For Ramadan: Harira


Ramadan began last week. I have some Muslim friends on Facebook, so I see lots of “Ramadan kareem!” messages going back and forth.



The Islamic months don’t correspond to the seasons as ours do; their year is roughly 354 days long, so Ramadan happens roughly twelve days earlier every year. In 1984, my first year in Morocco, the first day of Ramadan was roughly the first of June. (There was some trouble that year. It’s not officially a new month until the new moon is sighted in Mecca, and the weather was bad that year in Saudi Arabia. Finally, around the third or fourth of June 1984, Ramadan was declared to be officially begun, almost by default.)



Summer is a bad time for Ramadan, and June is the worst of all, because June days are the longest days of the year. Muslims are enjoined to fast from the time in the morning when it’s light enough “to distinguish a black thread from a white thread” to the prayer-call at sunset. “Fasting,” in this sense, means no eating, no drinking water (very devout Muslims won’t swallow when they’re brushing their teeth, and there’s a lot of spitting in the street going on, because swallowing your own spit might qualify as drinking), no sex, no smoking (tragic in a culture like North Africa where everyone smokes).



That first year, in 1984, I tried to fast. I couldn’t do it. I realized, after two or three days, that no one could see me eating during the day if I just closed the window blinds.



Later, in Tunisia, I was more casual. I knew I was a “kouffar” (unbeliever), and so did everyone else, so I closeted myself in my office and smoked and drank water and coffee to my heart’s content. One of my Tunisian coworkers, who’d studied extensively in Europe and who was very worldly, joined me.



Then, a day or two later, someone else joined us.



After about two weeks, the whole office was smoking with me, on and off. It was okay, because they were with an unbeliever, and I was exerting an undue irreligious influence on them.



Ah, kids, those were the days.



There was a restaurant in Tunis not far from our house, which was also not far from the az-Zeituna mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Tunisia. During Ramadan, about fifteen minutes before sunset, we’d go there. They’d seat us and serve us soup.



But no one ate.



We waited for the boy at the mosque to give us the signal that the evening call to prayer was complete.



Then, in unison, we all dipped our spoons into our delicious thick chicken / tomato / chickpea soup, and broke our fast.



Here’s a recipe for harira, the traditional Ramadan fast-breaking soup:





Makes about 12 cups

  • 1 whole chicken breast, halved
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 4 cups water
  • a 28-to 32-ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and puréed coarse
  • 1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
  • 2 medium onions, chopped fine
  • 19-ounce can of chick-peas, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup raw long-grain rice
  • 1/2 cup lentils
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped fresh coriander
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • dried chick-peas, picked over water


In a heavy kettle (at least 5 quarts) simmer chicken in broth and water 17 to 20 minutes, or until chicken is just cooked through, and transfer chicken with a slotted spoon to a cutting board. Add to kettle tomatoes, saffron, onions, chick-peas, rice, and lentils and simmer, covered, 30 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Shred chicken, discarding skin and bones, and stir into soup with salt and pepper to taste. Soup may be prepared 4 days ahead (cool uncovered before chilling covered).




I find this recipe incomplete. It needs ras al-hanout, the traditional North African seasoning (you can buy it online, or make it yourself from regular ol’ supermarket seasonings), and some eggs (Ramadan harira usually has pieces of hard-boiled egg in it).



Also: if you make this soup, serve it with lots of Italian or French bread, for scooping and dipping.



And if you don’t feel like cooking soup the long way, especially during this long dismally hot summer, I’ve discovered that Campbell’s makes some very nice soups in plastic bags, which are pretty authentic. Their “Moroccan Chicken with Chickpeas” is a very passable Moroccan shorba, verging on harira.



Pinch a penny and spend a couple of bucks and buy a packet of it, and enjoy it.



With some Italian bread, and a lemon wedge to squeeze into it.



Ramadan kareem.




Canada recently decided to stop making pennies. “What will they do?” Apollonia wondered.



“Presumably,” I said, “they will start rounding prices at the five-cent point.”



She grimaced. “I wouldn’t like that.”



“No one much cares what you’d like,” I said. “Pennies are a curiosity, a thing of the past. Get modern, babe.”



In Tunisia we had aluminum coins worth five millimes: five one-thousandths of a dinar, less than an American penny in those days. It was the smallest change available on a daily basis. Street vendors sold single cigarettes for a few of those coins, which were called “durus.” Quite a few people didn’t bother to spend them.  I knew people who had huge jars full of them. Some people actually threw them away.



Smaller coins – worth one or two millimes – were available, but you seldom saw them. Everything in the market was generally priced in a rounded amount – 1 dinar 500 millimes – but your electric bill was always precise: 7 dinars 879 millimes. And, when you paid it (say, with a ten-dinar note), they gave you exact change, in coins smaller than the nail of your little finger.



