Tales of Benshasha

2 Conversations

What we had eaten in one short visit would normally have fed the entire tribe for a month

An Introduction to the Family & Food

My very first visit to Benshasha gave me a totally erroneous impression of their eating habits. For starters, I was a foreigner and one of the very few ever to have set foot in the village, let alone darken the doors of the family home. Secondly, I was about to wed Fatima, and as she was the most senior lady in the family – not in age, but in rank, the two combined required a rather special feast.

It all started one Sunday in February 2000 when we went to Mohamedia with Jaceeb, the 19 year old son of one of Fatima's half-step-sister (if you can work that one out) who had been staying with us in Casablanca. There we had lunch with Jaceeb's mama, of whom Fatima muttered I no like Malika, him bizniz lady. Despite this, and as it was certainly none of my business, lunch was superb, even though Fatima's verdict was I no like this lady cook. As usual, there were mountains of it, and, combined with liberal quantities of pre-prandial pastis, I finished with an overwhelming desire to sleep.

As I lapsed into unconsciousness, watching a French dubbed German film, I was vaguely aware of 'comings and goings'. Malika was indeed a 'bizniz lady', and being of a thrifty nature, saw no reason for itinerant lunch-guests to make too much of a dent in the day's earning potential. I had never imagined that I would find myself having lunch in a Moroccan brothel, but the food was excellent and I was not going to complain.

I was brought back to reality by the noisy arrival of Fatna. How the hell she knew we were there I haven't a clue. She most certainly did not just drop in, as her opinion of Malika is similar to Fatima's. It was also impossible for Fatima to have phoned her and, to this day, I am convinced that it was due to the extraordinary telepathy that there sometimes is between twins.

Fatna insisted that we go back with her; 'to Jebel' as Fatima politely put it, and as both of them appeared keen to vacate Malika's house, we left a message to say 'thank you' (the lady was otherwise engaged at that moment) and set off in the direction of Rabat, in a Mercedes 240D taxi that had seen far better days. Some 11 km along the way we came across something I would have normally driven past without stopping.

We didn't drive past, we stopped and this was 'Benshasha', the family seat of the Moutie Tribe.

Well – THIS is a bit different was the immediate thought which sprang to mind, as hoards of scruffy urchins came screaming out to greet us, yelling Nanna - Nanna and hurling themselves at Fatima who dutifully kissed every one of them four times.

All the children stared at me with a mixture of curiosity and terror, and I had the distinct feeling that either I had suddenly become stark naked or had been transformed into a creature from another planet. My thoughts very quickly changed to, what the f**k am I letting myself in for NOW?

In a procession that grew by the yard, we walked up the narrow lane to Fatna's 'house'. One side was lined with Barbary figs, the other with rusting tin cans and oil drums that had been flattened out and stitched together with wire to form a fence. If you brushed against either, you would injure yourself, and as the lane was so narrow, you had to be careful. Not the ideal route home after a night out drinking, I pondered.

The 'front door' was indistinguishable from the rest of the fence other than that there was an almost rectangular section with a hole in it, just large enough to put your hand through. On the inside there was an arrangement of twisted iron bars and bent nails that formed the 'lock'. As a basic security system, it was perfect. If you didn't know exactly how it operated, you would either cut your wrist on the jagged edges of the paint tins and bleed to death quite quickly or succumb to the more lingering demise of tetanus poisoning.

Inside was a small yard and a covered space with rooms built around three sides. In the middle of this was standing the statuesque figure of Aicha – Fatna's eldest daughter, who I recognised immediately as she was just a much larger and more ethnically dressed version of her younger sister, Majouba, who was living with us in the flat in Casablanca.

Much to my alarm, Aicha gave me an enormous hug and kissed me four times, as though she had known me for years. As I became enveloped in her enormous bosom, I was aware of being watched with the deepest of suspicion by two small children and a baby who clung to her djalaba for protection.

Having released me from her clutches, Aicha served us with Moroccan tea. Despite the glowing reports that you might hear about Moroccan tea, it actually consists of about one kilogram of sugar dissolved in a little water (ca a pint), a teaspoonful of Chinese 'gunpowder' tea and a bunch of mint, all stuffed into a stainless steel teapot and poured into decorated glasses from the greatest height possible without actually standing on the table. It is green and frothy and you can hear your teeth rot as you drink it. 'Tea' was served up with fresh bread, made by Aicha, I was informed, honey, laban1, dates, dried figs, nuts and fruit.

I was still recovering from lunch but to protest sorry, I'm full would have been both rude and useless.

We partook in Fatna's quarters the room on the left of the covered courtyard, and entered through a barred and bolted steel door – a proper door, albeit of the cheapest and most rudimentary form of fabrication. The room was cold, dark, dank and overpoweringly stuffy. It was nothing more than a bare concrete box, two-and-a half by three-and-a-half metres with a small opening, (three hundred millimetres square) opposite the door. This had no glass but a rudimentary top-hung wooden shutter, held on by hinges made from strips of car-tyre and closed with a piece of reinforcing bar through two bent nails.

