Couscous – in conversation with a Moroccan cook

We have reached december. Four months have passed since my beautiful time in Morocco, and a lot has happened in the meantime. With a lot I mean studies, exams, and again studies. Right after coming back to the Netherlands, uni-life hit me hard in the face and brought me back to reality of sitting behind my study desk for most of my days. Well, it’s not all too bad, since I got to see my friends and family again, but I also do miss the carelessness that comes with being abroad.
Because of my hectic schedule at home, it was pretty difficult to work on my Morocco-blogpost series regularly. But, there are still three stories that I want to share with you all. It doesn’t matter so much to me that I am not in Morocco anymore, I still think these are beautiful stories that I should share. Forgive the use of present tense in this story, of course I am not physically in Morocco anymore, but using only my memories of the place.
For now, good-bye from my back-in-Europe-me, and hello from my Morocco-me!

 


 

It is one of my last days in Morocco. Me and my friends have decided to stay in the city of Essaouira for our last time, although at first, we were sure this would only be a quick stop-by. But after arriving here, we quickly realized that’s not possible: Essaouira is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It’s just wonderful. And I can’t even tell you why. It does not have the most breathtaking natural landscape. Or the most beautiful buildings. Or the best markets to buy things at. But the people here – have claimed my heart. The city lays by the sea, and I see the things people tell each other about beach cities come true here. Everybody seems to have forgotten what worries are, there is a light-heartedness in the air like I have never smelled before. On top of that, what makes this city distinctively different for me is the friendships I have made here.
Friendships. One of the most beautiful relationships that there are. During my stay in this country, I have mostly been focused on writing my blog for you guys. I have made many friends here, but it was never as easy as in this hostel. Everybody who works here is a person from the heart. And that is especially the case for one person – Couscous. Couscous is the name of a distinctly Moroccan dish, steamed rice with vegetables or meat. But, Couscous is also the name that people have lovingly given our hostel cook here.

Couscous preparing a sweet dish

Even before approaching him, I had to note how he made everyone arriving at the hostel feel at ease at once. Every evening at around 7pm, our hostel offers a joint dinner with everyone who is staying here. To prepare this dinner, Couscous spends his evenings in the hostel kitchen, typically with the radio turned fully up, so that he can dance to old Bollywood songs while cooking. For those of you who know some Bollywood classics: I’m talking about ‘Meri Mehbooba’ and the like! (did me and my friends join the dancing? – hell yeah we did. Never missing a chance to dance to good ol’ Bollywood music. Gotta shake them hips whenever you can! 🙂 ). During one of his cooking sessions, I approached Couscous to get to know him better. And it turns out that he had a lot to tell! So without further ado, we decided to sit down together for a cup of Moroccan tea on the rooftop, and talk about life.

ME: Thanks so much for sitting down together! Let’s see. Could you tell me a bit about yourself, your background?

COUSCOUS: I’m happy to tell you something and share it with the world! Well, what can I tell about me. So, I was born in the mountain area in the north of Morocco. Since I was small, I lived with my grandmother. What I did was, I used to look after our sheep, take them out to grass everyday, and come back in the evening. That was my life. And I never thought anything about it would ever change, I thought I was going to live there forever. But one day, my grandmother said to me: ‘Son, why don’t you go out into the world and do something with your life?’. My grandmother loved me so much. And she said this because she wanted me to be happy. And she knew I could do something big.
So, I left my hometown. At 15 years old, I went to Spain and started working in a bakery there. I stayed at that place for 5 years, and learned so much about cooking and baking there!

A look into the kitchen: food is about to be served!

But deep inside, I was missing my motherland. So after 5 years, I decided to go back to Morocco, and back home I worked in many different hotels and restaurants. I travelled around the country a lot in that phase of my life. But at some point I started to long for something more: to have something of my own, a place where I could be the chef of my own kitchen. But I had not gone to school or university, so I didn’t have any paper that allowed me to be a Chef. So, I decided to work in a place that was at least known to be very good. At 25 years old, I left Morocco again and went to Mali, Timbuktu, and started to work in the best hotel of whole Africa there! That place was like a treasure to me. I learned to make so many different foods there, and I met so many good people. I stayed there for many years. At the end, when I decided to leave this hotel, the Chefs gave me an enourmous gift – the biggest gift of my life – namely a paper that finally allowed me to work as a Chef of my own!

ME: And what kind of paper was that?

