Our landlady, Fatima, is returning to France on November 10th. Actually, she left our home for Tangier on the 7th. I am sad to see her go, as she has made so much possible for me/us during our integration into our new living situation.
A week ago or so, I’d had the idea to have a tea for her in our salon and invite the neighborhood ladies – I haven’t yet entertained them in my home. I mentioned this idea to Tomas and he was less than enthusiastic – always a cue for me to let the idea season and reflect on my intention a bit longer. A few days later I received a “picture from Spirit” to take a pot of tea down to them, as they meet daily in the garden or in Fatima’s house. Great idea, Tomas affirmed. Meanwhile, I fine-tuned the feeling tone of what I was intending for this gathering.
Through the days that followed I continued to imagine bringing the tea to the group and sitting with them, enjoying their company and feeling “one among them.”
Wednesday morning I awoke with my nose against a wall of fear. I was near to tears, overwhelmed with my mental perception that ever becoming fluent enough in Arabic to speak with my Moroccan neighbors was a near impossibility. Tomas gently reminded me that learning a new language is not a linear process but I remained inconsolable.
Earlier that morning Tomas had suggested we “hitch a ride into Tetouan” with a delightful couple from Holland (Shean and Elvira) whom we had met the day before. They had been visiting Chefchaouen and were returning to Martil. They would be going right past Marjane where we’d wanted to do some shopping. How convenient! Shean and Elvira were very agreeable and it would have been lovely to continue our visit with them but my “horns were down and my feet were planted.” Chalk it up to a poor night’s sleep, my Taurus nature of shifting gears slowly or just plain obstinacy – I was NOT going to Tetouan today!
With Fatima’s departure imminent, I was running out of days to have my tea party. Then, suddenly, just as Tomas and I were about to go out the door to do some errands, I realized that THIS day was the perfect day for me to take the tea down, as Fatima had company and there was much visiting and lively conversation in the rooms below us. I quickly made a pot of mint tea and went down. The tea was graciously received.
The only part of my vision that was missing was MY PRESENCE in this scene.
Then, Fatima reminded me that I had wanted to learn how to make couscous. She was going to make some this morning and would I like to watch her and learn?
OF COURSE I WOULD!
Tomas and I did our errands quickly and returned home so that I could join the couscous party.
What happened over the course of the next three hours was the breakthrough that can only come from taking positive action when one’s nose is up against that proverbial wall of FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real.)
I was swept up into a multi-dimensional experience that included making couscous but was that really the main event? I cannot even say, as the elements of those hours were so interwoven that I cannot separate them.
I was one of seven ladies. Letifa had her five-month-old baby with her, as well as her “mother’s helper” Suwela. Fatima’s visitor was another Fatima (no, not her daughter, Fatima) and the other neighbors present were Zura and Hannan. The only “regular” not present was Habiba (Suwela’s mother.)
Making the couscous was a complex process for a novice westerner to take in. I took two and a half pages of notes. Tomas later reminded me that there are probably numerous YouTube videos that I can refer to, if needed but at the time, I was treating this as a singular opportunity to absorb an long-standing, cultural tradition. In the Arab culture, being able to make a tasty, FLUFFY couscous is a mark of true mastery for a woman. I can’t really think of anything comparable in America, except perhaps, making pie crust or perfect gravy.
Couscous is a “hands-on, hands-in” process. The women I was with can probably do most of it blindfolded with one hand tied behind their back. Like working any kind of dough, there’s a feeling, a look and even a sound involved in evaluating the process to achieve the desired result.
Although it’s NOT rocket science, it’s definitely kitchen science and becomes an art form only with lots of experience and mastery of skills.
And it’s a VERY sensual process from the initial mixing of the dry couscous grains with oil and water, through the steaming process, the artistic arrangement onto plates – one for each family in our neighborhood – and ultimately, the shared eating experience of the seven of us sitting around a common platter, yumming up the broth-soaked grains, along with the meat and vegetables.
While Fatima and I were attending to the initial steps of this operation, the other ladies were deep in conversation in the salon. Multiple conversations were happening, actually, both between people in the room and via mobile phones. The flat screen TV displayed a popular Moroccan soap opera that Suwela particularly enjoyed. And through all of this, little Nusserallah slept, oblivious to everything except the peaceful dreams of a babe so thoroughly loved by everyone present and beyond.
While the couscous steamed, Fatima and I joined the party in the salon. Even though I could understand next to none of the words being spoken, I felt totally included. Funny how God’s works, isn’t it? A couscous party is MUCH more fun than a tea party!
When it was time to taste the broth before pouring it over the steamed grains, Fatima One called in the other “expert,” Fatima Two. I was included in this evaluation and our collective opinion was that it needed more salt. Sprinkle, sprinkle, stir, stir. Then the real artistic part began.
Fatima One poured the broth through a sieve over the steamed couscous grains that were waiting in a very large wooden bowl (I think I was told not to use plastic for this.) The broth ran like a river, soaking into the soft couscous, while Fatima Two deftly mixed the combination and I watched wide-eyed, as the couscous became even FLUFFIER! When the right amount of broth had been absorbed, Fatima Two began heaping the grains onto serving plates of various sizes, smoothing the mounds and clearing the excess from the plate rims with an artistic eye and an expert hand. Next, she took a small bowl (about the size and shape of a Chinese rice bowl) and made an indentation in the center of each mound of couscous. Then, one by one, these cavities were filled with “goodies:” chunks of beef, garbanzo beans and pieces of vegetables. The larger, intact vegetables were used to “decorate” the sides of the couscous mounds.
When all the family plates were completed, Fatima One handed me a 12” platter, heaped high and said: “Take this to your husband and then come back and eat with us.” Two days later we’re just polishing off the last of this scrumptious dish.
And so I returned to the kitchen downstairs to find an enormous platter, heaped with everything left over, after the family plates had been delivered, and seven spoons standing upright, stuck into the couscous around the edge, waiting for seven hungry women to make light work of this masterpiece. It was my first experience of eating “Moroccan style.” I quickly realized that the “decorative veggies” also acted as markers for individual portions. I was expected to “eat my share” of this pie and several of the women did get down to the plate in their section but I failed at this part. Then the keifer (buttermilk) was brought out and added to the last remnants of the couscous on the plate. I found I preferred to drink my keifer from a glass which is OK too. After the keifer, the fruit was served – grapes and apples – and we all ate some of that. Amazing how much food seven women can eat! THEN we had the tea (or what was left of it) from earlier that morning. I had come full circle.
Fatima Two had been cleaning up during the fruit course and I went to help her dry the dishes. Every so often I consulted Fatima One regarding where something “lived” in her cupboard, so she can find it again when she returns from France in March. We were mutually appreciative of the exchange that happened between us. She was able to sit at the table and enjoy her company and I had found something useful to do that didn’t require much talking.
Moral: Communication occurs at levels much deeper than words. And if connection is a goal of communication, why not go straight there? Cooking and sharing food being two of the international languages, the shared preparation and consumption of the couscous served to connect me with my neighbors in a way that quantum leaped me beyond months of studying their language. For these women, being together seems to be the point of the exercise. Anything more than that is “topping on the couscous,” you might say.