During our lockdown I’ve become more organised than I’ve ever been and for some unknown reason, I’ve been waking at six o’clock each morning feeling utterly ready to go. Coffee is on the stove between 7 and 8am and the radio or a podcast (sometimes I can’t face the radio), is usually moving me in some way or another, shortly there after.
We’ve had to adhere to this sticky curfew, you see. Must be home by 7pm and anything not achieved before that time will have to wait until the morning.
Normally in Morocco (pre COVID19) our little baqals (tiny grocery stores) stay open well into the night, so if there is no milk, no problem. No coffee, even less of a problem. Eggs, bread, cans of tuna, loo roll, dishwashing liquid and SIM cards – you name it, they have it.
Once we went into lockdown these shops had to also adhere to the curfew, and all of our habits had to change.
I love stepping out after dusk and breathing in the cool night air as I go on a mission for things like a bottle of tonic or a stick of bread. It’s a habit, and one that is so typical in this country where no one likes to rush and the convenience of having shops so close with shelves stacked with everything, so heartening and a big part of life here.
Each quartier (neighbourhood) has a baqal at least every two hundred metres. We all form a friendship with our local; one might serve alcohol and bags of ice. Hassan sells fresh vegetables and Mustapha always has good bread. Nordine has the best eggs, and Mohamed even sells cleaning products from Spain (for example).
The main thing is, I never have to venture too far to find anything that I may need at home, and this has also become a blessing in quarantine.
That said, over the past two and a half months I have had to think long and hard about what I need on my trips down the street – if I’m out of milk just as the morning coffee has brewed, well that’s catastrophic. Or, just as the milk has finished warming and there is no coffee in the tin, even worse. I’d rather drink black coffee than warm milk. Put the two together when they’re both in stock chez moi, and I’m over the moon at about 7am.
During quarantine, I have found myself buying a weekly six pack of UHL milk (de rigueur in these parts, there is very little fresh milk) to avoid any potential breakdowns between me and my morning coffee. The same goes for coffee itself, I always have a healthy stash of at least two extra packets in the cupboard – just in case.
Before the weekend I was madly preparing for l’Eid which is the breaking of the month long fast that is Ramadan. A three day holiday follows and one must be incredibly organised, particularly in our new world of strict 7pm curfew. On Friday night, the flat was heaving as if I was never going to shop again. Coffee, long life milk, tonic, Gin, wine, salad, tomatoes, fresh chicken, a bag of ice, ground mince, flowers, garlic, onions, potatoes, basil, eggs, bread, cheese, butter and even a sprig of rosemary for good measure, spilled from my market basket.
I wasn’t about to be caught short.
‘Do you have gas?’ A friend asked.
‘Oh tonnes,’ I replied confidently, ‘I only changed it a month ago.’
When I first arrived at the flat two years ago, I was horrified to find that everything was run on a little, squat gas bottle. Hamdulillah (thanks to god), my hot water actually runs on an electric boiler but the stove in the kitchen, my second most important thing to the shower, is run on a gas bottle.
I have a lifelong, in built utter fear of gas bottles. I can’t look at them, let alone change one. Same goes for the tyre on a car.
I would be more confident building a house with my own hands than I would be changing a gas bottle or the tyre on a car. At least if the house fell down it would sort of just crumble down around me…?
Or, so I think. One of the greatest things about the baqal is that there is always someone loitering outside and ready to make a dirham or two, and failing that, each street in Tangier has a ‘street guardian’ and they will do anything from opening the door to lugging shopping inside.
I love these men and they help me greatly.
The other great thing is that these men will happily carry a gas bottle from the baqal into any given dwelling and install it for an extra bit of money.
The first time I had to do this, I was new to town and terribly nervous about my oven being run on a gas bottle. The man who carried two bottles from my new found baqal was unknown to me and completely silent. I soon learned that he actually couldn’t speak, he kept pointing at his ears and it soon became apparent that he was deaf. He was also probably the sweetest person I’ve even met. We had to sign in a language that I had no understanding of, so we just waved at each other and held our hands in a prayer position as he installed the gas bottle.
