Getting Lost in the Old Medina of Fes

After getting ripped off by the taxi coming from the CTM bus station, we got dropped off at an entrance of the old Medina of Fes, in front of an obscure alley. “Straight ahead, then right” scrambled the driver, directing us to our riad. A fainting light hardly lit the entrance arch. We paid the atrocious amount of 70dh to our driver, to later finding out it was really supposed to be 20dh. We headed up the alley. The ”straight ahead” became a panoply of zigzags going uphill through dark pathways. Soon enough, our confident look turned into complete confusion. A little boy on his bicycle pointed a direction. It couldn’t seem more like the beginning of the end, lost in a maze of confusion in alleys of wandering kids and young men gatherings. However, the way indicated was more attractive than the basic directions our driver told us.

IMG_8925
A lot of children wander the alleys, day and night, cruising on bicycles or playing futbol. There will be more happy to show you the way or pose for a picture… in exchange for a dirham or two.

At the end of the passage, a group of young men greeted us by a stand of candies. “Are you lost?”. We tried to hide the truth but our dazed look confirmed his thoughts. “I’ll guide you to your place” he continued, anticipating the answer. At this point, we didn’t have better choice. Either to follow him, or be followed.

After a left, and a sharp right through a gloomy tunnel, another left and a final right, we ended up at the end of the darkest alley where he opened a wooden door. I was reassured as soon as I recognized the living area with the vaulted ceiling pictured on the website. Therefore, the place was unlit and deserted.Suddenly, three giggling heads popped out from an indoor balcony. Pretending to be the only guests in the large riad, the three stooges invited us to join them upstairs. Lisa and I burst into an uncontrollable laugh. When assured we were safe, our guide wished us goodnight and goodstay without asking for any charge. He ended up being a real gentleman. We finally got shown a room: spacious with high ceilings, hand-carved walls, ceramic windows and three balconies facing the ceramic chandelier and overlooking the communal living area. The bed had golden sheets and the detailed lanterns added magic to the room. The bathroom was beautiful and cozy with stone work on the floor and walls. We had our palace. One guy finally admitted to work at the riad and gave us the key to the room. We were still laughing from the moment we got out of the cab and got lost in the dingy alleys. We even dropped of laughter on the floor when I found a pair of old man underwear on our royal couch. Good times. Medina of Fes Founded in 793 AD, Fes is found in the foothills of the North Middle Atlas mountains of Morocco. With nearly 10,000 streets, the medina inhabits about 150,000 Fassis. Probably the largest and oldest in Morocco, the medina is made of about 300 neighbourhoods, each housing five important features: a school, a mosque, a fountain, a bread oven and a hammam. Hundreds of merchants and craftsmen selling products such as dates, spices, carpets, copper urns and musical instruments are found in the narrow alleys, as well as the local people and tourist brave enough to venture the busy maze.

1376554_10153395567975721_1742846270_n
Breakfast on the roof terrace overlooking the Medina of Fes

After an attempt to explore on our own, we soon got lost, as it is a certainty in Fes. We ended up following an other young man to the main square. Five hours later, he was still guiding us. We visited a traditional leather tannery where we got given a bunch of mint at the entrance to diminish the pungent smell. We observed the process overlooking the tanning pits awash with coloured dye. Lisa got a bag made out of camel leather and rug, and a beautiful pair of boots the same style. I got an Indigo wallet made out of camel stomach.

IMG_8906
Leather Souq, the oldest leather tannery in the world. Tanning pits are like honeycombs where workers treat and work the leather. First, the leather is soaked in diluted acid pigeon excrement to soften hide, then it is soaked in vegetable dye such as henna, saffron and mint,  and finally hung to dry.

We continued with a visit to an argan oil and natural remedy pharmacy. Then the carpet and blanket factory where we had mint tea. Lisa ended up purchasing a beautiful carpet and a cozy blanket.

