Having A Large Family

Muslim Mummy

While Muslim Mummy is away, I wrote a not-so-little guest blog post musing on having a whole bunch of kids:

It surprises me how many Muslims respond negatively at my having a large family. Worse is when they nearly reprimand me, demanding to know if I am “done” at six kids. I thought we all knew this one:

Wealth and children are an adornment of the worldly life. But the enduring good deeds are better to your Lord for reward and better for [one’s] hope. (Surah Al Kahf: 46)

I’m not into name brands. Having kids is mything. Well, I have a few dunya-ey things that I really like to do, but raising my pack of kids is my main thing and not only do I give it a lot of my time and consideration, I do it pretty well and get a fair amount of satisfaction from it. Alhumdulillah. Over the years I have found that there are a lot of benefits (not just for me) to having a big family. Here are just a few:

  • Learning to labor

Parenting begins with birth, and if you are birthing your own kids you may not realize what a crisis modern birthing practices are going through in the US (and just about everywhere) until you are actually in labor…

Please shoot over to Muslim Mummies to read the rest. And then get all wrapped up and inspired in her Project 365 posts.

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Gold And Cold Season – A Brookolie Newsletter

I'm convinced this stuff will keep you warmer all winter. #gold #workinprogress #Brookolie #goldfill #vermeil

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I’ve been wanting to do one of these newsletters for awhile, but really had no idea what to tell folks about my Brookolie jewelry.  Recently fellow writer Sa’diyya Nesar of the SISTERS Disability Feature Column and I had a brief chat about the bursts of creative energy and emotional maturity that often occur after a fever or other illness. Lo and stuff, it seems all I needed was to be knocked down with a bronchitis flare up for several days and now I have plenty to tell you! Firstly, I think this connection between illness and growth is a really interesting one worth exploring for most of us. We usually view sickenss as a horrid impedance, and sure it can be, but there is also a method to the erm hackiness.

As someone with congenital muscular weaknesses, Sa’diyya has experienced this cycle many times in her life. Sa’diyya was born with weak muscles, (congenital myopathy), making her vulnerable to get pneumonia easily. I have experienced this cycle frequently as well with reoccurring bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia and sinusitis in my youth. The first place I ever read about and had confirmation about the post illness bloom was in a homeopathic book I bought back in my days in Portland(ia) to learn how to care for my children, who I have since witnessed experience this phenomena many times. My daughter Zaynab, then 7 years old, was once in bed with a fever for two days when she suddenly popped up and had to “work on a shirt”. She had recently commandeered her older brother’s fabric pens and had been dabbling with them, but on this post feverish day she spent a couple of hours doubled over her shirt creating an elaborate and pretty awesome henna-esque design covering about 3/4s of it. Then she went back to be for another day and a half.

About a month before my current knock down I had finally received a long awaited order of 14 Goldfill and 22K Vermeil jewelry supplies. I hadn’t had the time to do anything with it, but while I was sick I dozed on and off in bed, visions of stringing gold rolo chain with sky blue Amazonite, frosty green Fluorite and vermeil connectors danced through my head. As soon as I could sit up I had several designs in mind which I had to crank out. And here they are…

Which leads me to… many people ask me where do I get my supplies?

I incorporate Moroccan-made elements in most of my designs, but the majority of my gemstones, pearls and even metal bits cannot be found in Morocco. I have been selling my gemstone and precious metal jewelry for a decade and brought a fairly nice stash of supplies with me to Morocco. One winter in Alaska, I worked in a lovely boutique bead store while the owner went on her annual shopping trip to Hong Kong, India and Thailand. I owed her a lot of money when she got back, but I am still using gemstones from those many, many strands I acquired that winter.

Nowadays replenishing my beads is much more complicated than running down to the Bead Shack to pick up a string of Carnelian rondelles or a few Chalcedony briolettes. Not only do I need to plan appropriately to have all my ‘findings,’ staple gemstone, and pearl beads in my favorite colors and cuts, as well as exciting and interesting new finds, but I also have to have someone bring them to me as shipping several hundred dollars worth of supplies through the post is both costly (they are rocks ya know and do weigh as such), and would be a business-stopping loss if they were ‘lost’. So I order all my supplies from sellers in the US, Hong Kong and Thailand, and have them shipped to friends in family who are coming to Morocco from all over the place.

Frankly it has been nerve wracking for some of my friends and family to bring supplies to me. When they see the value of the stones on the shipping receipts they freak out a little bit about the responsibility. This is where I lose all business sense and my (desperate) artist sensibility takes over. “Don’t worry,” I appease my friends and family. “If anything happens I understand, it’s a risk I am taking. Don’t worry. Please, just bring them!” And so far this has worked, though not easily, which is ultimately good. This is one of the good things about being an expat – I have to find new ways of doing things that makes me more resourceful, a little more organized and Ya Rubb (Oh Lord) more appreciative!

