I leaned my forehead on the window, eyes peeled front. I was afraid it would take me time to spot her out in the crowd, but she looked just like in the picture Hamid showed me that morning in Marrakech. Her hands were fidgeting, she seemed a bit nervous as well. What a relief. “Fatima?” I approached her, resting one hand on my chest. I found it to be a useful, peaceful, gesture in unknown lands, particularly where I didn’t speak the language. “Natalie! Salam!”. She kissed me once on my left cheek and then twice on my right.

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We started walking through the small city of Zagora. Not quite in the desert yet, nor very far from it, the appearance of the people began having a nomadic flare to it – men roamed the streets in long galabiye robes and big fabric turbans in bright colors and the air seemed sprinkled with a golden dust. Movements were slower. The heat was dryer. As she walked, her chador – the full body length fabric commonly worn by muslim women – clinged to her body by the warm wind and revealed a pregnant silhouette. She had a small body otherwise, but a very confident presence and she smiled to those passing us by. There was an intimacy I haven’t seen in the big cities of Morocco. I quickly noticed how pleasant the stroll is – for the first time since I arrived to Morocco no one was aggressively approaching me, pulling my hand or standing in my way trying to sell me something. Seeking her out seemed to pay off already.

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We walked to the market where she introduced me to her vendors, kindly letting me sniff through their spice shop / pharmacy: Ginseng for male potency; dried anise flowers instead of toothpicks; mint tea for digestion; rose buds for hair loss. Food and medicine are once again as one. We bought some classics – cumin, coriander, nutmeg, hot paprika and fenugreek – for her favorite home mixture. Then we moved on to other stolls for some olives and flatbread. Pointing at the different foods and handing me small tastings soothed her difficulty of speaking English. Before going we gathered some eggplants, carrots, and other root vegetables from one of the roadside farmers. His produce was neatly organized on a carpet and we were given a small plastic basket for our pickings. The chicken from her neighbor’s backyard, she said, was already waiting in the kitchen “slaughtered and plucked”. We turned into a small street passing mechanics working out on the asphalt and vendors selling essentials like oil and sugar. Everywhere was an organized chaos, an order I wasn’t allowed part of,  only as an observer by Fatima’s side.

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She stopped in front of the third building and opened the metal door with pride – “welcome to my home”. The house was made of bare concrete bricks inside out – quasi a construction site to the uninitiated western white eye. Inside, the walls were naked. We laid down the shopping bags and she led the way to the second floor. Stone and sand cooled my feet as I walked up the staircase of unpaved floors. We sat down on the floor cushions and her family slowly came to greet us. First there was her mother with a tray of tea. She was a slim beautiful women with piercing eyes and a suttle sway. She began performing the traditional tea ceremony: she drowned  two enormous blocks of sugar inside. (Really, enormous. If you ever visit Morocco you will quickly note the dental decay and the minute you will sip their tea you understand why). Then she went on to pouring the boiling water from an impressive height into the glass, then back into the pot. Again and again until the flavours of the tea have been well released and mixed and the temperature cooled. Then Fatima’s two younger sisters came from downstairs. One was carrying a tray with the vegetables just bought – washed and dried – the other carrying Safwan, Fatima’s baby boy. After being introduced, we got to work.

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Each picked up a knife and we began stroking it over the vegetables gently scraping their skin off. We set everything by the burner while Fatima showed me how she cleans the chicken. Spices and nuts passed a pestle and mortar and all came into play in the big orange clay tagine. While cleaning, crushing and cutting I learned that Fatima is 21. And that her mother mostly speaks berber, she mostly speaks arabic and the younger sisters mostly speak french so by now their language of communication is something very few outsiders can understand. Like in most houses the men who worked in the city were back home only so often and the four women shared a vivid household amongst themselves. “It seems very special” I couldn’t help but notice. “It is. But sometimes you wish you had some time alone” she added. Life as a community was a fact, not an ambition. Be the difficulties clear, as an outsider it was there that I found the soft heart of Moroccan society that I was unsuccessfully looking for all week – the women were smart, caring, and had a fellowship between them that can only be seen behind closed doors or noted in the street by a quick smile or wink of the eye. It was the only place I could be seen as anything other than a tourist – I was part of ​that ​group. In a house that’s windows didn’t close and barely had any light, I felt safest since arriving to this country thanks to their presence. Fatima came back from the other room in her Pajamas, her belly now showing in all its glory. “Is it a boy or a girl?” I asked with a I-hope-i’m-not-overstepping smile. “Surprise” she answered with a confident grin. She turned on the fire and set the lid on the tajine. We went back to the living room, chatting, drinking tea and playing around with her family while the house filled with the smells I was told Morocco had but couldn’t find until then. Home was suddenly a much wider concept than I had known before.

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All photos by Natalie Shafrir

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