Ah! That was fun.



Also back in those days, when the Italian lira was 2000 to the American dollar, they gave you change in hard candy. If your change came to 25 or 30 lira, they’d gesture to the bowl of hard candy on the counter and say, “Take one!”


All things considered, Canadians (and Americans, eventually) can live without the penny.



Who doesn’t like a little piece of candy once in a while?


Unhygienic travel stories


It’s lucky that most of us do our heavy-duty adventure traveling while we’re young. We’re more resilient, and can take it in stride, more or less, when strange things happen. (And we know that it’ll make a kick-ass story when we get back home.)

For example: my student assistant Jennifer told me that, in China, you can use a dirty public toilet for free, but you have to pay to use a clean one.

But that’s nothing.

How about the time I chased a rat down the hallway in Morocco, until I saw it jump into the toilet and disappear?

How about the time I was having kamounia at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Tunis, and found weevils cooked in with the couscous? (I just picked them out and put them on the side of the plate. I didn’t complain. I’d just paid twenty-five cents for dinner; I certainly didn’t expect the Waldorf-Astoria.)

How about those kvass dispensers in the USSR back in 1978? (Kvass is a light beer, very refreshing, and I wish they sold it here. I think they make it by soaking bread in water and fermenting the result.)  It was sold in drink machines, just like soft drinks and coffee in the US, except that everybody used the same glass. (There was a little water-spout you were supposed to use to wash the glass out when you were done.)

But the best story of all belongs to my friend Mike, back in Morocco, as follows:

He moved into a simple house in El-Jadida, a beautiful beach town on the Atlantic coast. The house had no toilet; you had to use a privy out in the garden.

His first night there, he went out in the dark to use the privy. As he sat, he could hear an odd rustling around him. This gave him the creeps, so he finished his business, went in the house for a flashlight, and came back out to see what the noise was.

It was bugs. The walls and ceiling of the privy were alive with insects, mostly huge flying cockroaches, more than he’d ever seen.

He shrieked, ran back in the house, grabbed the insect spray (which, in Morocco in 1984, was probably straight DDT), and ran back to the privy to kill the bugs.

Do you see the flaw in his reasoning?

He went into the privy and started spraying, and they all started dying. And as they died, they fell, by the dozens and the hundreds, all over him.

I still twitch whenever I think of that story.

I dare you to top it.

The recent unrest in the Muslim world


You almost certainly know about the recent unrest in the Muslim world, and the riots, and the death of the American ambassador to Libya.


I subscribe to a Tunisian news service – one of those things that just gives you the headline and the first sentence – and, last Thursday, it was “Le film qui tue!” (Translation: “The killer movie!”)


Oh no, I thought.


You see, this whole manifestation in the Arab world was brought about – supposedly – by the release of a movie mocking the Prophet Mohammed. This movie was – supposedly – made by a Jewish American.


Except that the movies was probably never made as such, and the man behind the project was an Israel-hating Egyptian Copt, who is (apparently) living in the USA.


More than that, though; the idea that the movie was the impetus behind the killing irritated me. Aristotle teaches us that, while guns may be the material causes of death, the real causes are the people who pull the trigger.

But then I read the article in

I was much reassured. True to my experience of Tunisia and Tunisians – thoughtful and intelligent – the author weighed the tension behind Islamists (who are spoiling for a fight with the West) and Islamophobes (who would like to spark a fight, and then create as much havoc as possible).

Both are to blame for the general situation.

Chris Stevens’s death is certainly the fault of the Islamists. I wonder if the simultaneity of the riots in the Muslim world has been very carefully planned (you’ll notice that it took place in September, not long after the commemoration of 9/11).

And the Egyptian / Copt / American provocateur, who produced the “movie,” also appears to have known what he was doing, provoking Muslim reaction at a very key time.

Partner and I are going to France in a few weeks. France (and especially Paris) is inhabited by a lot of North African Muslims.

We will let you know what we find out.

Going to the beach


When you grow up in the Northwest (as I did), going to the beach is a unique experience. The Northwest seashore is cold and foggy most of the time, even in the summertime, and not terribly welcoming.  Still, we went at least one day a year. It was a two-hour drive each way, to a little town called Long Beach, Washington, which was the usual beachfront honky-tonk town, with arcades and candy stores (I associate it with the smell of cotton candy, and I was there a few years ago, and am pleased to tell you that it still smells like cotton candy). 



