1637. My great-great-great grandmother, Rachel Asulin, wakes up early in the morning in her house in the Jewish Quarter of Fez, takes her four year old son in hand, and with the other hand takes the dough that rose overnight.
She brings one to the “cheder’ to learn and the second she takes to the local baker, where she meets her friends. Until the bread is ready they chat, gossip about the handsome new carpet merchant, and laugh at the jokes that were funny to Moroccan women in the 17th century.
1952. My grandmother, C.B. Simon, wakes up early in the morning in her house in the Jewish Quarter of Fez, the same house from the previous paragraph. In one hand takes my four year old father to the “cheder”, and with the other hand takes the dough that rose overnight. In a mischievous prank that did not fit her serene personality, she added a few anise seeds to the dough. The commotion that ensued can only be guessed.
In Fez (Photo: N.B. Simon)
2007. C.B. Simon’s grandson (me, to those not paying attention) wakes up early one afternoon in his apartment in Tel Aviv, in one hand takes his I-Pod, and with the other his passport, says goodbye to the two sleeping models in his bed, gets into a cab, travels to the airport, meets his parents and brothers, and together they get into a time machine that brings them back 400 years, with a stop at the duty free.
Family in a pressure cooker
I have a confession. I am as Moroccan as Arkady Gaydamak is Israeli: I do not go to Andalusia symphony concerts, I can not stand Avi Toledano, I do not celebrate Mimouna, I do not establish protest movements, I do not read Maimonides’ writings, and I am a blonde.
If one morning my father would come to see and say, “Son, the time has come for you to know. Our last name is not B. Simon but Van der Koegen, we are Dutch, and we are going on a roots tour to Amsterdam. Go pack your bong,” no one would be happier than me. But this is how it is with Moroccans: They are faithful to their traditions. So we went on a roots tour to Morocco.
Any annoying first year student of psychology can testify: To take a group of adults, whose only connection is that they are family, stick them in a crowded minibus for ten days to search the streets of North Africa looking for the place where Dad played soccer with Uncle David when they were eight, is no picnic. It is a family in a pressure cooker, and here are the consequences: Hidden feelings come to the surface, traumas are revealed, and extreme nerves are torn out.
Nonetheless, there are those who compare a family roots trip to basic training in the Swiss army: You still get hit but at least you have a Toblerone for a snack. Yes, when you are lying by the pool at a spacious hotel in an ornamented Marrakesh, and remember the stables where you slept on your last trips to India and Laos, you quickly stick your wounded subconscious back in its appropriate place, and order another lamb tagine with figs.
In any case, for the family who is planning a trip like this in the future (and the laws of Morocco are like the laws of Poland, Peru or Sweden), I recommend that you try a two day pre-trip trial period in Wadi Amud/Shvil Yisrael/Hawarim Stream/the Zahav mall in Rishon, and give me ten percent of what you saved in psychiatrist bills.
The cynic marches on his stomach
Honest? When I stood at my grandfather’s grave at the old cemetery of Fez, I got very emotional. They call the cemetery the “House of Life”. My father’s house was right on the wall that delineates it. This was the view that he saw out his window every morning. I too could have been born in that house, with that view?
I could have also lived there and grown up to be a torah scholar or tailor or jewelry maker? I too could have grown up in Fez or Netivot or Montreal? These are the thoughts that made me very hungry.
So what did we eat in Morocco? Let’s just say that the day the B. Simon family arrived in Morocco was the day that the lambs and sheep declared to be their national “Nakba” day. In the morning, after coffee, you can enter the nearest sausage stand, where the sausage man will serve you a slightly spicy merguez sausage in a bun.
In the afternoon, when the hunger decides, you can stop at one of the tagine stands scattered all over the place. The tagine is a clay pot with a deep-dish bottom and a cone shaped cover, in which miracles and wonders are slowly cooked. Lamb’s meat with vegetables and dried fruits is the safe and sound choice, but the adventurous can fix up a veritable concoction. To my great surprise, the tagine stands constitute a sort of fast food, and can even be found in the gas stations.
At night, right before your stomach sticks to your back, it is recommended to gather the entire family around a large shared tray, and eat together like cultured people. The tray can have divine couscous with vegetables, dried fruit and an unlucky lamb, or alternatively fish and seafood, if you are by the ocean.
There is no question that Morocco first endeared itself to me through my stomach. But out of all the places in the world, I cannot recall another country where I so quickly felt at home. Maybe it was due to my father’s stories that in front of my surprised eyes, materialized and developed into pictures, colors and scents. Maybe it was the kind Moroccans or the familiar scenery, which looked like Israel.
We did not go on an organized tour, rather we rented a car and went at our own pace, slowly walking down memory lane, carefully casting about for the yearnings. No, we did not go to the magnificent Mosque of Hassan II in Casablanca or the colorful market in Marrakesh.
Rather, we went to the narrow alley behind the communal baker or the abandoned yard where bougainvillea bushes grew and the children of the Jewish Quarter would play tag. Precisely there is where I understood the true meaning of this trip. Yay! Who said that N.B. Simon is a cynical pothead who is not connected to his feelings, ha?
Morocco in nutshell
Before you take your fez out of the attic, I will give you an abbreviated guide to Morocco.
Casablanca: An impressive mosque. Good restaurants. The rest - it is better to see the film. The Israeli equivalent - Bat Yam, just with Moroccans. Basically, Bat Yam.
Fez: Amazing. An ancient and fascinating Jewish Quarter, a hard core Arab kasbah, huge markets, half authentic artisans. Not to be missed. The Israeli equivalent- nu, take a guess.
Marrakesh: Chill out. A huge amazing market. A city plaza with “story tellers, snake charmers, sword swallowers” and pickpockets. Excellent merguez sausage stands. Highly recommended. They say that there are also authentic tourist shows with dancers, drummers and all that nonsense. We passed, because this year we will be spending the Seder night in Ashdod.
Volubilis: Famous Roman ruins. Is that why you came to Morocco? Go to Beit Shean.
And no, I did not go to Tudra village, my sincere apologies to Shlomo Bar.