Saturday, November 20, 2010

Morocco In the News: Nov 14 - 20

Olive green MoroccoRasheeda Bhagat
“Olive oil is a fruit juice; and we have programmed our harvesting operations in such a manner that every 20 minutes a truck-full of olives leaves for our mill. That way we are able to avoid any delay in the crushing of fresh olives.” Othman Aqallal
Olive cultivation in rocky, mountainous Morocco gets a fillip with the government pulling out all plugs to help olive farmers..
At the end of the 19th century his great grandfather got the title ‘Amine-el-Fellaha' of Fes, the historic city often considered the spiritual capital of the North African Kingdom of Morocco. Its meaning: ‘The wisest of farmers'. What got him the title was not only his passion and devotion to the land he cultivated but also the zest to experiment with farming practices.
Well, Othman Aqallal, the young and dapper managing director of Atlas Olive Oils, wears lightly the 123-year-old history of his family's four-generational foray into olive cultivation. His family orchards have over a million olive trees and the century-old orchard in Marrakech has 3,000 olive trees growing mainly the Picholine varieties of both French and Moroccan origin.
But at the other orchards, where modern farming and harvesting methods are adopted, apart from the Picholine, the Spanish Arbequina and the Arbossana are cultivated along with small quantities of the Moroccan Dahbia and the coveted Greek Koroneiki.
As he walks us — a group of international journalists from India, China, Russia, Canada and Japan hosted by the International Olive Council (IOC) — through one of his orchards at the El Bourouj Farm, the young Aqallal, who along with his father, Omar, has introduced modern technology in the farming, harvesting and crushing of olives, gives an absorbing and rather novel account of how to optimise the best quality olive fruit.
When olive tree panics!
The orchard is located at the foot of the Atlas Mountain and in the summers the olive trees face harsh seasons. When it is time to blossom, the harsh environment — rocky soil, scorching sun, less water — causes immense suffering to the olive tree. “As a result it panics and stops all its energy from going into the roots and diverts it instead to the blossoms, resulting in great quality olives. Hence the extra virgin olive oil crushed in our mills from orchards in rocky desert soil is absolutely fruity and flavourful.”
The accent at Atlas, he says, is not on “quantity but quality. We prefer to produce smaller quantities of top quality olive oil rather than bigger quantity of medium quality oils.”
One of his oils walked away with the third prize at the IOC's prestigious Mario Solinas Quality Award last year, and Atlas also bagged two gold medals at the Los Angeles Olive Oil Awards. We tasted the award-winning oil — Desert Miracle — at the sumptuous feast his family hosted for us and found it fruity, delicious and a perfect accompaniment to the fresh Moroccan bread on offer.
The company owns about one million trees planted in 200 hectares and its annual production is about 1,000 tonnes and 80 per cent of its olive oil is exported to the US, Europe, Japan, China and even India. But in India it comes in bulk and is bottled here.
His is one of the two companies in Morocco that have acquired a giant mechanical harvester costing €200,000 which totally eliminates human intervention in picking and transporting olives. The harvester has mechanised handles that pluck the olives off the trees. These are then directly transferred to trucks which speed to the mill for the crushing. “Olive oil is a fruit juice and we have programmed our operations in the orchards where this harvester can operate in such a manner that every 20 minutes a truck-full of olives leaves for our mill. That way we are able to avoid any delay in the crushing of fresh olives,” he says.
As we drive through the olive-growing regions of Morocco — from Marrakesh to Meknes and Fez — hectares after hectares of olive orchards roll by, and the green trees planted on the slopes of mountains present a picturesque sight one will remember for a long time.
Importance of olives
The most commonly cultivated olive in Morocco— almost 90 per cent — is the Picholine. It can be green, black or pink, and the colour denotes the time of harvesting. Green olives are harvested in September, black olives when they are fully ripe in December, and pink ones in between.
Over 40 per cent of the olive groves of Morocco are planted in the mountains and are very old.
