TRUE TRAVEL TALES: Eating my way through the Arab Spring
Morocco doesn't have a native dining-out tradition, people eat big meals at home, so we had to hit up tourist restaurants for basic dishes like steaming heaps of vegetable couscous; bubbling, cumin-spiked lamb tajine; and the fabled kefta mkaouara, beef meatballs stewed with eggs and paprika. That was fine, these were good and everywhere. Street food was our real holy grail. Hunky Beau was observing Passover in the Sephardic kosher tradition, which meant avoiding most doughs, so he munched on a array of meaty kabobs. Moroccans will skewer and roast almost anything. Meanwhile, I went all in for a Fez specialty, bastilla (pigeon pie), snagged from a jolly vendor near the ATM at the Bab Boujeloud gate. The small, addictive, golden-baked phyllo triangles stuffed with squab, cinnamon, almonds, salt, and sugar steamed with savory sweetness. I ate, like, 10.
When the pandemonium became too much, we clung to thick, musky camel burgers on the roof of Cafe Clock, located in a medieval water clock tower; drank fortifying bowls of tomato lentil harira soup from the nice guy next to the garish Cremerie Disney Channel ice cream parlor; or rested in Place Baghdadi, a huge square surrounded by the old city's crenellated walls, where the city's mass of unemployed young men gathered in the evening to socialize and dig through a massive clothing swap. There we sipped tart glasses of radioactively chartreuse pistachio juice, purchased from a cart run by Fatal Tigers, the boisterous fan club of Fez's champion soccer team, and discussed world affairs with the city's male youth. (Morocco was packed with lively women who, apparently, were busy doing everything. We did eventually make a few female friends. however.)
A rare woman in Place Baghdadi
By the way, did I mention that young Arab people — and 65 percent of the Arab world is under 30 — are freaking gorgeous? Seriously, we're about to see some major Arab children flooding our runways. But most of them are dressed in G-Star Raw knockoffs, which I guess is like Old Navy now in Europe? And who knew that those cute boys whispering "shooky" weren't offering us hash at all, but blow jobs? Oh well.
Older Moroccan men gathered in the evening to play the backgammon-like shesh besh and talk politics at sidewalk cafes, like Salon de Thé Afaf, where we joined them for espresso with a side of water (cafe noir avec l'eau) a Fez staple, and nibbled on roasted chickpeas sprinkled with cumin, watching the hurly-burly street scene and Al Jazeera simultaneously in the fading pink light. No matter what was happening in other Arab countries — like satellite dishes and vehicular hubbub, Al Jazeera's breathless revolution reporting was everywhere — young King Mohammed VI had so far managed to dodge the boot by immediately offering, and later following through on, constitutional reforms. Compared to everywhere else, this country of 32 million was almost too peaceful. Or so it seemed.
A BOWL OF SNAILS
It smelled like the sewers had been backing up all week by the time we entered Marrakech, so a gas explosion didn't seem so entirely out of the question. We'd just come from the "Hollywood of Africa," Ouarzazate, where Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator were filmed. A fantastically diverse former caravan trade route outpost, Ouarzazate lay on the edge of the Sahara and was the gateway to the Draa Valley, studded with crumbling Berber warrior ksars (fortresses) from long ago. While there, we happened upon an enormous International Women's Day celebration, bursting with brightly attired clans, ululations abounding. It was some fierce female power out there.
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