Tales of Benshasha

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I then started to make some mint sauce and at this they were on the point of sending for the men in white coats

The Realities of Eating

Shortly after my introduction to Benshasha, it was Eid al Adha, known in Morocco as Eid al Kabir – or big feast. It is Islam's equivalent of Christmas – at least, as far as commercialised 'family occasions' go - and if I was to become part of the clan, I had no option other than participate.

I was neither entirely new to Islam nor its festivals, having just spent my 20th Ramadan in an Islamic country. I confess I had been a little surprised – in Nigeria in 1979 - to discover that the six-lane motorway leading West out of Lagos had been entirely given over to use as a sheep market, and finding a man bicycling furiously down the wrong side of the road towards me with a large ram balanced on his head. It did, I should add, have its legs tied together.

I had become quite used to driving up into the mountains of Yemen and Oman with a live goat in the back of the Jeep, which a few hours later became 'lunch', despite its having done nothing whatsoever to offend me, other than – perhaps – to have crapped in the back of the car, which was not entirely its fault and certainly didn't warrant a death penalty.

However, it was the first Eid al Adha that I had spent with a Moroccan family in a bidonville and nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience. The apparently impromptu but impeccably organised feast a couple of weeks before had gone to create an entirely false impression that life was just different and run on a rather unusual set of priorities.

To start with, if you have no work and absolutely no money at all it seems a little irrational that your entire preoccupation, and everyone else's, should be devoted towards obtaining and killing a sheep - and thereby spending enough money to feed the entire family for three months.

It could be argued that one sheep goes quite a long way and would feed everybody, but every adult male, every separate family unit down to a single woman with two illegitimate children and a seventy-year-old widow has to have their own animal.

Fatima's family – not even all of the two generations directly related to her – demanded five sheep, and at anywhere from €150 to €500 apiece, it is theoretically impossible. One of the mysteries of Benshasha that remains to this day, is that it is NOT impossible and that every year the sheep are acquired and killed, and I haven't the foggiest idea where the money comes from to do it.

In 2000, I did know. My pocket.

However, having beggared themselves to get the animals, not one of the useless males in the family has the knowledge or wit to kill it, so they have to spend another Dh 100 each (or a week's supply of vegetables for all) to get someone else to do it for them. This can be a good – if seasonal - business if you have a sharp knife, a piece of bamboo, a strong pair of lungs and are not too squeamish.

Having dispatched the poor brute and skinned it, the women set about cleaning the entrails, which are the first bits to be eaten – a Moroccan delicacy - almost before they have stopped twitching. The liver, lungs, kidneys and heart are wrapped in strips of intestine and barbecued.

But on what?

In blissful innocence, I had assumed that people who have little other means of cooking - other a 'camping gas' burner - would be past masters at making 'camp-fires'. You've got to be joking - seven year-old cub scouts from an inner city housing estate are infinitely more skilled.

There is no permanent (or even semi-permanent) fireplace. No purpose-built barbecue. Nothing - even though there are clay bread ovens everywhere.

There is a perverse logic to this sad state of affairs. Bread is prepared and cooked entirely by women and no man would be seen dead doing it. Women also build the bread ovens and do every part of it, from digging, carrying and mixing the clay, to forming the chamber. They also operate them – men have absolutely nothing to do with the process other than devour the finished product.

Killing sheep, however, is an all-male preserve – on entirely religious grounds. This is what Abraham did and therefore all proper men should do likewise after him. Unfortunately, the story didn't actually say – or it got lost in the mist of time – anything about building barbecues and washing tripe. Therefore all proper men are happy to limit their input to slaughtering and cooking the beast.

The really hard work - of skinning, cleaning and butchering the carcass - is left to women. Once this has been done, hubby proudly takes over again and 'cooks it', thereby proving that HE is the provider for all the family, and all women and children should look up to him and be grateful.

