Saturday, January 30, 2010

There is no ham in the hammam

Once you go to the hammam, your life will be changed forever. I know that sounds dramatic, but it is true. I have never felt as clean as I did when I walked out of that door a week ago. Part sauna, part bath, part spa, the hammam is one of Morocco’s best offerings.

For only ten dirhams, about a dollar and 30 cents, you too can experience the wonders of this public bath. Bring a towel, clean clothes, soap and shampoo, and don’t forget your scrub glove.

The door was unmarked from the outside, just a stone archway down a small street near our house. During the day until the evening it is reserved for women, and then I believe at 7 it becomes available for men. I went with my host dad Rachid. Upon arrival we entered a changing room, stripped to our underwear, and then left our clothes and belongings with the man at the desk.

Weighted with a cinder block, a large door in the center of the wall of the main room drew my attention. I knew that my future waited behind that door. Reminiscent of the entrance to a vault, I was somewhat apprehensive. But I was determined to see it through, to get an “authentic” hammam experience, and at that point there was no turning back.

As we entered a large tiled chamber with high-vaulted ceilings, I was blasted with hot wet air. It was the kind of heavy humidity where you instantly feel sweaty without exerting a muscle. It felt as hot as a sauna but with more moisture, the air so very close and thick. I had been warned that the hammam is intense, but I was not prepared for this.

There are three chambers, and each one is hotter than the one before it. That is because the heat source is at the back, a projection from the wall resembling a fountain or well. The water coming out of it is steaming, probably hot enough to scald you if you were to submerge your hand. We staked out a spot along a wall in the third chamber, and I sat down with our soap. While Rachid drew water into several buckets for our use, I took in the scene around me: A steamy tiled room, strewn with buckets and scantily-clad men in various stages of washing themselves. Mmm, hammam.

Once our buckets had cooled down some we rinsed off, but this first stage seemed a bit unnecessary because I was already sufficiently moist. Then came the soak phase. By that I mean we sat against the wall and soaked in the thick air around us. Talking from my hat, I think the purpose of this phase is for the skin to become fully saturated and ready for cleaning.

We sat for a few minutes, but I couldn’t tell you how long exactly. It was difficult to distinguish the passing of time in the chamber, and I had left my trusty watch with my clothes. The fact that I became a bit faint at this point probably also contributed to this difficulty. Rachid noticed, and we moved to the second chamber, which was still very humid but slightly cooler.

The snake phase was next. I have named it thus because it was when I learned that I too can shed my skin. Using a rough cloth glove, I went about scrubbing myself down to remove the dead skin. I tried to imitate those around me, and it was a lot more exfoliation that I am used to. Apparently it was not enough. Rachid offered to scrub my back, and I accepted.

I had been warned about this most communal aspect of the hammam, and I felt confident that I could handle it. The male bonding I was comfortable with, but I had not been sufficiently alerted about the scrubbing force that is applied. It felt like he was sanding me down like a piece of wood (though with fine sandpaper, not the coarse stuff). It was not painful per se, but it was very intense. And the skin, oh the skin, it came off in lots of little rolls. So much of it, I had no idea how much dead skin the body holds.

After that I went over the rest of my body again more thoroughly. It was disgusting and yet I could not stop. I felt compelled to scrub and scrub, to get it all off. I felt like a new person in a way.

After becoming a snake I lathered up with soap and shampoo to fully cleanse my new skin. Then I sat against the wall while Rachid finished his wash. We rinsed off one last time, but with cold(ish) water, and it felt so good! Then we sat for a few more minutes, I assume for a final soak of the hammam air. By this point I was ready to leave.

The hammam experience can take as much time as you want it to, but at the very least it is a place to wash with hot water (something that is not available to everyone at home). We stayed for about 40 minutes, but I did not figure that out until we left. I have heard that some people stay for an hour or even two, but I do not think I would survive that long. My best pre-hammam advice: drink lots of water. I kept wishing for a drink of water despite the humidity. They do have water in the main room before you enter the vault, but I did not notice it (or know to seek it).

Overall, the hammam was great. I will be going back, but it will not be a weekly affair. Perhaps biweekly. Or I will not stay in the vault for as long, it was a bit much for me.