The walls were cement rendered – although that is a comparative use of the word - and painted pale blue, and like all blue paint, it had faded to produce the most depressing wall-finish of all. The room was covered with galvanised-iron sheeting, carried on two wildly inadequate pieces of two-by-two that would have sagged under their own weight, let alone that of the stones that held the sheeting down. The floor was a bare cement screed.

As my eyes became accustomed to the gloam I could make out that this commodious apartment was furnished with four 'namousiah' (Moroccan divans) around three of the walls, a very battered glass-fronted cupboard which appeared to house all her worldly possessions, and a small circular table with three, very uneven, legs. Not really that much to show for fifty years and six children.

The divans were all covered with 'herrdhel', the coarse woollen rugs, typical of Morocco and once beloved by the likes of Terence Conran in the 1960s' days of Habitat when the Marrakech Express and all things Moroccan were cool. These ones were for real, though, and had been made by Tara – Fatima's mama. In one corner was a huge pile of rugs and blankets, also made by Tara. All rooms – even the kitchen - became bedrooms at night.

The entourage that had accompanied us to the house had melted away as we entered. Left were Fatna , Aicha and her three children (Hamouda - eight, Nezha – six, and Zeno, a baby of about 18 months and permanently latched on to one or other of his mother's enormous boobs that protruded over the top of her djalaba), Ibrahim and Abdelwahed – Fatna's third and fourth sons. There was also Miloudah – Fatima's aunt, a small, wizened old woman who looked about a 120 and stared at me with malevolent gimlet eyes of hatred and said nothing.

Herein lies a subtle difference between Morocco and the Middle East. Moroccan women at this level of society are very much 'Arab', in that they cover their heads (except Fatima) and are pretty well covered from head to foot. However they are not shoved off into a dingy room at the back of the house when guests appear, but sit, talk and eat with the men and the children, and the whole thing is very much a family affair and all the better for it. Had this been a similar family in Arabia, I would have not been allowed into the house and would have had to eat – with a load of total strangers with whom I would have had not a single word in common – in an annex near the front entrance.

There was another big difference - the food was infinitely better than anything 'local' that I had ever eaten anywhere in twenty years in the Middle East.

Throughout the meal, I was vaguely aware that the rest of house was gradually filling up with women, but as nobody made any attempt to either introduce them or explain who they were, I said nothing.

The second that 'tea' had been disposed of, it was followed by the most enormous earthenware plate of couscous and all the additional women, outside, had been roped in to help prepare it, as well as – I suspected - to try and get a glimpse of the strange 'étranger'. They also helped eat the meal and I was given cursory introductions to everybody, which I forget instantly. My brain was trying to find some sort of reality to grasp at, I was well full and the last thing I needed was 'more food', but protocol dictated that I ate and I did my duty as best as I could.

It began to dawn on me that I was about to freeze to death. I had started out expecting a day trip, not a camping expedition and was dressed in little more than a cotton shirt and trousers. It was February and still cold, especially at night. The western reaches of Morocco are not exactly 'hot' at that time of the year, especially if you have just arrived from the somewhat warmer climes of Oman where 33°C is considered 'pleasantly cool'. Fatima noticed this (bless her) and announced, it bed time with which the long process of saying goodnight to everybody began. Everyone had to be kissed four times and the children demanded the procedure twice – especially from the stranger, who they were starting to regard with a little less terror.

Rather to my surprise it was decided that I was to sleep with Fatna and Fatima.

Fatima and Fatna are by no means 'identical' twins but they are remarkably similar. To all outward appearances they 'look' totally different as Fatna dresses traditionally and Fatima anything but. Fatna has also had six children, which – even with the best care and attention – does tend to alter women's shape. Over the short time I had been in Morocco, Fatna had become much more relaxed towards me and there was usually a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Fatima doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks, especially her younger relatives, but Fatna maintains a pretence, to the extent that in the flat in Casablanca she sits in the kitchen to have a cigarette and a drink because she knows that Souad, her considerably younger half-sister, will not approve, even though Souad smokes - but doesn't drink. Here in Benshasha things were much the same although Fatna didn't go off to hide when she wanted a fag – other than when Ibrahim was around.

The beds were made up from the pile of rugs and blankets and (presumably in deference to my being a guest) two sheets were produced for my bed. I was warm at last and settled down to sleep. Not for long though.

The family and friends having departed to their various beds, Fatna rustled around in her belongings and produced three bottles of beer!! 'Beer' is a loosely descriptive term for this locally produced beverage – it's 9.5% proof and something that you would contemplate drinking by the pint. In the circumstances and absence of a bottle of whiskey, it was a welcome surprise.

Fatna poured the beer and promptly vanished with which Fatima immediately stripped off, jumped into bed and did what one is not really supposed to do in Morocco until after you are married. When I tried to ask What if Fatna comes back? she assured me that it was alright and this proved to be so as Fatna did not return for nearly an hour.

When she did, she looked at me and said Làvass? (OK?) with a very knowing grin and produced more cans of beer. She then thrust her hand inside her bra and produced a small twist of plastic, tied up with a knot. She proceeded to empty a cigarette, sprinkle a little of the contents of the plastic over the tobacco, mix it together thoroughly and roll herself a joint with one hand and a dexterity that indicated that it might have been something that she had done before.

