Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Marrakech is known as THE place to visit in Morocco. All the action centers around Jemaa el-Fna, a historical square in Morocco. In the evening, we found open-air restaurants, musicians, and "carnival" games. During the day, we watched snake charmers, acrobats, and henna women. We actually found the square to be quite overwhelming- rather than casually taking in the sights we had to keep saying "la" (no) to people wanting to ask for money for each glance we took. (Vickie got henna-ed before she could even say no, and then I had to negotiate majorly so the bill wasn't insane.) Before it became such a sight (until the 19th century), Jemaa el-Fna was a place for public executions. I think I'll take pushy henna ladies over that...

Henna Hands

Open-air restaurant in Jemaa el-Fna. Stall after stall of this, men using American catch-phrases (one man quoted Obama's acceptance speech!) to get us to come and eat.

Wandering around the old part of Marrakech, the medina around Jemaa el-Fna, takes you past many wonderful sights. We walked through the souks, which are regions of the medina that sell specific goods. (I want to return to see the metalwork, basket, and dyers' souks.) As you walk through the medina, shopkeepers invite you to look at their goods and offer "democratic price," like for "family." Tom, walking with three women, received many comments from men saying he was lucky; and was twice offered camels in exchange for one (or all) of us. 6,000 camels for three women.

Tom and two of his women in the medina

A generous portion of saffron, worth more than its weight of gold but found in most Moroccan dishes

A typical spice shop in the Rahba Kedima "Old Square"

Spices backlit by colorful lamps

Selling carpets in the Old Square (in the medina off from Jemaa el-Fna)

A wander through the medina includes places of playful light

at center: Darbukka drum, made of clay body and fishskin head. above: Berber "guitars" with goatskin and wooden bodies.

This shopkeeper taught me to play a Berber square drum (they are decorated with henna). Harder than it looks!

Tom grooves on a Berber guitar

Christmas on a Camel

This year I had a dilemma to solve: how does one spend Christmas in Morocco? We stumbled upon a lovely solution while in Essaouira with our friends Vickie and Krista. In Essaouira we had a little tiny speck of a view of what things might have been like for Jesus... camels in the sand, donkeys around us in the city, people in turbans and flowy dresses, and open markets... Christmas and Camels. Remembering in a different way.

Vickie's camel, two-toe, wasn't enjoying the walk so much and kept sitting down and grunting. If you haven't been on a camel when it's sitting or standing, it's quite the surprising experience... every time. Traveling with these creatures over miles and miles would certainly be a challenging way to travel.

An Essaouira window wishing us the best. (courtesy of Krista)
Our camel beach (courtesy of Krista)
From Front: Vickie on Two-toe, Krista on Billain, Tom on Cappucino, and Karissa on Mustafa

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Making Christmas Bright

As an expat at Christmastime for the first time, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to feel fully present in the holiday. Warm, rainy weather and prevalence of a Muslim culture certainly contribute to my struggle to believe that Christmas is this week.

Some things I miss that have come to define signs of the holiday are: advent, Christmas music, snow, Christmas lights on homes, church, singing with my family, traveling to see loved ones, and of course, being surrounded by family. Smaller things, like my Mom’s Christmas cookies, hot cider, or going Christmas tree shopping the cold day after Thanksgiving seem to be a bit more important than I thought they were. I do not miss the commercial bombardment of the holiday, nor do I miss the horrible renditions of holiday songs playing everywhere I go.

I realize that a big part of what makes Christmas what it is for me is the traditions. Some of these traditions are from the Midwest, where I grew up. Others are from my family or from Tom’s family. This year is our first year together apart from those influences, and Tom and I have the challenge of choosing our traditions and creating our own traditions together. 

We have therefore surrounded ourselves with people in festive circumstances: school sing-alongs, Christmas parties, and baking Christmas cookies. Despite the crazy cost of Christmas decorations in Casablanca, we have decorated three of our plants like Christmas trees. We lovingly packed boxes of Moroccan delights for our family. Christmas day will find us along the ocean, wearing llama sweaters to block from the wind and celebrating with our colleagues (Jim and LuAnn), their children, and our friends Vickie and Krista from the U.S.

Moroccan Camel Ornament with Austrian Stars

Christmas ball on our tropical plant

Wishing you joy as you celebrate Christmas in your own way. Wishing you comfort as you miss those who cannot be part of your Christmas.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Details and Doorways

I can't resist sharing a bit of history with this post. Meknes is an imperial city; this means that a sultan, Moulay Ismail, called it his seat of power (in 1672). Moulay Ismail was known for fantastic building projects in Meknes: roads, granaries, stables, water reservoirs, mosques. He was buds with Louis XIV, who was building Versailles at the same time. Ismail was also a brutal ruler- putting Christian and African slaves to work on his projects and holding public executions. My favorite story of Ismail is that he requested Louis XIV's daughter to join his harem of many women. In declining such an offer, Louis XIV gave Ismail two clocks that now stand next to Ismail's grave.

