In the medina, the more you get lost, the more you discover.
Medina is a YA novel about of a 12-year-old Moroccan girl’s journey from her small Berber village to the ancient city of Fez then into the kitchens of the most famous female chefs (dadas) in the country. Set in modern day, Nadia is chosen to become one of the cooks to the continental elite. Little does she know that many girls are forced into indentured servitude for life or abused. From a budding teenager’s eye we are exposed to the use of child slave labor, which has been condoned in Morocco for centuries, how is and is not changing today and the hardship Nadia must face to learn her trade. As she progresses as an exceptional cook will she eventually leave to go to Europe as her friends encourage her to do to become a premier chef? Or, will she go back home to her small Berber village become the next Queen of Couscous like her mother? The theme of Medina is embodied in the old fortress city itself; that the Medina is cracking little by little to let in the new, which is at the heart of Nadia’s conflict. Can the old and new meet in peace? The story also explores the closeness of Moroccan families, the cultural wariness of outsiders, the secrets of the media, souks and the lore of Moroccan women’s great part in wonderful Moroccan traditional cuisine.
Into the Fire
Sea of Salt
The Deadly Nightingale
A Gentle Wind
The Boy in the Kitchen
Wings Wide Open
Medina by Liz Amini-Holmes
Ali has been moping all morning. He paces in front of the curtain, which serves as my bedroom door.
“Ali just comes in!” I shout
I am nervous too so I yell at him to make myself feel better. He is crying now. I feel worse. He is acts like child even though he is seven years older than me. Mohammed, my eldest brother, is more patient than I am. He takes Ali everywhere he goes. They traipse through the markets for meats, bones and vegetables for the stew Mama makes for our mid-day meal. Together they tend her herb garden in the window box and on the rooftop. Momo even takes Ali to the vats so he can watch him work at the skin dying. Mohammed protects Ali best he can while he works because Ali could fall or make a mess or many other bad things which would get Momo lashed from his boss but Momo brings him anyway. He’s like a gambler taking on a bad bet.
I look around trying to figure out what to take in my small suitcase. The suitcase came from a neighbor who used it when she traveled travel back and forth between our village in the Atlas mountains to a village in the flat desert where her sick auntie lived. Where she got it I do;t know but it’s very worn out and the strps are hard to keep locked in place.
The few clothes I have are already in there. What part of my life I should put in and what part to leave out? On the shelf above my cot holds things dear to me, my papa put up the shelf for me when I was five years old. He found a board left by the roadside; it was part of a large vegetable crate that fell off of a donkey cart. The board is painted with lively dancing vegetables in front of a market place. The paint is partly washed off but I like the colors and the happy characters make me happy too. “Nadia,” Papa told me “You like to keep these trinkets so here is place to keep them out of the way. Not on the floor where Mama and me can step on them.” So from then on anything I liked, shiny rocks, frosted broken pieces of glass, eventually my certificate from school, a picture of our family taken at a festival they all sit up on my shelf. I also have a few books up there as well. I can read unlike most of the other girls in my town. Mama made sure so I would not be like her and Papa so she made sure I got to got to the UN school outside fo the village walls. I have a collection of illustrated fables from Mama’s mother, a travel catalogue of European cities I found in a puddle. The catalogue is a bit moldy and some of the pages are stuck together but I like to look at the Europeans and the unfamiliar cities. Best of all I have my cookbook, which I have been keeping for three years now. I try to remember and write down and draw all the things Mama cooks so when I get married I can make them exactly her way.
There is no better cook in the media than Mama. Some women think they are as good, they quietly make nasty comments about her food but she does not care, as she knows she is good, she just laughs it off as what it truly is, jealousy. But most of the villages call her the Queen of Couscous. That is why people came to our village to take her to the embassy kitchen in Fez, they heard how amazing her food is, but she flat out refused. She could not leave Papa or the boys, especially Ali. But she told them to take me, that I was as good as her. So now this woman Osnat will come to fetch me to cooking school in Fez forty miles from my home. I have never even been out of my town.
Papa calls to me from the large room which serves as our kitchen, living room and where the boys sleep. Osnat is already waiting for me. I feel embarrassed as she is wearing a new white chador, which stands out against our dirt floor and thick mud walls. I think if she turns around too quickly she will be covered in dirt, my dirt, the dirt of all our families that have lived in this little clay house. But I wish she would be covered with it and me as well. I want to bring the dirt with me on my journey. I am not as afraid when I see her; she has large eyes filled with kindness. She acts very courteously to my family. She shows them a brochure of the place I am going to. They nod and smile at the facilities. She tells them to keep the brochure; they politely take it from her even though they would never be able to read it.
My mother has made mint tea and her delicious almond cakes. They are very sweet dusted with sugar and crushed almonds. I am so greedy when I usually eat these Mama has to scold me that I am like an animal, stuffing cakes two at a time into my mouth, almost choking on them. But today my mouth tastes like metal and I am not hungry at all. Osnat is very pleased with the cakes, she ask Mama if she is sure she does not want to come to the embassy. Mama blushes and quietly says no. Papa visibly sighs relief.