There are therefore no barbecues BECAUSE the men do (or rather don't do) them. They haven't – like the female of the species – moved far enough along the evolutionary path to realise that spending half a morning building a semi-permanent fireplace would – if nothing else – make life a little easier. Their total preoccupation is as to whether their tup is bigger than their neighbour's and what others will think of their show of extravagance.

So - as the beast is quivering in its death throes, the women set about the grind of peeling, gutting and cleaning it, very much as a joint effort, as are so many of the female chores. The man-of-the-house recovers from his short lapse in high-powered inertia, and the nearest that he gets to any joint effort is to have a well-earned pipe or two of wacky-baccy. Only when a plate of pulsating innards is thrust under his nose does it dawn on him, Oh-me-gawd - it's got to be cooked on something. It is all as if they have never done it or seen it done before.

In a panic he grabs a few broken concrete blocks, throws them on the ground (immediately outside the khazi door on this occasion), piles a bundle of sticks on top of it and frantically tries to light it with a broken lighter. The second that there are a few visible flames, someone else drops a bag of charcoal on it. He than tries to balance a grill on the top of the smouldering heap and starts cooking. There is nothing but a little warm smoke and the grill - plus contents - fall on to the none-too-clean muddy ground.

In the feeding frenzy that follows, nobody cares that the food isn't remotely hot, let alone cooked and is seasoned with whatever was on the ground immediately outside the khazi door, which was most certainly NOT salt and pepper.

No one notices that it is several hours after they have all finished, that there is anything like a usable cooking fire. Nobody has yet come to realise that some bits of the animal are barbecueable and others inedible unless hung and then cooked for several hours. Thus the heart is treated just the same as the liver and kidneys and the best you can do is try and get a piece of the offal that is small enough to swallow whole, as no amount of chewing will reduce its rubber like qualities.

What is left is 20 to 30kg of mutton. The only good thing is that it is 'hung', at least for a day, for the simple reason that everyone is stuffed full of the guts and will be even more stuffed in the evening when they have eaten the tripe.

The carcass is rubbed with olive oil on the pretext that it keeps the flies away, and then wrapped in a sheet – probably the one someone slept under last night - and hung from one of the already overstressed roof supports, in the middle of what will later become someone's bedroom.

When it comes to actually eating the remains, there is absolutely no concept of there being different 'cuts' of meat. There is but one exception and that is that they do understand 'cutlets', so the ribs are hacked off separately and barbecued.

Everything else is just 'meat' and – as such - is hacked into ½ kg lumps and, regardless as to whether it is fillet steak or scrag-end of neck, it is just bunged in a pressure cooker with some vegetables and boiled for about three or four hours. Worse still, it is hacked to pieces with a blunt axe and what ends up in the tajeen is meat impregnated with a million bone splinters.

Also, as there is no electricity – and therefore nothing resembling a fridge – the remaining meat is not eeked out over several weeks but bolted down as quickly as possible, before it starts rotting!

I watched the goings-on with a mixture of horror and disbelief. My horror had nothing to do with animal rights, health-and-safety at work, substance abuse or concern for my stomach but the grim reality that well over $1,000 of my money had disappeared so swiftly and mindlessly. It wasn't the money either - just that $1,000 would have build two or three Benshasha houses, my jaw was aching and I was still hungry!

I said nothing - it was but a small price to pay if that was what Fatima wanted but I did feel – perhaps selfishly - that if I was having to pay that much for lunch, I would like something decent to eat for supper. Eventually I managed to rescue a 'leg'. I argued that 5% of the twenty legs that I had paid for was hardly greedy or excessive and that if I were allowed to cook, just one little bit 'my way', there would be plenty to eat for Fatna's family.

My plan was to roast it in the bread oven. When I suggested it, they all looked at me as though I'd gone mad and had I proposed that we all went and chanted the namah shivaaya mantra in the mosque, they could not have looked more horrified or shocked. Fatima tried to forcibly stop me and explained, with a weak smile, that I was 'just joking'.

Ovens were for making bread, nothing else whatsoever, not even biscuits – they were made in the crude gas oven in the kitchen. Meat was ONLY cooked in tagines or barbecued over an open fire, never roasted.

