Sunday, September 18, 2011

Poor Family, Old Kasbah, Bread-making

By Rachel Ferchak

Tighza Valley, Morocco

Over the course of about a week, I was able to spend time with a kind family that lives in the next village over. The first time I visited the home, I met the father, El Hssaine Bouhmade, and one of the seven children, who both showed me around their old kasbah. The kasbah, an old fortified Moroccan home, is a few hundred years old, standing four stories high, made of earth, stone, and straw. Windy, narrow, and barely lit stone staircases lead to each of the levels. The wooden-beamed ceilings stand seven feet tall, and if someone is on the floor above you, bits of earth fall through the ceiling.

There are two rooms on each floor, some of which are separated by five-foot wooden doors. The family keeps old clothes and toys behind the closed doors, almost like storage rooms. When the building was a functioning kasbah, vendors used the rooms to sell and trade clothes, food, and other goods in the village. The roof of the kasbah resembles a guarded castle with four turrets. Long ago, the chief of the village lived in the kasbah, and four guards kept their posts in the turrets of the kasbah. (They were the protectors of the village and the chief.)

El Hssaine’s father was once the “chef du village,” the village leader or chief. He was a well-respected man, causing his family to be respected as well. After he died, his family fell on hard times, and his son has had difficulty making ends meet for his 10 children ever since. (Three of the children were born to his first wife, who died move than 20 years ago. He remarried shortly after in order to have a mother for his three children. His wife, Malika, has had seven children since they were first married.)

El Hssaine, 47, is a subsistence farmer on his family’s land, while Malika, 43, works inside the home. Two of their daughters, Rachida, 14, and Fadma, 18, chose to leave the family home and work as housekeepers in Marrakech. With their wages, they are able to meet the minimal needs of the family. All of the children’s clothes are second-hand, given to them by other villagers or by tourists stopping through. Malika, with sad and tired eyes, described how hard it is on her to not be able to meet all of her family’s needs, and it is especially difficult watching her daughters leave to work and support the family.

(Left to right: Malika, Nezha, Fatima, El Hssaine, Ibrahime, Aicha)

Despite their tough financial situation, the family has a strong love for each other, and it especially shows through the parents. It was evident when we took pictures of the father and the two littlest daughters, Aicha, 8, and Fatima, 5. At times the father would hold the daughters’ hands as they skipped beside him, and at one point he scooped them both into his arms as they laughed and smiled.

Like the other mothers here, Malika works from inside the home, waking up every morning at 5:30 to start her work for the day. One morning, she invited us to watch as she made her daily amount of bread in her clay oven. We arrived at 7:30 a.m., finding that Malika had already been quite busy and El Hssaine had already left for the garden. All but one child was still in the house, little Fatima, who was still sleeping on the floor of the salon, the family’s living and dining room. The salon is the only room in their house with mats on the floor and 2-feet tall sponge-like padding for the cushions. Normally, the cushions are completed covered in decorative tapestry; however, these cushions had a single, worn orange tapestry resting on top. We rested on the “couch” while waiting for Malika to finish the bread preparations.

As we waited, Fatima hid under the heavy, carpet-like blue blanket that she and the other children share at night. Every so often, she would poke her large brown eyes and her disheveled, straw-like hair out from under the blanket. She played that game for another half an hour until Malika came in to put her pants on. Once Fatima was dressed, Malika finished the preparations for the bread.

We followed Malika into what seemed like a secret passageway, up a dark, windy, stone and earth staircase to the roof of a segment of their house. She led us to a clay oven, which stood about two feet tall. A small, roofed shelter covered the area around the domed clay oven to protect the oven and the person baking the bread from the hot sun.

Malika offered us small stools to sit on while we watched, as she sat on a rock covered by a plastic sack. At her side, Malika had a shallow but wide plastic tub where she kept the bread dough, which contained a mixture of white and wheat flour, salt, olive oil, and water. To start, she made a fire in the right half of the oven using wood. The fire heats the pebbles that fill the left half of the oven. While waiting for the stones to become hot, Malika scraped out a portion of dough, enough to fill her two hands. On a large round stone, Malika placed an old, worn tablecloth, and then sprinkled a little flour on the cloth.

With a thump, she tossed the dough onto the stone and began to flatten it like pizza crust. First, she patted the dough down three times with her right hand, then flipped up the dough using the tablecloth and her left hand (so the dough wouldn’t stick to the cloth). She repeated the process until the dough was stretched to the size of an extra large pizza crust. Flipping the dough onto a round wooden board, she put the dough onto the hot pebbles.

Every few minutes, she used metal stick to shift the dough in a circular motion so that the dough would cook evenly. After about seven minutes, she flipped the dough to cook the other side. She proceeded to rotate the forming bread, scraping out pebbles that were stuck in the dough. Finally, with a swift motion, she rolled the dough out of the oven like a wheel and set it off to the side. The bread, “aghrom” in Tachelhit, was golden brown with small grooves from the pebbles. It was warm and fresh, crispy on the outside and flakey on the inside, and it tasted like plain pizza crust.

Within the next hour, Malika had finished five “loaves” of bread, about a day or two day’s worth of bread for the family, and two of her neighbor friends joined in on the bread-making party. Bread-making is a social activity for women in the village. The work they can do together makes the job a little easier and less lonely, especially because each of the women have the same work to do in the home: take care of the children, cook, clean, entertain guests, and wash clothing. Some women must also retrieve water for their families and/or fetch loads of feed for their animals, if their children aren’t old enough to do that for them. Often times, you see women hunched over, carrying 30-pound loads of grasses and alfalfa. The men say that women’s backs are stronger and that is why they want them to carry the heavy loads.

No comments: