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My Old Moroccan Home
By Paula Wolfert
Adapted from Paula Wolfert's My Old Moroccan Home, Saveur Magazine, issue No.7
  "If you see her, say 'hello.'
She might be in
-Bob Dylan

It has been nineteen years.

    On the plane I keep telling myself I'm going back to Tangier to see my old house and garden, find my old house-keeper, pick  up a few new recipes, see a few old friends. The truth is I want to revisit  the city which formed my adult life...perhaps finally to get it out of my system. It has been 19 years. Between 1959 and- 1976, I did three stints  in Tangier. Each time I left, I longed to return; and now I am returning again.

    For me Tangier was always a place of contradictions --  European and Arab, luxurious and shabby, comfortable and exotic, familiar and mysterious. It was the city where I had lived unhappily with one husband  and very happily with another, set up households, raised my children, forged friendships, learned what the Mediterranean life-style was about and how to live it.

    It was also the place where I found my vocation as food-  writer, where I discovered who I really was.

    My first impression upon arriving back: I do not recognize the place! Tangier seems huge. Streets have been rerouted, villas have sprung up where sheep once grazed. The sparkling city I remember now looks drab, in desperate need of whitewash.

    But the smells are the same: wood-fueled cooking fires, bread baking in community ovens, spices in the markets, mint tea in the  cafes, sawdust on the street of carpenters---and always the aroma of the sea blending with perfume the pine-scented air.

    I walk past a humble house, and am enveloped by the mingled scents of cumin, simmering onions, and the preserved meat Moroccans call khlea. I'm suddenly reminded of my first meal in Morocco, more than 30 years ago---a couscous flavored with saffron, golden raisins, and sweet long-cooked onions cut into winglike shapes.

    For my visit, I have rented a Moorish-style villa from my English friend, Tessa, in the hillside suburb of Djemma el Mokra, just a few hundred yards from my old house. The view, as always, is turning: the city spreading out below, the curve of the harbor, the Rif Mountains beyond. But the once luxuriant green hills are now covered with houses.  Tangier, my friends tell me, has nearly tripled in size since I was last here.

    I have two immediate objectives: to find Fatima, my old housekeeper, who was almost a surrogate mother to my children, and who taught me so much in the kitchen; and to see the wonderful house where I spent so much time, and where I planted a garden with waves of agapanthus, daylilies, and irises spilling down the hillside. After all these years it will surely be magnificent.

     Fatima, alas, is not to be found. I show an old picture around on the streets, in the markets. A photo that reveals her strong Riffian features. The old miller who used to grind our wheat--- (Fatima used to say that she only felt safe when there was a 100-pound sack of  wheat in the house) ---smiles gently. "Yes, I remember her," he says, "but I haven't seen her in years...."


    Word spreads quickly that an American woman is searching for a housekeeper. It's that way in Tangier: The gossip mill, which we call 'Tangier radio,' always gets things mixed up. Soon women start showing up at the door. "My name is Fatima. You need a cook?" I shake my head.  "I'm just trying to find a friend."

    Our old house -- I can't believe what's been done to it: checkerboard stonework where we had installed flagstones, kitschy decorations that destroy the clean clear lines of the authentic Art Deco facade. The new owner shows me around. She speaks without sorrow of ripping out the bougainvillea and cutting down the magnificent flowering trees that shaded the terrace. "They could have fallen on the house," she explains.

Old Home

    And the flower garden is gone. "I hate flowers," she says. ' Instead, she tells me proudly, she is growing vegetables. My garden has become a cabbage patch!


    She is kind to let me see the place and so proud of her "improvements" I do my best to conceal my pain. Later the photographer who accompanied tells me I tramped around my ruined garden like a zombie.  Well, they say you can't go home again.

    But enough of disillusion. I have only a few days. I want to see Tangier at its best!

    Cafe Haffa, a romantic outdoor Moroccan tea cafe-garden cut into the steep cliffs above-looking the harbor, is just the same, filled with old men sipping, smoking and conversing in private alcoves, while numerous cats scurry about. I remember once sitting here on clear days with the expatriate writer, Paul Bowles, listening to him talk as  he gloomily smoked cigarettes, gazing out at the Straits and the distant shoreline of Spain.

    Sadly, when I arrive, Paul is in the States. I phone him in Atlanta, Georgia, to wish him well. We speak of old times, the Tangier I used to know. "Yes, it's different," he agrees, with his usual courteous melancholy. "But then everything is these days, isn't it?" Paul, so gaunt and wry, has long been a key figure in the expatriate English-speaking literary community of Tangier. Others, at various times, have included William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet Gregory Corso, British writer Alan Sillitoe, and the avant-garde writer Brion Gysin--- who was also briefly a restaurateur: He opened a place called The Thousand and One Nights, but disgruntled Moroccan workmen put a djinn---a spirit---in the bathroom, and cursed the place until it closed.

    And of course there was Paul's wife, the fragile, talented, and funny, yet ultimately tragic, Jane Bowles, obscure during her lifetime but rediscovered since her death. I recall Jane taking me to lunch at a beach club restaurant with Tennessee Williams, where we ate grilled fish and Moroccan salads while Tennessee was sorrowful over a young Moroccan who had rejected his advances.

    Tangier in the 1960s was more than a city: It was a state of mind, a place people came to reinvent themselves and to live out their most eccentric fantasies. The phone book listed several "countesses" and "barons" who were actually courtesans and butcher boys. The phone company didn't care. The phones didn't work anyway.

