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Breakfast with my Berber

Sep 4

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9/4/2010 2:08 PM  RssIcon

Breakfast with my Berber by Charley Silverman

I squeezed hard my right hand break and tweaked my handle bars a little bit to the left raising a small dust cloud as my back tire fishtailed to a stop.  I hopped off the bike and propped it against the cage crowded with green and blue buta-gas tanks.  Yussef was busy at the moment with both the egg guy and the milk guy vying for his attention.
      “Peace be upon you Lunch Meat.”
      “Wah Charley.  Peace be upon you too.”
      “Whats up?”
      “Just chilling.  Whats up with you?”
      “Same ole’ same ole’.”
      I grabbed the seat made of pressed together empty egg crates tied together with string and brought it inside the small store.  My spot is against the shelves stuffed with sacks of rice, lentils, dried garbanzo beans and my favorite, super salty pre-shelled peanuts.  Its a good strategic spot because the items close by are not usually in high demand, especially early in the morning.  Also, from this spot I have a good view of approaching customers through the glass windows of his candy display case.  Best of all, directly ahead of my perch is the black and while television.
      “Honest Abe!”  I yell out to Yussef’s three-year-old Abdullah.  He can’t determine whether he hates me or loves me.  Usually it’s hate, but today I gave him a package of M&M’s that came from my mother in the states.  Yussef is fully aware of our testy relationship and when he saw the chocolate I brought for Abdullah he cackled, “Corruption!  Corruption!”
      I responded “When in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do.”  The truth of the statement presses Yussef’s buttons and he can’t help from smiling.  Bribes are a well known aspect of daily life here, and I don’t mind parting with some goodies to Abdullah in exchange for a handshake and his plastic gun that blares fire engine sounds being put down for a few minutes.  Before he is anywhere near the bottom of the bag, there are big brown streaks of chocolate from his mouth radiating in all directions over his face.  How he managed to smear M&M’s is beyond me.
      It has taken me a while to come to grips with the fact that I now come to Youssef’s hanut more for the company than for the poor selection of wares for sale.  I like the cast of characters so much that I almost invariably go twice every morning.  The first time for breakfast, and the second to get my bread and tuna for lunch.  This morning however my stomach was feeling less than great, so I took a pass on my usual breakfast of vanilla yogurt scooped by Cremini cookies. 
      Our routine is so cemented that Yussef knows if I show up before 8:00 am he instinctively changes the channel from Quran reading to MBC Action and whatever is left of one of the Law and Order shows.  I have noticed by continually catching just the endings that they are as predictable as Scooby Doo used to be.  After they catch the bad guy they pull the mask off and say, “And I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” Same story this morning.  After the show a commercial for Sultan Tea comes on and Yussef starts into one of his favorite conversation topics.
      “Remember that time you brought American tea here for me to try.”
      “That was bad.”
      “Yeah you told me.”
      “Really bad.  Tea dyal Merican is walu, zero, auwd-ha.  Moroccan tea from China is the best.”
      “Okay Lunch Meat, whatever you say. My mom sent me some new teas in this new package.  Want to try some?” Before he could answer in the negative I was already back on my bike.  I set my bike just outside my door and hustled in to grab the little baggie full of tea bags out of a cupboard.  Just in case, I also grabbed my precious new jar of peanut butter and pedaled back in the direction of the store.
      As I came back, I saw Youness the butcher was also at the store now.  Youness spends as much, if not more time than I do at Yussef’s store.  He was in the back now and heating up a small ceramic tea-pot of water.  Youness was also not a fan of the first American tea experience but was anxious for another glass of something different.  For people who were not impressed the first time around, the two of them sure were hyped up for round two.  Gluttons for punishment.
