Monday, April 30, 2012


Before Justin and I came to Morocco and during our training period in country, we were told by many people that the concept of "volunteerism" is very much rooted in American culture and that volunteering is not something that people in many other countries (Morocco included) either do or understand.

After about 7 months of living in Morocco, I am here to tell you that this statement (at least related to Moroccans) is totally false. The youth of Morocco not only say that volunteering is important, but they back up their words with actions. In only 5 months of living in Tiflet, we have witnessed some absolutely amazing volunteer activities, all planned by youth and for the betterment of the community:
• Providing free eye exams at our youth center for the entire community - along with free glasses
• Planning and running a 3-day Arabic poetry festival, bringing in poets from Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and all over Morocco
• Doing ongoing educational activities for children - puppet shows, clowns, music, videos - about things such as the environment or the importance of studying
• Running sports tournaments for children
• Developing workshops to educate the community on issues such as AIDS and women’s rights

And that's not all. Justin and I recently worked with the U.S. Department of State in Morocco on a program called "Youth and Volunteerism." Last week, we met with 35 students from high schools and universities around Rabat and led a presentation and open discussion about volunteerism. After hearing about some of the work that they have been doing, we thought that they could have given the presentation! Here are a few highlights:
• Helping single mothers and sexually-abused women
• Running clothing drives in schools
• Helping released prisoners re-enter the community and find jobs
• Developing girls' leadership and empowerment programs
• Visiting orphanages, elderly homes, and hospitals

Justin and I ended our presentation in Rabat with the below quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the last sermon that he delivered (at Ebenezer Baptist Church, exactly 2 months before his assassination):

I left our volunteerism meeting feeling inspired and in awe of the youth of Morocco. We're just finishing the month of April, which was National Volunteer Month in the U.S. Hopefully some of this inspired you, too.

P.S. If you are interested in seeing our presentation about volunteerism (the history, what it's like in the U.S. and what we've seen in Morocco), you can view and download it here. And below are a few photos from the event!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Morocco 101: Meals

Justin and I recently put together a short language and culture "cheat sheet" for his parents and friends, who spent about 10 days traveling through Morocco (more on their visit in my last blog post). Developing the cheat sheet was an interesting opportunity to distance myself from day-to-day life and to think about some of the differences between Moroccan and American culture. In today's post, I thought I would talk a bit about Moroccan meals and the differences that I have seen.

To start with the basics - Moroccans seem to eat 4 meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a lovely little "snack" between lunch and dinner called "kaskrot." I used quotations around the word snack, as it seems to be considered a smaller meal but often is NOT the case! Here's an example of a kaskrot meal:

Now, this is certainly on the larger end of kaskrots, but we've experienced this type of spread on several occasions. It usually seems to be a combination of breads (the dish in the middle is milwi, a very tasty fried layered bread) and often a few sweets (or as the case may be, more than a few!). And of course, always Moroccan tea - which is not always mint tea, by the way - sometimes just green tea, and sometimes green tea in combination with another herb - such as sheba, also known as absinthium or wormwood. But always lots of sugar.

Another kaskrot - this one has skewered meat (pretty unusual)
and an AMAZING thing called sellou, made from sesame,
almonds and flour and usually served during Ramadan.

Lunch seems to be the largest meal of the day. The most frequent main dishes that we have seen are tagines, couscous, fried fish, lentils, or beans. Often the main dish is accompanied by a salad, and bread is almost always on the table as a means of eating the food. Dessert seems to almost always be fruit (the Moroccan word for fruit, "deeseer," also means dessert!). Here's an example of a lunch spread:

It is customary for families to eat couscous on Fridays. Not everyone does but it is a widely observed custom, and Justin and I go to our host family's house every Friday for lunch. Couscous is usually topped with a variety of vegetables and starches, ranging from squash to carrots, potatoes to fava beans, zucchini to tomatoes. Sometimes there will be meat in the middle of the couscous too.