    Barbara Hutton, poorest of 'the poor little rich girls', was there, so demented in her final years that she bought a title then insisted we call her 'Princess'; so was Marta Ruspoli, a real princess, who came to believe in the lost continent of Atlantis after she found  the American Indian arrowheads her grandchildren had mischievously seeded in her lawn; and so was David Edge, a marvelous old fraud who lived in  a palace in the Casbah decorated like a stage-set, and sported a golden crucifix- --a parting gift from the Primate of Hungary, he shamelessly  declared, with whom he'd shared a great love in his youth.

    But some of my most vivid memories of my early Tangier  remain those of the Bowleses and the other Tangier writers who encouraged  me. It took me a long time to discover my medium; Writing cookbooks is  not the first thing that comes to mind in a group of novelists and poets.  But Brion Gysin kept saying that somebody had to do a book about Moroccan  food, and though he always claimed he was going to do it himself, he never  did. I had already studied cooking a bit, so I thought I'd try.

    Such a place attracted what we called 'great Tangier characters', most dead now. To paraphrase Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, they had faces then!

    Tangier, you see, was long a haven for gays. Today, with homosexuality widely acknowledged, I find it touching that the city once served as refuge for those whose 'love dared not speak its name.'"

    Visiting old friends one day, I have lunch with Joe McPhillips, headmaster of the American School of Tangier, where my children spent their formative years, and where Yves St. Laurent has designed costumes for the school play a couple of times. (Paul Bowles still writes music for the annual production.) "But," he adds, over asparagus with poached eggs and a popular Tangier dish of fish in a chermoula marinade, "It's not like the old days Paula," he says over lunch. We dine at his home on a popular Tangier fish dish, seasoned with a spicy chermoula marinade of coriander, parsley, paprika and cumin. "Remember how, in the old days, there were two separate cities, Arab and European?. Now we expatriates are much more involved with the Moroccan life. In that way, the city's better than ever."

    The next evening, another longtime resident, the Chilean painter Claudio Bravo, invites me to dinner at his magnificent house on the Old Mountain Road, which has perhaps the finest garden in the city, and views over the Straits of Gibraltar. We talk about art, and about food trends. "Now that people have TV," says Claudio, "they watch cooking  shows from Egypt, Tunisia, and France." The dish of the moment, he tells me, is a kind of ersatz bisteeya, filled with Moroccan spiced fish and Chinese noodles! Claudio serves me a version---small crisp rolls stuffedwith gelatinous pasta and coriander-scented shrimp. Then we get more traditional, with a delicious lamb, okra, and quince tagine.

    "I rarely go out," he says. "I draw and paint fourteen  hours a day. I don't miss the bars or the lavish parties. Anyway, this isn't a party town anymore." Then, naming Matisse, Delacroix and Francis  Bacon, all of whom spent time in Tangier: "It's still one of the best  places in the world for a painter."

     Another day, I visit the Fez Market, where I used to buy my vegetables, I wander the stalls, marveling over the freshness of the produce. Suddenly an old Berber woman, in red-and-white striped apron, with pompons on her hat, throws her arms about me. We kiss. I used to  buy wild mushrooms from her. "So good to see you!" she says. "How are the children?" Soon other venders, old friends, crowd around. Finally I feel at home.

   Barbara Temsamani, an American married to a Moroccan industrialist, takes me to lunch to the home of Saad Hajouji, grandson of El Glaoui, the legendary pasha of Marrakech. The food is lavish: triangular pastries filled with bisteeya stuffing, and pigeon smothered in raisins, and huge amounts of peeled chick peas and peeled green grapes in a sauce seasoned with onions, nutmeg, saffron, ginger, black pepper, cubed lamb's liver and a touch of vanilla. This is Moroccan palace cookery at its finest---labor-intensive, reproducible only with a staff of old women cooks called dadas.

    Later, Barbara introduces me to a caterer, Zora, who teaches me a Tangier homestyle dish of lentils with preserved meat. From her, I learn a delicious version of orange and radish salad, and a difficult pastry dough called azut cadi, a favorite Moroccan sweet breakfast dish inevitably served with butter and dark country honey. It is the most difficult to execute well. Moroccans call this dish "The Caid's Turban," because, at one point, during the preparation, the cook twirls a long snakelike ribbon of stretched dough into the shape of a turban, and, as it cooks,  unravels it much the way a Moroccan dignitary might uncurl his fabric headpiece. In the end the dish resembles a plate of spaghetti --

    I remember in 1968, my son, then a small boy, returned from an expedition to a Berber festival in the Mountains, in the company of his father and Brian Jones, of The Rolling Stones, to describe, with wondrous eyes, a strange bread he called "spaghetti bread." I have finally learned to make that bread this week...

    On my last day in Tangier, I visit a natural spring, Ain La Lanyoun, high on the hill above our old house. I would sometimes accompany Fatima here when she went to fetch water; it is known for its healthful properties, and she liked to use it when making bread. The source is approached by a walkway through a garden. I recognize the old man who guards the place and keeps it clean. He nods sweetly but does not remember me. We chat briefly about the wonderful "lightness" of the water here, which differentiates it from other water in the area. "You can drink as much as you like and you will never feel full!" he reminds me. I give him a few coins, as one always does. Back on the road, I continue up the crest of the hill for a final look at Tangier.

    The Straits are calm, a deep marine blue, and the cloudless sky is a pure blue dome, truly a "sheltering sky" as in the title of Paul Bowles' novel. It is late afternoon. The light is ravishing. Gulls circle the harbor. Parasol pines emit resin perfume. The Rif mountains glow mysteriously to the East. The soiled city glitters white. Memories flood back. But 19 years is a long time, and I have learned, away from Tangier, that there are no paradises on this earth.

    My last thought before I descend the hill: I wish Fatima were there with me, so I could take her face in my hands and kiss her good-bye. This time, I don't think I'll ever return. Tangier has changed...and so have I.

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