The history of olive farming in Morocco dates back by at least three centuries and there are several interesting stories about Morocco's association with olives and olive oil; Greek colonisers are believed to have brought the olive trees to the island of Sicily, and taken them across to the mainland. Phoenician traders who arrived on the North African coast around 1100 BC are said to have planted olive trees in the region. As trade routes developed, the Romans are credited with planting huge olive groves in North Africa.
Green Morocco initiative
Agriculture, along with tourism, forms the backbone of the Moroccan economy, and since 2008, under the “Green Morocco” initiative the government has been encouraging and giving incentives to farmers to switch over from cereals or other crops to olive cultivation, which can increase incomes manifold.
According to data from the Agriculture Ministry, olive cultivation in Morocco is spread over 735,000 hectares — nearly 10 per cent of the usable agricultural area. Thanks to the ability of the hardy olive tree to survive and flourish under the toughest climatic conditions, olive groves are spread over almost the entire country, except the coastal strip bordering the Atlantic Ocean.
This year Morocco will produce about 80,000 tonnes of olive oil and 19,000 tonnes of table olives; while the Marrakech region is famous for table olives, the bulk of the country's olive oil comes from Meknes and Fes regions. Cultivated across 400,000 agricultural holdings, olive farming accounts for 100,000 permanent jobs but almost 4.5 million benefit directly and indirectly from olive cultivation in this tiny country with a population of over 32 million. While 37 per cent of olive orchards are located in the mountains, 36 per cent have irrigation facilities and the remaining are rain-fed.
Giving details of the Green Morocco initiative, Secretary General of the Ministry of Agriculture Moha Marghi said the ministry wanted to bring more hectares, particularly in the poor, rural and mountainous areas of Morocco, under olive cultivation which brings in far more income than other farm sectors. “As olive harvesting is labour intensive, our objective is to increase the area under olive cultivation, improve the income of the poorer, smaller farmers, and give them access to modern technology to improve their yield through government incentives. At the same time we will be generating more employment for our people.”
For example, in the Meknes region, 75 per cent of the cultivated area is under cereals and only 6 per cent under olives, but transformation of cereal land into olive groves is on. As one researcher put it: “Only since 2001, there has been a renaissance of the olive sector in Morocco.” And, yet, Meknes accounts for 60 per cent of olive oil produced in Morocco and 70 per cent of its exports.
Marghi added that while even the bigger farmers get some incentives to bring in modern technology into their olive farming practices, most of the incentives are reserved for the smaller farmers in poor areas. Those farmers who converted their land to olive cultivation in 2008 got $600 per hectare as a government grant; the idea was to encourage early birds and the grant, which will last only for five years, shrinks each year. Under this scheme 1.5 lakh hectares have been converted to olive cultivation in three years, benefiting 20,000 farmers.
The annual production of olive oil in Morocco is around 80,000-100,000 tonnes. Typically the olive crop in any country is a bumper crop during alternative years. But only 15 per cent of Morocco's olive oil is extra virgin, with 70 per cent being only virgin olive oil. Also there is concern at the low consumption of olive oil — per capita consumption here is only 2 litres. “Our dual objective is not only to improve production and export but also increase local consumption, and towards this goal we make constant efforts to convert our olive farms to intensive and super-intensive categories,” says Marghi. In super-intensive orchards there can be 1,000 to 1,250 trees per hectare against 300-400 trees in conventional and old orchards.
With such incentives there is optimism that Morocco will double its olive production by 2015 and step up its exports too.
IOC Executive Director Mohamed Sbitri said the highest per capita consumption of olive oil is in Greece at 23 litres, followed by Italy and Spain (14 litres each), Syria (6) and Tunisia (4). The IOC, which is the only intergovernmental organisation to bring together olive oil and table olive producing and consuming stakeholders, helps the marketing of table olives and olive oil. Prior to the IOC launching its marketing initiative in India in 2008, the country consumed just over 2,000 tonnes of olive oil a year; the present figure is estimated at over 6,500 tonnes. Research, handholding
