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More by Beebe Bahrami

2008 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — Runner-Up Winner

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’s tale.

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 her son.

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, short sleep.

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
(serves 4)

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.

Ingredients

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
pestle.
1 tablespoon ground cumin
lemon juice from half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste (because of the olives, go easy on the
salt)
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.

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