In the game of charades that is my life, I am grateful for things with simple names. Such is the case with Helwa, literally, sweet-stuff. Helwa could be boiled sweets, biscuits, cakes or tarts. It’s the biscuits that seem to have a particularly important social role. They arrive with the tea, and I don’t think I need to emphasise how important the tea is. Very. They might come with the tea at a wedding, and be covered in plastic wrapping like flowers in the UK, or they might come with tea and coffee at a formal meeting. If they are expensive they’ll be full of almonds, dates and real butter, if they’re more modest, perhaps a drop of chocolate on the top and the odd peanut.
If you know me well you’ll be sensing the problem by now. Butter, almonds, peanuts, it doesn’t sound good, does it? It sounds like an anti-histamine binge would be needed to follow the tea. So I’ve quite often ended up hungry at formal meetings and events in Morocco. The sweet stuff is designed to keep us stimulated through another few power points. But woe is not me. Using my well-honed research skills I have detected a bakery where the butter is not butter but the cheaper alternative – vegetable oil. Yes, my friends, vegan biscuits just a 15-minute bus ride away!
This time the well-honed research skills followed the following trusty formula: chance encounter + a question or two in response to the questions coming at me + visual confirmation of what I think I’ve understood. In this case the figures in the equation took the form of “must not arrive empty handed so go to bakery + “you don’t perchance have anything without milk?” + the margarine is brought out so I can read the ingredients = biscuits for me too! So it is that I’m learning to do research in Morocco. And here I make my point: visual information counts just as much as what we say and hear.
You might be also getting the sense that now I’m being a bit more proactive in my research, I’m buying more biscuits. Not just for me, but so that I can contribute to the tea and conversation with more than just questions. I don’t want to be asking and asking without a little contribution. Some contributions would change the dynamic drastically, but biscuits don’t seem to. Bringing ones that I’m not allergic to, helps keep conversations on track rather than going via a large history of allergies and potential cures.
Each form of Helwa also seems to me to tell a different story. We have ‘la crème’ for example, not translated, but kept in French. They are the cream cakes. At least some of that explanation must come from the era of the French Protectorate (1912-1956). Then there are the little ones with icing sugar on top made of ‘smeeda’ – explained to me as “made from couscous”. Essentially the same ingredients, just a little more sugar and yeast, I’m led to believe. Clearly leaving out the meat and veg. Finally, there is the one which is without the yeast but with the apricot Jam inside (apricot has a great name – “mish-mesh”). I don’t know where it’s from, or what it’s about but I’m going to call it the mish-mesh Jammy Dodger, excellent with a cup of tea.
At that, I will leave this post as it is. It’s time for me to really get on with the research, I have only about six weeks left to see what I can see.