Papa pulls me into the room. I greet Osnat by kissing her right hand to show respect, I say Ahlan Wasahlan (“Pleased to see you”). I hope that I do not entirely act like a peasant. Osnat asks me if I am ready, as we have to go before it becomes dark, it is a very long car ride to Fez. I am still numb that I am leaving my parents and I do not fully realize that it could be forever. Other kids have gone off to schools or working as servants for rich families so they can help support their own families but a lot of them never return either they marry out of arrangement or they flee to Europe for better pay and freedom. Or worse, stories of children who make it back home who have been beaten and abused in many other ways.
“Nadia you must get your things” Papa urges me. I hear Ali moan in the corner. Mohammed has just came home from work to see me off. He goes to Ali to comfort him. Momo brings out his Berber drums and let’s Ali pound on them. I run to my shelf grab my family photo and my cookbook and quickly pack them into my suitcase then push aside the curtain.
We head into the old tan Mercedes, which would take us to Fez. I am in the back of the car with Oznat. Our driver is very quite and skilled as he maneuvers around the carts and trucks to make time as the sky blushes pink to a deep red. Oznat is also quiet, contemplating the scenery. I try to concentrate on being excited about my adventure but I feel dizzy from all the commotion of leaving and carsick feeling having never been a car for so long before. I could still hear Ali moaning in my ear. Poppa giving me a hung so tight I could hardly breath wiping his tears on my shoulders; I touch my shoulder now as I think of him. Mama standing near the doorway leaning against the door frame acting as if she was holding it up but it was really the door frame holding her up and Momo with his dark curly hair, his beautiful long, thin face looking at me but then past me to the car and it’s opportunities. He is the only one who really wants to leave but as the eldest son that is impossible and he knows it. I wish ot were him not me going. In the car Oznat tries to comfort me as she see me tense and sad “When you see get to Fez, see all the people in medina, hear the many languages thrown together, the men talking about poetry, art and music, you will really understand something about the soul of Islam,” she says sipping fragrant mint tea from her thermos. “ And you will understand the old soul of Fez.” It sounded beautiful but all I know is I miss Momma, Papa and the boys too much to be comforted by her words. We pass a group of tourists who stopped at the side of the road to taking pictures of the camels who loped across the fields. Our driver snorts at them then says nothing else. After about two hours of diving I need to use the bathroom. Oznat signals the driver to pull over at a little market. As we leave the car many of the men outside the door of the market look at us and make rude comments. They seem like a murder of crows waiting for a tidbit of bread. Oznat blows past them, her stern look making them look away. She ushers me into the bathroom stall. It is digusting with dirt and waste everywhere. I can still hear the men talking as the bathroom window is next to where they stand. I am afraid, as I never heard the men in our village talk that way to the children or women. I hear Oznat whisper. “Nadia you must be very careful. Men like that will try to snatch you up, hurt you, throw you out and you will lose your honor.” I was relived to be out of the car, not to be moving any further away from home yet a new fear took hold of me something I did not fully understand. I felt sick again. Oznat wants to know if I am OK and what is taking so long. I try to steady my heart and stop the hot-cold flush which is shaking through my body I do not want to have to put my head in that dirty, horrible toilet so it is a force of will to stop the acid in my throat from coming up. I take some gulps of air in that dark stall which stinks of urine. Finally I when my breathing is more regular I call out to her I am all right and ready to go. She again shields me from the men outside and we climb back into the car and speed off to Fez. The men all turn their heads to watch at us leave and then looked back each other and laugh.
Finally we approach Fez. The sky is now blue black and what I can make out from the car window are cinderblock villas and faded, dirty apartment buildings. I did not know what Oznat was talking about. Where is the magical city of Fez? We come to an entranceway that looks too small for our car to fit. Our driver pulls into the gravel parking area. He gets out and hands his driver’s ID to the man at the entrance they exchange some words and laugher; they seemed to know each other. “Nadia we have to walk from here, cars are not allowed in the medina.” Oznat goes on to explain. “You are to stay with me tonight then we go to the Academy de Gastromnique in the morning.”
The driver pulls my pitiful suitcase out of the trunk and Oznat’s work case and leads us thorough the entrance. Before me is the city of Fez. We walk down towards the alleyways. I was worried if i do not keep up i will be lost forever. The streets are almost too small for people to walk side by side. In the twisting alleys men in hooded djellabas darted past us and overloaded donkeys carries leather goods from the tannery. I smell the fresh leather and think of Momo. My heart sinks into my stomach. As we walk on occasionally people emerge from the huge doors set again the street walls. I can glimpse in and see the tiled entranceways before the doors slam shut. The doors are so beautiful! They are hand carved with intricate deigns i had never seen in my village. They were at least two men high and have intricate metal key locks. I want so much to put my eye into the hole to see what secrets are inside. How we found Oznat’s home i do not know but we arrive at one of the grand doors. The driver places down our bags and Oznat gives him some coins. He waits till we are inside with our bags before he leaves. I certainly feel that being alone in the media is unsafe.