It was odd to see the openness of the men together in the hammam when I compare that to everything I was told about the closed nature of society here. Everyone is completely exposed to each other, greeting friends and neighbors the same as if they were meeting on the street. It is frowned upon to show your knees and shoulders in the public sphere, but in the hammam I saw a lot more than that.

Then again, it’s really no different than men at a gym in the US. I guess it’s the idea of a changing room space that is free of all the norms that govern behavior normally that perplexes me. If someone dropped their pants on the street, well they would certainly attract attention. But when it happens in a gym or a hammam, we are just supposed to look the other way and pretend it is normal.

That’s the story on the hammam; otherwise all is well here. Yesterday I received my first letter, which changed my day from good to better! The best way to fall asleep is by reading a letter from a loved one.

This morning I helped Farida prepare lentils for lunch. We cooked them with tomato, onion, garlic, and spices, including salt, pepper, ginger, and I don’t know what else. I woke up a little late and I missed the complete spice phase.

Now I am watching Big in the Salon before our lentil lunch. Not sure what is in store for later today, possibly soccer on the beach with Stephen and his host brother’s posse (as Stephen labeled them).

-Rest in peace Howard Zinn. I feel honored to have had the chance to see you lecture on a couple of occasions. Your contributions to our world and our national consciousness will never be forgotten.

Monday, January 25, 2010

the homestead

Corrections from last time (thank you Papa):
-It is tajine, not tagine.
-Celery in French is celeri, though it was actually green zucchini and not celery in last week’s tajine.
-The sweet and savory pastry Ibrahim served for our last meal at the CCCL is called Pastille.
-The national soup is known as Harera, and Farida’s version was indeed better than the restaurants’.

Tonight marks the end of the first week of my home stay. Sunday is winding down, and three sounds: 1. the TV showing the beginning of the Cote D’Ivoire versus Algeria soccer match, part of the Africa Cup (which Morocco did not qualify for) 2. the pressure cooker, signaling the approach of dinner, whistling away from the kitchen and 3. the cheerful babble of my four year old sister, Riham, compete with my laptop for my attention. Welcome to life as the newest member of the El Bounti family.

I am technically one of two children in the family, but the age differences do not quite make sense in that respect. I was told the first day by Farida that she and Rachid, my host father, see me more as a brother. She is 31 years old and he is 36 years old, so the title of sibling is more accurate for me. I was very pleased when she said that, because I did not want a family situation which felt too much like high school with lots of rules. Based on this past week, I think that it is an accurate designation, and overall I am very pleased with my Moroccan family.

I feel like an equal member of the family. The key, which Farida gave me on my first day, is an important sign of this. I feel that house keys are not to be given out lightly in any society. I am welcome to anything I want in terms of food, and any possessions I need are free for my use. House key is the wrong word; I should say home key. This place where I live is far from a house, yet it is in every way a home.

We live in the Medina (the old part of Rabat, meaning ‘city’ in Arabic) in a building off of a very narrow street (that before last week I would have labelled an alley). Once I arrive outside the front door I yell up to the third floor, “Farida, c’est John!” She responds by turning on the stairway light, and I wind my way upstairs to the door.

By American standards, this is a tiny apartment. There are basically three rooms, and I have one of them all to myself. It is probably normally a guest room, and I am told that I am the fourth foreign student that has occupied it. It is a decent-sized room with a double bed, a short couch/lounge chair, and a small table. I will be living out of my suitcase for my time here, but that’s not a problem. One of the most important features of my room, and one that I am most thankful for, is the door. Specifically, it opens and it closes.

Besides a few minor gripes arising from cultural and domestic differences (these will work themselves out with time, inchallah), I have no problems with my family nor do I foresee any problems. But the size of the living space dictates the close proximity of me to my family for the portion of each day that I am home, and I know that in a month or two that door could be my best friend. It is also good to be able to retreat to read, write, work, and of course sleep.

Speaking of close proximity in living space, let me describe the rest of the apartment. The kitchen is in the back at the end of a narrow hallway. It is a bit smaller than my kitchen in Allston (which feels crowded with three or four people), yet this one feels bigger. We eat breakfast there at the little table, small cups of strong sweet coffee with breads, pastries, and a choice of spreads. One of my gripes is the absence of peanut butter, which is not widely eaten here. I am told it can be found at the western-style supermarket, Marjene, at the edge of town; I will let you know if I find some. If not, perhaps someone who will be visiting me might like to bring some, preferably Teddie’s brand natural peanut butter…I would be eternally grateful.

