Coffee

coffee-to-goCoffee to go. I went. But I didn’t go without passing through the tourist Morocco that allowed me go to get here in the first place. I bought the presents, had the breakfast on the terrace, and in the airport I had a… coffee.

Coffee isn’t really a girl’s drink in Morocco. We’re supposed to drink tea, or perhaps a very milky Nescafe infusion. The modern Moroccans will disagree with me here, and they’re right, of course anyone can have a coffee, what decade are we living in!? Any woman who knows her place however, will also know to use discretion when choosing a coffee shop.

Coffee shops in Morocco are like pubs (were) in the UK. They are the place where men go to smoke, talk, get away from the house, relax after work, watch football and drink… coffee. At the language school last year I had to read a text which started, ‘between coffee shops and coffee shops, there are coffee shops’. A Moroccan joke which sums up the sight of rows of men in plastic chairs smoking and watching the world go by in small and large town centres. So of course we are allowed in coffee shops, but like a rough pub in the UK (a couple of decades ago?), or a dirty little bar somewhere else in Europe, you reflect on your gender before going into this particular ‘public’ space. I’ve been into a few of these coffee shops but being allowed in doesn’t mean you are comfortable. I’d far rather have a tea in someone’s (or somewoman’s) house, thank you.

So the airport coffee isn’t just a caffeine boost before a journey, it’s a place where my gender loses some significance and my mind begins to relax. Even the coffee cup speaks to me in English. It’s also a moment of loss. All that work, all that miming, all those words I’ve struggled to understand and build into comprehension, all that work is about to languish unused, for months and months. The rewards and sense of accomplishment after everyday interactions aren’t there when you return to your default self. But we are entitled to time off for a reason, and I think I need some.

I wasn’t going to write about coffee until I came back to work. It’s something I associate more with work friends and old friends and new friends, and even supervision meetings. Perhaps it’s fitting though that despite travelling between Morocco and the UK, two countries famous for tea, it is coffee is what comes across the globe with me. Not very original, I know. I was going to write about Harrira, a lovely warm soup with tomatoes and chickpeas and herbs. It’s cheap even when everything else is expensive, and would probably keep you alive if that was all you had. But I didn’t have my camera on me for the last bowl of Harrira. And somehow it hasn’t made the shortlist of ‘local products to be made available in the airport’. Not high-class enough, too much work, not admitted to ‘global’.

So coffee, with an imperfect colonial past (tea being no better), and an imperfect addictive future. Culturally though, it’s become a means, a code, a facilitator of better things, some of them really great, even precious. A means to connect, to think, to wake up, and most importantly right now, to have a break.

Out of Office

Thank you for your e-mail. I will be on an extended coffee break until the New Year with friends and family. Thank you for keeping me company with my research in Morocco.

All the very best,

Lydia

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Harcha

ready-to-eat-1

Harcha. It’s made of a harsh kind of flour called smeeda. I’d wondered for a while what that was, but of course, it’s semolina, hence the name smeeda, which isn’t so different. Another type of durum wheat, another variant on the ingredient used for Couscous. So what is so special about harcha? Well, it’s a semi-sweet snack which usually comes with good company. For a slightly special breakfast, or an afternoon tea merienda.

In this case, I made it! I made it with a friend. A research friend, but a friend all the same. With a short time to go, I’m starting to tally up the things that I have and haven’t done, but more to the point, I’m starting to reflect on the connections I’ve made and whether they end here or not. A research friend is still a friend, just like a school friend, or a Uni friend, or a friend with any other descriptive word in front. So it’s nice to be able to say that I have not just done a little research, but I’ve also made a few friends.

There’s something special about these friends. Our worlds are so different that it’s difficult to imagine them in my context, or us in another context. We’ve made friends in this context though, so like a Uni friend might share their washing liquid or their lecture notes, here, we’ve made sense of each other through what we are doing now, and why. We’ve seen how we can help one another or accompany one another through our different daily challenges at different times. I’ve made dinner for friends who worked late and used to live in my house. Others have made me breakfast, or tea and explained how things work here. How the school system works, or the way people find a job, or why they have two phones. The insightful things and the practical things are often the small things.

