Morocco: Love and Argan Oil
Dr. Gabrielle Francis
(Continued from Morocco: Part 1 )
Ahmed and his friends had been making the annual pilgrimage to the Gnawa Festival since they were teenagers. They stayed in a small Berber village on the edge of town in a house owned by Khadija. Khadija worked at the local Argan Oil co-operative. By now Ahmed knew that I had a new obsession with Argan oil and so he invited me out to the village to meet Khadija and see the Marjana Co-Operative.
We arrived at the village house and found Ahmed’s friends sitting with Khadija, who was 77 and her mother who was about 95. There were 8 young men sitting with the old ladies drinking Mint Tea, laughing and telling stories. The old ladies were loving the attention. I found it fascinating that these young hip guys were enjoying a whole day hanging with the little grannies. To me it told me a lot about the Moroccan culture and its reverence for the elderly and family.
Later that afternoon, we went to the Marjana Co-Operative of Traditional Argan Oil Production. I learned that this Co-Operative was one of the few co-operatives that was still using 100% of the Traditional Production. Many of the other co-ops had started to use machines to keep up with the new demands from American and European markets. Marjana was also unique in that that the women workers were part owners of the Co-Operative.
We spent the day with the ladies at Marjana learning about the different stage of the Traditional Production. I watched the women as they performed each laborious stage. The Co-Op provided a social outlet for the women to talk, bond, laugh, sing, dance and create community. At one-point Ahmed sat on the ground and started to play a drum that was in the production room. All the ladies began singing and soon dancing. This spontaneous celebration seemed to give the ladies the energy to finish the grinding and pulping for that day.
Ahmed knew the women at the co-operative, and he translated some of their stories for me. They were mostly divorced or widowed and had found in the co-op the opportunity to provide support for their families. The money from working at Marjana helped pay for schools, health care, homes and food. There were endless stories of how the Argan oil Co-Operative had brought prosperity to the small village. The women had a sense of pride and self-esteem that comes from having financial independence and being able to help their families and community.
I spent 3 weeks after the festival travelling around Morocco with Ahmed. He taught me about Moroccan culture and customs. We bonded over music, travel, Argan oil, family and more. Being with him was so comforting to me. I could see we were getting deeper and occasionally I would be overcome with logic and reason. There were many practical reasons why this relationship could not work.
I was much older. To which Ahmed said,” No problem, Mohammed’s favorite wife (he had 12) was 15 years older than him.” Thank you, prophet!
I was Catholic and he was Muslim. “No Problem.” Muslims can be with Christians and Jews because they are People of the Book.
I lived in American and he lived in Morocco. “No Problem. We would see each other again, Inshallah (GodWilling).”
He should have experiences of dating more people. I was his first love. To which he said that, “You only get one love in life and that is chosen before you are born.” I was his Maktub.
Maktub…. It was written.
It was written before we were born that we would find love and meet and even have this connection with Argan oil.
And so, the seed had become a seedling, a sprout of a new relationship. Maktub.
That is Destiny.
Meeting the Family
Back in San Francisco, my real life was as a Naturopathic Doctor, Chiropractor and Acupuncturist, running a very busy practice in the city. My mind would wander back to the dreamy days of my Moroccan adventure and Ahmed. I was still doing a bit of touring with bands in my Backstage Alternative business as well. So, over the next year I scheduled as many European gigs as I could. And since I was in the neighborhood, I would drop into Morocco to visit Ahmed.
Over the course of the year, there were about 5 visits. It was nice to get to know him in a slow manner. We talked on the phone, but the phone communication was challenging since we really didn’t speak the same language. So, we pieced together conversations using words in English, Arabic, French and Spanish. I called it multilingual Cave talk.
In Morocco, I would reserve a hotel to stay in and Ahmed would get his own room. In Morocco, it is illegal for men and women to stay in hotels together if they are not married. It is also illegal to have premarital relations. I appreciated the hotel law as it was enforced to protect Moroccan boys and girls from the Sex tourism industry. Occasionally, Ahmed would give the hotel reception guy a little Baksheesh so that he would not notice him sneaking in my room. Just about every law in Morocco can be overlooked with a little Baksheesh, also known as a bribe.