However, I was not joking, and through a combination of bone-headed stupidity and bloody-mindedness, I won the day, much to Fatima's ire and Fatna's surprise. Everyone watched my preparation of the rear offside leg with a mixture of fascination and suspicion.

Although they use spices, fresh herbs are hardly used in cooking at all, at least, not in cooking meat. This is all the more peculiar as they all grow like weeds, everywhere but they are used almost entirely for bohours (incense) and for medicinal purposes. When I rubbed the meat with olive oil, salt thyme and rosemary, they looked at me as if I was mad. When I inserted slivers of garlic into the meat, all eyes were raised towards heaven - I hoped - praying for my redemption.

If my preparation of the meat was strange, what I next did was regarded as downright weird. I peeled and cut up potatoes and parboiled them with some mint. Now mint has but one use and one use only, and that is for putting in tea. This is so much an essential part of life that the only thing that is anywhere near as regular as the call to prayer, it is the man on a bicycle from Mohamedia who wakes you – if you have missed the first prayer call – with his cries of “Nanna, nanna” (not Fatima – it is also the Moroccan for 'mint') at eight o'clock every day. This is the only use for mint and if you try and do anything else with it you are regarded as strange at best, and stark raving mad at worst. Their view of me was now verging towards the extreme.

Call it insensitivity or arrogance on my part but I ignored it all. Even to my untrained eye, the oven looked perfect, Souad and Khadeja, having completed their last batch of bread and – on Fatima's pleas and instructions, reluctantly stood back and let me take over. The joint went in, together with the potatoes. I sealed the opening and announced that dinner would be ready in an hour and a half and retired to the kitchen to prepare the rest of the vegetables.

Khadeja and Souad watched the proceedings from a safe distance with their arms folded across their bosoms and grim frowns on their brows, waiting for the oven to explode. When I returned to the kitchen everyone else seemed to think that I had come back to reality, as the work I did was very much the same as preparing for a tajeen. Fatna glumly deferred to my insistence that I cook them separately and even rustled up a couple of extra gas cookers, but her look was one of pitying sympathy, which said very clearly the sooner that we get this over and done with, the better.

This relative peace was short lived. The veggies done I then started to make some mint sauce and at this they were on the point of sending for the men in white coats. Mint was for 'chy', my suggesting that I used it to cook with had been regarded as heresy but making 'jam' out of it - that really was haram.

When I came to make the gravy I did nearly lose it completely. The kitchen was, by this time, almost pitch black, the only light being from the gas burners under saucepans and one small candle. Thank heavens that, by this time, everyone - other than Fatima - who did know what I was doing – had gone off, having realised that there was nothing to do to prevent the inevitable catastrophe.

We very nearly did have a disaster. Fatima was as unfamiliar with the kitchen as was I and she passed me a jar containing sugar, not flour. The gravy therefore took two attempts but fortunately nobody but Fatima saw it and I got away with the faux pas.

Well, the men in white coats didn't come, due to the fact that no one owned a mobile phone that worked, and an hour-and-a-half later a reasonable semblance of 'Sunday Lunch' was served even though it was supper time and all had to be eaten 'for hand', out of a communal bowl that had been used earlier in the day for kneading bread.

As the family ate, the expressions changed from suspicious fear to ones of astonishment, as amazed as they had been when I had started cooking earlier in the day. Nobody objected, and within half an hour there wasn't a scrap left and the plate had been cleaned with bread.

After this I was left to cook much as I wanted but there were several occasions when I was told you cannot do that, thickening a sauce with flour, putting vinegar on chips and marinating sardines, being but three simple ones. God alone knows what would happen if I were ever to bake a Christmas cake.

The men just ate whatever was put in front of them. However, the women watched and they watched with intelligent interest. They began to respect my strange cooking and, eight years on, our small garden is full of cooking herbs, which are used by all and sundry.

Tales of Benshasha



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