For lunch, we skipped the traditional tourist restaurant and opted for an authentic family eatery instead. A woman brought us in the kitchen making us sample three different dishes with a communal spoon. I chose the lamb, Lisa chose the beef. It was served as tagines, with side plates of lentils, caramelized onions, white beans, and cooked salad. Our presence was very noticeable as we were the only women patrons in the room. Food was authentic, delicious and a cheaper option.

Walking in the streets of the old medina was definitely a tumultuous experience. Venturing through slippery and tight alleys amongst donkeys, Fassis, tourists and sheeps being purchased for the Eid Al-Adha was inevitable and a constant effort. But these are nothing less than the joy of travelling!

IMG_8927
Sheeps marked for the Eid Al-Adha

Since we were off volunteer duty for the weekend, we decided it would be a good time to treat ourselves. Morocco doesn’t tolerate alcohol openly however, liquor stores can be found in some of the largest cities. We ventured outside the busy medina and took a cab to Burj Fes (shopping mall) where we stacked up on some goodies. Our plan was to be back on time for sunset, however all cabs were fully occupied due to rush hour. After waiting a good 20 minutes beside a stall selling sheep, we finally got a cab to pull over. Unfortunately, language barrier got in the way and we got dropped off at the wrong entrance of the medina. With the night approaching and a group of locals circling us offering to walk us through the dark maze, I found myself at the edge of losing it. I took a deep breath and stepped back. They were only trying to help us, yet their approach was overwhelming. They put us back in the cab and told the driver the correct way. We made it safe back to our riad. And so on, finishing the day on the roof top terrace munching on goat cheese, sweet dates and chocolate, sipping on Moroccan wine. I admired the old Medina of Fes illuminated by thousands of lights while the prayer chanting of a thousand Fassis soothed the chaos of the day. We shared travel stories with our local host and a German guest while the scent of Moroccan hash floated in the cool air of the African night.

IMG_8954

Volunteer Abroad: Reflexions & Conclusion

News from Morocco: The warm sunrays light up the alleys of the Medina. The scents of olives, spices and cow’s feet travel the streets. I walk from my lovely homestay through the alleys towards my work place. Teaching the kids in the morning, empowering the women in the afternoon. However, I’m not sure who’s gaining more from this: them or me. I’m already learning the basics of Arabic, how to cook Moroccan dishes, how to make a djellaba… The prayer chanting at 5:30 in the morning at the mosque nearby inspire my dreams. I am so fortunate  to be here. Insha’Allah! (Facebook post from 9/01/2013)

The day has come. Too fast, too soon. I was getting comfortable with my volunteering work, my host family, the smell in the alleys, the call to prayer at 5 in the morning, then I had to leave.

Farewells to the Women

The language barrier, altered culture, different traditions and religion made the journey challenging, but interesting and enlightening. To see the progress that in only a few weeks we made was significantly noteworthy. It surely wasn’t much, oh no, but you can’t change the world in a few days. We didn’t manage to teach languages, however, the progress came from the exchanges and interactions amongst all of us, women. We connected with them by showing truthful enthusiasm in their lives and environment, and the interest was mutual. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter what colour of skin we had, what language we spoke, what country we came from, what religion we believed in. It was the sympathetic feelings of solidarity, recognition, and togetherness that brought us all together. I realized that unitedly we made it all possible. We empowered each other. There is still a long way to go, but with the help and support of following volunteers, these beautiful women will grow into flourishing human beings.

After exchanging email addresses, clicking some photographs, and drying some tears, we said goodbyes. I left the blank booklets and pens on the table, with hopes to inspire them to learn furthermore. I accepted the kiss on the cheek but also reached for a hug, and I held them all with all my love.

Farewells to the Children

The class prematurely finished that day and the kids were brought to the courtyard. The teachers put on music and, while holding hands in a circle, we sang, swung, jumped, skipped and spun on the dance floor. It was a full hour of festivities, filled with laughs, giggles and beaming smiles. The children were too young to understand the reality of the event: they had no idea we were leaving. All they wanted was to be part of an image clicked by my camera, their toothless smiles and bright shiny eyes ready to be photographed.

