Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Ornament of the World

Last week at bookgroup, our book for discussion was The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal, which looked at how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain. It covers the times from the 700s to 1500s.
Although I found the book hard going, probably because I had not visited any of the cities mentioned - including Toledo, Granada and Seville; and the important historical people mentioned in the book were not ones that I was familiar with. A distinct lack of European history in my past I feel.
However there were many interesting points in the book:
  • the importance of Arabic as language of learning, a language of poetry and a language of translation, thus enabling scientific works from the Greeks to become available to a wider audience
  • the fact that Arabic as a language was learned by all, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian
  • the belief and ability that people could hold opposing views at the same time, especially in terms of philosophical ideals where scientific evidence may have contradicted long-held beliefs
  • North African invaders, the Berbers, were portrayed as barbaric and intolerant, in part I suspect because they could not hold opposing views at the same time. Were they like this?
  • religions overlapped particularly in the use of churches, synagogues and mosques. Even today in southern Spain it is possible to see Christian churches with features of mosques. The architectural features appealed across religious barriers.
However, the major focus was that in this age when the people of different religions could live harmoniously together, respecting and learning from each others culture and language, that learning thrived, and economically so did the culture. Certainly this is a message relevant in todays sometimes divided world.
The author's statement that it is not evident in the world today created much discussion at the bookgroup. Many felt that here in Morocco today is a culture that is tolerant of different religions, where people of different religions live together in harmony. The Jewish have a long history in Morocco where they have worked together with the Arabs and Berbers. Here in Rabat today, not only are there many mosques, but also a number of Christian churches in which services are performed in French, English and Spanish, and there is also a synagogue in downtown Rabat.
One thing the book did inspire in me is a wish to visit the towns of the Golden Age, these famous towns in southern Spain, especially the Alhambra. Will the future allow this? Only time will tell.

Friday, 19 October 2007


Well I have just had my first experience of CouchSurfing. What is it you may well ask?

From their website, "CouchSurfing is a worldwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit". What this simply means is that you join Couch Surfing via their website, offering your services to a fellow traveller, either as a host (providing a bed) or a guide or just to meet for a drink. The other side is that once registered, you are also able to access the offers from other CouchSurfers from all over the world.

A Dutch guy has just spent 2 nights staying with me after making contact through CouchSurfing. On the first evening I took him on a brief sightseeing tour of Rabat - tour Hassan, the Oudayas and the medina, finishing off with dinner at El Bahia, a Moroccan restaurant in the medina walls, where he paid for the meal. As the host provides a bed, it is encouraged that the visiting CouchSurfer pays for a meal for the host.

Initially I was not sure of the security of the situation, letting a strange person into the apartment. But as he head, you can sum up most people in the first 5 minutes of meeting them. With an initial meeting outside the house, there is still an opportunity to pull out if you feel uncomfortable. Checking out the person's details on the website also provides a wealth of information as people who register are encouraged to fill out biographical, interests and philosophy of life information.

The whole CouchSurfing experience provides an opportunity to mix with travellers, learn about other cultures, share what you know of you local area and promote cross-cultural awareness.

After this interesting experience, I would certainly host others, and if the situation arises I would also make use of it when travelling myself.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Fes Cooking Class

One of my main aims in going to Fes was to do a Moroccan cooking class and learn how to cook a tagine, and that I did. There was a link on the Dar El Hana website to Cooking Lessons and I am lucky I cooked on it as it led to Lahcen and his cooking classes. As we had booked in advance, Lahcen met us at 9.30 am Dar El Hana and took us shopping in the Municipal Marche in central Fes, as they have fish for sale there on Saturdays. After much discussion we (the 4 of us) decided to cook harira (the traditional Moroccan tomato-based soup), lamb tagine with apricots and almonds, stuffed calamari and for dessert, crepes with cheese, raisins and almonds. We trailed Lahcen around the market as he checked out the seafood, then bought vegetables, dried fruit, spices and a huge chunk of lamb shoulder. Although the spices are in different bags on the stall, they are bought and mixed together in a small piece of paper in which they are wrapped. We also got chick peas that had already been soaked from the spice stall along with some cinnamon sticks. Celery here is also very weird, more like a herb with thin stems rather than the thick stems we are used too, but it does still have the celery taste. The really good think about the trip to the market was that we could ask questions, "What is that fruit? What is that used for? What is in that pot?" Being Berber who grew up in the Atlas mountains and having spend time cooking in a number of restaurants, Lahcen has an excellent knowledge of local foods and very good English in which to explain things. Along the way he told us a Fig Desert:
Fig Dessert
Fresh Figs