Oznat told me in the car she lived with her elderly grandfather as her parents had died some time ago. I am stunned when we enter the riad courtyard. The riad floor is decorated with mosaics, terraces are outside the upper rooms and there is a large fountain in the middle of the courtyard. The roof is open to the warm, dark sky. Oznat tells me that when it rains the fountain fills up, after the rain stops birds fly into the courtyard to bath in the water then perch in the orange tress, which line the terraces.
I had no idea how magical these houses could be. She escorts me to one of the large salon rooms facing out towards the courtyard. She lights candles and fills a basin for me to wash up in. I can now hear the call prayer clearly thought the courtyard. The moon casts a bright light on the fountain tiles while the metal lanterns glowed yellow stars across the salon walls. “You will meet Grandpa in the morning. He is old and needs to sleep.” Oznat then closed off the inner door of the courtyard and for the first time all day I feel safe. I can hear music from a wedding down the alleyway. I lay on top of the comfortable wool bed sleepily listening to the music.
Medina Chapter 2
Mama cooked for a month straight before Momo was born. She sang all the time, felt very happy, was full of energy. Her songs were low, sweet lullaby for her first child. Papa said she was a storm of ingredients. Spices flew all over the kitchen forming thick warm sauces. When Momo was born, he had the same deep brown eyes of the cumin in mama’s stew. His skin was the color of light coriander. He was her finest dish, she had made yet - sweet, mellow and smelt of warm winds of the desert.
However, Ali had a different story. He was always kicking Mama, turning this way and that inside her, poking into her ribs. She had to stand all the time to be comfortable, even when sleeping. Papa would hang a blanket around her shoulders and prop a chair up next to her. Mama was also sick all day long, throwing up anything she ate so she could not stand to look at food let alone cook much for Papa or Momo. They lived on bread Papa brought from the village oven, preserved olives and salted meat from the spring before. None of them was happy for nine long months while her womb was enraged with a fetal storm.
When Ali arrived three weeks late he was huge! Although Mama had eaten very little through her whole pregnancy he weighed almost ten pounds! She spent weeks in bed recovering from her stitches the midwife had to administer. Even as large as he was Ali, he was not a good eater, and it was clear from the beginning there was something very wrong with him. Dangling a rag doll in front of him he could not look at it straight on, his arms and legs flung about, and he cried a lot. Mama blamed herself for not eating the right foods when he was inside her. Her family was cursed with a child with a broken brain. Ali fretted and wet himself constantly. Momo was only three but he started to help Mama with Ali, so she could do housework and keep the family going. Papa would come home from work to all night screaming. As a result, Mama tried to comfort them all with food. With just two dull knives, a few aluminum pots and a clay tangine my Mama decided her food could heal anything. She made a pact to make the tastiest food ever so the small family could take comfort at least in her food if not her new son. But her main reason for cooking so well was the village was very wary of Ali. Children with handicaps are thought to bring the sickness to other babies in the village. So Mama took food to the villageers so they would accept her son. Her cooking got better and better the more she tried to convince everyone that Ali was not a curse.
Soon the whole village forgot about her troublesome child and through sweet cakes, stews, soups, pastilla’s and couscous, she won them over. Her mint tea was considered the best in the village; brewing it over a bottled gas canister she would add a secret ingredient sought after from many women. She added a pinch of spices to make the tea more aromatic but no one knew the ingredients, not even Papa. The three of them worked out a way to live. Ali grew to a huge toddler and cried less but still fretted so Mama had to take him everywhere she went. She had literally a fifty-pound ball attached to her skirts until bedtime. Momo grew more beautiful and sadder as he helped take on the weight of Ali. Momo somehow he knew his fate was all worked out, the pain Ali would endure from others, his place as the first son to care for the family, all it seemed to be bred into him and he took it on stoically. As sad as he was he found a great deal of pride in taking care of his little brother. He was the only one to sooth him with his low voice. He would make music with a drum, which Ali could bang along with delight. Papa was grateful for Momo’s patience for he did not have any for his second child. All Papa felt was frustration and embarrassment.
Then I came along, a surprise, an accident. Mama was terrified to give birth again as she had been torn to shreds by Ali. Rumor was she tried to make a tea to kill me in the first few months rather than endure anther painful childbirth or another broken baby. But I persisted, so she rubbed olive oil on her private parts for months to get ready for the labor. She drank herb teas everyday to sooth her nervous thoughts and lay down by the stove to nap in the afternoons. To take her mind off of the pending birth she cooked even while she went into labor with me up to the last hour. She told me later she tried to not push at all when the time came; as she was afraid her guts would spill out again. The mid-wife had to keep pressing on Mama’s stomach for me to come out. Eventually, to the mid wife’ surprise I shot out into a large metal stew pot filled with warm water that sat on the floor by the stove. My destiny was clear my mother said; I had a place in the kitchen.