Down the road from Long Beach is Ilwaco, a fishing port at the mouth of the Columbia.  (Ilwaco doesn’t smell like cotton candy; it smells like low tide and fish guts. But it has its charms too.) My father sometimes went salmon fishing on a charter boat out of Ilwaco; they’d go out very early, spend the day retching their guts out (the Pacific at the mouth of the Columbia is famous for being choppy), and come back empty-handed.  Then, on our way home, we’d stop in a little town called Chinook and buy a huge whole salmon for fifteen cents a pound, and pack it in ice in the trunk of the car. Dad would clean it when we got home, and we had a freezer full of salmon steaks to eat all winter long. 



In 1978 I relocated to Rhode Island, the Ocean State.  Here you’re never more than eight or nine yards away from a nice beach: Goosewing, Horseneck, Misquamacut, Narragansett, Moonstone.  (Moonstone was for a long time a nude beach.  Then the state decided to protect the piping plover, which (coincidentally) nested on the nude beach. And that was the end of that.)



In the Peace Corps, I was lucky enough to be posted to two places with beaches attached: Kenitra in Morocco, which has a lovely beachtown called Mahdia Plage nearby, and Tunis, with its long arc of beaches stretching out through Carthage to La Marsa. 



For one dangerous moment in Morocco I thought about becoming a professional expatriate, living in Tangiers with Paul Bowles and William Burroughs and the rest of the louche lowdown American crew I found there. 



Good sense talked me out of it.  But it would have been wonderful to wake up and look down at the Strait of Gibraltar every morning while having my morning coffee.


Tunis and Dream-Tunis



I lived in Tunis for two years. It was (and, I’m sure, still is) a beautiful city.  I lived in a house not far from the shoe market and the gold market and the perfume market, down the street from the coppersmiths’ district, within shouting distance of the az-Zeytouna Mosque. My walk to work took me through the busiest part of the tourist / merchant area, past the rug merchants and the spice merchants and the olive-wood merchants, past the British Council library, out through the Bab Bhar, down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, past the French-built Cathedral of Saint Vincent de Paul, past the statue of the fourteenth-century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldoun holding his book against his chest.



It was a sunlit city, warm, funny, full of unique and wonderful neighborhoods.



I dream of it all the time.  Dream-Tunis is not quite the same as the real Tunis in which I lived.  Dream-Tunis is full of dramatic landscapes and vistas.  In Dream-Tunis I’ll walk down a boulevard and see the entire city from a height, or realize that there’s a whole stretch of seacoast I never visited.  Or a mosque, or a whole stretch of old buildings.



I think it’s because the real Tunis was (to me, in the mid-1980s) just as dreamlike.  I remember, one Saturday, deciding to walk north (an unfamiliar direction) through the medina, to see what I’d find.  I found residential areas, and more markets, and roofed streets, and unroofed streets.  I found a housewares market, like an open-air Walmart.  I found another shoe market.  I found quiet neighborhoods full of palm trees growing between the houses. 



I didn’t want to go home.  I wanted to keep going forever. 



I think that’s why I still dream about it.  Tunis was a labyrinth, but all of its secrets and revelations were beautiful.  I always wonder: what would have happened if I’d turned left instead of right?  What doorway would I have found?  Another spice market?  Another thousand-year-old mosque?  Another Turkish palace?



My friend Nejib (who now directs a large technology operation in the city) keeps inviting me back to see “the new Tunisia.” 



Maybe I will someday. 



I hope it’s still as intricate and beautiful as I remember.



The travel checklist


About ten years ago, an Internet acquaintance came to visit New England.  He was a San Franciscan, very funny and witty (on the Internet, at least), and wanted to see Boston.



And he had a list.



He wanted to see the State House.  He wanted to see Mother Goose’s gravesite.  He wanted to see the Old North Church.



Literally.  See them. I still remember: we walked in front of the State House, and he said “check.”



See, he’d asked Internet “friends” what he should see in Boston.  They’d volunteered ideas, and he had made a list. And he was literally just “seeing” them. Mostly from a distance.



Recently, on Facebook, I saw this thing called “100 Places To See Before You Die.”  Being a world traveler and a sophisticate, I took the quiz.  I got 10%.  I have seen 10 of the 100 places they listed.



And then I thought: Well, Jesus!  I have seen Casablanca, and Tunis, and the Tophet in Carthage.  I have seen the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington state.  I have visited Cabo Rojo in Puerto Rico, and I have looked across the Caribbean at the misty shore of Hispaniola.  I’ve looked across from a café in Tangiers at the Rock of Gibraltar.  I have gone to the Hotel des Invalides in Paris and looked down at the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.



Aren’t these enough?



Why do I need to check things off a generic list?  I’ve seen some amazing things that most people will probably never see.



And I didn’t just walk past them.  I stood and marveled at them. Most of the time I actually touched them.



So nyah.


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