At the National Institute of Agronomical Research in Marrakech, a technological package is made ready for the olive farmers to apply to their olive orchards and this includes best farming techniques, efficient pest control and so on, to get an optimum harvest of quality olives. Elsewhere too, technology as well as olive saplings are made readily available to motivate farmers to switch to olive cultivation. The average landholding of olive farmers here is about 5 hectares.
Unlike the other major olive producing countries we had earlier visited such as Greece, Spain, Italy or Turkey, in Morocco we were taken around a record number of government agronomy research institutes and laboratories, at both national and regional levels, which work tirelessly to provide information and knowhow to the olive farmers. It was pretty apparent that the Moroccan government does a lot to help the agri sector; more important, there seemed to be a connect between lab research and cultivation in the field.
Ben Maiimoun Asmaa, Agronomical Engineer, Agriculture Ministry, said about 65 per cent of olives grown in Morocco go into making olive oil, about 25 per cent are used as table olives and the remaining account for personal consumption of growers and loss in handling.
Interestingly enough, countries such as Syria, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco consume a lot of table olives. In Morocco they always came dressed in delicious herbs and spices. Even in the fruit and vegetables souks in Moroccan cities it is common to find huge mounds of olives marinated in spices and herbs.
The first fruit
The origin of the olive has many legends associated with it.
Fossilised olive leaves dating back 37,000 years are said to have been found on Santorini, the spectacularly beautiful Greek island.
But Egyptians argue that its origin is related to the Nile delta.
Jesus Christ was said to have prayed under an olive tree before his crucifixion on Mount of Olives, on a cross made of olive wood.
Three biggest enemies of olive oil are high temperature, light and oxygen. Hence, once opened, a bottle of olive oil should be kept in a cool, dark place to retain its flavour and taste.
From ancient Egyptian times olive oil is used in many religious ceremonies, and also has documented medicinal use.
Photography exhibition to trace architectural heritage of Morocco
Twentieth century photographs showing aerial views and buildings of Rabat, Casablanca and Fez will be exhibited at Morocco’s Ecole Nationale d’Architecture (ENA) in Rabat, in an event organised under the Euromed Heritage project Mutual Heritage.
The exhibition, entitled ‘Patrimoine partagé’ – a shared heritage – will run from 22 November to 21 December. It will trace the history of 20th century architecture in Morocco, aiming to contribute to a better knowledge and appreciation of this cultural heritage. It will also serve as a resource for heritage professionals and teachers.
“This exhibition will especially contribute to make accessible to the largest number of people all the richness of the recent architecture in Morocco, which is the product of inter-cultural exchanges and the sharing of various technical know-how,” said ENA Director El Montacir Bensaïd.  
The initiative, which is part of the Mutual Heritage project, will show photos selected from 85,000 images from ENA’s photographic archives.
The Mutual Heritage project – part of the Euromed Heritage IV programme – aims to enhance the appreciation of 19th and 20th century Mediterranean architectural heritage, the product of rich inter-cultural exchanges, sharing of technical know-how and the modernisation of the urban fabrics of the south Mediterranean, a local process compounded by external inputs from Ottoman and European colonisation.
Euromed Heritage IV is a €17 million EU-funded programme which contributes to the exchange of experiences on cultural heritage, creates networks and promotes cooperation with the Mediterranean Partner Countries
World Bank Supports Oum Er Rbia Sanitation Project in Morocco
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Local communities in Morocco will have better opportunity to have their voice heard in matters of environmental and social safeguards thanks to an initiative undertaken by the Moroccan government and the World Bank, especially as regards land expropriation for public use. By adhering to local regulations and practices, rather than those of international donors, this will in turn improve the level and quality of services to Moroccans.

