News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 12, 2012

TOM STEIGER: Measuring the march of time, culture in Morocco

Tom Steiger
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — I spent 10 days in Morocco in October. We were planning a study abroad trip for May 2013. My impression of Morocco, after a couple of days, was both familiar and “mysterious.” Familiar due to its French influences, Morocco was a French colony until 1956. In the capital city of Rabat it was hard not to think I was in a European city. That French was spoken, that signage was in French, that buildings reminded me of New Orleans, all made the first days in Morocco familiar and comfortable.

Just as my college French seemed to be coming back to me, as I got familiar with bon jour, oui, merci beaucoup and si’l vous plait, we moved from Rabat and its meetings with government officials to smaller towns, university officials, back-street cafes, and bold, stark landscapes. Then something happened. New feelings pushed in, as the familiar gave way to the unfamiliar … the more Arabic aspects of Morocco.

In Marrakesh we visited the largest public square in Morocco. The square and the large open-air market adjoining the square, has a frenetic energy. No fancy malls, no slick advertising, no sales promotions, just the raw energy of buyers and sellers negotiating a deal to mutual satisfaction.

In Essaouira I began to relax and feel comfortable with mysterious Morocco. Essaouira is a very old walled city on the Atlantic coast. Founded by the Portuguese in the 14th century, we stayed in an old Spanish style villa in the old medina. There we sat at a café, drinking atay, the traditional mint tea, watching the locals and tourists in the market, hearing the call to prayer at the three nearby mosques. On our way from Marrakesh, our driver, Mustafa, showed us various economic development projects, one a winery. We bought a bottle and after the sun was down, and the air cooler, we sat in the courtyard of the villa, the Riad Al Madina, enjoying the wine. Later, I restfully slept with the windows open to the cool dry air, with the deep, rough, powerful Atlantic but a few hundred yards away. I changed in Essaouira, I was beginning to see the real Moroc (as Morocco is called by Moroccans).

I’m fascinated by the way time is experienced in the culture of the land I am visiting. At first, Moroc felt like the industrial time that is America, an unrelenting industrial drum beat of time. Americans, even the laid back ones, are in a rush. Schedules, meetings, appointments, rush, rush, rush, in constant motion rushing from one thing to another. That was how our first days in Rabat were, rushing from meeting to meeting, place to place.

Moroccans, however, build in time for the pleasures of life, like eating. In Moroc, the most delicious and “artful” food can be served to you in McDonald’s-like time. On the streets and back alleys, a tajine (a conical-shaped “crock pot” cooked over hot coals) cooks all morning so as to be ready for lunch. One actually inspects the particular tajine, negotiates its price, then it’s served at your table. If it were McDonald’s, the food would be served then, and 10-12 minutes later, we’d be off to the next appointment. Not in Moroc. Time is really the secret spice in Moroccan cuisine. No meal is “fast.” “Hurry up” spoils the meal. Table talk is as important as the khobz (bread) served with every meal.

Order atay (Moroccan mint tea) and you get a small metal pot of boiling green tea with fresh mint and several large sugar cubes. It is not served ready to drink. The fresh mint must be added and let steep. Sugar must be added and mixed. Mixing is done by pouring the tea into a small, shot-glass sized glass, from a rather high distance to put a frothy head on the tea and then that is poured back into the pot, over and over and over. Until it is right. Time to get it right. Not clock time, but right to the taste.

Amidst the frenetic energy of the medina, the traffic of the boulevard, the time intensive march of modernity, Moroccans wait for the tea to be just right. How much have we lost in the U.S., especially in  the important relationships in our lives, because time either rushes things or we find we don’t have enough time to get it right?



Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email tsteiger@indstate.edu.