Friday, February 15, 2013

Time Stands Still

This is not strictly Regency or Georgian. But it could have been. On a trip to Morocco recently, we had an encounter that could have taken place at any time in the last few centuries.

Atlas Mountains, Morocco

 We went on a trip into the Berber region of the Atlas mountains which rise to 12000 feet or so.  

Berber village clings to mountainside

We visited a Berber village and went inside a Berber house for tea. The house is made of clay and is small and very dark inside. Animals are kept down below, mostly sheep and goats. Our guide, himself a Berber, translated because the villagers did not speak anything but Berber. Our middle-aged guide, like most educated people of his age, was bilingual in Arabic and French, in addition to Berber. 

Venerable Berber tea maker

In the Berber family, age is clearly rank. The house was headed by the grandfather, a venerable old man, who did the tea making ad you can see here.

Embroidered Berber apron

His wife, also venerable, did nothing as far as I could see. She wore a clean embroidered apron which seemed to be a status symbol.

Berber wood fire, baking flat bread

The bread making and kettle boiling was done by the daughter-in-law on a makeshift wood fire in a small smoky area down in the bowels of the house. She didn't seem to have an apron at all and it's amazing that she could see, given the amount of smoke there was. (I have lightened the photo so that the interior can be seen. It was actually very smoky and much darker than it appears to be.)

The visitors sat on the roof terrace for tea. The old man yelled for his granddaughter who brought up the kettle of boiling water and also hot water to pour over his hands. The tea-making made me think of Japan – it's a very elaborate ritual and no stage of the process can be omitted.

Berber tea-making kit

First, the old man's hands are washed by the oldest granddaughter. Then he warms a pewter teapot and takes some green tea from a silver box and adds it to the pot. He pours a smallish amount of boiling water on the tea leaves. Then there's brewing time. Next he pours out one tea glass full of green tea which is left aside. Then he pours out a tumbler of green tea, which is much darker and apparently too tannic. The tumbler of tea is discarded. The small glass of tea is poured back into the teapot.

Stay with me here. There's lots more.

Sugar cone

Next the old man takes a large bunch of twiggy mint, crushes it in his hands and stuffs it into the teapot on top of the green tea. Then he opens a larger silver box containing big lumps of sugar which have been hacked off an old fashioned sugar cone about 18 inches high.  (You can see a complete one here, with its paper wrapping, plus the two silver boxes.)  He selects a lump of fitting size, about 2 inches cube, drops it into the teapot on top of the mint and pours boiling water over the top.

More brewing time. Then he pours out a large glass of tea and pours it back into tea pot. He repeats the pouring and returning one more time.

Then finally (though I may have missed a step or two!) he pours out a small tea glass of tea and tastes it. If it's up to scratch, he then pours out tea glasses for all the guests. The pouring itself is like pouring sherry in Spain, done from great height into a small space without missing a drop.

Once he's poured tea glasses for all the guests, he yells for his granddaughter again. This time, she arrives carrying freshly cooked local flat bread, made from wheat and barley flour and cooked on a plate above the open wood fire by the daughter-in-law downstairs. If you look closely, you can see the bread on top of the fire in the picture of the smoky kitchen.

Guests enjoying mint tea and Berber flatbread
Both tea and bread were extremely good. The old man's mint tea was by far the best we had in Morocco.

I could have imagined a Regency traveller being offered tea with exactly the same elaborate ceremony. Everything would have been the same, probably. Except for the pink plastic colander in which the bunch of mint had been washed! Those who remember the film The Wind and the Lion with Sean Connery and Candace Bergen will have an idea of what the Berbers were like a century ago.  I imagine they were the same centuries before that.

One other interesting thing I noted. Our guide, who was in his 40s or older, greeted the grandmother by kissing her hand, or at least by bending his face down to touch his forehead to her hand. It was difficult to see in the dark, but I was impressed by the gesture. Nowadays, respect for old ladies is definitely something I approve of!!

And yes, I may one day put all this into a book.



Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Great post, joanna - don't leave it too long to write that book - exotic locations, old-fashioned courtesy, sounds fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sarah. Yes, it was all of those things and utterly fascinating. Definitely book fodder.

One thing I forgot to mention in my post. Morocco has a very high incidence of diabetes which one of our guides attributed to the cultural habit of putting sugar in everything. My venerable old gent did put A LOT of sugar in a relatively small pot of tea. However, the glasses were small so I tried to ignore the calorie count.

girlygirlhoosier52 said...

That is so interesting to read about a culture that I'm certain I'll never see personally. Mostly because I speak neither Berber, Arabic or French! Certainly not an experience you'd have on a 'tour bus' trip!

Anonymous said...

Actually, our guide spoke English as well, and pretty fluently. But two of our party of 6 were French, and didn't speak any English, so he had to do his spiel in two languages. Very impressive.

Older people in Morocco do tend to speak fluent French as well as Arabic because their schooling was in French. Fewer speak English but you can get by pretty well.

However, you couldn't have the experience on a tour bus because the roads in the mountains are too narrow and winding. Most trips are in 4 wheel drives or taxis. But if you ever go to Morocco, the Atlas Mountain trip is worth the effort.

Jane Jackson said...

A fascinating post, Joanna. Our newsagent is from Algeria (married a local girl and they have two young children at the village school) He speaks Berber, Arabic and French. When I was writing Tide of Fortune he gave me a crash course in Berber as my heroine goes to Tangier and needed some useful phrases. When you write the book - as you must - get in touch and I'll pass them on if you'd like.

Anonymous said...

Jane, that is such a kind offer. And potentially SO useful. Thank you so much. I will certainly get in touch if and when I decide to write a book set in Morocco.

Your newsagent sounds fascinating and rather like the guide I had in Morocco. My guide spoke Berber, Arabic and French, all equally well, plus English not quite so well. He was moonlighting with us. His real job was as a biology teacher! He kept pointing out interesting plants that were growing by the roadside.

Louise Allen said...

Fascinating post - thanks very much, Joanna

Christina said...

Sounds like the perfect setting for a book, loved the description!