The teachers brought us to the back room. There was a table with empty glasses and a box. “Tea?” I asked. They shook their heads. They opened the box which was filled with baked goods. They poured thick milk in the glasses. “This is for you. To thank you.”

IMG_9705

I was overwhelmed by all this devotion and appreciation. I felt like the worst teacher and didn’t believe I deserved such a celebration.

“Of course you do. You were one of our best volunteers. It’s not about the techniques or the rules that are followed from a book. It’s about you, your heart to heart presence with the children and your genuine connection with each one of them. You influenced and inspired them. They looked up to you. Believe us, we know our children.”

Indeed. I’ve never realized any of that. I felt like those teachers, and those women and even those kids taught me way more than I taught any of them.

IMG_9506
Picture taken on my last day at work with the children, the Dar Attilaba teachers and IVHQ coordinator.

The teachers also made me promise to come back and stay with them, and teach their kids. It was hard to hold the tears and I could see theirs reaching the edges of their almond shaped eyes.

I hugged the children goodbye, without being able to explain that this would be the last. Those kids that once were so challenging to teach. Although at the end, I saw them as my students. The ones that looked up to me eager to learn. The ones that get so excited when I reached papers out of my bag for them to colour. The ones whose eyes sparkle as they see PlayDoh for the first time. The ones that held my hand while a story was read. The ones that ran into my arms and gave me the most sincere kiss on the forehead.

Conclusion

This first volunteering work in Morocco was indeed one of the richest and most rewarding experiences of my life. Not only did I gain a better cultural understanding of a country, being exposed to a new language, religion and environment, but I also built strong ties with inspiring and remarkable individuals. Volunteering abroad has met my expectations in many ways: I did get confused, disoriented and uncomfortable. I did think: “what have I gotten myself into.” And I’m glad I did. You can only grow and learn when you take risks and accept challenges. And once you start thinking outside the box and work past your comfort zone, you get a true sense of accomplishment and identity. This mind-opening experience not only gave me the chance to change others, but it mostly changed me. As well as having a positive and meaningful impact on the community, this volunteering work experience gave me a new perspective on life and gave me a sense of purpose. It also motivated me to engage myself furthermore into developing communities and continue to help others in need: To volunteer, to give back and to receive, and to be involved as a global citizen.

Rabat, Morocco, 2013: Where I have left a piece of my heart, along with a footprint behind.

1381747_10153415494810721_289200399_n

Empowering Women

I was sitting at a table amongst women whose eyes were locked on their sewing projects. Since the program was new, I had limited instructions on what exactly I was supposed to do, and how to do it. I had brought writing booklets and pens in case teaching some French, their second language, would be part of the class. However, I soon realized that none of them spoke a word of French, nor English. In fact, they barely spoke at all. They were quietly intrigued by my blank sheets and pens but as soon as I would reach to them they would go back straight to their projects.

Many women in Morocco suffer from poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. The program was conceived to empower women by improving literacy levels, assisting with professional development and providing support to females suffering from domestic violence. The idea was to help them with languages, give them the tools to enter the work environment and build their confidence.

Jemilah was in charge of the sewing activity in the afternoon. She had a contagious smile, her beautiful face delicately wrapped in a pink hijab. Her job was to hold a free class of a few hours each day, and where any women could feel comfortable to come in and sit amongst other females. There wasn’t any formal teaching, but rather a gathering of females sharing the same learning activity while having the support of others.  At 28 years old, Jemilah was an educator at the Dar Attilaba, loving wife and caring mother. She always carried a portfolio of different sewing projects, most of them leading to the creation of a djellaba.