COUSCOUS: Well, you can compare it to a degree in cooking. This paper allows me to work as a Chef anywhere I want! 

ME: So that’s why it was possible for you to start as a Chef in this hostel?

COUSCOUS: Exactly! I started working here in 2012. Ever since, the people that  I work with here have become my family. This place makes me truly happy. 

ME: It’s really nice to hear that after travelling around so much,

On the rooftop of our hostel

you seem to have found your place! So do you plan to stay here forever?

COUSCOUS: Actually, no! Actually, my true dream is to own a restaurant of my own. Don’t get me wrong: I do love this place! And what I love about a hostel in particular to see so many different people from all around the world coming together. But I think it would still be something different if I would have a big place of my own, where people only come to eat, morning, afternoon, evening. And I could still continue to work here once a week! I have already been talking to some people to make this dream come true – to become a restaurant Chef.  

ME: Wow, that’s so ambitious! But really, after trying your food I’d say – you should totally go for it!

Couscous laughs.

ME: You mentioned that you grew up with your grandmother. And I also know that you are a brother to several sisters. It seems to me then that you have always had a close bond to women?

COUSCOUS: Oh yes, that is true. I have so much respect for women. Without them, we would not even be in this world. And it is true, there are many women in my close family; that is also why I have learned to appreciate and value them so much. 

ME: Really nice to hear you talk like this about women! Especially because many men that I see do not treat women very well.

What I mean by this is that most of the time that I have walked through the streets of Morocco, I have felt male eyes on me. Staring male eyes. And at times – not even rarely – men have cat-called me and my friends. It is not really a nice experience and definitely does not make me feel well treated.

COUSCOUS: I know exactly what you mean. Most Moroccan men don’t know the value of a woman. They very often treat them as something small, vulnerable. But I must say, here in Essaouira things are a bit better! Women can walk on the streets without being called after every 5 seconds, and it feels safer. I think this is probably because there are so many tourists here; people in Essaouira got used to the sight of a woman with bare legs and arms by now.

ME: But what do you think this problem thoughout Morocco comes from? That men think women are smaller than them?

COUSCOUS: I think, a misinterpretation of the religion. There are some verses in the Qur’an that address the topic of men and women, and a lot of people interpret something into these verses that is according to me, not right. They think that a woman is only supposed to be doing the household and nothing more, because that is what Islam says. But they don’t realize that Islam and islamic rules were established centuries ago, and that they should be re-interpreted to apply them to today’s world. I think that is how God wants it to be. And, to be honest, I don’t really like the fact that politics and religion are mixed up in Morocco. I think it would be better if they would be seperated. 

ME: Sadly, a lot of people don’t agree with you.

COUSCOUS: Yes, it makes me sad as well. But I don’t want to talk about the bad things only! There are also Moroccan traditions that pay the woman high respect. I don’t know if you are familiar with the traditions in Moroccan weddings? 

He chuckles a bit.

I remember my sister’s wedding. We all had so much fun. But back to the story: In Moroccan weddings it is tradition to bring the bride into the ceremony in a special way – by sitting on a throne! We call it the Amariya, and it looks like a big chair that is carried by four men and paraded through the whole room so that everybody can see and greet the bride. A huge gesture of respect if you ask me!

Bride sitting on her Amariya

And also, the way a mother is respected and loved by her children is something that I have rarely heard in stories about Europe. So as you see, there are not only bad stories to tell! There is also deep respect and love for women rooted in our culture. It has just gotten a bit rare and forgotten, but it is there. And I am happy that at least here in Essaouira, that love and respect can be seen again. And maybe at some point in the future, people throughout Morocco will remember it again, who knows? For now, I will try to do my part on spreading love through what I can do best: making food. 

I have to laugh and close my notebook. Time and again, I am fascinated by how people look at the world in different ways. This one, Couscous, has somehow managed to be light-hearted in these sometimes difficult circumstances, to see hope where there seems to be reason to despair. In our conversation, he has showed me that there is still room to hope for a respectful treatment of women. If not today, then tomorrow.  Encouraged by the light feeling of hope, I go downstairs to eat a plate of Couscous.

 

And this is me sitting at the dinner table along with newly acquired and old friends, wrapped in my pakistani shawl, for the culture (just jk, this was actually the first time that I was freezing in Morocco). If you can’t spot me – I am the one sitting at the table top only looking at her food (#classic). This table was one of my favourite spots in the hostel: everyone came together here, people and cultures from all-over the world. And of course, this was the place to eat couscous!

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