The donor community has pledged, through the Paris Declaration, to improve national ownership of international aid by supporting national country systems. The World Bank signed the Paris Declaration and the Accra Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, and in 2005 adopted a new guideline called the Use of Country System Policy. Progress on the use of country systems, however, has been slow. The use of country systems was successfully applied in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in the area of environmental safeguards (for example to environmental assessments in Egypt and to the forestry sector in Tunisia), but it has not been applied to other safeguards.

The challenge has been primarily to conduct necessary assessments of existing country systems, and convince local stakeholders (such as local governments, and non-governmental organizations or NGOs) that improvements in these systems to conform with internationally-accepted approaches and principles would result in significant benefits.


A two-level assessment, called a Safeguards Diagnostic Review, was carried out in Morocco to assess existing practices and compare them to internationally-accepted good practices and principles. Furthermore, gaps and corresponding remedies had to be defined and agreed upon with the Moroccan authorities, in this case, the National Office for Potable Water.

The first level of the assessment consisted of an “equivalence assessment,” which led to an exhaustive review of the applicable body of local laws, and secondary regulations and official guidelines in the area of environmental impact assessment and land acquisition. The second level consisted of an “acceptability analysis” aimed at establishing how these procedures are actually being implemented.


Environmental assessment results include:

* Establishment of procedures on how to prepare and implement environmental impact assessments;
* Establishment of procedures on how to review and approve environmental impact assessments at both the national and regional levels. Consultation practices have been clarified and disclosure will be generally ensured through the borrower’s and counterparts’ websites.
* The project also introduced environmental and social indicators for performance-based monitoring.

Social assessment results include:

* Clarification of expropriation procedures, including the determination of appropriate compensation levels and timing for payment, as well as public consultation and disclosure of information procedures;
* The establishment of grievance redress mechanisms to ensure that procedures for land expropriation for public use are applied in a consistent manner, including the prompt payment of compensation. These efforts also aimed to ensure that the acquisition of lands actually takes place after the compensation has been paid.

As a result, there is now more transparency and better public participation and consultation in addressing environmental and social safeguards around water sector projects in Morocco.

Bank Contribution

The World Bank financed the US$50,000 cost of conducting the Safeguards Diagnostic Review, which was made publicly available. 


The Bank collaborated with several local entities in this endeavor including the Ministry of Interior, the National Office for Potable Water, Morocco State Secretary for Water and Environment, local governments, and local NGOs. Several donors including Germany’s KfW, France’s AFD, EC, and EIB were also consulted and involved in this pilot as part of their efforts to fulfill their commitments under the Accra Accords.

Toward the Future

Future water and sanitation projects in Morocco, financed by the Bank and by other donors, will benefit from this piloted use of country systems because environmental and social dimensions possibly affecting those projects will be addressed more consistently and effectively. This will enhance service delivery to project beneficiaries and improves the sustainability of such projects.


The beneficiaries are local communities in Morocco who will have a better opportunity to have their voices heard in matters of environment and social safeguards, especially as regards land expropriation for public use. This will in turn improve the level and quality of services to project beneficiaries.(World Bank publication)