Breakfasts seem to be fairly basic, usually with some sort of bread (milwi, as I described above; or harsha, like cornbread except with semolina flour and cooked on a pan rather than baked; or sometimes just basic baguettes or round loaves of white or wheat bread), sometimes egg or cheese, sometimes honey, butter, or jam. And dinners also seem to be light and fairly simple, sometimes soups, or pasta with tomato sauce or milk, or leftovers from recent meals.

I should also mention that the times for meals are a bit different - Breakfast and lunch are similar to the U.S., with breakfast happening before kids go to school or adults go to work (7/8 A.M.), and lunch around 12:30 or 1 PM. Kaskrot is usually slightly before our dinnertime, around 5 or 5:30 PM. And dinner can be served really late - we've had it as "early" as 9:30 or 10 P.M. but as late as midnight. When we were in training, we had a lot of difficulty staying awake for dinner; fortunately now that we live on our own, we are able to keep to our own schedule (and no, we typically don't add in the kaskrot meal, though we do sometimes have tea or coffee at our local cafe during kaskrot time).

Rfisa - my favorite Moroccan dish so far.

Meal preparation is also quite different (you can read more about that in a guest post that I wrote). In a town like Tiflet that has a market open every day, people just buy whatever is needed for that day. In smaller communities that don't have a daily market, people travel to the nearest big town, usually once a week, to get the food items that they need at what is called a "souk."  And common cooking apparatuses include the pressure cooker, tagine pot, couscoussier (a double-chambered food steamer), mjmar (a clay charcoal grill), gsaa (a large, shallow clay vessel used for serving and also making doughs), stock pots, and of course, tea pots.

Shopping at the market in Moulay Yacoub.

In terms of eating - Typically main dishes are eaten from shared platters. With couscous, people often use a spoon (though many people have an amazing technique of eating couscous with their hands), but with most other main dishes, people either eat just with the hand, or with bread as a means of dipping into the platter and getting sauce, vegetables, etc. There's an unspoken system of triangles in which each person keeps to his/her own area when eating. And typically meat is in the middle of the platter, and is not eaten until towards the end of the meal, when often someone in the family will give portions of meat to each person (in most meals, the portion of meat eaten is significantly smaller than what we might eat in a meal in the U.S.).

That's all for now on Moroccan Meals 101! And speaking of eating, my own cooking adventures have continued...

Yes, that is my first-ever challah baking experiment, which was a phenomenal success, and led to some REALLY good french toast and a spin-off on hamburger buns which got the thumbs-up from our Moroccan host family. Thanks to the wonderful Jessie who contributed her recipe via one of my most favorite cooking blogs, by my friend Nishta - you can get the recipe here (I didn't change a bit of it, it's perfect!).

By the way, if you are interested the full cheat sheet (including both language and cultural info, geared towards short-term visitors), you can view and download it here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Brooklyn descends on Tiflet!

Phew... catching my breath from a whirlwind few days, as the Bernsteins and friends have now left Tiflet and are on a plane back from Casablanca as I type!

After Justin's parents and a few of their friends had a weeklong tour in other parts of the country, they came over to us and we spent 4 days exploring Tiflet and Rabat - Here are some of the things we did:
  • Visited Rabat's old medina and kasbah, with great shopping and beautiful views of the ocean.
  • Ate in one of the few Chinese restaurants in Rabat (I've learned that this is a Bernstein travel tradition!).
  • Toured the beautiful Saint Pierre Cathedral in Rabat.
  • Had a wonderful meal with our host family in Tiflet (rfisa-my favorite!).
  • Did lots of exploring around Tiflet - our Youth Center, the downtown markets, the cafes, meeting our friends, and generally just wandering.
  • Visited our weekly souk (an open-air market) on the edge of town.
  • Relaxed in our apartment and cooked some Moroccan-style food.
  • Ate and drank lots and lots and lots: fresh juices (my favorite is banana and avocado), mint tea, warm breads, piping fresh donuts from our favorite pastry guy, a fried mashed potato snack called maakouda (yes, I did say fried mashed potatoes), and sweet and fragrant bastilla.

