I never saw it coming, but the biggest challenge of living in Morocco is not the language at all. Above and beyond case-marking and getting your head around an Arabic variant that freely borrows French and Spanish words, rendering it almost four languages at once, is the challenge of eating. And whilst I consider myself reasonably proficient at keeping myself well-fed, these first few days in Morocco have rocked me to my core.
The problem, of course, is tied up with living with a family.
Before I set out on my ridiculous trans-Iberian adventure three years ago, I had the appetite of a wolverine. Always eating, ever snacking, stuffing myself with huge quantities of food that I was somehow able to finish in one sitting. Luckily for me, I remained as thin as a beanpole. Something to do with age, a penchant for going on long walks and a good metabolism. I was lucky.
2013 changed that. The whole Santander to Almería adventure was in a constant state of flux – I don’t think the exact route was entirely clear until it was over – and in the mayhem of sleeping rough in the mountains and navigating by compass and a map dated from 1978, I forgot to eat. That Spanish adventure killed my appetite for good.
Ever since, it doesn’t take much to fill me up. Which is a positive boon, when you think about it, but a major snag when it comes to lodging with an Arab family. I expect it’d be the same just about anywhere in the world, but Arab hospitality is deservedly famous. In amongst all of the Arabic that went over my head, I’ve heard my hosts say more than once that they think I’m not eating well. Not for want of trying – Moroccan food is amazing – but I’ve yet to finish a meal. The quantities are enormous, and the whole eating-with-your-hands thing is frustratingly technical. It slows me down to the point where I’m only halfway through a meal by the time the others have finished eating. Naturally, I’m much too stubborn to accept the cutlery they offered – it’s shameful, like resorting to English abroad – but I can’t help but wonder whether by trying to adapt in one way I’ve only set myself another challenge.
And I need to learn. Eating with one’s hands is the done thing in so many parts of the world, not least of all my beloved Africa. I’ve given myself a week to learn to do it properly; after that, I may resort to a knife and fork, if only to be eating well. It’s Ramadan, after all. It would make no sense at all to be fasting and eating less than usual at the same time. That’s idiocy on another level.
The fasting thing is good, though. It felt right, somehow, getting up at two with the family to eat suhūr together. It adds a new sense of structure to the day. They were all fast asleep when I left the house this morning, which you might expect from a total of five hours’ sleep, but I had class to go to. Fortunately, it’s only a forty minute walk, and that takes you through the medina and last the Royal Palace. It’s a really lovely walk, and it feels better off the back of having fasted with the Tetouanis.
All of this is very easy to say now, on the noon of the first day. Left to my own devices, I doubt I’d make much headway. But with the family watching I’m willing to try. Ramadan helwa, as they used to say in Jordan. And anything that’s got something to do with helwa can’t be that bad. BB x