A large armoire/shelving unit runs the length of the hallway. It houses all of the family’s clothes and personal possessions (besides shoes, which have a box under the kitchen counter). There is a small sink next to the front door where the hallway ends. This is where I wash my hands and face, brush my teeth, shave, etc. The last room, and most important one, is between the hallway on the left and my room to the right, and it is known as le salon.

In a bigger Moroccan house, the salon is the formal sitting room that hardly ever gets used. The exception would be for receiving (and sleeping) guests. Sure sounds a lot like those fancy and little-used parlors in American houses, huh? But there is no comparison when describing our salon, because this room is used more than any room in any American house I have ever seen.

As is normally the case with the Moroccan salon/living/family room, couches line the walls. But couch is a loose term grounded only in the pillows that support your back. Without these pillows you would probably call this item of furniture a bed, and that is exactly what it becomes during the night with the addition of blankets. My whole family sleeps in the salon each night, and each morning the blankets disappear and it returns to a sitting room. We eat lunch, snack, and dinner there, and we also watch lots of TV and movies there.

In two words, I would describe our salon as comfortable and multi-functional (when the cheese keeps the chips together it’s like one nacho; therefore, the hyphen makes two words into one). Lounging is not just acceptable, it is encouraged. No matter what position you wish to relax (or nap) in, the flexibility of the pillows can accommodate. The multi-functionality of this room is really what makes this house a home.

When I come back from class and I need a place to flop down and unwind, I know I have it. The salon provides shelter from the hectic, stimulating, and at times very overwhelming Medina, and it is a comfort that cannot be found in my bedroom (despite, or perhaps because of, its privacy). Because I know that it’s not the room itself but rather the people who have made it that way that are important and meaningful about the salon. Farida’s smile, and the snacks and tea she puts out, are really what make it feel like home.

Well that is the entirety of my home here in the medina of Rabat, or almost all of it. You may be wondering: ‘JD, what happens when nature calls?’ Well folks, as they say, save the best part for last. It’s not that my bathroom situation is very difficult or different from what I am used to at home in the States, nor am I required to go out back to the hole in the ground. It’s just a bit cumbersome at first, and using the facilities requires some adjustments.

The ‘bathroom’ is behind a small door that is just outside of the entrance to the apartment, which means it is quite obvious when someone has to go. This does not create awkward situations within the family, but rather it’s something I will personally have to get used to. I use the word bathroom, but I think water closet is actually much more appropriate. Not only is it the size of a closet (a small one at that), but everything inside is often covered in water.

That is because it is also the shower room. I am grateful for the shower head and the hot water available for my use, and I have no real complaints. The cumbersome part is trying to keep my towel and clothes dry in this tiny space while working the shower head with one hand and using the other hand to get clean. I also have to simultaneously keep an eye on the floor to make sure water is not leaking out into the hall. I don’t want to make a bad impression by flooding the building.

The toilet is western-style, but it lacks a flush mechanism; rather, it’s a bucket-flush variety. This procedure requires some skill, and I have only begun to master the technique. No worries, plenty of time to practice.

Enough of these details; I hope you now have a somewhat accurate picture of my life here. If you need a laugh during your day, just imagine me juggling shampoo and a showerhead while spraying water all around a tile closet. Ma’salam, goodbye friends and family. My next post will cover the public bath, the Hammam. Love from Rabat.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Edible treasures

It is now the night of January 18th, and I am sitting on the bed in my petit chamber. Actually it’s bigger than the cold cell I rent (with the help of my parents of course) in Allston, so I will make sure to enjoy these quarters while I am here. I have barely been in the country for a week, so it is hard to make accurate generalizations and descriptions of life in Morocco. I will instead share with you some of my experiences so far, though you must keep in mind my location and perspective (the American 20-something male, somewhat educated, lens of Rabat that is).