Many of the photos in this post reflect this history.  In addition to huge structures, we also appreciated the detailed zellij tilework and painstakingly painted cedarwood.

First, the Koranic School (Bou Inania Medersa). This was built in the 14th century and therefore wasn't part of Moulay Ismail's contribution.  We stumbled upon this in the heart of the medina.

Looking through to the courtyard "pool"

A little tourist enjoys the straight lines in the courtyard.

A tall tourist enjoys the grandeur

Light from the courtyard shines into a student's cell. (There were about 60 such cells).

Tom makes this living space look a bit small...

Museum (Musee Dar Jamai), which is more like a home with artifacts than a museum.

Built in 1882, this used to be a palace of a grand vizier.

Tom demonstrates a doorway in the "music room"

Reconstruction of a traditional Moroccan room. The zellij tilework goes from floor to ceiling. The ceiling is carved and painted wood.

And now, some direct influence of Moulay Ismail.

 Grainstore stables- 29 aisles for storing grain.

Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail (aka where he's buried)

Fountains near Moulay Ismail's burial chamber.

 Calm, empty yellow rooms.

Wooden door and tiled walls.


Daily Meknes Sights

I have been debating how to share Meknes (and Morocco!) with people who have never seen this place. So, here are the daily sights. (I still struggle to photograph people, hence the lack of that on this trip. The big camera sticks out too much!)

Someone's front door in the Medina

Meknes medina. There are 9 minarets (mosque towers) in the medina- you can see 3 here.
Also note the old wall in the foreground- this encircles the medina and features many large arched gateways.

The medina rooftops. From this vantage point, we heard the call to prayer from all of the 9 minarets simultaneously- I can only compare it to a vocal version of a cacophony of church bells. Fantastic.

Someone's home near an ancient palace.

Old men in front of an even older wall.
It's very common to see same-gender people be affectionate. (And not appropriate for opposite-gender people to show affection.) Just after this shot, I missed capturing two old men holding hands while crossing the street.

So typical- old entries, painted walls, cats, and new toys...
(this is the pink room where Tom and I met Hassan- read "Our Meknes Story")

Still life in a Meknes medina shop. All the teapots made me think of Aladdin...


Funny Story

One of the major Muslim holidays, Eid al-Adha , is fast approaching. It occurs this year on the US Thanksgiving weekend. On the day of Eid, families sacrifice a lamb in honor of when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son to Allah/God. Right now, people are buying/selling lambs. The grocery stores sell banners with pictures of happy sheep next to lavish meals.

A third grade student at my school has just begun writing a story about his new pet sheep. The sheep has brown face and paws. The sheep loves him and misses him when he is gone. I wonder how this story will evolve in the next couple weeks?

Tom and I just finished reading a delightful book that offers many cultural stories (including a child with the Eid sheep) like the ones we experience here, and helps to describe Casablanca. The author is a parent of two of my students! For a good read, check out The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah, published by Bantam Books.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Our Meknes Story

Our first Moroccan trip with just the two of us. After extensive research and hotel phone calls, we hop on a train to Meknes for a 2-day vacation. We arrive, take care of the basics (such as checking into our hotel room that *includes a bathroom in our room), and head to Meknes’ medina.

I had read that many Berbers from the Atlas mountains come to Meknes to sell their wares, particularly carpets. Our first stop in the medina was a carpet shop. The shopkeeper took extra care to tell us about the different fibers (cotton, sheep’s wool, silk, camel wool), dyes (saffron), and quality (knots, texture). He offered a fair price for a beautiful carpet, and I became excited that Meknes might be the place to find a carpet for our home.

We find our way into a fantastic square with a tree growing in the middle, craftsmen working, and men drinking their coffee. In this bustling, pink space, we begin our disagreement about the carpet. I say, what an opportunity to buy a local handicraft that took 8 months of a woman’s life to make, and generations of a family legacy to cultivate. Tom says, that’s a lot of money- can’t we just get a smaller carpet? Agreeing to disagree, we pay for our coffee and mint tea, and wander to watch a craftsman use the damascened process for metal work- a specialty in Meknes.

Tom puts this room into perspective

A friendly Moroccan says hello, and before we know it, we are following him through the medina to a carpet shop selling his family’s work.  The shopping process in the medina is quite social, involving many cups of mint tea, viewing and discussing a spectrum of wares, and not mentioning prices until you have picked “the one.” Therefore, I am shocked when Tom accepts a cup of tea and begins allowing the carpet seller to share his inventory.