Meanwhile, I never met the family. He talked about his family all the time. I never asked to meet the family either. I respected that Moroccan culture is not a dating culture. The family arranges for couples to marry through various introduction rituals that are made through parents. So, lovers don’t date. They only marry. After about one year, I was planning to come for a visit. Just passing through again. Ahmed asked me to meet his family. And so, that was the way he proposed to me. There was no, “Will you marry me? “, rings, or getting down on the knees. I knew that to meet the family was his way of asking. And I was ready.
Now this was serious business. The day that I was coming was an event for the extended village. And so, when I walked in the family house, there were 2 mothers, father, sisters and brother, aunts and uncles ,grandparents, nieces and nephews, cousins and more cousins. The small house was packed with a loving bunch of relatives all excited to meet the American Lebanese woman that Ahmed was going to marry. I was quite comfortable with this type of celebration as I grew up in a big Lebanese family that had weekly gatherings such as this. It felt very normal. It was a love fest from the beginning. I loved them and they loved me. Even though we could not speak a word of the same language, we bonded with hugs and smiles.
The women were in the kitchen most of the day cooking. It was a Friday, and Friday in Morocco is Couscous day. Ahmed’s mother, hand rolled the couscous from scratch. As the Couscous was being finished, Ahmed’s mother pulled out a hidden bottle of Argan Culinary oil that she saved for special occasions. Argan oil is quite expensive for Moroccans so it was considered a delicacy. Ahmed explained to me that his father used the Argan oil as medicine for his cholesterol and rheumatism. His grandmother used the Argan culinary oil for her diabetes.
They were a family that believed in Food as Medicine and Argan oil has many medicinal properties due to its antioxidant and fatty acid composition. I tasted the Argan Culinary oil and it had a hazelnut flavor. His mother topped off the giant dish of couscous with a drizzle of the Argan Oil.
The giant plate of couscous was brought to the table. Amazingly, 30 people sat around that table and began to dig into the Couscous all using their right hand to roll the couscous into little balls to eat. Since, I had no skill at this method of eating they gave me a spoon. The family found great entertainment in watching me eat Couscous with a spoon.
My stomach expanded to a size I have never seen before. Now it was time for Mint tea and dessert. For the special dessert, Ahmed’s Aunt brought out some Amlou. Amlou is a mixture of ground almonds, honey, and Argan oil. It is a delicacy saved for special occasions and the Amlou is dipped into with bread. Legend has it that Amlou is an aphrodisiac. So, they must have thought it was appropriate for the occasion.
After the dessert, the women cleaned, the men told stories and then the real fun started. Out came the drums and pots and pans. The entire family sat in a circle playing the drums and household utensils, singing and dancing. This went on into the wee hours of the night. I sat and clapped enjoying the unabashed joy. They pulled me up to dance and said that I danced like a Moroccan. All I could think was how lucky I was to have this as my new family. I loved these people!
At the end of the night, I told Ahmed about the voice I heard on the day we met telling me that I was going to marry him. He shared a secret with me. The night we first saw each other, he went back to the house that he was staying with his friends and told them that he met the woman he was going to marry. They laughed at him and said “Really? What is her name?” And he said,” I don’t know, she wouldn’t talk to me.”
And so, it is again. Maktub, it was written!
Ahmed had 2 mothers. His Father had 2 wives. Prior to meeting Ahmed, I had many judgements about the Islamic custom of having multiple wives. I saw it as an abuse of power in a patriarchal society. I was visiting Cuz Baby in Egypt a few years before, and we decided to spend an afternoon at the pool of the Cairo Marriot. There was a Saudi prince at the pool with his 2 wives and children. He got to chatting us up and next thing you know he was proposing for us be his 3rd and 4th wives. He told us that he discussed this with the other 2 wives, and they agreed that we would be great additions to the family. We learned that men could take more than one wife, but he needed to have the approval of the other wives first. We also learned that each wife had to be treated equally and given the same financial benefits. We thought for a second about being able to live together and have unlimited wealth and resources from the oil money. And then we respectfully declined.