Meals are some of my favorite times of the day, and I have a feeling I will return in May with a few extra pounds on my frame. However, all of the walking I will be doing will help combat the rich and delicious fare. I have not had a meal I disliked, and I have greatly enjoyed most of them so far. I will describe a few of the highlights:

-Tagine (perhaps tajine? I have not seen it spelled, and I cannot read Arabic yet): the word describes the conical ceramic ware used to cook the dish of the same name. Because there are so many kinds (you can put anything inside) it seems to describe the vessel more than the food inside it. The first night at a restaurant we had a chicken and green olive tagine with preserved lemon, very tasty and I believe what my dear mommy was imitating at my going-away party (She came pretty close!). Preserved lemons are tangy, salty, and oh so interesting, mmm one of my favorite things so far. My host mother, whose name is Farida, has also served a beef and celery (I think it was celery, comment on dit celery en francais?) tagine and a garlicky chicken and potato tagine. The latter was very tasty, and my fingers are still tinted yellow.

-The Method: At the center last week for orientation we the Americans were well fed and watered, pampered by the jovial cook Ibrahim, and we ate almost entirely western-style with plates and silverware. The exception was our last dinner, on Saturday night, when we ate Bastille with our hands. We were told during orientation that most Moroccans eat with their hands, and so far I have found that true. But it’s not only the hands that are used, and there is an important style that I am still trying to master. A triumvirate (more coordinated than the Romans) of the right thumb, forefinger, and middle fingers are used to escort food from the communal dish to one’s mouth. Though one’s hands are washed, it is important that the fingers don’t fully enter one’s mouth, because those fingers will soon be back in the dish.

The triumvirate can function on its own, but it is more often than not accompanied by Hobbs, the Darija word for bread. It comes in thick disks of varying diameters, and the texture and taste is pretty close to French bread (baguettes are also widely available). The bread is torn into small pieces, and those are used to scoop up a bite of food. Mothers are the bread-keepers and distributors, and the bread is very freely given (especially to guests). It can be tricky to keep the morsels on the bread, but I am sure my skills will improve. Its fun to eat with your hands.

Also a quick word on the communal dish. Like in others parts of Africa I have experienced (and probably many other parts of the world), imaginary zones known by all are ascribed to the dish based on the number of people at the table. One only takes from the zone in front of them, for it is improper to cross into another person’s zone. The choicest morsels do however seem to find their way into my zone when I am not looking. I guess it pays to be a guest.

-Couscous: We were served couscous once at the center for lunch, and it was toute seule, accompanied by a thin gravy. I ladled some of the sauce and stuff from other dishes onto it, but I am not sure about the different ways it is prepared and served. I will report back. It seems like it is not a normal accompaniment to tagine, but I could be wrong.

-Bastille: Ibrahim made this for our last dinner at the center, somewhat of a special occasion. A big pastry that combines layers of a chunky and sweet almond paste on top of scrambled egg (like what you might find in a quiche) resting on a bed of shredded savory chicken. He showed us how to attack it with a stab of the triumvirate, and hilarity ensued as we tried to emulate him. The dish comes from the country’s Analusian heritage, hence the name. Ibrahim also tried to put more sugar on top, but I found the almond layer quite sweet enough. It is definitely a dish to try, though he said it is usually reserved for special occasions.

-Soups: I have tried two so far, and both were quite excellent. Haveva or Halela, I’m not exactly sure how it is said or spelled, I got with my family at a little restaurant near our house. It is tomato-based as far as I can tell, with little chunks of many vegetables. I could only recognize a few, but the chickpeas stood out loud and clear. I am also told it usually has lentils, but I did not find them in my bowl. Farida says that her version is better, but I will have to take her word until I am able to put it to the test. I am told haveva is a staple during Ramadan.

Farida prepared Sob’a (perhaps Sop’ba?) for us, a soup with many vegetables including carrots, green beans, skinny green zucchinis, onion, garlic, parsley, and probably a host of others. It is then pureed or blended to a smooth brothy texture, and it can be drunk or spooned depending on your preference. It was salty and tasty, very good to dip bread in.

-Fruit: By fruit I mean citrus fruits, and by that I mean oranges. So good, the best oranges I have ever tasted. And I don’t think I am just saying that because I am putting a spin on everything I eat. Even if I hated it here (which I don’t!) I would stay for the oranges and the orange juice. We got OJ with our ‘continental’ breakfast (hot beverage, cold beverage, croissant) every morning at the hotel, and it was oh so tasty. I was even forced to drink 2 glasses a couple of mornings, woe is me. I don’t think it will be a regular fixture at my house, but no matter, there are plenty of juice stands around where I can get a glass for 4 or 5 dirhams (7-8 dirhams per dollar).

