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