Global Arab Network
Tour of America Inspires Journalists. M. Scott Bortot, Nov 16, 2010.
Rachida Bami, a journalist who covers regional issues for Morocco's leading French daily Le Matin, knows a lot about community service organizations in her country.
Now, after a three-week tour of the United States, she also knows how public service groups operate in America.
Bami and two Moroccan colleagues traveled in the United States from October 23 to November 13 through the U.S. State Department's Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists. The Moroccans were part of a group of 150 emerging leaders in journalism from around the world who visited American universities, media organizations and civil society groups.
The journalists traveled to American cities to deepen their knowledge of media coverage of politics and government and to observe grass-roots organizations in smaller towns. Among these groups was the Blackland Community Development Organization near Austin, Texas, which struck Bami as a model for empowering the poor.
"It works for the sake of people who suffer from poverty and who have been deeply affected by the financial crisis," Bami said. "One of the goals of this organization is that they find housing for those who are homeless."
Blackland aims to foster a community that works for social equality by preserving and improving the stock of affordable housing and providing dynamic programs for local residents.
But it is not enough for Bami that she has seen Blackland in action. She plans to use her 12 years' experience as a journalist to tell its story back home.
"I will write about this organization so that organizations in Morocco can learn from this concept," Bami said.
Ilham Berrada, a reporter for 2M Television in Casablanca, said a trip to the University of Georgia in Athens changed her perspective on college journalism programs. A 15-year veteran of television and print media, Berrada admired facilities at the university's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
"I was very surprised to see TV in the university," Berrada said. "They have their journalists, their reporters; it is a small television station, but they have everything."
Bami said the curriculum at the university's journalism department impressed her. She suggested to university staff that they work with their counterparts at Moroccan universities to develop a student exchange program.
"The journalist is a bridge," Bami said. "He takes information from here and transfers it."
Apart from journalism, Bami appreciated the value of encouraging student volunteerism at American colleges and universities.
"The student is dedicated to volunteerism because it will be something good to place on his CV," she said. "This is a concept I would like to suggest to the university [Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University] president in Fez."
Mohamed Saadouni, a journalist with Arab-language weekly Alayam in Casablanca, said his journey through America opened his eyes to the way that American journalists practice their craft. Originally an English teacher, Saadouni changed professions eight years ago to broaden his horizons.
After visiting American media organizations, he gained perspective on how journalists operate in different countries.
"I discovered in the United States that the journalists are OK because they don't have 'red lines' [forbidden topics] as we have in our country," Saadouni said, describing the challenges faced by Moroccan journalists. "We, as journalists in my country, we should first think, then write. Here, you just write."
Saadouni said there will be an unexpected outcome to his trip: how he manages time.
"If someone wants to stay with you for 10 minutes, it is 10 minutes. They do not give you 11 or 12," he said about his experience in the Murrow Program. "To some extent this is very important and will make my work very professional. Time management is a very important point."
A hungry adventurer explores Marrakech.
Globe Correspondent / November 17, 2010
MARRAKECH, Morocco — The Djemaa el-Fna emerges like a living, breathing organism from the labyrinth that is the ancient medina, a large, open plaza framed by nearby minarets and the more distant and dramatic Atlas Mountains. Relatively sleepy during the day, with a few snake charmers and monkey handlers roaming around, the Djemaa transforms itself every evening into a truly unique jumble of makeshift restaurants — roughly 100.
The sight of all these illuminated food stalls is both startling and daunting. There is a number system, but stalls 23 and 48 might be next to each other, for example, and stall 62 might also have the number 5 written all over it. Enter the Djemaa from the periphery at night and waiters will beckon you to their stalls. They look you over quickly and start to speak the language they guess you speak. They are equally adept at invitations in French and Spanish, and have practiced their Cockney accents, too.
