“wash kat‘ajebek lkousina lmaghribia?” Lalla Ghita asked me as we stood over a steaming pot of what would, in a few hours, become harira. ‘Do you like Moroccan cuisine?’
I nodded wholeheartedly, taking in the warm smell of cilantro emanating from the pot.
“I love it,” I responded.
“mmm,” she mumbled, and nodded in agreement.
“It’s great food,” she then added, “but it’s a lot of work.”
She was right. As we stood there waiting for the harira to come to a boil, we were no more than ninety minutes into what would become a five-hour marathon of preparations for that evening’s ftour.
I had joined lalla Ghita in her kitchen that afternoon in order to learn how to make harira. After an unsuccessful attempt of my own at making this soup, which resulted in a tasty stew that nevertheless tasted nothing like the intended goal, I decided it was time to get advice from a seasoned expert. Armed with pen and paper, I followed lalla Ghita around the kitchen as she explained her process from start to finish, and meticulously documented every step.
As I had expected (based on my experiences asking my former host family about their cooking), the recipes in lalla Ghita’s mind were not written in the language of measured quantities and numbered units of weight or volume. I attempted to use my own, admittedly limited, skills at eyeball-estimations as she showed and explained to me that harira calls for “chwiya dial l-hommous” (some chick peas), “chwiya dial l-qousbour” (a little cilantro), and “chwiya dial l-basla” (a little onion). But despite the vagueness of these instructions, I gradually began to discover a method to the seeming randomness. The secret lay in her inflections: as more ingredients were added to the big pot of soup, I realized that the number of i's in her “chwiya” were directly proportional to the quantity required.
“Chwiya dial l-matesha,” she explained as she cut up six big tomatoes, puréed them in a blender and poured the mixture into the pot.
She followed with “chwiiiya dial l-‘ades,” as she added about a handful of lentils to the soup.
And finally, she told me, it was optional to include “chwiiiiiiiiiiya dial l-safran” – and she sprinkled in a small pinch of saffron, for a nice yellow glow.
With the harira comfortably settled to stew on low heat, I observed and helped as lalla Ghita turned to other preparations. We made the filling for briouat – fried triangles of filo dough filled with meat and/or vegetables – and gutted and cleaned a chicken (“for tomorrow,” lalla Ghita explained; “it needs to soften up for a night first”). We made the dough for rghaif (flaky, square pancakes), and did multiple rounds of dishes. We cut thin sheets of filo dough into long strips, and folded the briouat filling into their characteristic triangle-shaped packages. We baked the rghaif, and boiled some eggs. We did more dishes, made coffee and mint tea, heated up milk, and fried the briouat. All the while, we chatted – about the NIMAR (for whose students lalla Ghita’s family occasionally provides lodging), about my purpose in Morocco, about lalla Ghita’s family, and (inevitably, perhaps) about food. I told her about my various attempts at Moroccan cooking, and she in turn explained to me what’s customarily eaten at Ramadan meals. In a show and tell of sorts, she extracted each item – tmar (dates), chebakia, sfouf, zoumita*– from refrigerator and cupboards, provided me with a rich description of its ingredients, and gave me various serving suggestions. A modest but well-deserved sense of pride spoke from her eyes as she told me this was the first year she herself had made some of these items from scratch.
Lalla Ghita occasionally sent her husband and son out on errands: she’d ask them to bring her some fresh mint, some cheese, or a loaf of bread. But other than these brief trips, lalla Ghita’s family mostly spent the afternoon reclining on the sdader (Moroccan sofas) in front of the television – watching Prison Break on MBC Action, or a Mexican soap opera dubbed in Darija on 2M – waiting for the hours to slip away. With the curtains drawn and their half-open eyes fixed passively on the television, they whiled away their afternoon in a state of utter torpor. I couldn’t help but wonder whose fast was easier: that of this slumbering family, who expended as little energy as possible, or that of their hardworking mother, for whom time must have passed by much more quickly.
