Feasting in Fez
|A typical Moroccan home interior.
I had been living in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, for several months when my
new friend Fatima invited me to join her on a trip to Fez to attend a
newborn baby boy’s naming ceremony. He was the son of Fatima’s friend
Kenza. A few days later, on the train to Fez, I told Fatima how excited
I was to participate in my first naming ceremony. She rolled her eyes
and told me that this was not going to be a typical naming celebration. As our train left Rabat’s green Atlantic coast and moved inland toward
the drier brown hills around the bowl-like city of Fez, Fatima unfolded
Kenza was originally from Fez but moved to Rabat when she landed an
important job at one of the city’s archives. It was in Rabat where she
met her husband and married. Four years into their marriage they had a
child. The demands of career, motherhood, and marriage reached a crisis
point shortly after their son’s birth. Kenza was not a person of
compromises. Neither was her husband. His dormant desires to have a
traditional family life surfaced a few days after his son was born. He
could not understand why Kenza wanted to continue her work as a curator.
He could not understand her explanations of how fulfilling the work was
and how few people were lucky enough to get such a job. The more he
insisted, the less she budged. One day Kenza took their infant son and
left. She rented a room in a residence for single working women. She
stopped speaking to her husband.
Back in Fez, Kenza’s family and neighbors phoned Kenza incessantly: ‘You should give in to your husband’s wishes,’ they told her, infuriating Kenza. She viewed herself as a self-made, modern
woman.Tthe pressure from family and friends only reinforced her
determination to stay her new course. Fatima was silent for a moment. We listened to the chug and sweep of the old rail working under our feet. “Kenza is orchestrating a feast,” Fatima returned to the story, “to alter
people’s opinions.” Fatima explained that Kenza’s intention was to take a
traditional celebration and use it to reinstate her reputation in her
neighborhood, as much as to welcome her son into the community. As
Fatima concluded the tale, our train pulled into Fez’s modern town. The
dusty, cup-like city added to the feeling that we were pulling into a
wild Western outpost, ready for a show down. That’s when Fatima warned
that Kenza was like a loaded gun; anything could happen in Dodge.
We caught a taxi to Kenza’s family home in the oldest section of Fez, Fas
al-Qadim. We got out of the taxi a few blocks away in order to make our last steps on foot
where cars could not pass into the narrow, cool, matrix-like streets of
medieval Fez. When we entered the home, savory cooking aromas rushed to
greet us a few steps ahead of Kenza’s family. At least seven courses
were in different stages of preparation for the evening feast. Kenza’s
mother was busy pounding spices in a huge mortar and pestle on the floor
of her small stone and steel kitchen. Kenza’s father, a baker, had just
changed out of his flour-dusted work clothes and into flowing robes of white and ochre. He was seated near the door sipping a cup of
mint tea when we entered. He stood and greeted us and then told us to sit and
rest. His robes were fluid, but his expression was tense and pensive. Fatima whispered that he was worried about how Kenza would
behave that evening.
Servants worked hard around us as we sat on long, floral-patterned
cushions that lined the long seats built into the wall on all four sides
of the living room. One young woman brought us hot mint tea. Rich, saucy
fragrances continued to pulsate out of the kitchen. Kenza’s father
leaned back and told us that in between his baking duties he had bought a
big, fat sheep that morning. The sheep had been slaughtered on the
rooftop of their home. This was a common practice on feast days and
roofs were built to accommodate both the urban lifestyle and the demands
of rural tradition.
As soon as the sacrifice began, everyone moved quickly, taking the
meat and preparing different dishes with the different parts of the
sheep. The head, especially the brain, one of the most delectable parts,
was to be saved for the next day, to serve to lingering guests who were
most likely the closest people to the family. One woman took the
entrails and carefully scrubbed and cleaned them and set to cooking them
in a rich tomato, garlic, paprika, and olive oil sauce. Another woman
was preparing the choice cuts of meat for a lamb tajine, a lamb stew
often cooked with various vegetables and cumin, turmeric, ginger, garlic,
lemon, and saffron. Yet another family chef was making lamb couscous
with vegetables cooked in a sauce saturated with freshly ground cumin and
garlic. To this rich stew she added fresh apricots. She explained that
this lamb dish would be served on a bed of steaming couscous, and
sprinkled with roasted almonds.