Begin a meal here with a bowl of Morocco’s beloved national soup, harira. Though traditionally eaten to break the fast during Ramadan, Moroccans make it year-round. Recipes vary from region to region, and even cook to cook, but it is almost always tomato-based and contains any combination of chickpeas, lentils, celery, parsley, noodles, and meat. The spices tend to be relatively mellow, usually cumin, saffron, and black pepper. Stall 67 makes a wonderful version, thick and laden with chickpeas, lentils, noodles, and dried mint, an uncommon but welcome addition. A plate of sweet, sticky dates and an accompanying glass of ultra-sweet mint tea ties it all together. The soup costs about 37 cents, the tea and dates about $1.
Next, follow the plumes of smoke to stall 32, which sits under an impossible-to-miss illuminated red and yellow sign that says both “32’’ and “HASSAN.’’ Hassan, the cook, grills spicy little merguez sausages, which he serves with a simple sauce of crushed fresh tomatoes and parsley, and a six-inch disc of dense Moroccan bread. The cooks pour oil over the sausages, resulting in giant flames and smoke. An order comes with six to eight, best enjoyed in hollowed-out bread halves and drenched in sauce.
It’s time to plunge into the thick of the stalls, past the hawkers. Go straight to stall 53 — yes, one of the ones with sheep’s heads out front. Chopped up unidentifiable bits of singed, boiled sheep’s heads are absolutely not the best thing to eat in the Djemaa, nor are they aesthetically appealing, but they’re worth a try. Order a quarter-head as a noncommittal start, and graduate to a half- or whole head if that seems appropriate.
Though the cross-cultural and multilingual vibe of tourists and locals eating together is part of what makes the Djemaa special, the best stalls are those patronized solely by Moroccans. This is the case at number 47. Two large, clay jugs that look like they’ve been plucked from an archeological dig signal the presence of one of Marrakech’s culinary specialties, tanjia. Traditionally, beef or lamb is put into one of these jugs, along with a little water, garlic, cumin, saffron, and other spices, and taken to the hammam (bathhouse) to simmer for several hours under the same fire that heats the hammam’s water supply. The result is moist, tender meat that evaporates in your mouth, not unlike a good slow-cooked barbecue brisket. The bread serves triple duty as starch, utensil, and napkin. The cooks will also drench a disc of bread in the tanjia cooking liquid on request to create an au jus effect, which is messy but delicious.
Before dessert, a palate cleanser is essential. Marrakech is said to have the best orange juice in the country, and a row of carts dedicated to just that seems to challenge travelers to try it for themselves. At stall 28, 50 cents buys a glass of the transcendent orange nectar; this could be the best-tasting thing in the whole square.
Finally, another row of thematically arranged carts concludes the multicourse frenzy. Four or five in a row all sell the one dessert option: ginseng tea and brown sugar-almond-sesame cakes (s’loo or s’foof in Arabic). Stall 72 lists every ingredient in the complex tea on a sign: ginseng, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, mace, black pepper, nigella seeds, and star anise. It’s quite strong, both sweet and spicy, and though it’s good with the sweet little morsels of cake, it would be a fine ending on its own.
Dishes most often associated with Moroccan cuisine — couscous, tajine, and brochettes — can be found anywhere in the country, and often in versions better than what hawkers in the square try to sell. The key to enjoying the Djemaa is being adventurous. Fears inherent in eating “street food’’ should not discourage a visitor; everything is thoroughly cooked. In the ancient square, the main worry is the possibility that you might eat a sheep’s head and like it.
Djemaa el-Fna is bordered by Rue Bab Agnaou to the south; Rue Fehl Chidmi leads to it from the north. Ask any resident for directions; some will accompany you and expect a small monetary compensation.
Luke Pyenson can be reached at
© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.
Argan Moroccan Cuisine
November 14, 2010  By Craig LaBan
Inquirer Restaurant Critic
The cafe serves authentic couscous and other fine flavors, but must overcome crises that confront a small family venture.
It was a good question, posed to me recently by a French expat hankering for a bowl of North African soul food. The mere suggestion, of course, kick-started my own craving - with savory flashbacks to a Morocco trip and the rustic little couscouserie I lived over during my student days in Paris. And that query was also the main reason I ended up below ground near Rittenhouse Square, waiting hopefully on the elaborately tufted couches of the quirky subterranean nook called Argan Moroccan Cuisine.