IMG_9593
Although Jemilah’s French was limited to only a few words, I managed to have a bit of understanding with her. Since we needed to bring our own material, she took us on a walk on our second day to get what we needed to participate in the class. We followed her through the mazed alleys of the medina in search of threads and fabric.
1377133_10153392319865721_1858342150_n

We spent afternoons with Jemilah and her students, sitting at the table learning the art of Moroccan sewing and being taught the basics of Arabics. At this point, I was confused and powerless, as I felt I received more that I actually gave. My pens and blank booklets stayed on the table, however I decided not to touch them. I realized that at this point, I couldn’t teach any language. Perhaps the idea was simply to genuily be interested and engaged in their lives, the best we could. My goal became to do the best I could each day to have their eyes lift from their sewing project and acknowledge our presence. Some days would be more silent, other days we would laugh at how incredibly awkward it was to understand each other. And that became the reward. In a month, we barely exchanged any words, but communicated with expressions, signs, smiles and laughs.

It took a while before adjusting to this very new situation, but after a few weeks, it almost felt like family.

IMG_9581

 

Teaching Children

When reading the description of tasks, it wasn’t clear to me what ‘helping with children’ exactly implied. Besides my experience teaching swimming lessons (which I actually really enjoyed), I didn’t have much of a teaching background. And working with kids? I mean, kids are fine, although I find at times awkward to deal with their impulsivity, loudness, hyperactivity, whining or disobedience. Plus, besides my two adorable nephews that I see once a year, children are not part of my environment. This experience was going to be an amazing opportunity not only to learn more about these little people, but also to develop my communication and personal skills, as well as testing my initiative and discipline.

article_images-how_you_can_keep_volunteers_on_your_team_128727701

When I stood up in front of the class on my first day, I had no idea at the near second what I was going to say. All eyes were on me, impatient to learn and eager to hear me speak. French? English? I noticed the alphabet letters displayed on the wall. I took a chalk and wrote on the black board and, with probably the biggest interrogation point in my face, spelt in French:“A?” Immediately, the 14 students repeated after me, loud and clear: “A!” “Ok,” I thought to myself, “that’s a good start.” I then invited Lisa to take over for the English part. We did the same with numbers, and days of the week, and colours. We were teaching.

We taught children every morning, and soon enough got a grip of it. As young as they were, and as limited with the languages they would know, we managed to introduce activities to make the learning interactive, fun and creative.

A week earlier back home, people were curious to know why I was bringing Play Doh on my trip. Actually, I always bring this modeling compound while travelling abroad to give to children I meet and interact with. When I was challenged to teach kids and bring something new to both the class and their teachers, I managed to incorporate the colourful dough in the activities. With that new and fun tool, we taught kids numbers, small mathematics and how to sculpt letters of the alphabet. Plus, we all had a blast!

The weeks went by and I started to get a feeling of attachment. When teachers switched the class to Arabic and read stories, the girls would hold my hands, play with my jewelry and give me occasional kisses on the cheeks. When playtime arrived at the end of each class, kids that once were independently roaming around the yard, soon took our hands and dragged us with them. In the open-air courtyard we sang, danced and played in harmony.

I soon realized it didn’t matter if we had teaching experience or not. The concept was to give through the donation of time with the willingness to contribute and help, with positive energy, and compassion. Once you overcome the challenging feelings of discomfort and disorientation, you realize that you are capable of achieving. And to see those little faces staring at you with a big smile, holding your hands tight without wanting to let it go, that is a pure joy and the greatest reward.

IMG_9633

Soon, those children filled with happiness and love became the reasons to wake up eagerly each morning.

 

Orientation

Departure

I woke up to an appetizing warm meal with cheese and bread waiting on my table tray in front of me. “Rouge ou blanc?” asked the flight attendant from Air France. “Juste de l’eau, merci,” I answered. “Madame, il vous faut du vin avec votre repas,” he insisted. “Rouge alors, merci.” I was on my third and last connecting flight towards Morocco, spoiled with a nice meal and wine and a beautiful pink sunset over a sea of fluffy clouds.

