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There is for me a magic and an indescribable charm in the very consonance of the word Moghreb meaning at the same time, 'the west, the setting sun, and the hour when the sun fades away.' It also signifies the Empire of Morocco, which is the most western of all the lands of Islam, that place on earth where the great religious impetus which Mohammed imparted to the Arabs faded out and died. Above all, it signifies the last prayer which, from one end of the Muslim world to the other, is recited at that hour of the evening — a prayer which originates in Mecca and, spreads with universal prostration, across all of Africa to cease only when it confronts the ocean, among the very last dunes of the Sahara, where Africa itself ends.
— from Au Maroc (Into Morocco) by Pierre Loti
A piercing ray of North African sun invaded the cabin as the aircraft banked steeply on final approach, giving me a dreamlike view of the Chaouia plain. Usually the sight of its fertile fields, dotted with modest dwellings as white as sugar cubes, would have me fantasizing about new adventures, both touristic and culinary. On that day however, it brought me to the verge of tears.
I knew Morocco, the land of my birth, as a potpourri of cultures and cuisines. Perched on the rims of the Mediterranean and Atlantic, it marked a crossroads of other worlds, other continents. Over the centuries, its traditions were sown and ripened with influences of travelers to Mecca, travelers to Europe, travelers into Africa's interior, around the horn, and to the Americas. Morocco's foreignness, tinged with seductive exoticism, fascinated visitors who returned again and again to learn from its diversity and revel in its bounty.
My stomach tipped in synchrony with the plane's wing, not from anticipation, but with dread. My father's last wish, my reason for coming to Morocco, filled me with apprehension. I glanced at the leather bag under the seat in front of me. Nestled among my personal belongings was the contraband — a canister containing Daddy's ashes. I stared out the window as I considered the next hour of my life as a daughter.
Fate and Britain's Royal Air Force plucked a young man from Hertfordshire at the beginning of World War II, made a Spitfire technician out of him, and sent him to another kingdom, this one ruled by a Sultan. Mektoob, it is written — fate. There he lived for more than fifty years.
Honoring my father's request placed me at odds with the Moroccan law that forbade cremation and the dissemination of ashes. I'd learned from an official at the country's consulate in London (the city where Daddy died) that, in the case of a non-Muslim decedent, it was possible to receive an exemption from the rule — provided a member of the family had the patience to wade through the required red tape. I decided to ignore the statute and smuggle Daddy's remains to his beloved Dar Zitoun, despite the demurrals of my two brothers, who were more law-abiding than I.
The thump of touchdown signaled my arrival at Mohammed V International Airport southeast of Casablanca. In minutes, I was inching toward passport control with other weary passengers. I'd been through the routine a hundred times. Yet that line ahead filled me with trepidation.
A stubbly-cheeked agent stared at me. Did I look as guilty as I felt?
"Here goes," I said, under my breath, to the one who had always been there, and was no longer.
The official took my passport and scrutinized the identity page. "Born in Casablanca? How long have you lived in the United States?" he asked.
"A long time — over twenty years."
"And the purpose of your visit?"
"My family owns a house here," I answered.
"Allez-y [Go ahead]." The sallow-faced man in uniform endorsed my plan, and my father's, with the loud whack of his entry stamp. In an instant, I sloughed the chrysalis of a traveler to reclaim my identity as a Casablancaise. I thanked the agent with as much insouciance as my fluttering heart could muster. Fellow travelers streamed past me in hopes of securing a good place in the queue at customs. I, on the other hand, was in no hurry to get there.
There wasn't a trace of leniency in the dark, piercing gaze of my next examiner. Why did he too linger so long on my passport? "You were born here?" he asked in an impersonal tone.
"Ana Beidaouia [I'm a Casablancan]," I answered in Arabic, with false bonhomie. The examiner patted my carry-on bag.