Couscous, after all, is a mighty grain of contradictions. We think we know it, but we don't. It's seemingly everywhere, but virtually nowhere at all in its true form. It's one of America's undisputed stars of ethnic food assimilation, now in its golden era of supermarket ubiquity. But the quick-cook boxed version has become such a mainstream staple of just-add-water convenience that those clumpy specks of mushy pasta are about as exotic as Rice-A-Roni. The genuine item is as rare as a Berber on Broad Street.
Argan's chef-owner, Mounir Draissi, is about as close as we get, just three blocks west of Broad, in a modest cafe tucked a few steps down from the 17th Street sidewalk. A native of Meknes (near the northern coast), he descends, in fact, from a Berber grandma. And he takes no shortcuts in either flavor or technique, taking nearly an hour-and-a-half to moisten, hand-fluff, and steam his semolina grains in stages, steeping them to finish with a gingered saffron broth rich in vegetables and spice. An extra smidge of smen - a Berber-style butter Draissi ages himself for three years - lends the grains a shade of extra earthy intensity.
The couscous is available only at dinner, due to the process, but every grain in the fluffy pile was distinct and infused with flavor. The couscous was mounded into hand-painted Moroccan bowls and ringed with batons of stewed zucchini and carrot. I savored it here in many variations - topped with a cinnamon-scented braised lamb shank that practically melted off the bone, a baked salmon fillet slathered in the cuminy green tang of a cilantro chermoula, and a tender half-chicken infused with preserved lemon. Our neighbors seemed to revel in the hearty vegetarian version, as well. The only thing I needed, which Draissi's wife, Ilham, happily brought me, was a side bowl of extra broth dabbed with house-made harissa to ignite the dish. And I was back in the couscous zone: question answered.
A larger question, though, led me to some mixed results. Can the two-year-old Argan live up to its potential to be an all-around Moroccan bistro rather than a one-dish wonder?
I have no doubts that, under normal circumstances, Draissi has the passion and instincts as a cook to deliver some wonderfully authentic flavors. The handmade bread alone, those warm and fluffy semolina rounds that take three hours to bake each morning, are worth the trip, their earthy sweetness vaguely reminiscent of a fine corn bread. Add a dish of olives tinged with harissa chile paste and thyme, then maybe a platter of Argan's dips - creamy baba ganoush, fiery shakshuka of red peppers and tomato, simple hummus, and a roasty zaalouk of cuminy eggplant and tomatoes - and the meal is off to a great start, with plenty of good flavors to follow.
But with humble means, and only 40 seats in its modest but tidy dining room, Argan's success could hinge on dealing with the random pitfalls of running a small family business - such as finding a plug for the dishwasher's cell-phone charger that won't short out the exhaust hood and shut down the grill in the middle of the lunch rush; or having enough help to deal with a suddenly full dining room.
A recent dinner was a worst-case scenario. With Ilham called away to Morocco on a sudden family matter and unable to placate diners with her usual charm, and the kitchen shorthanded after a cook quit that Monday, a solo Mounir lost his grip on the flow of orders as one large party after another unexpectedly piled through the front door.
Some of us received our meals promptly - savoring the vividly spiced pink links of grilled lamb merguez sausage Draissi has made to order at a halal butcher in the Northeast; crunching through flaky bastilla "cigars" stuffed with seafood, vermicelli and leeks, and fresh salads topped with spice-crisped haloumi cheese. Other larger groups, though, simmered in hungry anticipation that became irate when it was clear the kitchen was in the weeds. The painfully shy Draissi glanced up with an unforgettably startled look to find one woman standing beside his open kitchen, glowering. She delivered an ultimatum for their meals as sharp as a pitchfork: "Two minutes, or we're out!"
Two weeks later, Ilham was back in the dining room. Mounir had hired new help. But it underscored the fragility of building a small restaurant from the ground up - to the point where Mounir is still working a morning job at another cafe to keep Argan afloat.
Trained in Morocco as an architect, he's worked in kitchens since arriving in Philadelphia 13 years ago, beginning as a dishwasher at Rococo, then moving his way up to the line there as well as at such places as Cuba Libre and even Tangerine, whose nouveau Moroccan inspirations were occasionally disconcerting to his traditional sensibilities (the chicken-centric ras al hanoutspice with calamari? Never!)
