Sunday, August 28, 2016


As noted in a prior post, Jemaa el-Fna is the largest city square in all of Africa. For the most part, it's a wild and crazy place--which I'll cover in a future post--but while our experiences there were wild and crazy, they were also thought-provoking and educational. Two contrasting experiences in particular illustrate this: our lunch at Chez Lamine and our experience with the Muslim call to prayer.

Our guide Abdul somehow picked up on our interest in food and our willingness to try new things. Maybe it's because we were so entranced by the olives and nuts and dates we purchased from vendors in the souks. Maybe it's because we were so fascinated by butcher shop windows. Maybe it's that we looked so well fed. 

Or MAYBE it was because Bob was pestering him about taking us somewhere authentic, not a TOURIST place. "Where do YOU like to eat?" Bob asked Abdul. 

Well, I can now tell you what authentic dish Abdul likes to eat: sheep's head roasted in a pit, served up fresh at Chez Lamine Hadj Mustapha. It may be crazy to us Americans, but it isn't wild. It's domestic.

Chez Lamine sounds innocuous enough, and the menu, if one doesn't look too closely, seems acceptable. I recognized the picture of a tangia, an urn-shaped Moroccan cooking pot that we saw everywhere. The restaurant itself was not large--maybe six or seven small paper-covered tables that could be moved around to make bigger tables--and there was nothing fancy about it. There also wasn't anything too obvious that screamed out, "WARNING! WARNING!" (unless you speak enough French to translate Tete de Mouton, which means "Head of Sheep"). 

Their outside decor, on the other hand, was not so enticing (although Bob would disagree). What is that sticking out of the tangia on the right?

If you thought it was an upside down sheep head, you were correct. You did guess that, right?

There were other sheep parts on display, and even those did not look like any meat I'd ever eaten before.

I love lamb, however, the speciality at Chez Lamine, and the place was full of locals. Besides, the eponymous owner Hadj Mustapha ("Hadj" identifying that he had made a pilgrimage to Mecca) used to cook this dish for a previous King of Morocco. How bad could it be? "Okay," I told Bob and Abdul, "I'll give it a try."

We learned that the head is steamed in pit accessed by a hole in the front counter:

The body of the sheep is cooked in a bigger, deeper hole at the back of the restaurant:

The head is chopped in half and served sans brain. We ordered a half head at a cost of about $7.00, which we think may be the "tourist price."  I was surprised at how much meat there was, and at how moist and flavorful it was:

It was so tender that it fell off the bone/skull:

We also ordered some of the beef that had been cooked in the tangia pots and some of the lamb that had been cooked in the pit.

It was served with a bowl of coarse salt and cumin for dipping and was surprisingly good--incredible, even:

I passed on the eyeball. Bob, of course, dug right in (literally):

Before long, we cleaned up like a couple of true carnivores:

Bob's "interesting" food adventures don't always turn out well, but this--if you can believe it--was a hit with me. We went back a second time without our guide for a repeat experience.

I move now from the carnal--or at least the carnivorous--to the spiritual.

Morocco is 98.7% Muslim, and 93% of the citizens are actually "religious," or practicing Muslims. We've traveled in other Muslim countries, such as Turkey and Albania, but we had an experience with our guides in Morocco that we did not have in other countries:

Our guides kept deserting us to go pray.

Sometimes it was during lunch time, but other times it was at random moments during the day. Our guide never just deserted us--he let us know he was going to go pray and made sure we were busy--but we were left on our own. 

Abdul seemed to be the most devout of our guides. He didn't leave us just during lunch; he left us at random times during the day. At one time in Marrakesh he left us at this museum. 
Dar Bellarj used to be a maternity hospital (bellarj is Arabic for "stork"), but now it is an arts center. Abdul left us watching a film and told us he'd be right back. Well, the film finished and we spent another twenty minutes or so strolling through the four exhibition rooms, enjoying in particular the photography exhibit focused on Jemaa el-Fna Square:

At first I thought this was one of the regular art installations, but these are paper storks made by schoolchildren. They were lively, colorful, and a fun addition to this stork-hospital-turned-art-museum:
Eventually, Abdul came back for us, explaining that he'd had to go a long distance to join in the public prayers.

On another occasion, we got to watch the response to the call to prayer first-hand as it occurred on the edge of Jemaa el-Fna Square. I didn't really notice this inobtrusive minaret on the perimeter of the square until the muezzin's nasally voice pierced the air:

In a few minutes, dozens of men were lined up in straight rows like trees in an orchard in front of the mosque. I assume that dozens more filled the interior, leading to the spill-over into the square. Abdul left us at a jog to join the grid.  We had grown to really like our guide. He was well-educated and well-spoken. He was thoughtful and perceptive in leading us around a city he obviously loves. He was a devoted family man who hurried home at the end of the day to care for his two children so that his wife could teach an aerobics class.

In the West, we have somewhat demonized this Muslim practice of public prayer, making it a source of fear and distrust. And yet, in my own religion I am taught to "pray always" and to "Cry unto him in your houses . . . both morning, mid-day, and evening. . . .  ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness." Abdul was living under a similar mandate.

As the activities of the square whirled frantically about us, Abdul joined men of all ages and professions who stopped their regular activities and bowed and kneeled and prayed.

I have a lot of respect for that.


  1. Our first meal of sheep head is right up there as one of my favorite meals in a foreign country. The other meal that would rival it is our meal the first night in Amman, Jordan.

  2. Did you ask for seconds? They say two heads are better than one.

    1. Good one, Russ. Must be why Bob felt the need to go back.

  3. I was all on board until you got to the eyeball part. You just ruined my dinner.
    I love the practice of dropping everything for prayer. We could learn a lot from some of these cultures.
    You've got to love a great guide. It makes an interesting tour into an extraordinary one.

  4. I'm with the above--the eyeball! the eyeball!

    But I love your description of the call to prayer and the effect it has on the marketplace. Wonderful.