Solidarity is an important concept during Ramadan – and many people I’ve talked with include this notion in their explanation of what Ramadan means. Apart from a way to turn back to God, Ramadan is also a way to boost a sense of community togetherness, a sense of shared experience and compassion for those around you. One thing this experience of fasting has taught me, is that this sense of solidarity is real and acute (more on that below). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder how that sense of solidarity and shared experience correlates with this division of labor that had lalla Ghita single-handedly preparing several laborious dishes in a single afternoon, while her family slept on the couch. Is this division of labor seen as too much of a natural given to be the object of efforts at greater solidarity? Is the focus on solidarity more mental than anything else – is it less about action than it is about awareness? Did lalla Ghita’s husband perhaps consider his occasional errands to be an act of solidarity?
By seven PM, the table had been set, a platter of rghaif had been delivered as a gift to the neighbors, and we’d taken our seats around the knee-height table. A few minutes later, we turned down the sound of the television to listen for the cannon shot indicating sunset – our sign that we could gratefully grab that first glass of water. Lalla Ghita, the orchestrator of the meal, served everyone a bowl of harira and was herself last to sit down and break her fast.
And so the day ended with a rich and above all very satisfying ftour. A day of fasting seems to shrink my stomach, but exponentially increases my mental appetite. This leads to a bit of nightly frustration as my stomach protests at my eyes’ desire to keep feasting on the wealth of food. This evening was no different. One overly stuffed belly later, I said my goodbyes, promised to make lalla Ghita’s family a pot of harira in return for their hospitality, and headed home, utterly satisfied.
I think that what I enjoyed most about this experience wasn’t just the fact that the harira-mystery had finally been unveiled. Mostly, it felt deeply good to spend the afternoon inside a Moroccan household. I love having my own apartment, but sometimes I miss a sense of connectedness to ‘real’, daily Moroccan life – sometimes it feels as though I have permanently positioned myself on the outside of that actual lived reality, as though I’ve confined myself to expat life. I hope that this will change once my research gets under way and I interact with Moroccans again on a more regular basis, but that sense of disconnection saddens me sometimes.
And so I was grateful for this brief afternoon, in which I felt as though I had been let inside, and had been allowed to participate in the intimacy of Moroccan lived reality – allowed to share in the practice and concrete meaning of Ramadan customs. I have a feeling that my status as a participant in the fast may have helped to facilitate this inclusion. Because I, too, was sayma (fasting), the solidarity conferred by the shared experience of Ramadan seemed automatically to have been extended to me. For the first time in months, I did not feel like an inherent outsider. I felt as though I was recognized as being a part of something, even if just potentially – as though I had been let in. That afternoon, I felt as though those boundaries between me and Morocco – the ones that seem so insurmountable sometimes – might actually be crossable.
And for that alone, I’m happy I decided to participate in this experience. I had been told about the significance of solidarity during Ramadan – but I doubt I would have truly sensed its presence if I myself had not shared in the experience of fasting. Not only does my choice to fast entail that I have become a recipient of solidarity – that I have been allowed to experience what it is like to be part of an ‘inner circle’ in Morocco; it also entails that I’ve experienced first-hand what it is like to feel that sense of solidarity extend from myself to others. I’ve realized that it’s more than just an ideal that people express to me, the outsider, to teach me what Ramadan should be about. Fasting turns that sense of solidarity into a visceral and almost primal experience that cannot help but permeate your mind. The emptiness of my stomach is an inescapable and constant reminder of the fact that I am voluntarily sharing in a particular experience – and with every person I encounter during the day, I cannot help but think: does this person’s stomach feel the same way mine does?
Of course, not everyone feels the same amount of solidarity as others, and some more than others translate that visceral experience into action. But the sense of togetherness is there, much more acutely than I would have ever guessed, and being part of that has been an unforgettable experience.
* sfouf and zoumita are mixtures of ground nuts, spices, and various other ingredients; whereas sfouf is courser and stickier, zoumita is much more powdery. Both have a distinct taste of cinnamon, and remind me very much of pumpkin spices. Whereas sfouf is often pressed together into a mound and served as such, lalla Ghita mixed the zoumita with a combination of melted butter and honey. She rolled the resulting paste into small truffles, dipped them in sesame seeds, and arranged them on a plate.