Ahmed’s Father met his first wife, Aisha, when they were teenagers. They were soul mates and life companions. Aisha could not have children, although she tried for many years. In the meantime, they raised many nieces and nephews in their home to relieve the burden of other family members. They let them live with them and they put them through college and more. When Ali was in his early 50s, Aisha decided it was time for him to have a second wife so that he could have his own children. Although she wanted children as well, her real concern was for Him. She loved him and knew that his life would be more complete if he had his own children.
Aisha, found Najia, as his second wife. Ali resisted. He was happy with his true love and the life they had together. Aisha insisted. Najia was only 17 when she was married to the 53-year-old Ali. 9 months later, Ahmed was born. Najia had 4 four children with Ali. She and Aisha raised the children together in the same 1-bedroom apartment. Aisha was a sensitive and very spiritual woman. Najia was a little wilder and loved socializing, working, shopping, and parties. She also had a very entrepreneurial spirit. She was always starting businesses and getting all her friends to work for her.
A few years after the youngest child was born, Aisha, decided it would be best to divorce Ali so that Najia could feel more secure in his love for her. This woman sensed that Najia had married so young and did not really get to have the love of her life as a husband. So, Aisha, gave up the love of her life so Najia would feel more special. The family was devastated. But apparently, Najia was the most devastated to see her leave. She only moved a couple of blocks away. And she still was at the house daily helping to raise the children. But she gave Ali to Najia as the ultimate display of love. WOW!
I had a lot of apprehension about meeting 2 mothers. I think it was mostly because I didn’t know what to expect or how I should act. My anxiety about the meeting dissolved as soon as I met Aisha and Najia. The relationship felt like a mother and daughter. One could see that they had immense love and respect for each other. I watched as they interacted with the family and the children and could only see harmony between the 2 women and the children. When Ali entered, I watched the dynamics change. Najia seemed annoyed by him like a wife does when the husband is grating on her nerves. I could see how the huge age difference could create a gap in communication. As Ahmed described, their relationship was a project for children. When the elderly, Aisha entered the room, Ali would light up a like Christmas tree. The old woman had patience for him and she respectfully listened to him as he slowly spoke and moved.
My judgements about multiple wives was slowly fading as I could see the practicality of it in this case. However, I am sure that not every husband can be as lucky as Ali to have such kind, compassionate, and unconditionally loving wives. One thing was clear was that Ahmed truly reveled in having 2 mothers. The first born son in an Arab family is always treated like a Prince. Imagine having 2 mothers, 2 sisters, grandmothers, aunts and cousins all treating you like are Aladdin. I thought about how this may play out when he moved to the US and I would be alone attending to his princely needs. I was sure there was going to have to be some training. For Ahmed, the only thing better than 2 mothers is three mothers. He was more than elated to meet my mom and she was just as overjoyed to have another son to spoil. So whenever, I am not spoiling him enough or treating him like the Prince he knows he is, he calls my Mom for attention and love. Because one can never have too many mothers.
The thought crossed my mind many times before he came to the US, that I may one day end up like Aisha. I was older and did not have many fertile years left. Would he one day want children that I could not give? Fear would creep in and I would have doubts. But I never doubted that marrying him was right. I decided to jump in anyway, doubts and all. I would leave the second wife idea for another day….
My next visit to Morocco was for my wedding shower. I spent the days with the women of the family while Ahmed would work and visit his friends. In Morocco, the women gather together in homes to share time while the men work. After a visit to the market to gather groceries for the day’s meal, the cooking begins. The women prepare the tagine or couscous and then it sits for hours slow cooking on the stove. While the food is cooking the women in Ahmed’s family would turn on the music videos or invite musicians over to the house. They would dance and sing for hours, taking breaks for Mint Tea and cookies. The dance parties are something that Moroccan women of all social classes enjoy. It is a time of bonding and sharing stories. Not to mention, it is a good way to burn the calories of the unbelievable amount of food they eat.
This day was a special dance party since it was also my engagement party. I was presented with a beautiful purple (my favorite color) Kaftan that was hand embroidered by Ahmed’s mother. The craftsmanship was remarkable and I was so honored by the sentiment. They dressed me up in it so that I would look Moroccan.