Local fair-trade-ish stuffs

I do try to acquire as much of my supplies locally as possible. I am very fortunate that Ibrahim, the man my mother-in-law has been going to for jewelry repairs, exchanges and purchases for nearly thirty years has not only an excellent selection, but he is also very prolific in buying back old (vintage and antique!) jewelry from so many long term customers like my mil and he is a very skilled silversmith who can make the sterling silver wire I use in nearly every piece of silver jewelry I make. Not only does he make fresh wire for me in several gauges, he also recycles all the cut off ends and bits of sterling I send him- pretty awesome, enit?

Gold and Cold 3

Gold and Cold 1

Ibrahim also keeps an eye out for things he knows I need, like the occasional Thai fine silver pieces that may show up around town, strands of ‘potato’ or ‘rice’ pearls (often used in Moroccan wedding jewelry), these particularly awesome little locally made sterling spacers that occasionally become available and any especially interesting old Berber silver rings- I can’t make rings (yet) but I like to have them available in my shop for a more complete feel. Okay, I LOVE vintage and antique Moroccan jewelry, so it helps me to not hoard items if I can admire them in my stock for a bit before they tumble along to their new homes, I can only own so many rings.

Some of the vintage Moroccan rings heading into the #Brookolie shop this weekend. #silver #amazigh #silver #tuareg

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Here is a peek at Ibrahim’s inventory:

Gold and Cold 5

Of course, any chance I get I also go digging around in other jewelry shops for exciting odds and ends to hoard, I mean eventually work into my jewelry. This is a stash I collected in Essaouira, where I did get a little carried away and had to borrow a bunch of dirhams from my ten year old… I paid him back!

Especially if you made it all the way down to this portion of my newsletter, thanks so much for reading my ramblings! Please ‘like’ my Facebook page for updates and special discounts – ok, on my Brookolie Facebook page there is a not-too-hidden coupon code for % off, but for you non-facebookers, it is FANDF (that’s Friends AND Family). Just enter FANDF at check out to get the discount okay?

Thank You Maria Zain

 

As I have been putting together an archive of Maria Zain’s articles for SISTERS magazine, many of them are pieces I am already very familiar with. Maria and I shared several similar passions – homebirthing, homeschooling, deen-centered parenting, balancing family/extended family with personal and spiritual obligations, sex and sexuality with an Islamic point of view, and even a fashion frustration with Islamic clothing designers’ negligence to cover pregnant and breastfeeding moms.

When I started as an editor at SISTERS in 2011, Maria was one of the professional, highly skilled and conscientious writers already on board who made my job a cakewalk. Her articles nearly always came in well polished and needing little editing, masha Allah. Over time we developed an easy working relationship, in which she could pop off a quick one liner idea to me about potential articles and I would often respond with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and brief suggestions to avoid this and that as we likely covered them, while maybe considering addressing this or that. The final piece would then be submitted covering a good scope of ideas, introducing me (the first reader) to new ways of seeing and often giving me a few (always needed!) giggles.

Several months back, SISTERS reintroduced their ‘Soap Box’ feature: Soap Box is the place for sisters to speak out on issues they feel strongly about.” This feature, though a popular one to read, is a hard one for writers to approach, as it is a fine balance between critiquing and demonstrating real social problems within the ummah versus whining about some lesser important pet peeve. Maria recently really took to the feature, addressing several issues she (and I!) would like to see taken more seriously by Muslims, and she also pitched me a few of those emotion-filled one liners for a potential Soap Box rant, which she would later tone down and round out into more… palatable articles for elsewhere in the magazine or even other publications.

As a writer myself, Maria and I had a great deal of crossover in the subject matters we both write about which easily could have made us competitive in such a small field for Muslim writers, yet it only furthered our sharing of knowledge and resources. Maria introduced me to her fabulous editor at an online publication we both enjoyed writing for, and when I discussed the pending possibility of having an unassisted birth with my sixth child, Maria brought me into a tight circle of hundreds of women choosing to homebirth without assistance due to legal restrictions on using midwives. This circle was phenomenal and supported me through my sixth and most relaxed and stress-free birth.

I often see myself as a reluctant advocate across several fronts, where I have chosen to take less popular and even (unwittingly to me) controversial paths. Maria walked many of these paths with me, though I never once saw her reluctance. When I did see her attacked, either via online comments, Facebook discussions or in private exchanges, she always maintained a calm composure and an ability to remain politely but firmly steadfast, with a grace I still hope to someday achieve.

Reading through the memorials posted online for Maria, I am well aware of the legacy she has left behind in her writing having already read so many of her writings as an editor, a peer, a person of shared interests and a friend, but seeing them anew – knowing that there will be no more follow ups, no more branching into new subjects, no more behind the scenes chats – I now know what a privilege and blessing it was to have known Maria Zain, to have had my hand held, to have been given both echoed reassurances of my own feelings and even new insights into many issues from a truly special sister. I regret that I do not recall ever once thanking Maria for all she did for me and my family.

I pray that Maria’s husband is given support and strength to carry on raising his family with a deen-centered focus and that their children know even a glimpse of the sacrifices both their parents made to protect and nurture them as Allah (SWT) guided them to do so, ameen.