      I handed the baggie over to Yussef to pick his poison.  “Earl Gray?  Vanilla Caramel...  Green Tea, Black Tea, Chinese Oolong?”  Eventually his bias toward Chinese tea won out and he decided on the Oolong, whatever the hell that is.  He read out the details on the tea bag and said, “Smooth and Distinct taste?  What is distinct?”
      I thought on it for a second and then let him know I thought it was a good question because just reading “distinct taste” didn’t mean a thing to me either.  Undeterred, we tore open three tea bags and put them into the boiling water and let them do their thing.
      Youness asked me, “When you do tea in America what do you do it with.”
      “I don’t understand.”
      “In Morocco when we make tea there is always bread and oil and jam.  What do you do with tea.”
      I told him, “In Morocco every time you serve tea it has to be a big ceremony.”  He looked confused.  “Its always like a party five times a day for tea.  In America if you want tea you just make tea by yourself and do whatever you want.” At this Youness looked dejected and Youssef, in Berber, consoled him by breaking down the difference between individualistic and communal societies.  I smiled and nodded.
      After a few minutes we figured our tea was pretty close to ready.  Yussef brought out a big cone of sugar and a wrench and after a few precise taps had cleaved a couple of big chunks of sugar ready for the pot.  He dropped them in, and as is customary poured a glass and then dumped it back in the pot.  Another glass, another dump.  Three times. 
      Finally it was the moment of truth.  Would this American tea stand up under scrutiny or falter under the pressure.  I knew that prejudices already existed against the tea from Youssef and Youness, so I suggested an objective third party.  The next customer at the hanut was the Mudir of the primary school, a mumbly older gentleman who’s opinion is widely respected.  We offered him a glass of tea without telling him what he was in for.  It’s Morocco so he couldn’t refuse even had he wanted to. 
      Youssef went through the entire ceremony of pouring the glass from way up high to get the maximum amount of bubbles at the top of the tea.  “Tea with a turban.”  Kills ‘em every time.  After a college career of trying to pour beer to have the exact opposite effect this is a technique I am yet to master. 
      The color was a bit off but not so much that the Mudir noticed.  “Bismillah,”  he prayed.  He took one tiny sip, scrunched up his face, and faster than I had ever seen him move before turned around and chucked the whole glass into a plant.  Not just the tea.  He threw the glass.  Youssef, Youness and Abdullah were hooting and hollering.  The Mudir was using a fingernail to try to scrape the taste off of his tongue, and I was stuck to my seat feigning disappointment for a few seconds until I busted out laughing as well.
      The next sacrificial Moroccan was Abdullah.  Very brave of Youssef to test dangerous liquids on his three-year-old.  The reaction wasn’t as bad as the Mudir’s, but I think Abdullah and I are on bad terms again.
      “Have a glass,” Youssef proded me.
      “I’ll have one if you do.”
      “Okay pour them out.”
      I poured a glass for each of the three of us.  We collectively said “Bismillah,” and raised our glasses.  I actually took a sip, and from the corner of my eye I saw that the other two were just watching me with their glasses yet to touch their lips.  It wasn’t that bad at all, but just to get a rise out of them I put my glass on the counter and faked choking.  The assembled Moroccans picked up the laugh track once again.  Once you know the right buttons to push the desired reactions are pretty easy to come by.
      Eventually they mustered up the strength to taste and even finish their glasses.  I think.  Youness may have tossed his tea into the plant while I wasn’t looking or just downed it quickly, applying the band-aid removal theory.  The pot was quickly cleaned then cleaned again and finally scoured to chase any lingering Oolong from its midsts and then refilled with some Moroccan tea to resuscitate our respective pallets.
      With a new glass of proper tea in hand the Moroccans breathed relieved deep breaths.  That’s when I pulled out the peanut butter from my bag and asked, “So who wants to try something else from America?”
      Abdullah snatched up his backpack and made a bee line for the exit.  “I need to go to school.”  It wasn’t until later that I noted, there is no school on Sunday.
Moroccan Tea
Moroccan tea
Moroccan Hanut
Moroccan hanut

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