I woke up to the sound of a nightingale in the orange trees. I was confused as to where I was at first. I pulled myself reluctantly up from the sunken straw mattress that was my warm nest and looked out into the garden. In the sleeping courtyard a small saffron colored man sat in a bright patch of sunlight next to the fountain. His white tunic reflected yellow and green from the orange trees. The wind blew a soft breeze ruffling his hair tenderly like a mother’s hand. His body was straight up in the wrought iron chair as he sipped his morning tea. This must be Oznat’s grandfather. As I watched he would sip tea and then close his eyes, inhale a bit then sip again, occasionally tilting his head towards the sound of the nightingale then nodding towards them. They it seamed to be communicating with each other.
I peed in the bidet then washed my hands and face in the painted porcelain sink. Oznat left me soft towels and rose soap so I tried to wash off the imprints the covers left on my face. I also tried to rub off the mess that was my face. No luck. I ran my fingers though my tangled thick hair and I looked to find a suitable dress to wear for breakfast. I quickly gave up and threw on a dress I used for school as my hunger for breakfast was pushing me more than my pride. As I walked into the courtyard the strong smell of cinnamon and butter frying struck me, my stomach growled very loud. Somewhere in the house they were making pancakes with burnt sugar like mamas. Again the sadness struck me that I was not with her and I felt a chill run through me even in the heat.
“Come here little girl” the old man motioned to me. “Sit, sit you are hungry. I can tell.”
I was so stricken as to what to I say to this old man?
“Nothing better than strong tea and sunshine, eh?” I nodded. “It’s all this old body needs.” I did not know what he meant because what I really needed more than anything were my parents, my bothers; much more than tea could give me.
“Sit. Here is your tea” he then stood up and skillfully lifted the large silver teapot high above my glass, not spilling a drop. It was like performing a magic act as he deftly placed my glass next to me.
“Drink up, it will make you fell much better.” I sipped, the tea tasted of roses, sugar, oranges and the dusky flavor of real black Ceylon tea. It was lovely.
“Thank you.” I said in my smallest voice.
“Do not be afraid, Oznat will be here soon with your pancakes and I am just a very old man. Boring but harmless!” He laughed and drank more of his tea. I smiled at him and he seemed content to just be in the sun with the orange blossoms, the bird’s song and ragged me. Just like last night when I arrived in the medina I had the same feeling return, that some of the pain was going away and a hint of a possible future peeked at me.
Oznat arrived with the promised pancakes piled high on a beautiful blue decorated ceramic platter. I almost swooned as I ate.
“There are good, eh? Eat as much as you like but you must eat quickly. We are due the school in a half hour.” I almost forgot my reason for being here, to be trained to cook. I gobbled down as many cakes as I could, sweet and tangy with honey, cinnamon and greasy with butter and absolutely delicious! Oznat’s grandfather, Hessian was his name I found out later, sliced his pancakes elegantly and took long thoughtful bites in-between sipping his tea. Obviously we were from very different places.
Oznat seemed more relaxed today laughing with her granddad, eating with more pleasure but occasionally she would look at me in a concerned way. Finally she said it was time to leave for the school. I asked to help her with the dishes and clean up as I was so unaccustomed to being served. I always did housework unless I was sick and when I was sick my mother would bring me broth and bread then wash my face with a cool cloth to pull the fever from my body. So for Oznat to treat me like a guest made me feel embarrassed.
“Nadia you will be working very hard from now on so a little break now will be good for you.” She whisked the trays away and handed them to the servant girl who was a bit older than me. I got up and nodded to Hessian.
“Have a good day and think sweet thoughts.” He waved and smiled goodbye. I liked him so much I wanted to run and put my arms around his regal neck and nuzzle his fluffy soft white hair but I just mumbled goodbye and left with Ozant.
This time Oznat and I traveled the media alone. It was so different than when we arrived the night before. Today it was crushed with merchants, women in small groups and many donkeys carrying goods led by delivery boys. The donkeys bulged their eyes madly at the weight of their burdens. We walked briskly through the main media corridors, following our broken shadows along the cobble stone streets. Passerbys were bathed in a light of melted gold.
We entered the souk where sharp slates of sun shone through the palm leaf ceiling which covered the entire market corridors. Piles of olives glistened with golden yellow oily skins. Bananas hung above my head in huge bunches. The spice trader’s booths were many stalls long. In my village there are only two stalls where here it goes on for the length of the entire souk. The beautiful colors of spices reminded me of Momo’s dye lots at the tanners where he must be standing right now scraping the goat hairs off the dried skins. If he could see this place! The spices, rows of red paprika, brown cumin, stark white turmeric formed into hills delicately set in metal bowls. The meat stalls were horrible and amazing as I’d never seen so may animals slaughtered in one place, large heads of goats, bull testicles and lamb sides. In the souk were all raw materials of meals yet to be made. Then we passed the sweet nuts and dates sticky rich in the sun. Little children were straining to look at the treats, fiercely hungry. Just like them I wanted to take one of everything!