I felt less than confident as he ran his lighter along the hose to check for leaks.
I’d arrived from Paris just a few weeks before, and I couldn’t even say ‘thank you’ in darija – the glimmer in his eyes when I paid him and thanked him is still deeply embedded in my my mind.
After about six months, I had to repeat this process, by which stage I could almost order the bottle and explain that I needed help installing it. Please, thank you, my house, help me, walk with me and I am scared of gas, came out of my mouth in approximately that order.
Each time I open the gas and light it, I jump back like I’ve just had an electric shock. I hasten to add that I haven’t, but it’s like I have.
On Monday, knee deep in our stream of post Ramadan public holidays, I found myself planning the lunch menu with heightened enthusiasm. I hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before and I was planning a delicious sandwich made with Moroccan flat bread warmed on the stove top.
The bread was a few days old due to the holiday seeing the boulangeries closed, and it was beginning to be hard enough to be inedible, but perfect as toast. I’d boil an egg, add a can of tuna and some crisp lettuce, a handful of chilli would sit atop the tomato and a nice piece of cheese would finish it all off.
Clicking the oven and then dancing back saying ‘that’s it’ as I always do (see earlier comments about electric shock), I was dismayed after about eight attempts, to find that the stove was not going to light. Lifting the gas bottle, I found it positively empty.
On the biggest public holiday of the year, mind you.
What would I eat? How would I survive? When would they find me?
Of course this is all very exaggerated and I could have easily made a salad I suppose, but I wanted that sandwich and I also had a sudden urge for another pot of coffee and I was overcome with a desire to bake a cake (something I haven’t done for about twenty years).
‘ What do I do?’ I wrote to a friend.
‘ Just go down and look, maybe your baqal is open?’
So off I trotted, down the stairs and out onto the street where tumbleweed tumbled and kittens sat bathing in the sun. With a nationwide ban on non essential movement over the holiday, there was not a car on the road nor a person in sight. As I rounded the corner I realised I hadn’t put my mask on and I clasped my hands over my mouth when I realised this, in the same moment that I discovered the baqal was open.
‘Hello Mattam’ came the greeting in unison from all four men loitering out the front. ‘As Salamu alaykum’ I smiled, hopping from foot to foot. We sorted out the gas transaction and the sweetest man in the world who is always parking cars and waving traffic through the street, hoisted it upon his shoulders and followed me home.
‘No mask Mattam’ he smiled as he almost smashed the bottle through the glass window in my lift, in the same moment I observed he too was not wearing one.
As we walked through the door to my flat with the gas bottle hoisted high upon his shoulders, I had a Susan Boyle moment where I found myself singing ‘Raise Me Up’ (a song she brought to life in her Britains Got Talent days) as he looked on perplexed, gas bottle ‘raised up’ and trousers hanging loosely around his hips. He was raising both my spirits and (quite literally) the gas bottle all at once.
He marched the bottle into the kitchen as I Susan Boyled behind him. I need to have a soundtrack for every situation you see, and I watched on still humming that particular song as he connected the hose, tested the gas and then ran his lighter along the pipe to check for leaks.
‘That’s it’ I said, hopping from foot to foot. He stood up, smiled and adjusted his trousers which were by this stage almost at his knees.
‘Sorry Mattam’ he smiled as he pulled his belt through to the very last notch. Obviously for him, this Ramadan has been a long one with very little work and the streets utterly bare, there would be not a lot of spare change going around and he did look thinner than normal.
‘Goodbye Mattam’ he waved, raising the empty bottle onto his shoulders as I placed twenty dirhams into his hand, thanking him profusely. ‘Thank you Mattam’ he finished, grinning as he bolted down the stairs.
Mattam, who had never been so happy in her life, closed the door and returned to her ipad and played the soundtrack of the day. Do listen, I can’t stop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sC7-wwGg6lM
Pictured: my kitchen at night which is my office by day.