Monday, November 30, 2009

Big Holiday Round 2

Last year Eid Kabbir was new and exciting mostly because I’d never seen a whole sheep slaughtered and butchered and then eaten piece by unappetizing piece. I’ve seen enough things slaughtered and butchered this past year that the sheep business didn’t really faze me. This year was worlds better than last year simply because I chose to celebrate it with my neighbors (who have really become my family here) and their entire extended family, which is a hilarious and wonderful group of people. Last year I felt like I just got shuffled around from house to house, drinking tea and eating meat and feeling awkward the whole time, but this year I felt like part of the celebration. Feeling like a real part of a family makes holidays a lot more fun. My choice to celebrate with my neighbors instead of my original host family (much like my decision to break fast during Ramadan with my neighbors more often than with my host family) definitely was noticed and almost certainly caused some offense. But hey, my neighbors are much more fun.

No Butterball Turkey

Ever since last Thanksgiving when someone in the village felt sorry for me and roasted some turkey kabobs so I could celebrate Thanksgiving, I’ve been planning a real Thanksgiving dinner for this year. This year Thanksgiving fell two days before the really big Muslim holiday (Eid Kabbir), on a day when everyone is supposed to fast to get ready for the big day. So I took the liberty of moving Thanksgiving up two days and celebrating on Tuesday.

My two lovely turkeys on their way home from the market

Turkey #1 hanging out on the kitchen counter waiting for the festivities to begin

Turkey #2 about to be plucked

Turkey #2 stuffed and squeezed into my neighbor’s butagas oven

My neighbors’ and friends’ first Thanksgiving

Overall, I had a great time and I thought my first ever solo attempt at turkey and stuffing and hot spiced apple cider and pumpkin pie turned out really well. After some discussion, however, my guests all decided that the turkey would have been better roasted on kabobs and the stuffing better if we’d used rice instead of bread. So the verdict still stands that it was cute of me to try, but I still need some serious cooking lessons before I can even think about ever finding someone to marry me.

One Year in and Still Naïve

It’s now been 12 weeks since the road was destroyed and surprise surprise, it is still not fixed. Every week rumors spread around the village that this is the week it’ll be fixed and I get excited and believe them and then another week goes by and of course nothing changes – the sheep vans still have to take the “village bypass” road (just two tire tracks that run around the outside of the village through the tall grass of the open prairie). And everyone else still has to park at the top of the road and walk the mile and a half into the village. Comical, really, if it weren’t so frustrating.

Possibly the best Halloween pumpkin I’ve ever carved

People thought this was hilarious though extremely strange:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

More great publicity

For those of you who can't make it out to Morocco to take part in our couscous-rolling workshops, this article is a good walk-through of the process.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Another example of Moroccan hospitality at its best

Last week we had a great group of students come visit the village to make couscous and then do a one-night homestay with some families in the village. The weekend was intended to be a learning experience for the students - both about the art of couscous-rolling and about life in a super rural village - and we expected some discomfort on their part (how will we communicate? will we just sit and stare awkwardly at each other all evening? how do I flush a toilet without running water?). The girls took it all in stride, however, and it was the host families who were the confused ones - this was the first time any of them had ever been offered money in exchange for a bed - they all tried to give the money we offered them back, as it is second nature to let a guest spend the night and no one would ever think to ask them for money. Even when we explained that no, it's okay to take the money, this homestay program is one of the ways the Association is helping its members generate a little more income, they were still unsure what they should do. It was actually really refreshing to see, after so many times when I've felt like I'm being ripped off on everything just because I'm a foreigner. The host families saw these three relatively well-off girls not as rich foreigners but as tired travelers far away from home who needed a place to sleep and a hot meal.

You can read the students' summary of the weekend on their blog, here:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My own great uncle's son-in-law's niece

After months of wondering, I finally found the missing link connecting my original host family (Cheikh and all his daughters) to my new adopted host family (my fantastic neighbors). Which means I have figured out how I (as daughter of my first family) am related to myself (as daughter of my second family).

My 2nd host father's brother's wife's father's sister's son is my 1st host father. Said another way, I am my great uncle's son in law's niece, or the reverse, my uncle's father in law's great niece.

I'm still working on drawing the family tree of the entire village - it's already pretty overwhelming - but it's fun to see how everyone fits into the picture.

Big Publicity in Fes

Someone wrote this great article about us on the biggest expat blog in Morocco, A View from Fes. You can see the whole article (with pictures) at

Monday, November 02, 2009
Moroccan couscous - the traditional way

Couscous, or seksu as it's know in Moroccan Arabic, is one of the staple foods of the Maghreb. It's made of ground semolina that's moistened and rolled in flour.

Moroccan couscous

These days we usually buy ready-cooked couscous in packets from the supermarket, but there are parts of Morocco where it is still hand-rolled by village women and the difference in taste is remarkable. This is the 'real thing'.

Cynthia Berning, a US Peace Corps volunteer, has been working with a women's association in the small mud village of Khoukhate, some 130km south of Fez in the Middle Atlas, with the aim
of bringing back an appreciation for the art - and taste - of hand-rolled couscous.

Cynthia Berning

"The majority of women and girls [in the village] are still illiterate and thus have few opportunities to contribute financially to providing for their families", explains Cynthia.
"Enter the Association ENNAHDA ('rebirth' in Arabic), an association with the goal of increasing the standard of living for all residents of Khoukhate through the creation of employment for the women of the village."

When the operation started two years ago, it was limited to couscous production. But the business has now grown to include jams made from locally-grown fruit - fig, apple, apricot, orange, carrot and watermelon, there's herb-infused olive oil, almond butter, and the Moroccan high-energy snack 'zmita'. All the products are marketed under the name 'El Karma', which is Moroccan Arabic for fig tree, and is also the name of the natural spring in the village.

Now the association has an eco-tourism project where groups of visitors are welcomed to Khoukhate to learn the secrets of a good Moroccan couscous, and at the same time experience traditional rural life. Visitors roll their own couscous from scratch with the local women, and then cook it and eat it for lunch.

Couscous preparation: step 1

Step 2: sifting the couscous

Couscous ready for sale

The association has teamed up with Fez Food and Cafe Clock and it's now possible to learn this traditional art in Fez - great for people who don't have the time to go out to the village. There are monthly couscous workshops at Cafe Clock, conducted in English, French and Darija. The three-hour session begins with fresh vegetables, wholewheat flour, and water brought from the village spring. It finishes with lunch, and could be the best couscous you've ever eaten.

The next workshop is at 11h30-14h30 on Friday 13 November at Cafe Clock. For details and to book, contact Fez Food. Fez Food also runs excursions to the village.

For a peek into Cynthia's adventures in this tiny village, visit her blog, Couscous Chronicles. Information on the women's association can be found here.