Editor in Chief of SISTERS Magazine, Na’ima B. Robert, has set up a fundraiser to help Maria’s husband and family through this upheaval. Please consider sending them some support: http://www.gofundme.com/mariazain

 

Hijrah Diaries: Coming Down the Mountain

HD
It has been two years since my family of eight moved from cosmopolitan Casablanca, Morocco, to a ram-packed earth house in a rural village in the High Atlas Mountains. Insha Allah, by the time you read this we will have traversed the two hour windy road down the mountain and then driven several more hours to our new seaside home and I will have already installed our dishwasher, stocked the fridge with our much-missed favourite condiments and have taken over an entire room in the house to serve solely as my office-studio. But right this very moment I am in that unique waffling space between annoyance at everything in my current environment and being excited at the possibilities with the move. In this spirit I thought it best to reflect on the best and the worst of my experiences way up here.

Things I will miss about living in a rural farming community in the mountains:

* The immense beauty
It is incredible here. When I think about how much time I spend indoors here and wonder what difference would it make where I live, all I have to do is tilt my head and take a peek out the window. Subhan Allah.

* The wildlife
My kids have learned plenty about the food production cycle by watching and helping our neighbours raise their own animals, but they have also had several memorable interactions with wild animals. We have provided hospice care for a falcon and a woodpecker, both were injured and died in our care, but still a good experience for us to appreciate Allah’s (SWT) creations. Ever held a falcon or a woodpecker in your hands? Incredible creatures. We have also had a baby squirrel pass through our home and we regularly have a variety of frogs and toads (I think those are toads!) living in our shower. My girls make a very distinct, playful kind of scream specific to when an amphibian jumps into their bath. “Froth!” Asiya exclaims.

There was the morning we had a visit from a frightening, but magnificent, spider as big as my hand with my fingers outspread. We have also encountered innumerable insects outside our home, including humming beetles, glowing grubs, enormous caterpillars and a moth so big that we argued whether or not she was a bird! Oh and storks. Storks are beautiful, though also a bit intimidating as far as birds go. And once Amine (10) and I spent several minutes chasing after someone who we couldn’t agree on whether they were a hummingbird or enormous moth (it was a moth).

* Fresh milk
We buy organic, raw milk from our neighbours and it is incomparable to the bottled stuff. As a bonus we have kept about a kazillion milk cartons out of landfills since we reuse containers to collect it.

* Less waste
Overall, we have kept a whole lot of waste out of landfills the last couple of years. Most of our foods come to us without any packaging. We also don’t have many opportunities for impulse shopping or partaking of any consumerism in general.

* Rocks
No but seriously, I am a jewellery maker and I love rocks. Gemstones – thousands of years of dirt/minerals pressed together to eventually become a beautiful thing – are awesome and the mountainside is covered in a gorgeous and exciting variety of rocks.

* Free range children
Currently I can holler out the front window of my home and my kids can hear me calling them from just about any point in the village. My husband isn’t thrilled with this practice, but I am happy that my children get plenty of exercise and outdoor playtime but are still within my vocal reach. I am sure that my children will not have as much freedom back in a city, but we will live very near the beach! Which brings us to my looking-forward-to-leaving-behind things.

Things I will not miss about living in a rural farming community in the mountains:

* Mice
I hate mice. They are adorable yet nasty little creatures. They leave their waste everywhere and eat everything. We have had several articles of clothes, important papers and toys ruined by nesting mice, though my new habit of screaming continuously while I chase them down and kill them is a very special entertainment for my kids.

* Lack of variety
There is a very, very small selection of foods available locally and being creative with them got tiresome real fast. I suppose this why my neighbors cook a steady stream of only tagine and couscous. Also the processed and junk foods that are available out here are very poor quality. I mean, I grew up believing Kool Aid is better to dye your hair and clothes with than to put it in your body, but the instant drink that is available out here has a warning on it that it is dangerous to be consumed young children and pregnant women. Yikes.

* Gender disparity
There’s a lot of it and it’s just not Islamic and it’s just not right. I look forward to being able to do many things in the city which I just cannot do out here, such as going shopping if I need to. Women do not generally do any of the shopping out here and it has been really frustrating to have to rely on my children to shop for me. They often have to make extra trips to return items that are not what I wanted or are poor quality. Of course it has been a good experience for my kids to learn how to shop, but then again they often have to make extra trips. There are plenty of examples of the disparities, but finally I really understand why illiteracy is so dangerous to women, if they cannot read then they have to rely on someone else’s interpretation of Islam and from what I have experienced out here those interpretations often do not support women’s Allah-given rights.

* There is no place to go
Often outings go hand in hand with spending money, which I don’t have much of and can be wasteful anyway, but, there is no place to go out here! Even going for walks gets bor-ing in a one road village. I look forward to meandering, window shopping, visiting bookstores and libraries and of course shopping, even if just for groceries. Oh, the joys of picking out my favourite foods!

* The rugged environment
It’s beautiful, but man does this the terrain eat up shoes and anything pneumatic, such as bicycle tires and soccer balls. I had wanted to take the kids on a bicycle tour of the valley, but we can’t seem to keep all of our tires unpopped at the same time. It’s also pretty brutal on our skin.