The twins shared their smoke and beer. I just drank beer, a little taken aback, as I had never seen Fatima smoke a joint before. But, as the day had already produced its fair share of surprises and after ascertaining where whatever they used for a loo was - actually not too much a surprise, I lay down and slept like a log until woken in the morning by the arrival of Abdullah (another of Fatna's sons and a fisherman of sorts) bearing three sizable tuna. He was followed by Alla (a teenage nephew) and Abdelwahed, turning up with bucketful of octopus and more, smaller fish caught from the shore. This looked like solving the problem of what to eat for the day.

The day's eating started with coffee, dates and dried figs and this just sort of expanded as the morning progressed and more and more of the family arrived to greet Fatima and peer at her peculiar choice in husbands. Freshly baked bread was followed with mnsimmen, svinge, bahlarriah2 and all served with butter, cheese, laban and honey, dried fruit, as well as a large bowl of fresh fruit.

Alla, Nezha and Abdelwahed went off to school. Aicha, still with Zeno strapped to her back and Najet (an adopted half-sister – the relationships in the family get unbelievably complicated!!) set about the day's cleaning and cooking, Fatna just organised things and Fatima gave me a conducted tour of the family estate including her own property which was next door to Fatna's and was formerly her 'big mother's' (grandmother) house and was now Fatima's by right after a monumental row with Malika's mother and Miloudah who claimed it was theirs.

This was probably the fairest outcome as Fatima had looked after the old lady – as well as the rest of the tribe - whilst M&M had done little more than squabble with the rest of the family and salt away what they could for themselves. This was also the reason why Fatima could be somewhat cool towards her mother and her half-siblings despite the fact that she still financed the lot of them. However, at that time I was not at all certain of who was who in the clan, let alone the family politics.

But, what was very noticeable was the extraordinary respect and affection with which Fatima was treated by everybody, not just the family but the entire village. Even Tara and aunt Milouda treated her with a curious deference and awe. All of the children absolutely adored her, even though she treated them with a curious disdain. Everyone – other than her mother and twin sister called her 'Nanna' a term of both deference and affection. All respected her with what amounted to fear - one frown from her reduces them to a terrified silence. I couldn't help but wonder just what the hell they made of me but Fatima assured me 'they all love you' and certainly everybody treated me wonderfully other than the stares.

By late morning Fatima decided that I was to cook lunch and threw Aicha and Najet out of the kitchen. 'Norfolk & Way' was my immediate reaction but she agreed to 'help' and we set about making a monumental Tajeen which is basically a Moroccan vegetable stew and more or less within my culinary ability in a kitchen unlike anything that I had ever seen before.

The kitchen was a room about two metres square with no windows at all and no more 'equipment' other than two camping gas stoves and a bucket. Actually there was a small, crude gas oven but this is used only for making bread when it was raining or when the clay oven outside is out of service or broken (as it was then).

Pots, pans, plates and a few utensils were piled on the floor. Vegetables were in a large plastic basket and water was in a forty-gallon drum, which it was impossible to pour from without spilling water all over the floor. In one corner sat a fat chicken with its legs and wings tied together and a dumb expression that seemed to say 'I have known better days'.

Aicha sat in another corner kneading bread on the large earthenware plate that we had been using to serve the couscous the night before. Najjet sat outside preparing the seafood for supper. As I cooked, Fatna came into the room and removed the dejected chicken, returning ten minutes later with it and instructions that I add it to the tajeen.

I did the best I could in the almost pitch darkness of an unfamiliar room. Much to my relief my efforts were genuinely appreciated by all and sundry (with the possible exception of the chicken) even though I had found the task rather daunting in such an alien environment.

In the middle of lunch there was a hammering at the gate and Majouba bounded into the room bringing with her a holdall with changes of clothes, and washing things for Fatima and me. Who had got the message to her and how it was done, I am not sure but I was not going to argue. Nobody (other than me) seemed the least bit surprised as she hurled the bag at me and then ran across the room, threw her arms round my neck and gave me the most effusive kisses on both cheeks and then on the lips. She then greeted everybody else and sat down to devour what was left of the lunch, pronounced it tamam (good) but told everybody that they should 'wait till you try Hamid's spaghetti'.

Having spent the previous five years as housemaid to a weird Frenchman, Majouba had assimilated Western ways as much as had Fatima, and she looked almost as out of place in Benshasha as I felt. After lunch, she disappeared almost as quickly, but less noisily, as she had arrived.

Supper consisted of a huge paella made from the fish, squid and shellfish that I had seen arriving in the morning and Najet preparing as I cooked lunch.

In my blissful ignorance I assumed that all this food was the norm. Alas no, what we ate in one short visit would normally have fed the entire family for more than a month. When I found out I was furious. Fatima shrugged her shoulders and just said 'I pay'.

Tales of Benshasha


17.07.08 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1It is a dairy product, similar to kefir or yoghurt and is widely drunk throughout the Arabic world. Ed2Moroccan pancakes.

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