Ahmed’s cousin then took me for an adventure to find a Henna artist. The Henna artists can be found at the edge of the Medina. They are a special caste of ladies that are known for their Henna craft and for their skills at reading tea leaves in cups. They are Moroccan gypsies and fortune tellers as well as Henna artists. There were about 15 women that competed for our business. They showed me their books with endless pictures of Henna designs. I wanted to hire them all but Ahmed’s cousin, Fatima, took the lead and dropped some money in one women’s hand and told her the address for the evening soiree.
Later that evening the Henna lady arrived at the house. I was positioned on the sofa with my Kaftan on and sleeves rolled up. I sat there for 2 hours while she mixed the Henna, and meticulously painted the intricate details on my feet, lower legs, hands and arms. After the artwork was done, I was left to dry for another 2 hours. Meanwhile, the party raged on around me with dancing, eating and celebrations.
If I tried to move everyone would scream. The kids were assigned the job of feeding me, giving me Mint Tea, and scratching me when I had an itch. Family members were taking photos of me. Periodically, Ahmed would drop in with a friend or two and sit and entertain me while I was in Henna Prison. Finally, the Henna had dried and left a dark imprint on me. Now it was time to scrap it off and see the Orange stain that was left on my skin. The entire family sat around to watch the unveiling. Argan oil was rubbed into my skin to enhance the color ofthe Henna tattoo and to give my skin a luxurious glow. The designs were breathtaking, and I was feeling very exotic!
Sunday is Hamam day for the ladies of Ahmed’s family. And let me tell you there is nothing like a day at the Hamam to get to know your new relatives! The Hamam is not just a day at the spa for ordinary Moroccans. It has the function of being the way people take a bath and clean. This can be challenging when you live a small house with 12 other family members and only one bathroom. Besides the functionality of the Hamam, it is, as most Moroccan activities, another way to bond and socialize.
When we entered the Hamam there was a modest looking woman in Hijab taking our money and passing out Hamam shoes, soaps and buckets. I was there with Ahmed’s mother, sisters, and a few cousins. We undressed down to our undies and headed into the warm tile steam area first. Here we sat by the running water faucets throwing buckets of hot water over our heads and bodies.
I was given some Black Soap to use for my hair and body. The black soap is a mixture of Olive seeds, ground olives, Argan oil and minerals. It has a gelatinous buttery quality and leaves the skin and hair silky smooth. My new sisters and mother poured water over me and helped to wash my hair. How intimate.
Next entered the humble lady that greeted us at the entrance. She came in wearing nothing but underwear. She was transformed into an ominous looking kessal lady, aka the lady who scrubs the shit out of you. She pulled me down on the Hamam floor and pushed me face down. From here she took a kessal, or loofa gloves, and scrubbed me with the black soap. The olive seeds give the black soap an extra exfoliating quality. I would occasionally, let out a scream, which sent the ladies in the Hamam cackling with joy. The militant Hamam lady woman would nudge me so she could show me all the dead skin that she had removed. Surely, she was reveling in my agony. Then she would turn me over and get the front side. I was reduced to bones after her treatment. I had literally completely lost a few shades of my tan.
After the militant scrubber was done with her work, my sister in law gave me some Argan oil to finish off my newly polished skin with a gorgeous glow. I also put a special Argan preparation in my hair to condition the dry ends and scalp.
The ladies were in no hurry to get back to the house. They chatted and gossiped with the neighbors. I could see I was being introduced to the other ladies as Ahmed’s new wife. There were waterproofed instruments lying around the Hamam floor. At some point the ladies started to play the drums, sing and dance in the nude. I laid there and marveled at the joy, spirit and uninhibited innocence of my new family.
The seeds of Morocco were planted in India. They grew into love, marriage, and a new family tree. I now had a second home and family in Morocco. Here, I have learned about the healing quality of the tribe. In Morocco, no one is an island. The concept of individuality doesn’t exist. Every thought, decision and action is a group effort and considers the entire extended family. My next adventure would be to learn to balance being a free spirit with deep roots in my Lebanese and Moroccan families.