* Needing seasonal clothes
I grew up in a Fall/Spring kind of climate with the rare ‘sweater weather’ in between. I bought clothes for style much more than for function. I hate having to manage so many different articles and kinds of clothes for seven people, especially when there isn’t a boot sale for half a day’s ride away. Somehow last winter my four year old only had one sweater and winter was nearly over by the time we managed to figure that out and get her some more. Give me a consistently mild climate any day, please and thank you.

Really, I’m not too sad about coming down the mountain. I had expected this to be a temporary situation and I am feeling glad that we were able to stick it out for two years, which is one year longer than I expected. It is slightly harsher living, the climate itself isn’t too harsh but things such as access to medical help and other things we needed and wanted, heartier chores, occasional power outages and water shortages made it a less easy lifestyle for my family. There isn’t much to romanticise about mountain living as is standardly lived, but I do hope that what sticks with us is a deeper appreciation for Allah’s (SWT) provisions. It takes a long time and a lot of resources to grow one chicken, which my family can devour in less than ten minutes! Similarly, I hope we have better attitudes towards our trash, our personal items and especially our time. I am thankful that I don’t have to spend the majority of my time raising and preparing my daily sustenance, so the question now is what will I do with my time?

Brooke Benoit is contentedly a stranger, a dreamer and a tumbleweed.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of SISTERS Magazine.

Metsy Mondays

Last week I had way fun rounding up collections of Eid and other Muslimy finds on Etsy. Since then I have met and found a whole bunch more of Muslim sellers on Esty, and so I am going to regulalry curate treasuries full of Muslims every week until I forget or all my kids get sick at the same time or something. Insha Allah:

Welcome to Metsy Mondays!

A collection of hijabs, abayas, jewelry, artwork and other Muslimmade items on Etsy.

Check out this week’s collection featuring everything from hijabs, studded and leather trimmed (ok, faux leather) abayas, and truly unique jewelry (all of us jewelry makers like to think our stuff is unique) to adorable logo designs, home furnishings, art prints and the very important stuff of fez-wearing, moustashed crotchet birdies. Bonus- Pearl Daisy sighting.

Click on the image to go directly to the listings. Enjoy!

*Oh, also- please leave your own or your favorite Muslim Etsy items/sellers in the comments so I can add them to Metsy Mondays. Ok, now enjoy!

** “Metsy” is a portmanteau of the words Muslim and Etsy, you know like Mipster 😉

 

Eid Gifting? Decorating? Give Muslim Artists on Etsy Some of That Love

Etsy Muslims

We are at the midpoint of Ramadan and that means that Eid is just two weeks away – insha Allah and squee! Likely you are thinking about picking up some decorations, maybe getting some gifts for your loved ones and besties, and/or getting some things for all those great kids in your life, who were so well-behaved this Ramadan. Here is a roundup of some of the many unique, cute, cool and Islam-themed items available from dozens of Muslim sellers on Etsy.

Worried about shipping in time? Some items, like this DIY Eid party pack and this Moroccan inspired Eid gift card are available to download and printout at home, and of course Eid al-Adha is just a few months away too, so go ahead, window shop now.

Click on the photos below to see the listings.

Decorate and celebrate

For Muslim KidsSay Masha Allah

The variety of specialty items for Muslim kids is always expanding on Etsy, as well as Muslim-appealing clothes, and selections from Muslim artists, jewelry makers, designers and so on. Using Etsy keyword searches such as ‘Islam’ ‘Muslim’ ‘Eid’ and ‘Ramadan’ will net you thousands of great finds of your own. Muslim sellers’ makings and doings can also be followed on these Etsy ‘seller teams’ Facebook pages: Creative Creations on Etsy and Muslim Team on Etsy

Happy shopping!

Babbling Brookolie in Young Muslimah Magazine

Talking art and stuff over at the new Young Muslimah Magazine:

How would you describe yourself as an artist?

Uh, well, I fit some of the artist-type of person stereotypes, such as being a little eccentric and messy 😉 I am also a little sensitive and empathetic, which are both good and challenging traits to have. As far as what kind of artist I am, presently I mostly make jewellery, but overall I think of myself as a conceptual artist, meaning that I like to explore and push ideas into imagery or events and then see how people relate (or not) to my ideas. I also have a degree in rhetoric, so effective communication is fairly important to me.

Can you give us a peek into your passions that describe your personality?

Recently I have come to recognise that I have a really strong appreciation/ passion for the natural world – Allah’s creations – and also I love the infinite ways that people positively recognize and use His creations. I am dazzled by how people cut gemstones and craft metal beads and other jewellery findings. Adornment can seem like such a trivial or superficial thing, but in good measure it can be a way to ponder, appreciate and even demonstrate Allah’s magnificence….

The rest of the interview and bunches of other great articles can be read here. Thanks YMM! Pretty Brookolie things can be seen here.

How would you describe yourself as an artist?