After saying “keep it” or “take it away” to about 30 carpets, we zone in on three favorites. Of course, our ultimate favorite is a crazy price, one that we could not bargain for reasonably. Tom settles the bargaining for a wool-cotton carpet that’s filled with intricate patterns in bright reds and yellows, and, laughing, I have my carpet and Tom likes it too.                                                                  
Our carpet is on the floor, left-center (other considerations are below and to the side) 

Tom and the shopkeeper

I wait in the shop with the shopkeepers while Tom goes to find a credit machine.  Wanting to find some good local eats for dinner, I ask the friendly Moroccan who led us into this situation about where the locals eat. Hassan (this friendly Moroccan) invites us to come to eat Kefta tagine with him and his wife at their home. We accept this honor, and again we follow Hassan (this time in the dark) into the winding heart of the residential medina.

We admit that at this point, both of us were a bit nervous, but we had a good feeling about Hassan. He leads us to a small space (slightly bigger than our living room) he shares with his wife, Fatima, and 4-year old son. Making sure to teach me this dish, Fatima makes the tagine in front of us. As she cooks, Hassan invites us to celebrate his son’s circumcision with the family as well as join in the upcoming feast of Eid. We leave bearing gifts from Fatima and the phone numbers of our new friends- perhaps we will join them in the near future!

See the blog post titled “Kefta meatballs and eggs” for the recipe and photos of Hassan and Fatima.


p.s. I can't resist sharing this picture of Tom on a rooftop in the medina!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Kefta Meatballs and Eggs (as demonstrated by Fatiha and Hassan in Meknes)

Kefta Meatballs and Eggs

This dish is flavorful and spicy and is most enjoyable when eaten with your hands and some bread.

2.2 lbs ground meat (we used camel meat but beef is a good substitution)
2 tsp of Moroccan “7 spices”-  a blend of cumin, paprika, ground pepper, coriander, saffron, cinnamon,
4 tomatoes (1lb)
6 eggs
Black pepper
Ginger powder
Small amount of olive oil or butter, for frying.

Mix the ground meat with the 7 spices and chopped parsley. Roll the meat into small balls.

Grate tomatoes into a wide and shallow pan or pot (Fatiha used a tagine). Mix in generous amounts each of black pepper, cumin, ground ginger, and paprika.

Bring the tomato mixture with some oil/butter to a boil for 10 minutes. Drop the meatballs in. Cover, cook for about 20 minutes. Close to the end, crack the eggs over the dish and allow the eggs to cook just enough.

Bring the whole pan to the table. Pass out flatbread (we used a Moroccan round loaf with plenty of soft crust) to allow people to eat the meatballs with their hands and the bread. No silverware!

Enjoy with a Moroccan salad (tomatoes, small red onions, olive oil, spices) and plenty of mint tea.  (Mint tea: green tea, a generous bunch of fresh mint leaves, and plenty of sugar.)

Fatiha rolls balls of camel kefta

Fatiha cooks kefta in the tagine


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tom goes to Russia

Last week I felt pretty lucky. In other years I’ve gotten to take students on field trips to theater performances and to conferences, but this year I was asked to chaperone a weeklong trip to St. Petersburg Russia with my IB seniors. (Unfortunately Karissa had to remain behind to teach, though it is likely that she will get to take choir kids on a free trip to Spain later this year.)
There is a lot of paperwork that goes into a trip to Russia, and a lot of money, so I was glad that the school took care of both! Moroccan visas to Russia cost around $30US, whereas US visas cost $300. Moroccans list a few details about their travels on the paperwork to Russia, whereas I had to forfeit every piece of personal information I knew to the Russian consulate, including the names and contact information of supervisors at all of my previous jobs. Likely the KGB is stealing my identity as I write this, but hey…free trip to Russia!
            We arrived in the airport in St. Petersburg to the sight of snow. The kids huddled together and shivered as they would do all week, but for me it was a wonderful break two months of unchanging heat. Over the week, we explored palace after palace, museums, prisons, and stunning cathedrals. The city itself is beautiful, having been planned by Peter the Great to look like the most beautiful European cities he had seen. Canals and rivers crisscrossed the city, and every building face seemed like a piece of art. Shopping centers had carved marble statues bigger than me built into the walls, as if holding the weight of the building upon their sculpted muscular shoulders. Gardens were everywhere, thick with leafy trees and bushes.
            The palaces from the imperial days were stunning examples of beautiful excess. Each had far more rooms than the White House, and every room glowed with gold, which snaked up each wall in Baroque florid engravings and which gilded columns and chandeliers. There was an entire room covered in a solid mosaic of precious amber, accented with patterns of gold. In the light of the chandeliers, every wall glowed. Every ceiling was hand painted, and every surface seemed covered by the work of artists. I had learned a little of the history of the conditions of the serfs at the time, so my reaction was a mix of amazement at the level of self-serving materialism as well as simple awe at the beauty and artistry that filled the place.
            The churches, also, were works of art. After leaving the first cathedral we entered, filled floor to ceiling with paintings and golden sculptures depicting sacred imagery, and filled also with the sounds of a small choir singing part of an Eastern Orthodox Mass in Russian, one student remarked that he wasn’t spiritual at all, but it was hard not to be in such a place with such music. My favorite church was The Church of the Spilt Blood, constructed after the assassination of a Russian Czar. From the floor to the ceiling, hundreds of feet above, every surface of the church was covered with pastel mosaics. For twenty-five years during construction, artists pieced together the mosaics using tiles the size of my thumb. The effect was amazing and beautiful. I felt so small surrounded by such immense artwork which flooded the senses.
            We learned also of the brutal history of Stalin’s time. I stood inside the cold concrete prison cells which held prisoners as they awaited transit to the Siberian work camps of the Gulag. We saw the memorial to the 1.5 million Russians who had died in the two-year siege of Leningrad in WWII. Our tour guide told the story of the starvation in the city and the attempts to escape over the water at night as one who’s father had lived through it, and as one who’s grandfather and aunts all succumbed to starvation.
            It was a trip I will never forget, and it was a powerful experience for students. I’ve included just a few of the pictures, though it was hard to capture the immensity of the places I tried to photograph.