"Open it," he ordered. I did as he asked. The officer's scowl was enough to make even an innocent tourist feel guilty. Though ground bone was a far cry from kif or firearms, what I was doing was still technically illegal. The inspector's hairy hand probed the bag's depths. He shot an inquisitive look toward me as he produced a glass jar wrapped in tissue paper. "Confiture," I managed. "A gift for a friend." On a second descent, prospecting fingers latched onto the ash-filled canister and lifted it out. A shiver ran down my spine.
The container bore the orange logo of a popular laxative. My brothers had been shocked, but I was quite proud of my ingenuity with the packaging. Though it was certainly an indelicate conveyance, the container's ordinariness, I theorized, made it less suspect. Daddy would understand.
I held my belly and made a face. "Médicament pour l'estomac [stomach medicine]," I explained. Was my response too emphatic? I must have sounded convincing, however.
Inside the arrival hall, I half expected to hear my father's call: "Kitty! Over here!" Instinctively I scanned the crowd for the familiar grin beneath the graying painter's brush moustache. On that day, however, I witnessed only the emotional reunions of others. My eyes welled up with tears at the realization of a new and unwelcome loneliness. I clutched my leather bag more tightly.
In addition to the unhappy nature of the mission, my arrival sparked a feeling of momentary rootlessness, what the French dub dépaysement, a disorientation associated with unfamiliar surroundings. How could this be? This was my homeland, and I'd been coming and going annually for years.
Morocco still provoked a sensory overload of colors, odors, and sounds, like the cacophony of conversations in Arabic, Berber, Spanish, and French that swirled around me in the airport lobby. Jostling through a crowd as colorful as a spice merchant's display, my ears readjusted to the panoply of Mediterranean languages. Dar Beida (Casablanca) was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Women in the latest Paris fashions clicked past me in high heels, leaving a scent of henna in their wake. The more conservative wore djellabah over blue jeans, with hair tucked carefully under modest hijab.
An ebony-skinned woman crowned in elaborate headdress and wrapped in yards of wildly printed cloth glided regally across the lobby. She stopped in front of me. "Où est le bureau de change?" she asked in the melodious French of a Mauritanian. I was happy to render assistance and happier still that she spoke to me in French. It proved I was still "Katy," still a Casablancaise.
The terminal echoed with women's ululations celebrating a pilgrim's return from Mecca. The trilled youyous moved me as much as a national anthem. All my years in the United States hadn't diminished the excitement of homecoming. The sounds of the revelers followed me all the way to the car rental desk, where an agent had just taken a call on his cell phone. I could have parroted the perfunctory string of salutations: "How are you? Al hamdullilah [Allah be praised]. And your health? Your children's health? Your parents' health? Allah be praised."
Tieless, sleeves rolled up, the agent paced behind the counter. I waited. My finger tapping on my passport finally got his attention. He put the caller on hold long enough to check my reservation and hand me a set of keys.
A tousled boy in oversized sneakers and torn shirt appeared from nowhere. "Porteur?" he asked. He was much too young to be an official porter. I recalled my father's admonition about vanishing luggage, so I'd keep a close watch. As for his fee, "Comme tu veux [As you wish]." The few dirhams he earned at the airport could well be his family's only source of income. Given the economic climate in the country, he was fortunate to have work at all. I knew of college graduates who swept floors in factories, or worse, sat idly at streetside cafés.
"Française? Italiana?" the lad asked.
"Lah, Beidaouia [No, Casablancan]."
"You're one of us!" he said, taking my suitcase. It must have weighed as much as he did. When we reached the car, I helped him muscle it into the trunk and then slipped him a generous gratuity. He counted his tip with the expertise of a teller. Contract fulfilled, I thought. Not quite.
"Garro? Shwinggum?" he asked, hoping to get a cigarette or stick of gum. My forceful "Lah [No]!" sent him off in search of other clients.
I threw my bag onto the passenger seat and set off on the road to my final destination, the town of Azemmour, a ninety-minute drive south. Weeks of sitting helplessly at my father's bedside at a clinic in Wimbledon made me long for the two-lane coastal road, where I could take charge once again.