Uh, well, I fit some of the artist-type of person stereotypes, such as being a little eccentric and messy 😉 I am also a little sensitive and empathetic, which are both good and challenging traits to have. As far as what kind of artist I am, presently I mostly make jewellery, but overall I think of myself as a conceptual artist, meaning that I like to explore and push ideas into imagery or events and then see how people relate (or not) to my ideas. I also have a degree in rhetoric, so effective communication is fairly important to me.

Can you give us a peek into your passions that describe your personality?

Recently I have come to recognise that I have a really strong appreciation/ passion for the natural world – Allah’s creations – and also I love the infinite ways that people positively recognize and use His creations. I am dazzled by how people cut gemstones and craft metal beads and other jewellery findings. Adornment can seem like such a trivial or superficial thing, but in good measure it can be a way to ponder, appreciate and even demonstrate Allah’s magnificence.

– See more at: http://www.youngmuslimahmagazine.com/interview-with-brooke-benoit/#sthash.YXHs1tWp.dpuf

How would you describe yourself as an artist?

Uh, well, I fit some of the artist-type of person stereotypes, such as being a little eccentric and messy 😉 I am also a little sensitive and empathetic, which are both good and challenging traits to have. As far as what kind of artist I am, presently I mostly make jewellery, but overall I think of myself as a conceptual artist, meaning that I like to explore and push ideas into imagery or events and then see how people relate (or not) to my ideas. I also have a degree in rhetoric, so effective communication is fairly important to me.

Can you give us a peek into your passions that describe your personality?

Recently I have come to recognise that I have a really strong appreciation/ passion for the natural world – Allah’s creations – and also I love the infinite ways that people positively recognize and use His creations. I am dazzled by how people cut gemstones and craft metal beads and other jewellery findings. Adornment can seem like such a trivial or superficial thing, but in good measure it can be a way to ponder, appreciate and even demonstrate Allah’s magnificence.

– See more at: http://www.youngmuslimahmagazine.com/interview-with-brooke-benoit/#sthash.YXHs1tWp.dpuf

How would you describe yourself as an artist?

Uh, well, I fit some of the artist-type of person stereotypes, such as being a little eccentric and messy 😉 I am also a little sensitive and empathetic, which are both good and challenging traits to have. As far as what kind of artist I am, presently I mostly make jewellery, but overall I think of myself as a conceptual artist, meaning that I like to explore and push ideas into imagery or events and then see how people relate (or not) to my ideas. I also have a degree in rhetoric, so effective communication is fairly important to me.

Can you give us a peek into your passions that describe your personality?

Recently I have come to recognise that I have a really strong appreciation/ passion for the natural world – Allah’s creations – and also I love the infinite ways that people positively recognize and use His creations. I am dazzled by how people cut gemstones and craft metal beads and other jewellery findings. Adornment can seem like such a trivial or superficial thing, but in good measure it can be a way to ponder, appreciate and even demonstrate Allah’s magnificence.

– See more at: http://www.youngmuslimahmagazine.com/interview-with-brooke-benoit/#sthash.YXHs1tWp.dpuf

Tagine From The Heart In Marrakech: A Truly Great Place To Eat

Tagine from the heartMarrakech, Morocco, is one of the top vacation destinations in the world, hosting millions of visitors every year who, in turn, leave thousands of various online travel recommendations. With an economy built on tourism, restaurants, tour guides, shops, taxis, and beggars all vie for tourist dollars. It’s a bustling city with numerous gardens, museums, and souks to visit as well as being a center point for shooting of to innumerous excursions all over the beautiful country such as the sea, the desert, and the mountains. So if you are heading to Marrakech, please let me make one choice easy for you – you must enjoy at least one traditional Moroccan meal at Amal Restaurant and Training Center. Here’s why.

Unlike the commonly held beliefs about women who beg, these women did not have family to support them. On the contrary, it was their families who were often abusing them.

In my several years of living in Morocco I have learned that just as in my own hometown of San Francisco (another foodie paradise), many people here are skeptical of panhandlers (beggars). Whereas in Western countries most people assume panhandlers have social services to utilise and are therefore just trying to make ‘extra’ cash, here in Morocco many people believe beggars have their families to support them and must in some way be ‘bad’ people to have to resort to begging or else they are also just making ‘extra’ cash. Nora Fitzgerald, who was born and raised in Morocco, faced such beggars daily and one day decided to ignore the stereotypes, believing that there was no way a mother sitting on the concrete or dirt with small children in her lap would prefer to spend her days in such a way, completely lacking in dignity, just to make a little extra change. Nora decided to sponsor a woman so that her child could attend preschool and the woman could perhaps get a job.

I witnessed Nora and Amina’s* experiences some years ago via Nora’s blog. Soon other people were becoming involved, providing money, clothing, and other items to Amina and a few other women in need that Nora had also begun to work with. Unlike the commonly held beliefs about women who beg, these women did not have family to support them. On the contrary, it was their families who were often abusing them. For single mothers, the desire to protect their families from the shame of a child born out of wedlock or a woman abandoned drives them far from their hometowns and support systems. With no childcare and no employable skill set, begging is often their last and only recourse.

