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8/28/09 Unexpected Ramadan Host

Tonight, a friend and I ate l-fdor [the breaking-of-the-fast sunset meal] at the PCV Hotel in SouqTown. We picked an empty table at random, not knowing that the mikka [plastic] sack on the next table meant that the owner of the hotel had claimed that as his own.

Most of the tables had mikka sacks on them; the hotel restaurant provides tea, coffee, harira [the traditional l-fdor soup – think Campbell’s Tomato Soup with pieces of spaghetti, lentils, chickpeas, and chunks of melting fat], and orange juice, but if you want anything else, you have to bring it yourself. Since l-fdor often features dates, hard-boiled eggs, shebbekia [think: miniature funnel cakes, dipped in corn syrup and allowed to dry], and various types of bread, most folks had acquired one or all of these in stores around SouqTown and brought them to the meal. BYOside-dishes.

Buotel [literally, the owner of the hotel] sat down and immediately struck up a conversation with us.

“Do you speak Spanish?”

It took me a minute to dredge up, “Mui poqito.” [And I learned Spanish on the street, so I have absolutely no idea how to spell anything. Don’t mock my spelling.]

He launched into a Spanish-French-Arabic blend, explaining that he’d grown up on the northernmost tip of Morocco, so was bilingual in Spanish and Arabic. My friend speaks a little Arabic, and I speak even less, but we did our best to follow along.

Over the next ten minutes, the harried waiters brought us, at widely spaced intervals: a large bottle of water; a water glass; another water glass (totally unlike the first); two more glasses; a pot of coffee, which he poured into the glasses over my protest [I don’t drink coffee]; two bowls of soup; a plate of buttered bread. At different intervals, Buotel gave us a plate of figs, two more glasses, and a bag of milk [which we successfully prevented him from pouring into the new glasses, but which we allowed him to pour into the coffee glasses, topping them off].

Note on coffee: Ramadan coffee bears no resemblance to actual coffee. It’s pretty much milk that’s been startled by a coffee bean. It’s a pale, highly sugared, spiced glass of milk that sort of faintly smells like coffee. I’ve seen wedding dresses that were a darker shade of ivory than this so-called “coffee”. In my opinion, this is all to the good. I don’t drink coffee, and therefore have never acquired the “acquired taste”. I find it … pretty gross, really.

But with all the gifting of figs and the pouring of beverages, it had become clear that Buotel considered us his guests. And while you can wave off offerings from your host, with repeated protests, you can’t refuse them once served without being mortally offensive. So once he got it in our cups, I knew I’d have to drink it. (Shudder.) That’s why I let him add the milk – anything to further dilute the already super-weak coffee was All To The Good in my book.

The restaurant also has a giant flat-screen TV, which was showing a soccer match. My friend, riveted by the giant display, absently reached for her coffee cup. No sooner had it touched her lip than Buotel reached past me to stop her. “They haven’t called the moghreb yet!” he exclaimed.

Sure enough, all the food on our table – and everyone else’s – remained untouched. The sunset call to prayer hadn’t yet echoed across SouqTown, so we were all still (officially) fasting.

My friend blinked, apologized profusely, and told me sotto voce that she’d genuinely forgotten. Our food and drink remained pristine for a few minutes more, and then the moghreb wafted through the window.

As we ate, our host continued his tireless stream of chatter, by now almost entirely in Arabic. I followed a little of it – enough words have been borrowed by Tam that I recognized a lot of what he said, plus he spoke slowly and used expressive hand gestures – but I still had to admit, “Mafhmsh” (Arabic for “I don’t understand”) every couple minutes. We understood enough to answer some of his basic questions, like which villages we worked in, and that no, we don’t live together. He asked if we were staying in his hotel. I answered that I was, because I was bound for the Big Airport-Having City in the morning, but that my friend wasn’t, because she lives nearby. That was all in Arabic, so it was ungrammatical to the extreme, but I was still proud I could communicate even that much. I’d explained that I don’t know Arabic, and my friend had assured him that she knew very little – she’s a Tam speaker, but has been picking up Arabic – so eventually he stopped trying to impress us with his credentials (which we couldn’t understand, but which he pulled out of his wallet nonetheless) and decided to launch into an Arabic lesson. “Water. Coffee. Bread. Soup,” he repeated slowly, pointing to each object. “Figs.” At this point, he ran out of items on the table (though he didn’t mention “plate” or “bowl” or “spoon” – I guess they’re just background and therefore invisible) and began naming other fruits. I recognized most of the names, since Tam borrowed them, but he used a couple that neither my friend nor I knew…and since we had no exemplars of them, the lesson proved … fruitless. (Sorry.)

Eventually, we extricated ourselves from Buotel’s extravagant hospitality, and set out into the post-l-fdor SouqTown. Many folks must still have been home eating, because the street still had the empty, shuttered feeling I remembered from last week. We walked around town for a bit, then circled back to a street that was drowsily returning to normal. Since neither the cyber nor my favorite corner shop had yet opened, I went back into the hotel to work on my trusty laptop (and type this up!). It’s now 10pm…let’s see if SouqTown has stirred...

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