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5/25/08 Friends and Family

Last week, I helped my host sister and cousin make gato, the all-purpose word for cookies, cakes, and other sweets. These were small round cookies. I got there after they’d been mixed up, and just helped roll them, dunk them in egg whites and powdered sugar, and put them on the cookie sheet. I have no idea what’s in them, but they’re delicious; they taste a bit like carrot cake, but with a grainy, almost gritty consistency. My host mother—who has asked me to call her Mama or Ama—was supervising the operation. She asked if I wanted to learn how to make them. I told her that I did – she’s the best cook I’ve met in Morocco, and since I’ve eaten well the whole time I’ve been here, that’s saying something – and she said, “When you go back to America, you can make them.” I smiled, looking forward to baking these Moroccan goodies for my friends. It was easy to envision my group of girlfriends in DC munching on them, or maybe I could bring them next time my college or TFA friends assemble. Then Ama finished her sentence, “—for your family.”

And suddenly I had to stop and think. She had taken it as a given that I’d be living with my family, cooking for my family, and living the family-centric life that is typical in Morocco. (Rural Morocco, at least; I don’t know anything about urban life.) But in the States, I don’t live with my family. Most young Americans don’t, I think. In fact, if I were an almost-thirty-year-old living with my parents, there’d be some measure of stigma associated with that. For the most part, it seems that communities of friends have come to serve most of the functions that the extended family used to serve.

When I’m with my extended family in America – ie at Thanksgiving or Christmas – there is lots of baking and fun, and I could certainly make these gato to share with my parents and sister and aunties and uncles and cousins. But the fact that my first thought had been of my friends, whereas Ama’s only thought was of my family…continues to provoke deep thoughts.

In Morocco, family life reminds me of what I read in Little House books or Jane Austen’s novels. I don’t mean to imply that Morocco is behind the times – most households have satellite TV, after all – but just in the role of the family. Friends are important, sure, but they are pretty much synonymous with “neighbors”, and the family remains supreme. Both of my host families have been much larger than my family in the States, with many siblings, even more aunts and uncles, and countless cousins. Moreover, the extended families don’t only assemble for holidays. I don’t think a single day has gone by here in Berberville without a visit from one of my host-aunties or host-uncles. Also, given the strong ethic of hospitality, it’s assumed that these visiting family members will be fed. Anyone who comes – neighbor, family member, visiting doctor – will be offered kaskrut (tea, bread, and something to dip the bread in – jam, olive oil, honey, butter, or some combination thereof). But it’s rare for non-family members to stay for a meal, whereas it’s common to have one of the grandparents or aunties or uncles or cousins at the table for dinner. When we had couscous last Friday – the traditional Friday meal – three relatives came by. I guess it’s no secret that Ama is the best sukuzina (cook) in the country. :)

Speaking of which, it’s almost time for lunch. Bslama!

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