Arrival

“Bienvenue au Maroc!” saluted the immigration officer. When I got off the plane in Rabat, Salah, an employee of ICLS, partner of IVHQ waited for me at the arrival gate with a welcome sign. Along with an other volunteer, he explained us that he was going to be our in-land coordinator and then chauffeured us to our designated host families.

arrival

Orientation

The first day was reserved for the orientation. Hyat, our host ‘mother’, cabbed us to the ILCS placement in the district of Sale. ILCS works in partnership with IVHQ to offer the volunteer services in Rabat.We met our coordinators and fellow volunteers of different placements. The day was spent to discuss about the importance of volunteering, to share our expectations and to talk about the benefits of the volunteer work. They also educated us on the norms and customs of the country, as well as a crash course on religion and traditions.

After a very informative and educative orientation, Salah took the group for a tour of the city. He pointed at the location and use of banks, transportation systems, cellphone services. We also had lunch at a traditional Moroccan restaurant where we all experienced for the first time their famous tagine.

En Route to Our Work Placement

Our work placement happened to be centrally located in the same medina as our homestay. We followed our host ‘mother’ for a short walk through the tight alleys, passing merchants setting up their stalls for business and cats enjoying the morning quietness.

Dar Attaliba

When Lisa and I arrived at Dar Attaliba, we entered the walls of the medina through a small wooden door and walked into a bright courtyard. Dar Attaliba  is a female student house that offers academic support for local women and young girls affected by poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and/or violence. We noticed 2 levels around the courtyard. There was three rooms at the lowest floor: one with toddlers, one with preschoolers, and one with women. A curved staircase stairs led upstairs to a room reserved for teaching and another one for sewing and brodering activities.

IMG_9573

Meeting the Women

There was a small group of women sitting around a table. We could easily differentiate the participants from the educators, the latter wearing long white coats. I shook hands with each one of them, and received a timid kiss on both cheeks, as tradition it seemed.  The women were very timid and reserved and their eyes were locked on their project with only a shy smile once in a while to acknowledge our presence. I soon realized that none of the women could speak French or English. And unfortunately my Arabic was embarrassingly nonexistent. The language barrier put us into an immediate discomfort and awkwardness state. I knew right then that this experience was going to be one of the most challenging, hence the most worth it.

d4a6715c4302fbfd74e6e1dc90c59916

Meeting the Children

We were sitting at a low table and on tiny chairs between children aged from 2 to 8. Eyes were all on us and once again, we were confused at exactly what role to play. The ‘occasional childcare’ listed in the description of tasks didn’t seem to be sufficient for our understanding. Were we supposed to assist the teachers? Were we supposed to bring teaching material? Were we supposed to stand up and actually teach? I never taught before, only swimming lessons while in my teens, but in a class? And what language do they speak? What do they know? How to teach a class that has such a large age difference? And why is the whole class staring at us impatiently waiting for instructions? My discomfort got interrupted while I glimpsed at Lisa whose ‘get me outta here’ look in her eyes couldn’t hide any longer behind her uncertain smile. Her tall body was cramped on her miniature chair and she had a ‘please save me’ sign on her forehead. I started giggling and soon enough decompressed. That scene gave me the chance to breathe. Let’s do this!

IMG_9479

I saw a black board on the wall. I stood up and took a piece of chalk. I had absolutely no idea on what to say or do next, but I accepted the challenge!

125b28dfab0f13dff23bece19b61ce6e

 

Rabat: Exploring the Neighbourhood

I’ve been in Rabat for already 2 weeks and I haven’t been further than the ramparts of the medina. So Lisa (my volunteering partner) and I decided to stay in the capital this weekend and explore the surroundings.

I can’t believe I haven’t left the medina. All this time I had the ocean right nearby! We followed the seawall towards the Tour Hassan. It was a nice change to be out of the everyday chaos and finally have quietness and open space ahead of us.

Tour Hassan

Started in 1195, the Tour Hassan was intended to be the largest minaret in the world as well as the mosque beside it. It was stopped when its builder died in 1199. This incomplete tower made of red sandstone reaches 44m, about half of the intended 86m height. 200 columns are still erected between the minaret and mosque, making great shade breaks for visitors.

