It’s a bit unusual being in a place during the Christmas holiday season where Christmas is not the main event. I remember being in India for the weeks prior to the actual day of celebration. It seemed quite odd and out of context to see Christmas decorations (including decorated trees) when the weather outside was warm and tropical and most of the people around me were practicing Hindus. Of course Christians living in the southern hemisphere are quite used to having this kind of weather during this season but I had grown up with cold weather and tales of someone from the North Pole delivering presents via snow-covered rooftops.
So being in a predominantly Muslim country, we had no idea what to expect.
Then we began to hear rumors that some people did celebrate Christmas in Morocco. The kids would be on vacation from school for two weeks, just like our students in the States. Well, I reasoned, the Qu’ran does honor the prophets and teachers of all the Abrahamic religions, so maybe there will be some kind of celebration here.
A couple of weeks ago, one of our American friends told us she had been invited to spend Christmas in a Moroccan home here in Chefchaouen; our curiosity spiked.
As the date came closer, WE got invited to the same party, which was to happen on Christmas Eve, actually, and be comprised of an international crowd. For a moment I thought I was back in Aouchtam at the QEG gathering. Ultimately, we joined a party of one Moroccan (our gracious host) one Argentinian woman (a 10-year resident of our fair city) two French people (who own a permaculture farm just outside of town) three Americans (of which we were two) and four Italians (who were in Morocco on a working vacation and “bought” their way into the party by promising to bring Italian cheese and wine.)
Most of the guests spoke two or three languages and some as many as five. Our conversations happened mostly in French and English – everyone felt included that way – and Tomas got to speak Italian as much as he wanted (he spent six years in Italy from the age of 12.) I’ll add here that Tomas and I knew only two of the other guests before we arrived at the party but we had heard about several of them and were looking forward to making these new contacts.
For a couple of days prior to the party, Tomas and I debated what we should bring as our food contribution. We settled on pasta with a vegetarian sauce. Then the question: take the pasta and sauce in two containers and mix them there? Take raw pasta and cook it there? Undercook the pasta and mix it all together JUST before we leave home and trust that it wouldn’t have to sit so long as to get mushy.
As it turned out, we made an inaccurate assessment of the situation.
Additionally, there was the matter of choosing the right clothes to wear. Most people here do not heat their homes, except for small, space heaters, so looking festive while dressing for all temperature conditions – inside and outside the house – was as tricky as trying to second-guess the holding pattern on the pasta.
Tomas layered himself with the warmest clothing he owned, including a hand-knit sweater over a shirt and under his winter jellaba with a woolen cap on his head.
I finally had the occasion to wear the beautiful silk Berber jellaba that I had had tailored on our first trip here in May (see that story here.) However – under that garment I had knitted leggings and a mock-turtle sweater and over the jelleba I wore a quilted (fake-down) coat and a scarf around my neck. There were a few moments when I took my coat off during the party.
We were to meet at our French friends at their house at 7:30 PM and car pool from there. Our host’s home was in “New Shaouen” a section of town that is too far to walk to and where taxis will go but we knew we wouldn’t find one to get back after midnight. (Oh well, we’ll deal with that later.)
There was already a small party going at our French friends’ house – people cooking, getting showered and dressed – so we hung out there until at least 8:30, while the cooked and mixed pasta stewed on the downstairs landing in a huge pot swaddled in blankets. (Why drag it up two floors, when we’d be going down again “shortly?”)
Seven of us crammed ourselves and our food into one van and arrived at Jallil’s place before 9. There, we had snacks and the Italians brought out the wine – both red and white. The red wine was too cold to drink so several guest were volunteered to hold a bottle under their clothing to warm it up. Tomas, of course, was a natural for that assignment. The white wine was already “chilling” on the table.
The Italians apologized for not being able to bring more wine, as it had added quite a bit of weight to their luggage and they did have other things they needed to bring for their two-week tour of Morocco. So, they drank very little of the wine they brought, reasoning that they could “always drink it at home.” Tomas and I did not drink much either, having given up alcohol before Ramadan last July and not having resumed the habit afterwards. Our French friends enjoyed the treat immensely and there were even a few extra sips left for the Italians.
At 10 o’clock we had hors oeuvres – grilled calamari with goat cheese on fresh bread. At 10:30 the shrimp bisque was served and I have to tell you, I have never eaten anything more delicious in my life! Magnifique! Our French friends do know how to cook.
Finally, at about 11 it was time to eat the pasta. We may as well have opened a few cans of “Chef Boyardee” – the pasta had turned to glue. Poor Tomas – it was a painful moment of releasing attachment to any idea of impressing anyone with his TRUE ability to make a dang good pasta sauce. But by this time people were so hungry that they ate it anyway.
It was a learning experience and we would definitely do it differently next time – if we ever get invited again. The saving grace – we finally opened up the red wine and it was a winner!
Our French culinary artists impressed us again at midnight when the dessert was served – a homemade strawberry cheesecake!!! It is early strawberry season here already. It was more like a milky, gelatin base rather than the heavier cheese cakes that I was familiar with, so it finished off our evening meal on a light, fruity note.
About 1 am I joined my new Argentinian friend who was dancing at one end of the room in an effort to warm up and stay awake (way past my bedtime.) I had been wondering for an hour HOW Tomas and I would get ourselves home from this unknown location. My dancing partner had the solution – a car, which she prefers to park (drum roll) at the end of the very street THAT WE LIVE ON!
Merry Christmas gift number ONE.
She was ready to go home and we happily hitched a ride. As she was winding through the back streets of lower Shaouen, she announced that we were approaching her “teacher’s house.” I was mildly curious to know what kind of teacher – I knew she was an artist; could it be an art teacher?
She pointed out the path to “her teacher’s house” as we rolled by and I asked: “What kind of teacher?”
“My Arabic teacher,” she replied. She’d been studying with him off and on since 2006. We’ve been looking for a new Arabic teacher since we arrived here. “He’s the most wonderful teacher,” she continued – “both Classical Arabic and Darija.”
Merry Christmas gift number TWO!
And on that happy note, she dropped us right at the foot of our path to home and we promised to re-connect very soon for more Chefchaouen adventures.
Looking back on the evening, I realized that although the Christmas traditions were not emphasized, the Christmas Spirit was definitely present. Still, I think it ranks as the most unusual Christmas I’ve ever had.