Nora began to better understand this dire dilemma and slowly her sponsorship evolved, trying to it the women’s needs. She opened a small bakery within her own family’s language center, training the women to make Western-style baked goods such as banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and lemon bars for the Moroccan students attending the centre. There were successes, but also a few failures with the program, as extracting oneself from toxic families and overcoming ingrained patterns of dysfunction is complicated. Nora’s commitment to be of service to some of Morocco’s most marginalised women and children was firm enough that she continually sought out realistic solutions to the complex problems they faced.

While visiting Casablanca one spring, Nora had a chance to eat at one of the locations of Restaurant Solidarité Féminine, a hugely successful 30-year-old not-for-profit organisation that provides single mothers with the knowledge and skills to ensure their own livelihoods. It was impossible for Nora not to see the possibilities for the little cottage not-for-profit venture she was building back home. She also realised she didn’t have to reinvent the wheel as there are similar models she could follow and that would even help the organisation to skip some of the growing pains that comes with being a revolutionary start-up. Nora found others with similarly interested hearts and hands willing to help, and soon the Amal Center was born, a space was rented and renovated, and the concept was taken to the next level.  The Amal Center now functions as a training center and also a restaurant that serves lunch daily to an average of 60 people.

In 2013 Amal received a grant to expand the business and training facility, and the centre now provides literacy and language classes, life coaching, and many other lectures and trainings by local professionals eager to volunteer some of their time. The Amal centre accepted 15 women into its internship program this year. The permanent staff has grown to 12, many of whom were among the first trainees and whose stories inspired the centre’s creation.  At the end of its training, Amal helps the interns find jobs in local hotels, restaurants, riads, and private homes. Professional job placement, economic stability, and personal transformation are the primary goals at Amal, which employs a social worker trained in psychology to accompany the women in their journey.

The women come from disadvantaged backgrounds, some are illiterate or have very little education, others were sent to work as child maids when they were as young as 12 years old, while a number of the trainees are recommended by a local association, Jamiat Kafalat Al-Yateem, which helps support widows and their children. Fitzgerald, who serves as Amal’s president, said, “It’s been amazing to watch these women’s transformations. When they first entered the program they were shy, insecure, were afraid to trust us and each other. They are now glowing with confidence and have acquired many skills. They are proud of their new profession.”

Naima, one of the trainees turned full-time staff, agrees. “The colour has come back to my cheeks. Before, wherever I worked I was taken advantage of. I am now supporting my three children on my own, and every day I am happy to come to work, I learn something new, I feel like I am given value.”

 Si Mohamed has trained with French masters, and thanks to him the trainees have learned signature French dishes such as salade nicoise, caesar salade, gratin dauphinois (a most satisfying potato and cream gratin), glazed chicken with sage, filet mignon, etc.

Last winter, when I finally had a chance to visit Marrakech, of course I had to eat at Amal, a truly lovely restaurant. Set in the busy Gueliz shopping district, Amal is down a quiet side street and the ample garden seating is secluded by lush, bougainvillea-covered walls and accented by fragrant citrus trees. Inside the restaurant is a comfortable and airy contrast to the sometimes overbearing Marrakech heat. On the day I visited the staff had made lemonade with crushed fresh mint, and it was so deliciously refreshing that I asked to take some home. I also took away a delicious assortment of briwats (savory fried pastry) and an impressive bastilla (savoury and slightly sweet chicken and almond pie with philo topping) which I had smartly ordered in advance to put off the moans of those left behind while I dined out. I have never had a bastilla I didn’t like, but my husband, who is slightly harder to please, was so impressed with the deftly seasoned dish that he ate the remainders cold – straight out of the fridge – a completely out-of-character action for him. And of course our children loved the briwats.

Back at Amal I enjoyed their tagine of the day – meatballs in a richly flavoured fresh tomato sauce cooked in a traditional clay cone-shaped pot. They were also test running a more Western-style chicken stir fry dish that day, and, admittedly, I ate more than my share. Amal’s dishes are lovingly made as if served out of a home kitchen. Because I have worked in many eateries and even owned a few myself (and I am nosey, but prefer to say ‘inquisitive’), I asked to see Amal’s kitchen. It is beautiful too, masha Allah! Nora completely gutted the kitchen of the riad Amal is located in and filled two-thirds of the walls with windows, making it a truly noor-filled place to work, a feature which is reflected in their dishes and ambience.

Throughout the week, Amal features a dish-of the-day, normally a tagine, with several side dishes. On Fridays, like most Moroccan kitchens, Amal serves heaping platters of couscous with lamb and seven vegetables. In January Amal hired a new chef, Si Mohamed, to expand the menu and bring in more of a “restaurant culture” for the trainees. They now learn basic sauces, vegetable chopping techniques, and foundational culinary know-how beyond simply reproducing a recipe. Si Mohamed has trained with French masters, and thanks to him the trainees have learned signature French dishes such as salade nicoise, caesar salade, gratin dauphinois (a most satisfying potato and cream gratin), glazed chicken with sage, filet mignon, etc. The moelleux au chocolat, a fallen chocolate cake with a liquid gooey center is the perfectly satisfying ending to all of Amal’s well balanced meals.