Back on the rooftop, opposite from the sheep, other family members had
just finished wringing the necks of twenty two chickens and were busily
pulling off the feathers while discussing the green olive chicken tajine
they would make with the heap of birds. They
were also deciding the order in which the dishes would be presented to their
guests. First a lamb dish, then a vegetable; hold the chicken for a
pregnant pause in the middle of the evening, around midnight.
In the kitchen, the fragrance of olives and saffron was everywhere. Extra
cooking burners had to be brought in. Piles of peeled carrots, washed
okra, sliced onions, chopped garlic, sliced ginger, apricots, peeled and
sliced potatoes, huge freshly harvested lima beans, and two piles of
olives—herb marinated green and black cured—decorated the counter and
overflowed onto a temporary plastic covering on the kitchen floor.
Hanging upside down from several kitchen cabinets’ knobs were huge
bunches of freshly picked mint, enough for a few hundred cups of mint
tea into which green tea and enormous amounts of sugar would be added.
In one corner of the kitchen, three gigantic cardboard boxes were stacked
on top of each other, reaching the ceiling. They contained ten varieties
of traditional Moroccan pastries, totaling around 130 dozen sweets.
Fatima said that there had to be more pastries than attending guests
because tradition dictates that each guest be able to take a pastry home
to their own family members not in attendance. She then whispered,
“Fortunately for Kenza, her father is a baker.” He had been baking for
his grandson’s naming feast late at night and early in the morning for a
week. That morning he had also baked the loaves of flat bread that
people would consume with the feasts’ many courses. These were in two
huge plastic bags, just in front of the pastries.
Kenza’s mother finished pounding the spices and several female relatives
joined her in the kitchen. While they peeled and chopped in a large circle,
they peeled and chopped Kenza’s life. The men on the rooftop were doing
the same while they carved the last of the lamb carcass and cleaned up.
The longer they cooked, carved, and chopped the more they grew
compassionate and understanding toward Kenza. They began to talk about
their own lives and their personal triumphs and failures.
Fatima and I offered to help but were emphatically told to enjoy
ourselves. We decided to give the family some space and went for a walk
around the old quarter. The narrow old labyrinthine streets offered us a
feeling of intimacy and secrecy. In a whisper—these streets have
ears—Fatima added the juiciest morsel for last: Kenza had
recently demanded a divorce. Her neighbors and family in Fez were
forecasting horrible shame upon her. That was why, Fatima went on, Kenza
had spent large portions of her salary on procuring the best foods to
serve. Kenza was banking on people eating so well and on seeing how much
she was willing to spend in her son’s honor, that they would stop taking
her husband’s side and recognize how much she was capable of doing for
A half hour later we were back at the house. This time the air was
thick and electric. Instead of cooking fumes, a surge of human lightening
greeted us as the door opened. There stood Kenza. She stepped
toward me through the threshold and fiercely shook my hand, “Aha! The
American is here. Now our ceremony will not only be great but
international. Who will argue with me now!” She looked around
challenging everyone with her eyes and her grip on me remained firm and
possessive. A few moments later, thankfully, her first guests arrived and
she released my hand. It was 4 p.m. and an unbroken
flow of guests commenced that continued in and out of the modest home for the next
twelve hours. By 7 p.m., the musicians came, one with his
electric keyboard, another with an oud (lute), then a violin, and a
fourth with a set of hand drums. As they set up their instruments, the
couch-lined walls of the large sitting room grew thick and guests began
overflowing onto the carpet. Everyone was unabashedly talking about
current events, speculating about Kenza’s life, adding to local gossip,
and checking out each other’s attire. Kenza stood in the midst of it
all, diplomatically smiling, but her eyes were shiny and on the ready to
emit strikes of lightening.
What was unusual in this traditional setting was that men and women were
being entertained in the same room. Usually there are separate sitting
rooms for men and women. Instead, Kenza’s family created a separation of
the large room by placing more backless couches in the middle. Men sat
on one side of the room and women on the other. Though separated,
everyone could see each other. More importantly, everyone could hear each
other: Kenza had set up a male and female council to once and for all
hear her out and come to an all gender, beneficent conclusion.
At 7:30, servants brought in the first round of piping hot mint tea.
Near 9 p.m. Kenza came out to mix with the guests and brought out her son
for them to see for the first time. She went to the center of the
women’s section where an ad hoc throne had been set up and called
everyone’s attention to her. Two professional praise singers, women whom
Kenza had hired, flanked the mother and son and began to musically cry
out the baby’s name and to sing his virtues. This lasted a few minutes
and then the two singing women went around the room collecting money from
the guests. This money would go toward paying their fee as well as some
of the cost of the food and the musicians. Next came mound after mound
of pastries for guests to enjoy with their tea as well as to take home.