Waterfront

The temptation of stopping for a homemade ice cream couldn’t be resisted as we passed a French café on the way back. Lisa splurged on a caramel, vanilla and  nougatine trio. I also opted for nougatine, then added strawberry sorbet and ferrero rocher. These frozen scoops melted their way in a happy-me. This Europpean delicacy was comforting and very much appreciated.

IMG_9381

We glimpsed at kids pushing each other in the cold water. The brave ones attempted back flips and big stunts, at a hope to get an applause from the audience. I admired the couples walking slowly on the pathway, holding hands, contemplating the orange colours of the setting sun reflecting on the pink Kasbah.

 Kasbah of the Udayas

Just at the end of the seawall, at the mouth of the Bou Regreg river is located the Kasbah of the Udayas. An old kasbah build during the reign of the Almohads. It has been deserted since AH 595/AD1199.

A night in the waterfront

We met up with two of Lisa’s friends who’ve been travelling around and volunteering in South Africa. They came to meet up with her while passing through Morocco. We placed a rendez-vous at Le Dhow, a beautiful traditional sailboat that is now used as a lounge-restaurant. Mariah, a girl from our volunteer program also tagged along. It was refreshing to engage conversations with common subjects and interest with people from similar places. It was always a nice break for them to finally express themselves in a most common language. So there we were, vagabonds of the earth, meeting and sharing travel stories on an old wooden sailboat under the shimmering stars. As the full moon raised up in the dark sky, we cheered our taboo cocktails. An other beautiful African night.

We coulnd’t go back without jumping in the go carts. Each aboard a small car, we raced towards each other, bumping in one, crashing in the other.

If you have the munchies, there are a few independent stands selling a variety of snacks. Almonds, dates and cashews are inevitable to find. If you have a sweet tooth, follow the smell of cotton candy getting rolled and find the man with a stand on his bicycle also selling sticky apples on sticks.

Rabat Beach

The next day we walked along Rabat Beach. A numerous amount of amateur surfers tempted the white washes. The beach was busy with kids playing football, family gatherings, couple romancing. The mark of the tide came obvious with all the garbage washed ashore from the Atlantic.

At night, we ventured into a dark, smoky and dodgy bar near the train station. Lisa and I immediately stuck out as being the only females to appear in such a masculine environment. However, a couple of ladies were found upstairs, their bright red lips sucking on a cigarette, with the other hand holding a cocktail.

Meeting Dan and Chris was an inspiring encounter. Their project is amazing and I wish them the best. You can follow their work and journey by clicking on these links:

Celebrating Eid Al-Adha in Morocco

Warning: This blog post contains images and descriptions that might not be suitable for vegetarians, closed-minded or fragile readers. Some may find the content disturbing. If you do read, please have an open mind and the ability to understand a different culture. Thank you.

Every year, on the 10th day of the Islamic calendar’s last month, falls one of the two Muslim feast holiday: Eid Al-Adha. This Festival of Sacrifice is to honour the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of compliance to command. When the son accepted and the sacrifice was about to be performed, Allah stopped to provide Abraham with a lamb to kill instead. Muslim families from all around the world will sacrifice a sheep or a goat every year on that special religious holiday.

Today, on October 16th, 2013, I witnessed with my own eyes such an intimate and important religious ceremony.

My host family have been preparing for the feast all weekend. They made and baked the mkhamer (bread), dried and chopped the herbs, prepared side dishes of backoula (spinach salad), zarlouk (cooked eggplants) and khizou mchermel (spiced carrots). They sharpened the knife. They got the sheep.

IMG_9035_1

Sheep pushed in carts have been circulating all over town the past few days. Each Muslim family purchased a sheep or a goat and kept them on their outdoor terrace or home for a few days prior the sacrifice. The bleating of sheep was added to the sounds of prayer chanting at night.