Amal is available to cater and for take-out orders, and I encourage using them for such when you are in Marrakech. If you happen to be in Marrakech during Ramadhan, Amal is the perfect place to break your fast with a traditional Moroccan iftar of harira soup, savory philo dough briwates, fresh smoothies and more. Amal Restaurant and Women’s Training Center is an exceptionally versatile organisation which, with advanced notice, can prepare specialty dishes such as vegan couscous and even offers private cooking classes. For families travelling with children, the specially designed play and craft space is a welcome break for both the kids and their parents.

If you don’t get the chance to dine at Amal, you may still consider donating to this exceptional organisation. It is a Moroccan registered non-profit, and donations are accepted through the website http://www.hope-amal.org And volunteer efforts from various fields are always welcome.

In Marrakech, please dine out or order from Amal located in Quartier Gueliz at the intersection of rues Allal ben Ahmad and Ibn Sina, between l’Hopital Ibn Tofail and the popular Patisserie Paul.  06 04 23 88 60 or 05 24 44 68 96 More information about how to donate or volunteer with Amal can be found on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AmalNonProit

In Casablanca, please dine out or order from one of Restaurant Solidarité Féminine’s locations: Site Palmier: 10, rue Mignard 05 22 98 66 15/05 22 25 46 46 or Site Aïn Sebâa: 21, rue Tizli Ousli. 05 22 34 30 90 More information about their Opus award-winning organisation can be found on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/solfempalmier

*Name changed.

Brooke Benoit aspires to being a lapsed foodie, but living in the culinary paradise of the North African Mediterranean and being married to a chef makes this pipe dream very unlikely. This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of SISTERS Magazine, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women.

The Hijrah Diaries: Reflections on the Lands of Plenty

Fuzzy sunrise at the top by Eldest Child
Fuzzy sunrise at the top by Eldest Child

A forced lightening of our carbon footprints has been one of the benefits of relocating my family of eight to a rural village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. My neighbours are nearly all self-sustaining farmers with limited supplemental incomes. What is available to buy and acquire locally for food, housewares, clothes and so on is hauled up here for people with very low incomes. My family’s daily food choices, which were hacked down considerably when we moved to Morocco from the US several years ago, have been further whittled down to about a dozen various seasonal vegetables to choose from, shelf-stable processed cheese, four kinds of dry bean, homemade breads, chicken or goat for meat and milk. Luxury items that are sometimes locally available include jam, spaghetti, rice, additive-laden yogurts, poor-quality cookies and chips – a meager selection of those processed foods city folks are commonly trying to avoid these days.

While food has been one of the biggest preoccupations of our adjustment to “simple living”, there are other challenges, such as not having electricity to run our space heaters on some of the coldest nights of the year. Since our water pump is electric we sometimes also run out of water. We can’t locally buy shoes that won’t be quickly ripped apart by the rocky hillsides – actually, most of the products available here are poor quality and need replacing sooner rather than later. I am familiar with the concept of ‘planned obsolescence‘ back home where electronics, fashions and other goods are designed specifically to need replacing well before they are worn out, but in Morocco I was surprised to find everyday goods made of such poor quality that they break very quickly, especially household items made of thin plastics.

When my mom came to visit Morocco for the first time last year I was eager to spend several days with her in Marrakech – land of supermarkets and malls – but I was also nervous about how material obsessed my whole family was with the pending visit to the city. We made lists of the foods we wanted to eat and all the things we needed or wanted to buy while in the city, including better quality homewares found in some supermarches. While I think it’s natural to want to do some shopping and have some fun, I was also worried that we would be making up for a year’s worth of waste reduction and light-living in just ten days.

The thing is our carbon footprint has been so greatly reduced by living, well, away from temptation and excess. If and when my family ever comes down the mountain for good, I don’t know how I am going to keep from sinking right back into gross over-consumption habits. Walking the walk is hard to do on streets overflowing with tempting offers. Not only do I enjoy eating out (something impossible to do here where there are no restaurants), but I am a working mum and some of those excessively packaged ‘convenience’ foods are a necessity. Here in the hills, with all the labour needed to process direct-from-the-ground foods, my family was struggling to get regular hot meals before we hired someone to cook for us. This solution may not be viable if we were living in a city though, where convenience foods have already exploited low paid labour and are more convenient than paying a fair wage to a cook.

I expected to learn plenty of things about life anew when we moved to a village in the countryside, but I fear that many of these lessons will not stick with me once I come down the mountain for good. Wastefulness is truly a middle and upper-class problem. We are the ones who gobble up the supplies, even when there is no true demand.

Reflections on our lighter living
Utilities
You have never seen a city girl conserve electricity until she has only a few kilowatts left on her prepay electricity card that could not be refilled until the next day or so. When our electricity has nearly run out, the entire family – even the children – unplug appliances, hang out in one lit room together, turn down the fridge and do anything we can to make that precious electricity last just a little bit longer. Once that card is refilled, forget about it. It’s back to everyone doing their tasks alone under one burning light bulb each, PS3 games ‘saved’ indefinitely with the screen and game box on, heaters more readily turned on and so on.

