Your Mouth Is Too Big: Food and Conversation in Morocco
By Christine Oulamine
Good food and good conversation - the mainstays of the Mediterranean world. For the Moroccans, good food is mint tea and almond cookies. And good conversation can consume an entire afternoon or evening, easily distracting one from tallying the number of those cookies eaten. For many of us nessraniyin (foreigners) living in Casablanca, the ability to eat large, talk at length and weigh little has always been an unmastered art -along the lines of belly dancing and rolling couscous into bite-size balls.
Upon our return to Morocco, after a three-year sojourn in the U.S., we were invited to my husband’s aunt’s house for a late evening mint tea. Although we were still sluggish from jet lag, Moroccan etiquette would not permit my husband, Reda, to refuse the invitation.
I begged Reda for a postponement, but he chided me, citing the incident many years before with his childhood friend Yassir, when I had declined an after-dinner tea. Yassir never called us again, and we heard through others that by rejecting their tea, I had offended the family.
“Ok,” I grumbled, “I’ll go.” I was tired but determined to re-assimilate Moroccan culture.
We arrived at Reda's tata’s villa around 10:00 p.m. After making the rounds of bises -this time two kisses on each cheek since we hadn’t seen each other for a while - Tata led us through her home to the Moroccan living room, a rectangular room framed in one continuous, bench-like sofa. We scooted onto the sofa, squeezing around a knee-high table ample with sweets and savories and accepted a glass of pre-sweetened tea.
Reda excused himself to visit the men in an adjoining salon, where they would debate political contentions in the Middle East and speculate on the winner of the upcoming soccer game. Though men and women mix freely in modern Moroccan homes, as in many social settings, the sexes tend to diverge along conversational lines.
Once he exited the room, the ladies of the family grilled me with questions. “How was the flight?” “Are you happy to be back?” “How are your parents? How are your sisters? Your cousins? Your neighbors?”
Everyone is fine, I answered. “Koolshee m'ziane.” It was late, and as I don’t like to indulge in caffeinated drinks late in the day, especially this particular night when I was still hoping to get to bed soon, I drank my tea slowly, alternating between real and simulated sips, the very picture of a gracious guest.
As soon as Reda was out of earshot and we had exhausted the list of my family members, the congenial conversation turned to a serious subject. “Christina! You have gained weight!” Tata scolded.
Her remark would have challenged that of any American I know-we nessraniyin have a reputation here of being blunt. Did they misunderstand? Did they not know that although we are a direct and honest bunch, we bite our tongues when it comes to weight and other physical flaws?
I started fidgeting and grabbed another almond and honey cookie from the tray to give myself something to do while the ladies - although needing to shed a few kilos themselves - went on to criticize Americans for their excess weight. Their theory, one I hadn’t heard before, is that eating les animaux americains make people fat. It wasn’t all negative though, they assured me. I would lose weight now that I am eating Moroccan animals again. I tried to defend myself - to tell them it wasn't les animaux Americains but the countless pans of les fudge brownies americains during stressful times at a sedentary office job through a cold, winter in New York City. But they stuck with their theory. And I wondered how it would help to replace my regular diet’s staple of boneless, skinless chicken breasts with Moroccan mechoui. This roasted lamb meat is so oily that Moroccans commonly wash it down with tea or fizzy water, a practice believed to dissolve the fat.
“Americans are not obsessed with body image like the French,” Tata asserted, referring to their former colonial power and ongoing model for Western style and culture. Isn’t that a good thing, I thought, as I took a fake sip from my tea. “The French enjoy little meals, and the French girls won’t even eat baguettes. What’s a baguette? That’s nothing. But the Americans are just the opposite. They eat enormous amounts of food, all of them. Have you seen?” They gasped in unison, as to show disapproval, or shock, or both. “Are thereany thin women in the U.S., Christina?”
I took a real sip of tea and began to defend my country, but by that point, the women had plunged into a frenzied critique of the Americans and the French, each trying to outdo the other with stories from abroad. Tata reached over to push a button that rang a bell somewhere else in the house, and the maid promptly entered with a plate of miniature quiches. She gestured for me to take one. As etiquette dictated, I obeyed, although I began wishing I had worn a djellaba, a loose-fitting traditional dress. And I wondered if next door the men’s deliberation had heated up as much as ours, if they had reached a consensus or if Reda, a freshly-pledged U.S. citizen, was like I, defending his country.
Another real sip. I had to restrain myself from mentioning which North African country had created tajines, immersed in thick oil and beef juices deliciously sponged up by loaf after loaf of Moroccan breads; or pastilla and its sweet and savory layers of chicken and phylo dough; or msemmen, the crispy Moroccan crepe enjoyed with afternoon tea. And I wanted to discuss how quickly McDonald’s had to open new restaurants to keep up with the demand - there are now two, just a mile and a half apart along the coast in Casablanca. But they would not have heard me. They were busy critiquing, all the while snacking on croissants, Moroccan cookies, French cheese, pastries, Belgian chocolates, and sugary tea. A midnight feast, any way you slice it!
The next day, jet lag woke us early. My head reeling with the previous evening’s conversation and dizzy from caffeine withdrawal, I took a shot of expresso and rushed off to the gym with Reda. Unlike the modern Moroccan living room, fitness centers are divided according to gender. During the three years we spent in the U.S., however, a French chain had opened one gender-mixed center in Casablanca. This is the one Reda and I decided to join.
As we completed the paperwork necessary for membership, Leila, the receptionist explained that there was one mixed room and one room that, on alternating days, was reserved exclusively for men or women, with the majority of days allocated to women.
“Why,” I inquired, “is it necessary to have a non-mixed room at all?”
