Thursday, October 2, 2008


The women in my household began their race to catch up with Ramadan today. There are certain circumstances under when you don’t have to fast: when you’re traveling, or sick; and (at least for women) there are circumstances when you are not allowed to fast, for instance during menstruation. But every day that you miss has to be made up by fasting an additional day after Ramadan. I think technically you have until the next Ramadan to do this, but mostly people do it right after ‘Eid. All the women in my household have a debt of 6 days due to their periods; Alma has an extra 10 to go on top of that for reasons I’m not quite clear on. So this morning, they got up again at 4 to eat.* Today I wasn’t the only one not fasting because Yunus and Mustafa were over again with their mother, but Mustafa just informed me that he has school tomorrow, so I’ll probably be eating alone then.

Nevertheless, the cookie-baking went on. I started wondering if maybe the real ‘Eid gets postponed until the first Friday after Ramadan, so I went for it, and asked: is there going to be a big party, or something? Nothing of the sort, it turns out. ‘Eid really was just nothing more than sitting around and calling family and friends. Apparently one of the family’s friends is either going to Mecca or just returning from there, and all the cookies are for her. That explains it.

I asked to help today and made clear that I love to cook – and they grabbed me a chair. They were making very traditional half-moon shaped Moroccan cookies today: an almond-paste filling enveloped by a very thin layer of dough. At first I helped roll the almond paste into little cigars, later on I was promoted to actually roll out the dough and assemble the cookies. Basically you roll out the dough until it’s nearly see-through, and then you roll a cigar of almond paste in it. You press the dough so it closes around the paste, and then you mold it with your fingers until it has a crescent-shape. It took hours – the quantities that are being made are ridiculous. We ended up with two full baking sheets of about a foot and a half by three feet. But it was kind of a bonding moment. It becomes a lot easier to ask questions when I’m participating in these activities,** and it makes me feel like part of their club. This is, as far as I can tell, what most of the day is about: sitting around in PJs, doing this kind of work – cooking, baking, cleaning, eating, resting; and talking during all of it.*** As I said, this is a merry bunch. They make each other laugh constantly, imitating people, singing songs, and so on. Now that they have discovered that I am Dutch, they keep asking me about the Dutch words for every day items they come across, and this leads to a lot of laughter as well. Dutch to them sounds funny (this they have in common with a lot of other people). It all started over some confusion between the words ‘citron’ and ‘limon’. Because ‘limon’ here does not mean lemon; it means orange. ‘Citron’ is the word for lemon. I told them we had the same word in Dutch, and ever since then, Alma has been saying ‘citron’ to me. Today I taught them the words for table and rolling pin – especially the latter they found incredibly funny: deegroller.

Mustafa hung around the assembly table all day, begging his mother to be allowed to help. After a lot of urging, he was finally allowed to help me roll the almond paste into cigars. He enjoyed this thoroughly, and kept showing me new ways to get the perfect shape. When he saw that I was allowed to assemble the cookies, he begged to be allowed to try that as well. I think I heard someone tell him he couldn’t, because he was a boy. Then he said something to the effect of ‘if I was a woman, I could help you’, to great hilarity of everyone else (of course my knowledge of Arabic is very, very, limited – so perhaps I am wrong about all of this). But apparently, he was finally allowed to try one with what little was left of paste and dough when we had finished – right before we sat down to break the women’s fast, he came to show me the perfect little miniature crescent-shaped cookie. He was so proud.

*I know this because I sleep downstairs in the sitting room with the other women. Long before coming here, when I was trying to decide if I was going to live with a host family again or by myself, I thought that would be the weirdest thing to get used to; I had only just realized that Moroccans sleep in their sitting rooms and that this is why it is impossible to find bedrooms in a traditional Moroccan house. But actually, it’s not bad. I kind of miss reading a little before going to sleep (or watching DVDs…), and I wonder if at some point I will start missing the time alone – other than being in the bathroom, there is not much of that. But then again, I also take a little time each day to write these notes, and that gives me a breather of about half an hour.

**Maybe the dish-washing theory applies to this as well: the idea is that people open up a lot more easily when they’re washing dishes together. It’s something to do with the fact that you’re not looking at each other, but you’re doing something together and you talk to pass the time. In other words: the perfect time to bond. My dad always cited this theory to defend his resistance against getting a dishwasher.

***Many women work, of course, in which case this does not hold up. And even those that don’t go out – shopping, visiting friends, and so on. The women in my household don’t work. Actually, I am not sure about Manal, but Alma doesn’t. I had had a hard time figuring out how old she is, and decided on 25-30, but it turns out she is 42. She is not married, and I wonder how she feels about this. And if there is a reason.

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