We followed a path that went up, then down again into an even older part of the Fez medina. Open doorways smelt of coolness and water fountains. I trailed Oznat a bit to take in the wonderful clear sky that rose above the city. The day was very hot. Swallows filled the sky then darted back and forth between the citadels. I was filled with joy at the sight of them. They were able to look down on us and dance while we pushed and pulled through the sweating streets. I wanted to be up high like they were taking in the whole city. The sliver plates laid out on matted rugs reflected the swallows trailing up above us. Then the birds became dark smudges of motion on the grey silver. I looked around at the mosaics blurred in the wavering air swept in by the white hot desert winds. The buildings were so old they seemed to sigh each time we would step close by them. Fabrics on hangers floated by entangling me in colors.
The beggars held their heads far down and their hands up but I had nothing to give them. Would I become like them one day? No family, begging and alone ? Would I be lost here forever? Oznat called back to me “Stay with me, Nadia!” She pulled me to her.
We finally arrived at the Culinary Gastromnique. The only way to know it was our destination was a polished brass plaque with the school name etched on the outside of a tall red door with a matching brass knob. It was plain compared to the other doors I had seen in the medina. I started to fell nervous again, my heart, a tiny bird banging around in my chest. I took a deep breath as Oznat knocked on the door. A woman answered the door wearing a chefs white coat over her wide black skirt. She motioned for us to enter the hallway. The inside was the opposite of the Ozant’s house. It looked like what I imagined a modern hotel looked like. A black and white tiled floor. A high enclosed ceiling and a wide
marble stairs, which led up to three terraced levels above us. The balconies acknowledged emptiness.
The woman took us to the back area of the building. She pushed open two wide silver doors and in the room sat five girls about my age. They sat along a counter in a huge gleaming steel kitchen. The first woman left silently. Another woman was standing at the end of the counter she greeted Oznat warmly.
“Farina, this is Nadia.” Farina nodded to me.
“You may sit here next to Lily.” Farina motioned to seat next to a pale girl. Lily’s hair was blonder than brown in masses of thick short curls. Her skin was an odd porcelain grey color, quite unreal. She looked like a girl from a storybook. She smiled shyly as I sat next to her. She smelled of musky sandalwood perfume. Lily was clearly not a Berber.
“Nadia I will come for you at 4 o’clock.” Oznat left with her trail of white chador behind her.
Farina clapped her hands “Girls, you must pay attention as I expect by the end of the week you will all know how to identify over 50 fruits and vegetables! Now let’s get to work.”
Medina Chapter 3
“The kitchen is a very dangerous place! I want you all to remember that. If you do not understand that you cannot ever hope to be a decent cook in a reputable situation. Not only are you working with hot surfaces, and boiling liquid, but you're handling sharp knives and utensils that can injure you in a second.” The beginning prep instructor paced back and forth in front of the stainless steel kitchen table, her bulky body shifting and rolling as she walked, her brows tight across above her eyes as she spoke. “Children you must to respect the kitchen. It's not a place for gossip, horseplay, fighting or flirting.” What flirting could there be? I thought. There are no men allowed to cook Moroccan kitchens. I could see through the exceptionally clean windows above the sink the sky was changing, turning a muddy brown grey color. The wind was shifting too. Before class started the air felt so cool and calm stirred by the air conditioner but the irritated voice of the instructor made room filled with stuffy air. She was in a rage about our behavior and we’d done nothing yet. I had five classes already today and was feeling drained; one on cleaning, we had to wash every kitchen corner, pot, pan, surface, speck, and tool, then must be polished to perfection. How to stock a pantry, a lecture that lasted two hours, and explains the scientific side of baking concepts and theories, then lunch made by the older students; soup and lamb rack, the lamb looked as if it were dropped on the floor with mysterious pieces of waste flaked on the meat. It was also terribly undercooked. Definitely the worst lunch I've ever had.
When are we going to cook? Mama never knew these things why do they have to worry about all of these details? I wanted to raise my hand and ask when we can make something and almost did but under the table Lily pushed my leg with hers so I stopped. Just then I was taken by surprise a flood of rain as it struck the windows. I jump a bit in my seat. “Nadia, right?. Come up here to show me your knife skills.”
I feel proud to be selected. I stand in front of the prep table. Out comes a soft pouch made of animal skins. From the pouch the instructor laid out the gleaming knives, sizes and shapes I have never seen before. She handed me a small knife. Then she picked up a zucchini from a brown basket next to her. “Cut please.” I took the knife and thought I could easily chop up the vegetable but the knife was too small and my hands were sweaty. More rain pounded against the glass. I made a cut in the middle then again the length of the smaller pieces. I slipped a few time on the cuts but in the end I made a nice pile of chunks. “Please sit down.” A few of the girls stare at me as I move past them, one gave me a strange smile. One girl made a cutting gesture with her fingers and laughed silently.
“So this pile of vegetables is to be served to a very important diplomat. He finds these pieces in his stew and is excited by this?” “NO.”
”Let’s review Nadia’s skills.”
I squirmed in my chair
“First you did you even wash your hands or the vegetable?” “NO.”
“Did you ask me if this was the correct knife to use?” “NO!”
“Then you proceeded to butcher this fine piece of food that costs money. How did you get into this school I ask?”
My hands on the table steaming up a handprint print of my sweat.