Research isn’t just about making friends though. It’s also about stepping forward and going out and asking after your research topic. With a research topic that is on people’s minds there have then been more questions back to me and lots of opinions about where I should be. Surely, looking like a tourist, I should be somewhere more set up for tourists? Surely, I should be mixing with the ‘ex-pats’ and the middle classes, not people who buy their ingredients in little scraps of newspaper. Surely, I should be just a little further away from my research topic. An hour might do it.

If there is something that I have learnt from traveling and living abroad it is to be ready to change plans. There is no point in digging your heels in with fixed dates and fixed plans. Especially when those dates were plucked from thin air based on an understanding far more shallow than the one I have now. The first time I properly traveled I spent two months rushing from hostel to hostel, only to realise afterwards that I could quite easily have stayed another month. Money wise, time wise, flights wise. So now that the forces that be are pushing me away from spending much more time with new friends here, I’m learning from these previous experiences and have found out that it only costs £30 to change my flight. I won’t be changing it by much, but there is a limit to how long I fancy changing roles: from researcher to tourist, from friend to client.

Some friends last though. You might lose touch, you might not coincide again, but you don’t un-meet people. I might not remember the recipe. I might never make it. But the next time I see a harcha, I will know more than just how much it costs and how it tastes. I will know how it was made, and how to make it if I fancy sharing in good company.

Sweet things

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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.

Tagine

all-in-together

In English ‘tagine’ means to me a big brown plate with a cone shaped lid. I would probably imagine the dish itself sitting empty on someone’s shelf from a trip they did five or six years ago. In Morocco that earth coloured dish is filled with food.

If you go to someone’s house at a mealtime and it isn’t Friday you are most-likely served tagine. It’s not a fast-food, it takes a while to cook, but it’s practical. For example, you don’t actually need a cooker to cook a tagine, you just need one of the ‘buta-gas’ cans and a small clay or metal stand on top of it. Then everything else can be cooked directly in the tagine. First the meat and spices, then the vegetables, then the potatoes, then any olives or dried fruit. So if you come looking for work and you need to buy something to cook with quickly and cheaply, you are pretty much there with a buta-gas can, a tagine and bread.

Tagines are always round. This is also practical. You can fit as many people around a tagine as you can fit around the table. The food is supplemented by bread so whether you get a little tagine and a lot of bread or a lot of tagine and a little bread, overall you get a more or less balanced meal.

The worst tagine I ever ate was on a rooftop in Fez last year, it was a vegetable tagine which consisted of potatoes a few peas and a carrot. The best must have been the first that I ate in my friend’s house who lives in a small house in a small village outside Thursday. What can I say, personal relations get you further in Morocco than how much you pay to sit and see the view.

At this point I should come clean. I might be giving the impression that I’ve been visiting houses and eating tagines for the last couple of weeks. In fact, I’ve been in Spain. I had a week and a half break from my fieldwork, for several reasons, mostly work-related and an opportunity to see wonderful friends. So you can imagine I was tempted to write this blog-post about that first glass of wine when back in Europe… or about jamón, something considered worse than divorce in Morocco. The words didn’t come. Getting back to my flat, I then nearly wrote a blog called ‘the last of the oatcakes’ because like every good mountaineer, I’d come prepared for the empty-cupboard moments, and one little pack of oatcakes was still in my flat when I came back hungry.

Yet it was quite honestly the tagine the day after I got back that made me think a bit more. Seven people, one plate. It could have been designed by Taylorists or management experts for the efficiency of the idea. Wikipedia calls the tagine a stew, but it seems more baked to me, inside it’s little cone-shaped hat. The meat and potatoes remain in-tact, any olives or dried fruit sit beautifully on top, as they have been placed. Only the onions and any other veg underneath have disintegrated into a stew-like consistency. More to the point, the tagine feels like a great leveller in Morocco. Rich or poor, north or south, east or west, a good tagine in within reach.