Daddy and I left Casablanca's burgeoning suburbs behind. The air smelled of tilled earth and hay. To my right, between low-lying dunes, the Atlantic, twinkling and spraying salt-scented mist onto the beach, evoked memories of digging for clams as a child. There was one unforgettable evening when the bioluminescence of invading blue-green algae turned the waves radiant. We stayed up past midnight frolicking in the surf, our bodies silhouetted by the glow of microorganisms. I remember how this natural phenomenon struck fear in the fishermen, who blamed it on supernatural beings or genies, jnoon, that are an ancient and persistent fact of life in Muslim culture. My friends and I knew better, but we were young and cocky; we'd make fun of the fishermen for believing they could exorcise the jnoon by beating tambourines at a deafening pitch and yelling at the top of their lungs. Decades later I learned how many species of blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) produce toxins that are hazardous to marine life as well as to animals and humans. If I'd known that when I was a girl, I would have joined the percussionists on the shore.
Much had changed since I'd last traveled that road, most notably, the expansion of posh villas in the beach communities of Dar Bouazza and Sidi Rahal, places where I'd spent many a summer weekend. I imagined the urban sprawl was the source of occasional traffic tie-ups, like the one that blocked my approach to the roundabout ahead. The owner of an overturned donkey cart struggled to right his vehicle. Unsympathetic drivers of Peugeots, Citroëns, and Mercedes honked, and for good measure, rolled down their windows to hurl insults: "Go back to your mother!" or "Out of the way, stupid animal!"
Shattered crates of cauliflower lay in the ditch. Excited cries from would-be rescuers and pilferers of errant produce cut through the pathetic braying of the donkey, then suffering a merciless whipping. I should have been immune to such cruelty, knowing that life's hardships left no room for compassion toward animals among Morocco's poor. Still, I pitied the beast. To skirt the distressing scene, I was forced to disobey a rule of the road and circle the roundabout in a clockwise direction. Luckily, I encountered only one other car in the course of the risky maneuver. As I drew abreast of the other vehicle, its bug-eyed driver twisted his index finger against his temple and screamed, "N'ti mahbool [You're crazy]!" Time to get away from the coast. I veered off onto a country road and headed inland.
Twenty minutes later, I reached the route principale just north of Bir Jdid, a town known for its meat market. In roadside butcher stalls, quartered sheep and cows dangled from stout iron hooks. Their severed heads, eyes fixed in unsettling gelatinous stares, lined an adjacent countertop. Everywhere, flies gorged themselves in sticky puddles of blood. A cause for revulsion in the United States, in Morocco, a common and expected part of the scenery. Aromatic smoke billowed around the shish kabob vendors. On earlier visits, Daddy heralded my return with a kilo of kefta, seasoned minced lamb and beef, or with a celebratory gigot, leg of lamb.
"Kate, fancy a gee-go?" he would ask, torturing the word with his anglicized French. I was tempted to drop in for old times' sake to purchase some of the cumin-scented patties nestled inside a pocket of flatbread. But I had precious cargo to deliver. The sandwich would have to wait. I drove on quickly, closing the distance between the Katy I once was and the fatherless daughter I had become. Ahead, the green flag that marked Friday prayers fluttered above the tiny white-domed shrine of a saint at Tnine des Chtouka, where a fork in the road marked the end of my journey.
Before crossing the bridge to another world — the palatial riad that Daddy had painstakingly restored over the course of twenty years — I followed a trail of memories to the edge of the Oum er-Rbia, Mother of Spring River. I took in the timeless view of the ramparts that had seduced my father, Clive Chandler, into buying the derelict residence of a former pasha. Transforming it into a majestic Moorish home called Dar Zitoun became his passion. High above the water, I located "The House of the Olive [Tree]" by its telltale arched window. Never again would Daddy and I sit together on its terrace sipping gin-and-Dubonnet cocktails while listening to the BBC on a shortwave radio and watching satellites drift across the clear night sky.
A whiff of fresh mint from a passing truck brought on a new surge of nostalgia. I placed my hand on the bag next to me. "Daddy, you're home," I whispered.