“At home mama taught me how to cut food.” Startling myself that I spoke up “We use only a few simple knives but the food taste delicious!”
“Oh did it? This looks like a camel left its business on the table but you say it tastes delicious?” The girls all laugh except Lily, she looks down at her shoes.
“Well I disagree with that. Your clumps are not going to entice anyone to eat. The first part of cooking a meal to make someone want to eat it, if it looks like shit then the customer will think it is shit, send it back to the kitchen then have you fired.” She leaned into my face blowing her tainted breath on me.
I will not cry. I will not cry. I can’t fail. I must do this. I nod in agreement but make a finger at her under the table I saw some kids make at the farmer in our village who beat his little children. I hate her and for some reason that feels good. My body is shaking like the trees bending outside. The anger makes me feel focused and clear. My chest is full of heat. I have never really hated anyone but today I do. I know I can cook and our food is good. No matter what it looks like. “Stop your eyes from doing that.” Lily whispers.
“Doing what?” I hiss back.
“They are so narrow there is no eyeball left.”
“Remember no gossiping!” Her hand slams down on the table which makes everyone jump this time.
When Oznat comes to pick me up I am still mad.
“Yes” I say clearly.
“I have brought you a raincoat. Please put it on then we can go.”
We emerge into the wet street, it smells fresh and harsh at the same time. Not horrible like that woman’s breath. Her corpse breath. A workman is running holding a scrap of plastic sheet over his head. A cyclist weaves by us better prepared wearing a kagopul with a pointed hood. I am wearing, more like swimming in, a brown raincoat that must have been grandpa’s. It is old but smells nice and feels expensive. The souk owners stand in the doorways, hungry for buyers now the rain has started.
We head out of the downpour into the riad of Oznat’s home then into the main rooms. Looking back at the riad, the courtyard is gleaming with rain and I can hear the rain pounding on the roof above. Ozant shakes off her wet coat and takes mine returning them to the proper hooks in the entrance.
“Nadia, after dinner let’s go to the hammam, I think it will help you relax. You are covered with kitchen grime and your hair is full of cooking smells.”
That was the best thing I had heard all day. We eat a light meal of olives, goat cheese and bread then pack up our things to bathe. I take my toothbrush and the shampoo Oznat gave me. Before I came here I only used soap my family made at home every fall. Oznat thinks the French shampoo will help my dry hair. The traditional soaps we use at home is ghasoul, which is sticky black goo made from olive oil with dried chips of herbs and Moroccan clay. We use it as shampoo and body soap; you add just a splash of water to it so you don’t need to use very much. But using Ozant’s French shampoo makes my hair soft not frizzy and I smells like honey and flowers instead of burning embers. I love it!
In the old medina, we look out for the hammam sign which is written in swirling Arabic script. Along with the communal bakery, fountain, madrasa, (the school) and mosque, the hammam is one of five traditional places found in every Moroccan neighborhood. Even our small village had these but nothing as elaborate as in the Fez medina. I found out after our first visit that in the Fez hammam for just two durams you’ll get unlimited buckets of steaming water and a scrub-down that will leave your skin as soft as a baby’s.
The rain had stopped as we walked. I noticed women passing by with buckets full of shower supplies, rolled floor mats and towels. A town bakery often shares the hammam heating pipes. When I smelt the lovely aroma of homemade bread and the smoky smell of the wood fires used to heat the water, the simmering aroma in the damp air tells me we are getting nearer.
There’s a small changing area near the entry where you can hang your towel and clothes. We stripped down to our underwear, as we walked into the baths Oznat explained that these particular baths are ancient and consist of several rooms centered on large cisterns with gushing water. The farther we venture into the hammam (and the closer you get to the wood fire), the hotter the water in the fountains gets. The bath is full, many of the women are sitting on the floor, some against the walls bathing. We grab buckets by the wall and pace back and forth to the hot and cold fountains, filling the buckets with water and mixing them for the perfect temperature back in our area. After soaping up I use a small plastic bowl, douse myself with boiling hot water then take my black scratchy kiis to scrub my body. The grease from cleaning the kitchens takes extra time to work out. I look over at Ozant who is dumping a huge bucket over her head to rinse her thick swirling hair. The domed hammam ceiling is pierced with small star shaped holes that allows the fading daylight to stream in transforming Ozant’s profile into a beautiful ghost-like figure. Suddenly the magical effect is broken when a fierce shouting match breaks out between two women. One woman was hit with an unexpected icy splash of water. There are the sounds of mothers attempting to lather up their screaming children while gossiping loudly back and forth to each other. I see woman lying down on the stone floor while the attendants rub their skin raw. The old skin peels off and all the dirt drains downstream in a current of old skin. I always avoid standing near the drain as not to get coved in body grime.
Oznat motions to me to sit by her against the wall. The cool rough stone pressed against my back. Ozant closes her inky back eyes, taking the steam.
“So Nadia I heard you are a bit overwhelmed by school. Is that true?” I am surprised and hurt at the same time. I already feel raw from earlier today.
“No, not really. I just don’t know all these new things yet.” Trying to defend myself.