Earlier this morning we went to the grandmother’s home where all the rest of the family reunited. Aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody was present as well as 2 students from Senegal. There were also 3 sheep, one for each small family.

Being part of the sacrifice was never planned. I didn’t research well prior my arrival and was unaware of this important holiday. When it was mentioned and described to me, I was put into a strange blend of anxiety and excitement. I’ve never witness death before, therefore this unique opportunity had to be taken with arms wide open. I am not a vegetarian back home, but I always prefer vegetables and fish over meat, by taste preference at first, and also because I don’t know where my meat comes from. It is not for health reasons, but rather for animal cruelty concern. I don’t agree with our meat industry and wished people would realize how much abuse is made towards animals. Being part of the sacrifice was going to be hard, but also a massive eye-opening experience.

Salt was thrown over the drain in the outdoor terrace. The first sheep was brought out. The butcher, after doing his prayer, put the ram on its side and caressed his back. With a sharp movement, he cut the throat. The blood sprayed out its vein. It died immediately. However, its legs shook as the blood tried to rush to the brain, and back and forth. Agony. I found myself in the mix of emotions and placed my sunglasses to hide the tears accumulating at the edge of my eyes. The blood squirting was overwhelming. The scene was perturbing. The death of a living was heart aching. But I held on. I was so fortunate to be there.

IMG_9272

The butcher chopped the head off. And then came the hoofs. He sliced the bottom of one leg and blew air into the skin. The inert animal blew up like a balloon, making it easier to lacerate the skin from the muscle. When completely removed, the skin and wool is kept aside to later be cleaned and used as praying mats. The animal was then hoisted by the back legs. It was time for the belly to be carved. He removed the organs and placed them into a plastic basin. They were put aside for today’s BBQ and dinner.

The women took their shoes off and danced barefoot in the bath of blood. They then brushed and hosed the ground, the walls and the doors. We were ready for the second sheep…

And the third…

IMG_9276
Saving the most savoury part for the Friday’s cousous

A cousin grabbed my hand and hurried me inside the house. The Royal ceremony just started and was displayed on TV. The King performed a Sunnah prayer followed by a sermon. It was to Mohammed V, the King, to sacrifice the first sheep (the one for his palace). Then the butcher did the second one (for the country). Celebrations at the palace followed the sacrifice.

The smell of the charcoal burning under the grill dragged us outside.  I helped the younger ladies wrap the belly fat around pieces of liver and stab them on sticks to make kotbane (shishkabobs). The women marinated the lungs and the rest of the liver for the dinner later. As a tradition, the organs are eaten on the day of the sacrifice, the meat in tagines the next day and the head on the Friday’s couscous. 1/3 of the meat is kept for the family, another 1/3 to trade to neighbours and family and the rest goes to the poor and needy. From head to hoofs, nose to tail, everything is eaten.

IMG_9315
Tasty liver shishkabobs, charcoaled liver and heart and delicious couscous

The table was set outside with Moroccan blankets wrapped on its side to diminish the heat of the midday sun. Everybody grabbed a dish and placed it in the center of the table. We gathered for the feast. We laughed, smiled, spoke a mix of Arabic, French and English. A multi-ethnic lunch with various conversation from history to religion to simple joy talks. We spent the afternoon dancing on the rhythms of Arabic music. From the younger son to the grand-mother, everybody showed their moves on the living room floor. There was no time to sleep or be tired. It was time to celebrate.

More than 25 billion animals are killed by the meat industry each year. As soon as they are born, they are put in overcrowded cages, crates or stalls. They are deprived from exercise, sunlight and care. The average American meat-eater is responsible for the death of about 90 abused animal per year. Today I witnessed the raw death of 3 animals. However, these creatures had the best life a sheep could have. They were found in the mountains after living a life of running wild and free. They were brought to a home where they were given respect and care. They were killed quickly and efficiently. Yes, it was hard to see. But I’m glad I did.