Kefta (Ground Meat Brochettes)
Makes about 10
½ pound beef sirloin
½ pound lamb
1 tablespoon preserved lemon pulp (see page 255)
½ onion, grated
15 sprigs cilantro, minced
10 sprigs fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced Extra cumin, for dipping
Harissa, North African hot sauce (see following recipe)
Have the butcher coarsely grind together beef and lamb. Combine meat with preserved lemon pulp, onion, cilantro, parsley, cumin, salt, pepper, and garlic. Pinch off a golf-ball size amount of this mixture and form into a spindle shape around a skewer. Proceed in this manner with remaining meat mixture.
Heat coals to the red hot stage, or preheat a broiler. Grill kefta 4 minutes per side, or to desired doneness. Serve with cumin and harissa on the side.
Harissa (North African Hot Sauce)
Makes about 1½ cups
The spiciness of this condiment depends upon the chiles you use — guajillo or poblano for a milder flavor, chiltepíns or red jalapeños for extreme heat.
8 large or 16 small dried chiles
1 red bell pepper, roasted, deribbed, and seeded
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt, or more, to taste
2 teaspoons ground cumin, or more, to taste
Using scissors, cut open and seed dried chiles. Chop them into small pieces and transfer to a bowl of warm water. Soak until soft, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain chiles and pat dry.
In a blender or food processor, combine chiles, roasted pepper, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and cumin. Process until smooth. Transfer to a clean pint jar. Cover with a thin layer of olive oil. Refrigerate. Use within six months.CHAPTER 2
A House For Immortals
I'd somehow held myself together emotionally since Daddy died the week before, but in that moment at the bridge, all was lost. I sobbed uncontrollably as I drove across it en route to the oldest part of Azemmour — the walled medina, the kasbah.
Striving to compose myself before I ran into anyone, I took a deep breath to inhale the abiding peace that emanated from the Mother of Spring. Narrow dirt paths, packed to stone-like hardness through centuries of use, wound from the river's bank and snaked through fields of tomatoes, carrots, and mint.
The scenery was not altogether pristine. The incoming tide carried odd bits of flotsam and jetsam, and the outgoing laid bare scallops of unsightly algae. Although scrupulous when it came to the tidiness of their homes, Zemmouris, inhabitants of Azemmour, tended to be more cavalier in their attitude toward litter. They simply overlooked the blemish on the landscape. From experience, I knew that in a few days, I too would find the refuse less affecting.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mint Tea and Minarets"
Copyright © 2018 Kitty Morse.
Excerpted by permission of La Caravane Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 — Homecoming,
Chapter 2 — A House for Immortals,
Chapter 3 — Mint Tea and Minarets,
Chapter 4 — A Legacy of Restoration,
Chapter 5 — The Souk,
Chapter 6 — The Poison that Spreads,
Chapter 7 — Bouchaïb Entertains,
Chapter 8 — The Notary,
Chapter 9 — Lunch with Friends,
Chapter 10 — Morocco's Matisse,
Chapter 11 — King Tut,
Chapter 12 — Tagine as History,
Chapter 13 — A Pilgrimage,
Chapter 14 — The Registrar of Deeds,
Chapter 15 — The Herbalist,
Chapter 16 — A Cooking Lesson,
Chapter 17 — Locusts,
Chapter 18 — Trials and Tribulations,
Chapter 19 — A Moroccan Holiday,
Chapter 20 — Feathered Invaders,
Chapter 21 — Tea at the Courthouse,
Chapter 22 — Turkey Couscous,
Chapter 23 — Unexpected Guests,
Chapter 24 — An Eclectic Neighborhood,
Chapter 25 — Native Son,
Chapter 26 — Mehioula,
Chapter 27 — Loyal Bird,
Chapter 28 — Of Dentists and Dromedaries,
Chapter 29 — Twelve Witnesses,
Chapter 30 — Palpitations,
Chapter 31 — The Headwaters,
Chapter 32 — A Banquet for the Vanquished,