I wish I could say that my family is more conservative with water, that, like the Prophet (SAW) we each only use a mudd of it to make wudhu, but we are not. It seems that as long as these things are within easy reach, our nature is to thoughtlessly grab at them. I am sure that my neighbours who still haul their water from wells and streams use far less water than my supposedly khalifa-conscious family.

While my husband uses public transport to come in and out of the valley every couple of weeks, this is still far less diesel use than when I had a car and used to think nothing of getting into it to pop across town for one specific item or a particular kind of eatery I was craving. Casablanca was the first city I have lived in for a long time and not owned a car. It was inconvenient to not be able to drag all the kids along to whatever outings I needed or wanted to do, but again my carbon footprint was forced to be lighter than the one I may have stepped if I had owned a car. My family talks about buying a car (or two) if we go back to suburbia and I can only hope I would be more frugal with my use of it.

Our trash pre-burning, post-treasure hunting
Our trash pre-burning, post-treasure hunting

Post-consumer waste
In my Hijrah Diary series for SISTERS Magazine I wrote a bit about the horrors of dealing with my family’s trash out here on the mountain. Not only is it an icky and toxic mess to drag the rubbish a distance from the house and burn it, but it is also extremely embarrassing how much trash my family produces compared to my neighbours. We are still using far more convenience foods than most semi-sustainable farmers and our bin reflects this with its packaging from milk containers, grains, margarine and yogurt tubs, treat wrappers and so on. Of course, much of this has to do with the fact that we are not farmers and don’t get our foods directly from the source, but that has been the big part of my awakening out here – recognising how far removed I am from natural cycles.

An awesome book, really.

Human waste
This here is going to be some real talk. Our own human waste has been considered extensively since we moved into this ram-packed earth house with its ‘squat toilet.’ Not only did some family members have to learn how to use this style of toilet, but as a curious homeschooling family ought we also gave much thought and some research to where this waste was going when our landlord expressed concerns about us overfilling ‘the pit’ with our more-excessive-than-any-neighbours’ water usage. We learned about how some folks both here and all around the world don’t have indoor plumbing and use traditional farming technique of recycling their own human waste right along with that of their cows and other livestock. In short, I have learned that disposing of human waste via water is an environmentally messy business and that once again convenience and the ability to afford such luxury as flushing away our waste is something the ‘haves’ are doing that is ruining things for everyone. As disturbing as it may be to any porcelain-toilet owners’ sensibilities, pooping among the cows is actually a much better way to do it. And if one doesn’t own cows, they could use a compost toilet like the sister on page 52 does. I don’t yet, but I have aspirations…
While I worry about many of my bad anti-eco habits resurfacing once I return to the lands of plenty, one thing I am optimistic about is creating a grey water system for my family, even if just continuing to collect dish water runoff and hopefully setting up at least one compost toilet in our home. It’s a privilege and luxury to have so many choices and I pray that if my choices broaden again I will have the strength to be able to choose in a more deen-conscious way, insha Allah.

Brooke Benoit is the World editor for SISTERS Magazine and a self-proclaimed eco-jihadi, among her other various hobbies.
This article appears in the May 2014 ‘Green’ issue of SISTERS magazine, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women.

Living Below the Line Again


What’s that about when you do something you really don’t want, you get more barakah (blessings) for it? I hope so, because when my editor-in-chief Na’ima B. Robert asked if any of the SISTERS magazine crew wanted to do the Live Below the Line challenge, spending five days living on no more than £1 worth of food a day just as 1.2 billion people the world over who live in extreme poverty do… no, I really didn’t want to do that, again. I did the challenge last year and it was no fun, I even kind of sort of cheated a little, eating a few pennies worth extra one day. It is incredibly difficult to be a content, productive person when your stomach is growling and you feel light-headed and weak. This isn’t like Ramadan where at the end of the day I get an iftar spread with several of my favorite dishes available to satiate me and then in a few hours more I get another suhoor spread… this is a brutal, cruel reality for 1.2 billion people and is mostly ‘fixable’ if we just do a little work to undo the injustices which cause this extreme poverty.

That’s why this year I am doing the Live Below the Line challenge, again, and my sponsorship is going to an innovative organization which has a multi-faceted approach to alleviating extreme poverty: Made in Europe. MADE’s commitment to Live Below the Line is three-fold with the intention to “Gain a new perspective on our lifestyle choices, experiencing the simplicity of our Prophet’s (SAW) ways whilst raising funds to tackle poverty directly at its source. We train young Muslims to be campaigners to lead the fight against social injustice, hunger and poverty, moving beyond charity aid to sustainable solutions. By focusing on our young people, we’re creating a long-term and powerful movement for change.”

So that’s the plan: Increase my empathy and understanding, support an organization who is helping those in extreme poverty and educating folks about how to undo extreme poverty. You can do your lil’ part by donating any amount of money in any denomination here to the SISTERS Magazine team for MADE.

Love and Peace,
Brooke