CAS Seniors and teachers outside of Peter the Great's Summer Palace

Church of the Spilt Blood over a St. Petersburg Canal

Mosaic and Chandelier interior of Church of the Spilt Blood
(you can almost see the mosaic detail)

Mosaic Ceiling of Church of the Spilt Blood

Monday, October 19, 2009

Chicken Tagine

Today we had no school, so I asked our maid, Fatima, to show me how to prepare a Tagine, which is a traditional Moroccan dish. Tagines are basically meaty dishes with a bit of vegetable or sweet. We've had beef tagine with green beans and olives, or chicken tagine with prunes and almonds. Once you make this tagine, you can make some of the other lovely combinations!

We started the morning by going to the market for ingredients. I watched as a man weighed a small, live chicken on a scale. He took it aside to be killed, defeathered, and boiled while we went to find other ingredients. I was amazed at the prices she was able to get for our food- only about $3 for the chicken, plus about $3 more for the rest of the ingredients.

We returned to start cooking. I'm attaching the recipe below, with pictures. Unfortunately, I didn't time the cooking, but I think if you keep following the recipe and checking to see if things are done, that it will turn out well. We used a clay tagine pot to prepare the tagine. If you don't have that, a dutch oven is a good second choice, a saucepan is a third choice. Below is a picture of our clay tagine.

Enjoy! And let me know if you decide to cook this!

Moroccan Chicken Tagine
As prepared by Fatima

1 large clay tagine
(A dutch oven will do)

1 small chicken
7 medium yellow onions or vidalia onions
1.5 cups of yellow raisins (Fatima says to use 10MAD worth)
1 small bunch parsley, tied in a knot
1 tomato, grated
4 pinches of saffron threads
salt and pepper to taste
"Ras el Hanout" spices to taste(optional)- see for more information
(if you don't want to make the Ras el Hanout recipe, look for Moroccan spice mixes)
paprika to taste
sugar to taste
cinnamon to taste

Slice the onions thinly. Keep one onion separate from the rest.

Cut up the chicken: spine to front breast, then cut about 6 pieces from each half

Soak the chicken in water, salt, and lemon juice for 5-10 minutes, then remove the skin and rinse the chicken.

Tagine mixture: Heat the tagine pot on high, adding the one onion that was set aside. Add oil (Fatima uses at least a couple tablespoons). Set the chicken pieces on top. Sprinkle salt, pepper, cinnamon, paprika, and couscous seasoning on top.

Allow to cook a few minutes on high, uncovered. After some time, bundle some parsley in the center.

Grate a tomato on top. Cover. After a few minutes, turn the chicken over. It should be simmering in juices; no need to add water.

In another saucepan, combine the 6 other onions with oil (again, about 2-3 Tablespoons), salt, pepper, cinnamon, paprika, and couscous seasoning. Cover and let cook. (Onions should get tender and should not burn to the pan. You will need to use enough oil.)

Soak 2 pinches of saffron in about 2-3 tablespoons of hot water. Pour this water over the tagine mixture. Soak the same saffron again in hot water, pour water over the tagine. (Fatima does not add the saffron threads to the tagine, just the water.)

After about 10-15 minutes, turn the tagine with chicken and onion to low temperature. Keep covered. By this time, the clay pot has absorbed much of the juices.

Add saffron water (2 pinches of saffron with hot water) to the onion mixture. Also add the raisins, sugar to taste, and cinnamon.

Pile the onion/raisin mixture on top of the tagine mixture (see first picture). Serve, and enjoy!