“I understand about the newness but you have to make it through this beginning part to make sure you can go further in the next level then into a job.”
I sigh a bit too loudly, “I understand, I want to do well but why can’t I cook? I know I can be good at it.”
“ Yes I am sure you can especially if you prove to cook like your mother but not all people will get a chef job. You must stand out to do that.”
A hardness in her voice appeared I had not heard before.
“I thought we were all trained to be chefs?”
“Some yes and some no.”
“So what will happen to me?”
“Let’s not think about that OK? Just focus on trying your best.”
I feel worse again.
“Nadia you can do this but you must be patient and do not sulk. You have to understand that other girls are talented too and you must prove yourself in all ways to succeed.”
“It is important for all of us that you do.”
“Yes I know that my parents need this to happen. I just think things are so strange right now but I will make it work for their sake.” “Hmmm,” Ozant mummers " that is a good attitude. It will best for all of us if you do that.”
Although I am upset about my conversation with Ozant I feel some comfort that I know better what to do.
Eventually puckered and tired from our bath we dressed leaving the hammam with a cry of BisaHA,-to your health.”
“Allah ya’tik saHA!” - may God also bless yours we cheered back.’
Medina Chapter 4
At lunch everyday we are seated a long polished mahogany table in the main dining room. This room is different than the rest of the school. It feels like what I imagine an old English room from a storybook is like. Paintings in ornate gold frames where inside stand men in uniforms and women in huge dresses. They stare sadly out at us as we pass by. There is a large fireplace made of marble and wood. The floors are very dark polished wood with no scratches on it. As beautiful as the room is it feels lonely, the only sounds it offers are the echoing our voices as we come in to eat. The places on the table are set with creamy white plates and bright white napkins. We cannot use our hands to eat and must use the thick metal knives and forks to cut our meat and vegetables. We are told to eat as the Europeans do to understand how they experience food. I want to take my bread and scoop my couscous up, sopping the gravy. But I have to restrain myself. I am used to eating with one hand managing two hands feels wrong and I worry that my left hand will infect my food.
Lunch is served by the older students and we only have one hour to eat and rest before the next class. All of the new girls huddle together at the end of the grand table. Lily sits near me. Then other girls are making faces at me and saying shit in Tazimat. I clutch my napkin under the perfect table and try not to make and evil squint at them.
At 12:05 p.m. we were still waiting for our salads, which is the second course. The student brought us meat knives and then realized she had never served us salads after the soup. She decided to go ahead and skip the salad and on to the entrée. More bad food. The tangine chicken is dry and tasteless, the vegetables are burnt being on the grill too long with no olive oil. Where are all the spices? I thought these girls could cook? As I pick over my food Lily asks me if I knew why the girls made fun of me in class the other day. I shrugged ”They are mean I guess.” “Sort of, but that is a test the teacher gives some students. She knows that knife is wrong but wants to embarrass you. To survive here you have to be cool and tough.” I feel more mad. “See you are showing your feelings again. You are so easy to get.”
I am mad so I try to work around it so we don’t have to talk about it anymore. To change the subject I ask Lily what the prep instructor meant about flirting in the kitchen. “So you are into boys already? She asked me. “No, it just made no sense. They’re are no men in the kitchen so why would we flirt?” “Yes there are. The boys who deliver the food, the boys who help set up the tables,” She ticks off the list on her long pale fingers, I notice a hint of polish to her nails. “lots of boys and men are around all the time. Just stay out of their way. OK? You don’t want trouble”
“I have two brothers I am all right about boys.” “Oh you are? Well, we’ll see” Lily goes back to eating her lunch not wanting to talk any more.
Medina Chapter 5 Lily’s Story
The nurse packed her bag at five o'clock. Her desk tidy, the pens and clip board evenly stacked like a Venetian blind covering the right side of her desk. The nurse nodded to Lily and her mother as she quietly closed the door behind her.
Lily and her mother sat rigid waiting for the doctor to emerge. They had been waiting for three hours and no one was left in the waiting room. The tattered fashion magazines held no more interest to them and talking was not what either of them wanted to do. But Lily’s mother did try to assure her the doctor was catching up on his files and phone calls. Lily was too tired by this point to be nervous. She was grateful the storm of her mother’s rage was now past. Finally at 6 pm the doctor appeared at the door like an aberration. He leaned over to them startling them. Mother and daughter were so tired and lost in their own thought never felt his presence. “Mrs. Loma you and your daughter can come in now.”
Lily’s’ mother was not one to be kept waiting, usually she kicked up a big fuss over small indignities but today she was compliant in a way the made Lily more sad. Seeing what she had done to her mother how she should actually affect her.
He introduced himself to Lily’s mother.
“I am glad you have a chosen to come with your daughter. So many young women come here alone-that being one of the core of their problem, no guidance.” The doctor, Benthic, went on. “So you are seeking hymenoplasty for your daughter?”
“Yes my husband and I are quite distressed about Lily’s condition. Not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said her mother with a sour expression “Lily must understand her virginity is more important to than life.”
“True, true” He agrees like a solemn monkey.