It was a wonderful time spent with our first U.S. visitors and we hope they enjoyed our part of Morocco as much as we enjoyed having them. For the rest of you, you only have 582 more days left of travel time, so start booking those reservations! :)
Lots of fun colors in the Rabat market
Overlooking Sale, a city next to Rabat, and of course the beautiful ocean
The Saint Pierre Cathedral in Rabat
Father and son in our apartment (along with our photo/card collection on the wall)
The crew, just before dinner (meat and veggies grilled on a "mjmar," a clay oven,
along with mustard cream sauce, and saffron rice)
RFISA, at our host family's house - I promise to all of you that I will learn how to make this!
At one of the (many) cafes, with some rugs for sale hanging in the background
in Rabat, in the old medina
Justin and the amazing Martha, who trooped around Morocco like it was nothing!
I would love to be like this woman at 81 years!
Justin and me in our apartment. Two days of being a tourist got me TAN!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My first event!

A few weeks ago, I held my first program in the community! (outside of activities related to English classes)

The invitation to the event

I wanted to do an activity specific to women, because so many boys come to our Youth Center on a daily basis, and not nearly as many girls. Plus, there are so many things that a man can do in the community (go to a cafe, soccer games, etc) that a woman just does not do here - so I wanted to give girls a chance to have an activity of their own in a comfortable and open environment. And selfishly, I wanted to spend more time with the girls and learn about their interests for potential future activities.

Soda and cookies, wrapped in cute individual packages for each girl

I planned the event along with my host sister and mother, and I was so pleased with the end result! Over 75 girls showed up, and we started with a discussion on being a woman. The conversation centered around questions like, Is it important to have children? Or to have a husband? We had a panel of 3 high school girls and an open microphone in which any girl could speak or ask questions. A lot of discussion, and some debate, but generally a good chance for girls to voice their opinions. 

We adjourned the discussion to a much lighter activity, a Moroccan/American dance party, in which I taught - and learned - lots of moves. Following an hour or so of dancing, we took a break for soda and cookies, which my host mom made. Then, we had 3 volunteers painting henna on girls' hands, something that is done often in celebrations and parties. 

For a first event, I was really excited about the result, and it was a great chance to get to know the girls of Tiflet better. And I even learned some valuable lessons along the way: First off, I think it definitely helped my language skills, because I had to talk about things that are not in the realm of my day-to-day activities. Second, I learned the importance of informal interactions in Moroccan culture - As opposed to formal meetings in the US as a way to get things done, here, it seems as if informal interactions, whether seeing someone on the street, before a meal, or in a cafe, often leads to getting more things accomplished. Next, I learned the importance of flexibility - when the inevitable changes occurred, due to scheduling (a Moroccan view of being on time is very different from my view!) or perhaps language misunderstandings, I recognized that it's a part of getting the job done, and while still stressful, I learned to grin and bear it. And lastly, I learned the importance of leaning on others (particularly Moroccans) to help me. My host sister helped me to understand what would be culturally appropriate for the event and the process needed to plan it out, some of the boys in the Youth Center helped me to set up speakers and chairs in the room, my host mother helped to make cookies and accompanied me to the market to find henna materials, and a group of willing girls helped me through the event itself, speaking about being a woman and doing the henna.

A lot of important lessons that I'm glad I've learned early on! Out of respect for the girls and for the safe space that we created, I have not posted any photos with specific faces, but if anyone is interested in seeing more photos from the event, please email me and I can share a private password-protected album.

In other news....
After 4 months in a cast, hobbling around on crutches, and doing physical therapy (remember those posts??) I have officially started running again!! Only about 30 minutes around town so far, but it's nice to be back. I have received a few funny looks from people as I run by, but it's another good way to show people about my life back in the US of A. 

And speaking of the US of A - the Bernsteins and friends have entered the country!! Coming next week, a post with lots of photos about adventures with our first American visitors :)