Actually there are plenty of other fruits here, and they are probably all just as good as the oranges. I may be somewhat biased. After every meal fruit is served, a course that I always have room for (my dessert stomach has become my fruit stomach). You have to use a knife to help peel your orange, and most other fruit (apples, pears, etc.) are peeled too. I even tried a banana. It was ok, maybe better than the ones we get in the US, but I don’t think I have been converted just yet. Same story with pears.

The Beginning

Salam. Greetings to all from room 301 of the Majestic Hotel, Avenue Hassan II. It is my fourth day of life here in Rabat and the sixth day of this semester abroad. Before we get underway, I would like to apologize about the title of this little internet publication. I was going for something clever that gives off a ‘read-my-blog-because-the-title-is-interesting’ feel. I was unable to fit the bill, so I fell back on the trusty and slightly mediocre alliteration that you see above. I would appreciate suggestions for new names.

I will also explain the background of how I came to be in Rabat for those who do not know. I decided to apply to BU’s International Development Program in Niamey, Niger over a year ago, and since then I have been looking forward to my time there with great anticipation. I was fortunate enough to spend more than 2 years of my life in different countries in West Africa, and the prospect of returning, this time independently, was very exciting. In preparation, I studied Hausa with my father this fall. After being accepted to the Niger program and while I was busy with the end of the semester, as well as gearing up physically and mentally for my trip, the program was cancelled by BU because of security concerns in the country.

This was very disappointing, and it threw my spring semester into limbo. After a couple of weeks, I eventually decided to enroll in the Rabat Language & Liberal Arts Program. The program had not initially piqued my interest, I had no burning desire to study Arabic, and the classes would not count towards my human geography and environmental studies. But I had the chance to live and learn in another country, and I felt confident in my ability to adapt to whatever would come my way in Morocco. Waiting until next year to study abroad was also out because of my planned living arrangements (12 Verndale #2, here I come). Basically, this was my chance and I took it, and I can now say with confidence that I am very happy with my decision!

This week has been hectic and crazy in many ways. It started with packing and some sad goodbyes to family, loved ones, and friends. But everyone in my life understands why I am here, and they are very supportive of me. For that I am grateful. Then came 2 days of travelling, which I generally enjoy. The highlight was the flight from Newark to Paris when I watched three movies I have been meaning to see: Away We Go (with ‘fuckups’ John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph), Julie & Julia (food and love, what more do you need in life), and Up. I thoroughly enjoyed them all, and I especially recommend the first two. Air France’s food and wine is also better than you might think.

The longest layover in history followed in Charles de Gaulle airport, though the fact that it was my birthday helped a bit. I can proudly say that I spent part of my 21st birthday sleeping under a bench in Paris! The ‘thrill’ of discovering how to spend all my money going out to bars and buying booze legally in the U.S. will have to wait until May, although I am sure I will figure out how to do that here.

After a 2 hour and 50 minute flight we touched down at the Rabat-Sale Airport. Finally Morocco! In true fashion, we walked giddily across the tarmac from our plane. I could sense immediately that I was back in Africa, though it was not the stifling embrace that I remember from Guinea or the hot blast of Burkina Faso. Despite my fatigue I was smiling wide. Smells are very important for me, and my nose told me that this was the same continent that I have known in the past. It is hard to describe, but I think those who have had similar experiences can relate.

Yet this trip is different in two key ways. With the guidance of the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning (hereafter the CCCL or the Center), and of course within the framework of BU study abroad, I will be figuring things out for myself. This is the first time that I have lived abroad independent of my family, especially my father. I know it will be good for me, but at the same time it is sort of scary. He has always been there as guide, interpreter, guard, authority, storyteller and all the other roles a loving father can play, but now it is all on me. I relish the opportunity, but I will very much be missing him. I only hope that I can become confident enough to bargain for purchases as well as he does.

The second main difference is the newness of the country and the city I will be living in until the beginning of May. What a place Morocco is, such an amazing country. I visited Casablanca in 2008 while on a layover with Royal Air Maroc, but that was limited to the western-style and somewhat sterile airline hotel and a whirlwind tour of a few of the city’s sites. I was grateful for the chance to get a taste of Morocco, especially the orange juice, but I could not have foreseen the events that would bring me to live here a year and a half later.