La Maison Arabe Cooking Class
Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.—Maya Angelou
We are great believers that if you have peace, you have everything.
—Wafaa Amagui, La Maison Arabe Marrakech
Excitement swells as two enormous doors slowly swing open. I remember entering this haven of hospitality the previous fall when I first saw La Maison Arabe Country Club.
But this time I’ll be the one in the kitchen, and I can’t wait.
Our van journeys along the long lane lined with olive trees until the driver brakes. We follow the path through a green garden of palm trees swaying to a convivial choir of birds soaring, sitting, and singing. A bouquet of herbal heaven on the breeze—the scent of rose geraniums, rosemary, sage, and lemon thyme– beckons us to pinch, rub, and smell the distinct fragrances of each plant. Gracious and gregarious, Wafaa, La Maison Arabe’s Cooking Workshops Manager, greets us as we take our seats around the tented table.
Wafaa explains the power of food as the product and source of cultural connections: “Food is for humanity. We can live together. We are more alike than different in food tasting.”
She asks each classmate where we call home. Illustrating her point, we reply: “London… Lisbon…Ontario…Boston…. Colorado…Tennessee… Kentucky.” (It was the first time I’d met anyone from my birth state of Kentucky since moving to Morocco.)
She then says the best food is multicultural and is made from fine ingredients and a great civilization. Moroccan food, derived from Berber, Jewish, Arabic, and Spanish influences, gives us a taste of how diversity can create unity. With pride she recounts the mission of La Maison Arabe as Ambassador of Peace and of Morocco’s history of respect for their own culture and that of others.
La Maison Arabe, the first restaurant in Marrakech, was started in 1946 by a French mother and daughter, Helene Sebillon and Suzy Larochette.
At a time when the country was very conservative, Wafaa says, “These two brave women really opened the door for all women in Morocco.” Here Winston Churchill, Jackie Kennedy, and Charles De Gaulle dined often.
In 1995 Italian Prince Fabrizio Ruspoli bought the restaurant and after three years of renovation opened La Maison Arabe as the first boutique hotel in Marrakech.
I had been to La Maison Arabe before as well, but before the van arrived to take guests to the class held at the Country Club outside of town, I enjoyed seeing the hotel again, beautifully beaming in the morning light.
Wafaa said opening the first hotel in the medina dispelled fears of the foreign as guests lived among locals:
The idea was a real adventure. .. Being inside the medina next to local people day and night seeing how people live…the smell of food… children playing all the time, women who run between work at job and work in house, men all the time in cafes gives people outside an opportunity to ask questions and to know a lot about Morocco’s style of life.
This first riad hotel led to thousands more, transforming Marrakech into a popular tourist destination which employed many and enhanced cross-cultural understanding:
People from outside Morocco see Moroccan people. We have families. We are very protective of our children. And we have this respect…. Moroccans are very tolerant, flexible people. You don’t feel isolated. People are ready to serve, to help, even to practice language. Whatever language you are speaking, we are very eager to speak it with you.
As is Moroccan tradition, we were served mint tea with bread, which we helped bake, honey, and jam.
Into the kitchen… (Photos by Jasna Finlay)
I left the class and headed for the pool ready to nap. But first, I thought of all I’d learned. I already knew that wherever I live in the future, on Fridays I’ll crave the comfort of couscous. Yet the class renewed my interest in all Moroccan food. Though I’d been served tasty tagines by private cooks, I’d eaten in some restaurants where dishes were bland; but as Wafaa promised, we learned to cook as Moroccans do in their own kitchens. To this southern girl, home cooking–seasoning to taste with as much spice and heat as I like–made all the difference. I left with a tagine and recipes I’m ready to repeat, but perhaps, more importantly. I left with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for my host country.
From my first visit to the medina I learned of Morocco’s vibrant Jewish quarter and continued hearing the history of the kingdom’s pledge to protect and to respect all people. Wafaa told tourists of Mohammed VI’s social reforms favoring women and of the late Mohammed V who protected 250,000 Jews from the occupying Vichy French forces and the Nazis during World War II. When asked to enact legislation discriminating against Jews, Mohammed V refused and responded: “There are no Jews in Morocco, only subjects.” Last December in New York City the late king was named first recipient of The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. – Rabbi Abraham Heschel Award given by KIVUNIM: The Institute for World Jewish Studies at their 10th Anniversary Conference.
Moroccans I have met not only love food but also allow guests their own tastes.
In Morocco, though we are conservative, we live and let other people live. Morocco as a country is very tolerant. It accepts people’s traditions. Whatever your religion is, whatever your ideas…whatever your way of life, it does not matter to us. We respect our culture and we respect other people’s cultures.–Wafaa