Couscous with Al Qaeda

TRUE TRAVEL TALES: Eating my way through the Arab Spring

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marke@sfbg.com

TRAVEL TALES Earlier this year, a wave of revolution swept the Arab world: Tunisia and Egypt deposed their dictators through popular protest, almost all of it nonviolent and nonsectarian, with similar uprisings — many still in progress — in pretty much every other country with a substantial Arab population. Democracy was the stated goal of many of these upheavals, and a newly technologized pan-Arab youth movement was leading the way to freedom via Facebook and Twitter, using social networking to undermine long-entrenched authoritarianism.

It was inspiring. It was exhilarating. It was absolutely delicious.

Pastry vendor, Marrakech. All photos by David Schnur

Hunky Beau and I wanted to taste the revolution. We planned a trip to check out Morocco — which, despite the nonviolent, populist Fevrier 20 movement, had so far escaped turmoil due to a popular and quick-footed king — and Tunisia, which was still dazed by its quick success and which we wanted to support with our meager tourist dollars and a show of good will. The outbreak of air bombing in Libya stymied any plans to expand our journey to Egypt, so we made do with more time in our Spanish travel base, Madrid, which underwent its own plaza-occupying convulsions while we were there, influenced by the Arab Spring.

Berber castle, Southern Morocco

Besides the energy, though, we sought the flavors. The scintillating temptation of Maghreb (North African) cuisine, a hybrid of zesty Mediterranean, formal French, savory Arabic, Spice Route African, and indigenous Berber flavors, was possibly a mirage in this globalized world of ours, but it seemed one worth chasing, preferably by camel, even if it came served on a pizza with a side of fries. Also I wanted to explore my Arab heritage a bit — I'm half-Lebanese, but as pretty much everyone we met in North Africa observed, I have "Berber face." I'd eat my way to my roots!

Central roundabout, Douz, Tunisia

So off we headed in April and May, a newly gay-married, half-Arab virtual drag queen nightlife columnist and a punk-rock Jewish leather enthusiast, backpacks laden, travel sporks at the ready.

 

PIGEON PIE AND PISTACHIO JUICE

Fez, my friends, is magical chaos. You will hardly get a minute alone. The life of the justly famed souk (market) dominates this pale, sprawling adobe metropolis. You are here to buy things, and the citizens are going to use any means necessary to sell things to you. The labyrinthine souk itself befuddles and enchants: an ancient, arterial maze of sensory overload, jostling with polyglot shoppers, hard-haggling hawkers, dogged hustlers, shrieking children, braying mules, the odd scrawny chicken. No one wears fezzes. Intertwined roof slats suffuse the tiny passageways with idyllic light. Food stalls tower with rose hips, fig relish, lamb heads, preserved lemons, mint leaves for the ever-present national drink (syrup-sweet mint tea), and myriad pyramids of neon-tinted spices.

And always someone wanting to meet you, someone wanting to know where you're from. "Ali Baba!" some would call me, referring to my beard. "Obama!" many would say admiringly, shining with African pride, on learning we were rare American visitors. And then, ugh, "Schwarzenegger!" when we mentioned California.

In the Fez souk


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