He was determined to make Argan a showcase for more authentic flavors - minus the touristy banquet menus and belly dancers that have long been the calling card of local Moroccan haunts. It has been a learning experience. Protracted exhaust-hood issues with the city forced Argan to focus early on the casual lunch trade, with sandwiches on that homemade semolina bread stuffed with tender slow-roasted lamb, caraway-flavored beef meatballs in tomato sauce, vegetarian options, or saffron-chicken brochettes.
His earliest attempts to serve more adventurous dishes at dinner did not find a ready audience, as Draissi repeatedly threw out unordered batches of Moroccan liver meatballs and veal feet stewed with chickpeas. The result was logical yet unfortunate, as Draissi's menu hedged conservative and a bit off-focus. No one needs to visit Argan for pasta with shrimp, scallops with bland butter sauce, or seafood paella, even if Moroccans eat those things. The $25 rack of lamb - the most expensive item among entrees around $20 - can also be missed.
No, the tastes of Argan I covet are those that come from the slow stew, like the hearty harira bowls of chickpea-lentil soup that transport me back to one of the food stalls that pop up each night on the giant Marrakech plaza called Djemaa el Fna. Or especially the tagine of braised lamb shank, similar to the lamb with couscous, but glazed in honey and topped with stewed prunes, toasted almonds, and sesame seeds.
It's sweet enough that dessert might become optional. But there are exquisite little Moroccan pastries stuffed with almond paste and chewy semolina msmen crepes dipped in aged butter and honey. I washed mine down with fragrant pots of sweet mint tea and smiled, knowing my plans were already set for that next real couscous fix.
Argan Moroccan Cuisine
Moroccan divorcees to receive nafaqa from government fund
By Siham Ali 2010-11-18
A long-awaited financial assistance programme for Moroccan female divorcees begins in 2011.
Seven years after Morocco's Moudawana, or Family Code, authorised financial help for divorced women, the Family Solidarity Fund will finally take effect on January 1st, 2011.
The House of Representatives on Thursday (November 4th) unanimously passed a bill authorising payment of alimony (nafaqa) to women and minor children if the ex-spouse defaults.
Justice Minister Mohamed Naciri told legislators that the fund aims to promote family solidarity and social cohesion. Some 500 million dirhams allocated for 2011 will be available for immediate disbursement.
Moroccan women without income often struggle because judicial decrees on alimony are slow to be enforced. Left on their own and with children in tow, these divorced women have to get by without any help.
Samira R. is 34 years old. Divorced at the age of 22, and left with a newborn daughter, she has been unable to get the courts to enforce the nafaqa ruling.
"My ex-husband has gone into hiding so that he doesn't have to pay anything. The courts haven't been able to track him down, even though he's a trader and can cater to the needs of his only daughter," she said.
For twelve years, Samira has been working as a maid so that her daughter Nora, a first-year secondary school student, can "continue with her studies and extricate herself from the vulnerable position they are living in". In January, Samira will be able to apply for money from the family court that issued the alimony ruling.
Under the new law, destitute divorced mothers and their children will be eligible for support after two months of non-payment, in cases where the alimony decree cannot be enforced, and "where the husband is absent".
Court-ordered alimony must be strictly enforced, because in some cases, the father has the wherewithal to pay but is not "sufficiently" compelled to perform this duty, MP and lawyer Fatima Moustaghfir told Magharebia. She said that the creation of the fund is a brave step, but should not encourage fathers to shirk their obligations.
"The marriage contract must include clear articles concerning the rights of both parties," she said, adding that taking action before marriage avoids needless problems and divorce.
Although there is a reconciliation procedure that spouses can resort to prior to divorce, it is difficult for judges to implement it properly, given the high number of divorce cases that are heard every day, the MP explained.
"The essential requirement for marriage is continuity. If it is dysfunctional from the beginning, the only result can be social problems. Both spouses must be compatible in every respect," she said.

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