This unique experience was given to me as an opportunity to open my eyes not only on another religion and culture, but also on mine.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

-Gandhi, Indian spiritual leader

Insha’Allah!

Peacefulness in Chefchaouen and the Rif Mountains

The 5 hour bus ride from Fes to Chefchaouen allowed me to peacefully rest while finding comfort in the sound of music from my iPod. Songs that reminds me of home, of my friends, of a fantastic summer we just spent. Don’t worry, I am not homesick yet, but it is nice to sometimes feel close to home.

10 years ago, I moved solo to the mountains of Whistler. My comfort, my family, the place I always look forward to return after trotting the globe. Home. I couldn’t be there to celebrate this decade however, I managed to travel to the mountains, here in Africa.

Chefchaouen

IMG_9036

Chefchaouen is a peaceful town centrally located in the Rif mountains in northern Morocco. The blue painted walls of the medina offers calmness to all who stroll its alleys. We enjoyed getting lost in the non-hassle pathways, slowly walking through serene alleys. Stalls of colourful clothing, wool products and powdered paintings are found every corners with passive merchants.

Here, goats are a popular purchase for the Eid, considering they live right here in the mountains and are a leaner meat than the sheep.

IMG_8975

I couldn’t stop but admiring the soft contrast of women wearing colourful djellaba against the blue of the walls. Cats make up for great pictures too.

The main square houses a few restaurants, offering dirt cheap dinner option. Bright and colourful rugs for purchase hung on the central bench under the afternoon sun.

IMG_8990

Chefchaouen is known for its wool, its pure mountain water and the popular kif (cannabis), the town’s own perfume that is enjoyed by everyone. Men in back alleys are also spotted drinking mint tea, smoking kif and watching futbol. A persistent smell of goat is also added to the air.

The Rif Mountains

About 350,000 people reside in the province of Chefchaouen. Only 36,000 currently live in the town, while the rest is spread in the mountains. The mountains are divided by 33 rural communities, each housing up to 60 villages inhabiting up to 1,000 people.

Our host at the riad recommended us his childhood friend, Lofti, to guide us through the back mountains. We left in the afternoon for what was expected to be a 2 hour hike.

IMG_9085

As we hiked up, we sought three women cutting the oak for the goats. On the road, a minivan filled, in and out, of farmers and their kids came back from the Monday market in town. We passed beds of purple-pink flowers on rocky surfaces, donkeys feeding on bark, rosters hanging out. An old man on a slim donkey returned from the market. A young man attempted to show off on his motorcycle. The funny part was to watch him run after his hat, once it blew in the air.

We arrived at an open space, at the foothills of a high mountain. Boulders that once rolled down are scattered on the ground.

Our guide was very knowledgeable and the trek was very informative. When we stopped for a break, he introduced us to cactus fruit. I didn’t have the choice then to try and chew the excessive number of seeds that contained this little fruit.

IMG_9140

We arrived at the village of Kalaa.

We sat under a fig tree to enjoy a rewarding cup of mint tea. The scent of kif perfumed the fresh mountain air. Local men played board games on balconies smoking and drinking afternoon tea. Kids returning from school enjoyed their liberty in the surroundings.

On our way back, we walked through small villages. Cats, sheep, donkeys, horses, all were there to greet us with a stare. Kif dried on a roof.

The sun setting behind the mountains on the way back left a soft pink light over the blue city. The view was stunning, the breeze refreshing and the smell of pine trees comforting.

The moon replaced the sun in the sky, lighting us the way the back to the medina. This 2 hour hike ended being a wonderful 6 hour trek. We are exhausted.

Good night Chefchaouen.

IMG_9235

IMG_9196*I highly recommend to hire Lofti. If it is for a tour of the medina, a couple hour hike, or a few day trek in the Rif mountains, I assure you Lofti will make it worth it. He works for himself and charges extremely cheap rate (I ended up giving him twice his offer), so make sure you treat him right. He speaks both French and English. To contact him: guidrural_lofti@yahoo.fr