“Because Moroccan women have too much cellulite,” Leila explained matter-of-factly. “They prefer to work out alone.” Too many midnight feasts, I thought to myself. She went on to describe the rest of the center’s amenities: showers, a hammam (public bath), a sauna, and a spa offering massages, manicures, pedicures, waxing and cures, everything typical of a Moroccan gym. Cures are those fat remedies we Americans have heard of but few of us have tried, as we attempt to avoid being taken in by the too-good-to-be-true promises of alternative weight loss. In Morocco, though, there is a remedy for any beauty problem: seaweed wraps for firmer skin, massages and ultrasound therapy to eliminate cellulite, hour-long vapor wraps in towels to burn excess fat, creams, lotions, potions and spells.
Still thinking about Tata’s attack the night before, I inquired about the vapor wrap. Leila explained that to attain results you must submit to a treatment one to two times a week for six to ten weeks. “During this period,” she explained, “you must remain on a strict diet. The dietitian will provide guidelines.” I thanked her and told her I would consider it, but suspected I would have the same results if I just followed the “guidelines” and nixed the hour wrapped head to toe in wet towels.
Reda and I headed for the gender-mixed training room, where I eagerly hopped onto the last remaining treadmill. A twiggy Moroccan woman, whose turquoise terrycloth and sequin-studded designer jogging suit was a perfect match for her just done hair and make-up, peddled slowly on the stationary bike next to me while listening to fitness advice from the monitrice. “Â…Then have her bake the salmon in the oven with just a little lemon juice,” the trainer insisted.
Meanwhile, I attempted to conceal the treadmill’s screen with a cupped hand while programming it with my weight; but the monitrice, now scanning the room for another needy client, dashed over and coerced me into revealing the number. “Among everyone, it is I who should know how much you weigh,” she reasoned, with my loving Reda looking on and nodding. “Otherwise, I cannot help you.” But when I told her in the lowest of embarrassed voices that I had gained a double-digit number of kilos in the last nine to ten months, she gasped, stood upright, and proclaimed “That is not good, not good at all!” This was not the compassionate response I had hoped for. Not the Americanized “Oh, I know that must be frustrating, but don’t worry, you are enrolled in the gym now.” All the encouragement I got was, “Inchallah, (God willing) you will lose it within the next six to eight months.”
I fled the gym for my house where the housekeeper decorated the table with mini-dishes of various salads, grilled meats, and sauces for lunch. I ate the salads and grilled meat liberally, avoiding the oily sauces, and congratulated myself for having had a lunch complementary to a morning at the gym. Ecstatic, I called her into the room to thank her.
But to my surprise, Kebira (who lives up to her name, meaning “the big one” in Arabic) appeared with one of my favorite tajines - lamb and prunes sprinkled with grilled almonds and sesame seeds. After placing the terra-cotta tajine dish in the center of the table, and lifting off the chimney-like lid, she then adorned each place setting with one round, Moroccan hobz bread. Realizing I was expected to soak the entirety of that loaf of hobz in the tajine’s juices as I scooped out pieces of lamb and prunes, I panicked. I considered doing as my Moroccan sister-in-law does, peeling the inside of the bread out, wadding it into a ball and using the remaining bread shell to spoon up the tajine. This, she always assured me, would prevent weight gain. I opted for a fork to pick out the prunes and, for my diet’s sake, labeled them dessert.
When the housekeeper returned to clear the table, she noticed I had not eaten my bread. She insisted I eat more, alleging I would be hungry later. I promised her I had eaten adequately, but she sulked off into the kitchen, generous hips swaying from side to side under her djellaba. Minutes later I heard her snickering with the other housekeeper about how I don’t eat bread. “Who doesn’t eat bread?” she asked. Clearly I had broken another rule.
Moroccans follow all meals with sweet mint tea. Sure enough, moments later, Kebira reemerged from the kitchen with a tray of multicolored crystal tea glasses. This time I passed on the tea, hoping to avoid the added calories of the already infused sugar. Disbelieving, she begged me to drink, even handing me the glass. Luckily, Reda spoke in my place. “The doctor said Christina shouldn’t drink too much tea.”
“B'sah? Is that true? Meskina (poor thing)!….Do you want some coffee?” she responded, half-asking, half-urging. Minutes later, coffee was added to the table. It, too, was pre-sweetened.
So as I settle back into life in Morocco, I’ve made a list of what I have to do. First, I will delay all tea parties until after sunset, when the calories apparently don’t count. And I guess I will have to accept any late night invitations, as well. Of course, I will have to find a good reason - apparently anything medical should do - for why I cannot drink my host’s tea. Then, I will eat as much oily, roasted Moroccan mechoui as possible. Also, I will remember: French baguettes, bad; Moroccan hobz bread, at least the crust of it, good. I might also consider teaching my maid the idea of a “soup and salad lunch.” Finally, I shall begin all workouts at the gym with a prayer for weight loss and follow them up with a cure. All this should help me lose some weight and gain some Moroccan manners at the same time.
I think I have a good handle on how to deal with the culinary differences. And for the conversational differences? I’m imagining I should be as forthright as my Moroccan relatives. I will assimilate by adopting their verbal attitude towards physical appearances. When the conversation turns to my body and my weight, I shall have the courage to reply, “My hips may be wide, but your mouth is too big.”
© 2006, 2007 by Christina Oulamine. All rights reserved.
Christina Oulamine grew up in the suburban U.S. Midwest dreaming of living in France. But four months after college graduation, she unexpectedly found herself practicing her French on Moroccans in Casablanca. She has now spent six of the last ten years there with her Moroccan husband. Having worked in international relocation assistance and education, she is currently relishing the abundant time afforded by a relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle to raise her two daughters, engage in various volunteer activities, and develop her writing. Christina is also co-founder and co-director of Association des Amies de Gauthier, a first-of-its-kind neighborhood association in Morocco.