Drizzle whole figs with honey, sprinkle with thyme and roast. Serve cut in half with creme fraiche or on their own.

Now all I have to do is try it, but the fig season is nearly over.

He then took us back to Riad Tafilalet where we would be doing the cooking. We decided we would like to prepare to eat in the evening so we didn't have to return until 4.00 pm after we had had a mint tea and some almond bread in the riad courtyard and experienced the view from the rooftop terrace.
We finally got back at 4.30 after having trouble catching taxis and it was downstairs to the kitchen and on with the white, cooks jackets. Lahcen guided as we chopped, grated (did you know you can grate tomatoes), diced, fried, stirred, blanched, soaked and scraped the meat and vegetables. Finally the harira, tagine and calamari were on cooking. The tagine in a pressure cooker as is the norm here unless the meat is marinated the night before. Tumeric (or saffron), ginger and black pepper made up the spices in the tagine. Mmm, the smell was good.

Soaked raisins and crushed almonds were then mixed with the goat's cheese and used as filling in the crepes that were then rolled up, topped with melted butter and sesame seeds before being baked in the oven.

Finally all was ready and we went upstairs to our lamp-lit table in the central courtyard, where the fountain tinkled in the background to await the feast. Eat to much?, of course I did but the food tasted great then we had an impromptu Berber drum and singing performance by Lahcen and his friend.

What a great idea!

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Weekend in Fes

Just got back from a great weekend in Fes with some friends. I hadn't been there since 2000 when I visited Morocco on holidays so wanted an update, as well as the opportunity to do a Moroccan cooking class, which I will cover in my next entry. Decided to stay at Dar El Hana as it was run by an Australian. I thought it would be nice to meet one as I rarely see them here in Morocco. Josephine met as at the medina car park and took us to the guesthouse where she had organised dinner to be ready and waiting for us. It was 9 o'clock by the time we got there as the train was late (a side effect of Ramadan I believe). Anyway we got the full Moroccan experience - Harira (a soup), a HUGE plate of mixed salads, lamb and prune tagine with fresh fruit and chocolate for dessert. We also took along a bottle of wine, not knowing we could buy it there. Anyway, it was a pleasant evening and we ate on the rooftop terrace by lamp light. Very quiet and relaxing, which is a great way to wind down after a busy week.
Here's the salad!

Dar El Hana has only 3 guest rooms sleeping a maximum of 8 and we had the two on the second floor, one twin and one triple. Typically there had tiled floors with rugs; hand-painted octagonal tables as bedside tables; bedspreads made of the plant silk; wooden shutters for the windows looking out over the central courtyard with wrought-iron frames around the windows and forming the balcony balastrades. A very comfortable place to stay and very centrally located in the medina.We spent some time wandering around the medina, and did so without a guide. One innovation that has made life much easier for tourists is a series of colour-coded thematic tourist circuits around the medina. We followed part of the pink one - the Traditional Crafts Circuit, and also part of the Dark Blue one - Monuments and Souks circuit. There is an accompanying guidebook that can be bought for 100 dirham. Highlights included the henna souk and Nejjarine complex. So much stunning architecture.

Might the central medina was a hive of activity around the Qaraouiyine Mosque as renovations have to finished this week so it can be officially reopened by the King, with its opening coinciding with the ending of Ramadan. Never have I seen some much painting, scraping and varnishing. Fes certainly will be looking its best this week.