“How did you get it this position, young lady?”
“I was raped.” Lily said without emotion.
“Uh!, That is what she keep saying, This girl was asking for a man to take her for years. She was bound to get into trouble.”
“She was my friend mother, our friend for eight years! I tried to stop him but he betrayed my trust!”
“Well be that as it may, you are probably had something to do with it, eh?” The doctor proclaimed.
Getting no response from Lily one way or the other he continued
“Well it’s done now.” He then proceeded to point to a plastic chart of a woman’s vagina on the wall. With his finger he traced the lining of the interior membrane. “The procedure is very straight forward. It is a minor operation consisting of hooking suture clips on the part of the existing hymen to provoke bleeding during the first sexual intercourse on the wedding night. The procedure costs 2,500 dirhams.”
“Worth it! Her father told her, ‘I will forgive everything but not if you have thrown dirt on my honor.” I was afraid he would kill her, he beat her so badly after finding out.”
“Are you planning on marry soon?”
“No.” her mother cut in. “After this we have plans to curtail her urges and find a useful job for her. She has done enough damage.”
Good, I am happy you are taking the steps to help her straighten out her life.”
“See Lily this will fix everything.”
Lily stared at the mostly pink illustration on the wall.
“Of course you will get a certificate of virginity after the operation.”
“See darling you will get a certificate!”
Medina Chapter XXXX
The kitchen is broiling hot as chickens are steaming in tangines in the huge commercial ovens. All the women are bustling about working fast, laughing and chiding each other. I feel I am just in the way. Miriam is pushing towards me shouting an order for me to chop cilantro now as the soup is almost ready. Being here for two months I still have the strange feeling of being in a dream, sleep walking though my chores. I chop as fast as I can while she shouts NO STEMS Nadia! Remember they have to spit them out! “Them” are the embassy guests and they are expecting an “authentic Moroccan” food experience but not too beyond the continental food they are accustom to. We are told that we are to prepare traditional cuisine here in the embassy kitchen but not peasant food like mama’s sweet honey bread or her goat stew, which is too pungent for the guests. Instead we use very young lamb dressed with olive oil covered in prunes then stewed for hours in the large steel ovens not like our clay ovens in the medina. The bread here is good but not tender like the bread we children take each day to the communal oven, it is close, but misses the flavor the deft touch of mama’s hands and the duty of the papa to bring it home later in the day. As I chop the scent of the acidic, spicy cilantro fills me up with memories. I have always loved the herbs Mohammed and Ali brought down to our apartment from the rooftop garden, a perfume from so different a place as this.
As I carefully pick out the stems but probably not as carefully as Miriam would like I notice a woman has entered the kitchen. Normally this is not unusual as wealthy, bored embassy wives often tour the kitchen but she is different. She tries to dress like us, has black hair dark and eyes like us but I can tell she is not Moroccan. She must be Persian or even Italian as she look so open and almost too friendly, which does not impress the head chef Ghita at all. Ghita looks politely but angrily at the woman as she is so busy with her dinner preparations and does not want to be bothered. Ghita is women from the countryside who came here so many years ago no one can remember when she did arrive. She is the best cook in the embassy so she is head chef. Some say she practices sihr, or witchcraft. Since sihr is usually as a potion mixed with food or drink which can might make someone fall in love, or invoke a curse to take revenge no one toys with her.
Ghita waves over to Miriam, I hear her say in English to take her around as she wants to see our kitchen but in Tamazight she says to Miriam this woman is a writer and wants to know about how women live and work here so tell her nothing. Miriam is pleasant as Miriam can possibly be, she take her around to the women cooking, they nod show her the food preparations for the menu for tonight. Layla explains in pantomime that she is making Moroccan Oranges. She places orange slices in a shallow dish, drizzles it lightly with orange scented water then sprinkles the slices with the sugar and cinnamon. The woman tastes one then rolls her eyes to heaven. Layla is obviously pleased.
The writer then tries to speak to some of the girls about other things besides cooking but is clearly moved away by Miriam as she fills in the workers quotations. She explains that the women do not understand English or very much French as they are from small Berber towns and are not comfortable talking to strangers. They reach my station Miriam secretly pinches me, too many stems she say under her breath. The woman is nice, she says hello in French I nod back then Miriam glares back at me and raises her eyebrows so that I get her meaning. Suddenly a pot of soup boils over. We hear a woman screaming in pain. It is Aisha. Aisha wears a large "hand of Fatima," a charm in the shape of the right hand, to protect her against the evil eye but it has done her no good today. Miriam turns to help her and I am alone with this woman. So how long have you been here? She asks in bad French. I shrug a while I answer back in better French. She wants to know if I like it here and if they are good to me. I say it is it a very nice place and a very good opportunity for my family and me. She asks me if I miss my family since I am so young. Just then Miriam comes back to whisk the woman out. Miriam explains the accident has upset the cooks so she must leave now. The writer looks back at me knowing I have more to say but cannot. She leans down to grab her bag and whispers back to me in Tamazight “call me” as she drops her card on the kitchen floor by my station.