Bread

bread-coooking

Bread. Or ‘hobbz’ to anyone in the Arab world, including Morocco. I was sure I’d heard ‘Hobbs’ in relation to bread before, was it a brand? Here, in any case, it is much more than that.

Women in Morocco make bread. Clearly not all women, but a lot more women than I would have expected. A mother of five children, with a family shop that sells bread, nevertheless makes her own bread. The husband says it’s her job. The bread in their shop is just bought in for selling to customers (like me). My neighbour who often works a 10-hour shift packing peppers to go to Europe, makes her own bread. This isn’t just the occasional loaf, it’s enough to eat with every meal, every day. When I say eat with, I mean instead of a fork, and as an accompaniment to the meat, veg and dried apricot if you are lucky. Even an academic with two children, a full time job and writing her thesis, makes her own bread.

Obviously the double shift for women is nothing new to us. Although just because it isn’t new, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth noticing. That’s what I’ve been doing recently, noticing things. Other people work and make bread. I notice things. People also notice me. So it’s not a one-way process. Sometimes I notice people noticing me. In every country I’ve been a foreigner there is a word, you just have to listen for what it is. I’d recognise myself as ‘la Gringa’ in Latin America, ‘Guirri’ in Spain, or ‘Gainjin’ in Japan. I now recognise myself as “l’Goeriya”. Or, in the Spanish pronunciation even better: “Goerilla”. In hindsight, I think Gringa sounded pretty good!

If you want to understand something I sometimes think it’s worth skirting around the edges first: what is not the thing you want to understand? I want to understand seasonal work. So what do people do when they aren’t at work? Maybe that’s what I’ve been noticing recently: the bread-making, the floor sweeping, the hand-washing of clothes (I get to take part in that one). It means things are coming more into 3D. You don’t just see a worker you see a person in their context.

The same goes for the Goerilla. I’m fast losing novelty value, so if I expect people to continue having patient conversations with me, I’d better get 3D fast. People don’t want to talk about their work all day. The art of staying put is quite different to the art of travelling and arriving. For a start if I’m not making bread I can at least make some salad. However, I have found something that is more interesting to people than my (lack of) bread-making. I have found a job.

I was tempted to go for a job picking veg, but I think that could lead to trouble and I’m told to be careful several times a day. So English teacher it is, only a few hours. It costs me nothing to share my ‘goerilla-ness’ in Thursday and it doesn’t cost them either. Languages are the currency of social mobility in Morocco. In all major cities middle class children go to bilingual or trilingual schools and have private tutoring and classes in the evenings, adults too if they want to. There is no after-school tutoring in my town, people with good language skills tend to socially move themselves elsewhere. So you could argue that I’m helping a process of westernisation and globalisation, which would be true. I might contribute to people understanding the terrible songs that are on the radio. However, this isn’t preaching in an untouched village, it’s sharing words with people who don’t want to pick Europe’s tomatoes forever.

There’s one more thing about bread. It gets recycled. It’s the one thing. Other things might be re-used, if they are put in the bin and perhaps taken out again. Or more likely all the disposable stuff will just begin to blend in with the rubbish and rubble on the streets. So the bright pink yogurt pot will slowly fade as it’s trampled into the sandy ground. That’s not the case with bread. Bread is separated and saved. It has a detectable ecological cycle. The crusts and end are collected up, dried out in the sun, collected on a horse driven cart and taken to be eaten by the ‘bugra’ – the cow – as I was told my landlord, but I think the horse gets a bite too.

Conflict of interests: The writer admits to disliking yogurt, and enjoying her daily bread. Personal preferences may therefore have affected the analysis above.

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