Fatima, always my cultural guide, informed me that this custom guaranteed
that even those not in attendance would then discuss Kenza’s life as they
munched on the honey-drenched sweets, later casting their own votes of
support or scrutiny.
As the singing women collected and guests took their sweets, Kenza took
her son to the bedroom and handed him over to a servant who put him to
bed. Some people began to leave. The musicians started playing and the
conversations grew louder and more animated. Some of the more daring
women, got up and danced to the music.
At 10:30, servants served the feast’s first course, the lamb and apricot
couscous. They set up six large, round knee-level tables between the
cushioned couches. Everyone used her right hand to grab delectable
morsels from the common serving plate and pop them in her mouth. In
their left hand diners held a piece of bread torn from a loaf of bread.
Kenza’s mother stood in the kitchen’s doorway and watched. She held her
breath and anxiously listened from the sidelines and then went back to
direct the plating up of the second course.
An uncanny silence settled in through the lamb and apricot. Fatima raised
her eyebrows at me, silently saying, ‘they’re enjoying themselves; the
mood is softening.’ By the time the second course, the lamb tajine with
carrots and okra, came out, sensory satisfaction was joined with six
gentle communal conversations like the sound of six sweet sounding,
bubbling fountains. Breaking bread’s magic had been released. Personal
stories of the joys, challenges, and sadness of relationships began to
circulate. People were beginning to connect with Kenza’s circumstances.
The women were vocal about the difficulties for women in traditional
Moroccan marriages; the men were silent in their sense of the
difficulties for Kenza’s husband, but some could also see why she was
doing what she was doing and grew bold enough to say so.
With the arrival of the chicken tajine with its plump green and meaty
black olives and intoxicating loads of garlic and ginger in the sauce,
men and women alike grew loudly benevolent all around. They boldly
offered comments such as, “barakat Allah,” God’s blessings, and
“inshallah,” God willing. Those six bubbling fountains had turned into
one unified and swift river, loud and roaring with one joyous voice. With
great relish, everyone wiped up the succulent juices of the tajine with
Kenza’s father’s bread.
By 2 a.m. the chicken had been fully devoured along with several refreshing
chopped salads of cucumbers and carrots, tomatoes and olives. Guests
reclined on pillows and discussed matters other than Kenza’s. What had
been the big deal, anyhow?
At around 4 a.m., any guest who had not already departed was offered a
place to sleep. We stayed up until 7 a.m. and
talked about our lives, about the success of the feast, about what Kenza
would do next to get her life back on track, and how she could include
her husband in the life of their young child. Then we fell into a deep,
Late that morning, Kenza, her father, Fatima, and I stepped out into the
neighborhood's embracing streets, planning on visiting some of the sacred
sites within old Fez before Fatima and I departed. Neighbors had been
waiting. They greeted us with warmth and good will. The previous weeks
of sidewalk and balcony gossip disappeared like drops of rain in this
dust bowl city. People told Kenza that she was a strong, clear-headed
woman, and that she would make a good life for her son. And they added
that they would help.
Recipe for Kenza’s Chicken Tajine with Olives
I’ve tried to replicate Kenza’s mother’s chicken tajine. The following
recipe comes the closest to capturing the savory and spicy satisfaction
of eating this dish at the feast.
One medium sized onion, cut in long narrow slivers
5 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1 whole chicken
Enough water to cover the chicken half way in a cooking pot.
1-2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
¼ teaspoon saffron pistons, roughly ground in a mortar and
1 tablespoon ground cumin
lemon juice from half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste (because of the olives, go easy on the
¼ cup roughly chopped curly parsley
¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro parsley
1 cup green olives
1 cup black olives.
Pour the olive oil into the pot for cooking your chicken. Heat it and
add the chopped onion and the minced garlic. Sauté these for a minute
and then add the chicken and quickly pour cold water over it until the
bird is half immersed. While bringing the water to boil, add the fresh
ginger, the saffron, the cumin, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Once
boiling, reduce the heat and allow the chicken to simmer for half an
hour. Turn the bird over and let it simmer until fully cooked. After
the chicken has cooked for an hour, add the two types of parsley and the
two types of olives. Allow to simmer on very low heat until you are
ready to serve the dish. Serve with a freshly baked Moroccan style flat
bread or with a fresh baguette. Accompany with a fresh green salad to
make for a complete and satisfying meal.