In Timeless Morocco

Wharton in MoroccoIn 1917, American novelist Edith Wharton spent the month of September in Morocco. She wrote of her experiences in In Morocco (Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1920),  taking an apologist point of view for General Pierre Lyautey, the French governor of the day.

Of Fes (Fez), she wrote:

There it lies, outspread in golden light, roofs, terraces, and towers sliding over the plain’s edge in a rush dammed here and there by barriers of cypress and ilex. … Fez is, in fact, the oldest city in Morocco without a Phoenician or Roman past, and has preserved more traces than any other of its architectural flowering-time; yet it would be truer to say of it, as of all Moroccan cities, that it has no age, since its seemingly immutable shape is for ever crumbling and being renewed on the old lines.

Unfortunately, she mentioned virtually nothing about the food. And her comments reflected thickly the colonial attitude of the times.

During a two-year period at the end of the last century, over 70 years after Wharton left Morocco, I too experienced the Maghreb, and the length and breadth of a country greatly changed in many ways from the one that she observed.

And yet, tradition still permeated very day life in a way unfamiliar to those of us whose idea of tradition tends to be limited to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Wharton remarked on the hovering of traditions, too.

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Permission pending

Of the first of my nine visits to Fes (Fez) the labyrinthine, a sense of the medieval not far from hand, or at least in my mind, everything being so new, I wrote:

You have to remember that we were rushing along through these narrow streets, propelled at times beyond our control by the crowds. Any observations made meant, of course, that other observations were not made because so many things competed for notice. Once, a startling sight caught my attention. Dozens of sheep heads lined up on counter in the food market. And the first thought that popped into my mind when I saw these heads?  Heads in an Aztec market described by Spanish chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of conquistador Hernán Cortes’s soldiers. Moroccans considered boiled sheep heads a great delicacy and one of the duties of the young boys after Aïd el-Kebir is to take the sacrificed sheep’s head and singe the wool off, this being done usually in the street, in certain special slaughter areas of the city. There the streets run with sheeps’ blood and these blackened sheep heads appear. After cooks boil the heads, the eyes are considered a special delicacy. As with mechoui (a fire-roasted lamb), Moroccans coat the meat off the boiled skulls with a ground cumin and salt mixture before eating. … But what is being seen, in the streets here, is only the superficial part. The only thing the foreigner, the stranger, sees is the outline of the picture. The coloring in, with the clarity that comes from that, takes much time.

Yes, I recoiled, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” playing through my head.

Oh, the rose-colored or, in some cases bile-tinged, glasses we wear when we  gaze at the unknown … Later, I saw something similar — roasted and blackened sheep heads — in a tapas bar in Spain and thought little of it.

**For the next few weeks, I am going to be on a “working vacation,” so my posts will be somewhat more abbreviated. I will still provide you with something substantial to chew on, though!

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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2 comments

  • The French learned from the North Africans to call roasted lamb mechoui — it’s among a variety of NA food that has permeated French cooking. Of course this is an interesting contradiction to the French view that their cuisine represents unchanging perfection.

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