Retro Green Kitchens – Rethinking the Pressure Cooker from Sakyna Magazine

I started preparing food for myself when I was about ten years old (nearly three decades ago) and soon there after began my lifelong interest in balancing healthy, humanitarian and ecological considerations while satisfying my big foodie naf’s cravings. In my teens I became vegetarian which initially meant eating a lot of grilled cheese, but ultimately opened up my repertoire of cooking skills to familiarity with a dearth of exotic-to-the-1980s-suburban-USA ingredients and an ability to cook an international smorgasbord of menus. In my early twenties I became much more aware of the contents of our food and kitchen wears on a micro level. I began eating more organic and less processed foods, as well as avoiding plastics, Teflon and other carcinogenic-producing kitchen items and later play things for my young children. Since having been Muslim for 15 or so years I have wrangled with issues related to halal and humane slaughter. But in all the years I have been trying to live green in my kitchen, one area I grossly neglected was my direct use of fossil fuels in my actual cooking.

While I may be sure to only run a full load in the washing machine and to switch off any unused lights or electrical gadgets, I had never once considered the larger impact of my gourmand activities, such as daily baking single loaves of multi-grain bread or low-temperature roasting a sheet of granola for a couple of hours in the oven. I was also a frequent participant in the convenience of over-night slow cooking. Electricity and gas–unlike organic, fair trade or even halal–were never considered luxurious by me. No matter how high they were, we managed to pay the utility bills- alhumdiAllah. I never considered the greater impact of the amount of fossil fuels I was using while maximizing my family’s nutritional intake, that is, until I came to Morocco, where cooking gas is not directly piped into homes, rather you must pick-it up from the corner store when your tank runs dry and this helps everyone to be very conscious of how much gas or electricity they are using every time they cook. Surely economics is a major factor for how most people use their kitchen fuel here in Morocco, but ecology is as an equally important factor to consider and the one that ultimately led me to embrace a kitchen gadget used daily the world over, but seen as archaic or a specialty item in the US—the pressure cooker.

Fear was my first reaction to seeing a pressure cooker up close and spitting steam. An innocuous enough looking pot with a lid, that does make a bit of a “thut, thut, thut” noise as it gets worked up, surely it was only a matter of time before it would someday explode!  Though I didn’t even have a vague idea of how they work, I know that my grand mother’s generation used them, especially for canning, and that pressure cooking accidents were vile and maybe frequent, or maybe not. Actually, the “dangers of pressure cooking” was the only thing I thought about pressure cooking and, of course—considering they are used daily the world over—the dangers are greatly exaggerated. Modern “second” and “third generation” cookers have mastered safety features. Most pressure cooker accidents previously occurred when they were opened too soon, before the pressure inside had been released, this is impossible to do with many current models.

Nowadays I cook for a family of ten and my second goal in the kitchen, right behind maximizing nutritional content, is getting out of the kitchen as quickly as possible. While the ecological benefits of pressure cooking are great, I fully admit it’s the reduction in cooking time—up to 70% less time—that made me a regular pressure cook.  I cook beans a few times a week and often used to do so overnight or throughout the day in a crockpot, but now I can have them done in less than half an hour or even just 15 minutes for lentils and small legumes. Meats that I would have had to marinate overnight or slow stew for tenderness also come out, in less than half an hour, soft enough to cut with a spoon! And though I didn’t know it when I started using mine, pressure cookers actually help maintain the nutritional content of foods since less of the vitamins or minerals are lost to steam or boiled out in water.

Aside from the residual and unnecessary fear that folks may have about pressure cookers, really the only disadvantage I can think of is the price. They do cost more than a plain ole lidded pot, especially the stainless steel ones which I prefer over the aluminum, but like a food processor or other medium to large ticket time-saving kitchen gadget a pressure cooker is a worthy investment for any growing family or budding gourmet. The cooking itself is quite easy to learn and if you can’t get a sage pressure cook to guide you there are many cookbooks and resources online, including video tutorials. In the course of writing this article I have discovered that there are ways to prepare more than one dish in the cooker at the same time and I am excitedly off to go try that tonight—happy, quick and green cooking to all!


This article originally appeared in the premiere issue of Sakyna Magazine (Winter 1433)- “a quarterly collaborative magazine centered on mindful Islamic natural living, nurturing, and crafting through the seasons.”  Insha Allah I’ll have another Retro Green Kitchen article in the upcoming Spring issue. Check it out, it’s a lovely and inspiring publication, masha Allah.

Link Love – Itto’s ecole vivante Annual Report

I like our school: there are books, toys and food, and we make
funny things and the teachers are always nice with us.
(Saïda, 7 years)

Lot’s of great news and happenings out of the little valley– they are up to 24 students and received enough help to build their fabulous compost toilets! They have also begun extended education courses for other folks in the area.

Direct from Itto’s Journal:

Salaam aleikoum dear friends and readers,

Over one year passed since the opening of our primary school “école vivante” in September 2010, mashaallah – A lot happened over this year: a lot of work and personal growth, a lot of joy and blessed moments, subhanallah. I would have never been able to imagine how this whole project enriched and in which ways it changed our lives, Allahu akbar. God is the Best of planners and I am deeply grateful and happy to give you some actual updates:

As you might remember, last spring I travelled, together with our daughter and our class teacher, to Switzerland to an advanced training in our partner-school – and as every time, also this meeting was a most helpful and enriching time and the intercultural exchange took again place both ways, alhamdulillah.

In early summer’11 motivated friends from Germanycreated a circle of friends called „Ait Bouguemz e.V.”, that is a registered non profit association with the aim to support our project, inchaallah.

Soon after, we went online with our own multilingual homepage (I still have to translate some parts into English and French, but alhamdulillah, it is already very detailed in German).

In July’11 already the summer holidays began. Our 16 pupils reached the expected aims and a beautiful celebration with all the children, families and friends marked the end of a successful first year and the school got, both locally and internationally, positive feedback and encouraging approval, Alhamdulillah!

Due to generous donations we were able to add new furniture and a classroom and to become larger after Ramadan – more than half of our own house is now for the school.

The team was extended by a new teacher and after the busy time of the new enrolling we have now, since September, 24 pupils, mashaallah.

During the whole last year a continual supportive exchange took place with our Swiss partners and in October two of their lovely teachers came to visit to further develop our trend-setting pedagogy together with the local team. These times are always very inspirational and an important part of this interreligious and intercultural project.

Since November a French language course for the young women of the valley takes place outside the main school hours and other public activities are in planning. We have lots of demands and many new ideas and it is such a blessing to feel accepted by the public, alhamdulillah.

Further donations allowed us recently to finally finish the pupil toilets in the backyard of the school. As you already know, they are so-called compost or humanure toilets and now our school also sets ecologically seen innovative examples.

Read Itto’s whole account here.

And check out the official detailed report for ecole vivante’s social development program here.

Normally I wouldn’t: Tale From The Moroccan Countryside

As much as I had hoped to educate myself about my host nation, I have gotten excruciatingly weary of guide books and websites and cookbooks and so on that claim to know-it-all about Morocco, but are actually full of inferences and assumptions and, just uff. What may be true in one house, for one family, for one Moroccan-verily cannot be true for all. So recently when an elder Moroccan Amazigh woman brought us some tales from her vacation in the countryside I was enthralled to hear her version of something I had read similarly about in a guide book. Here’s my interpretation of what was interpreted to me through one woman about what another woman witnessed in one community:

Like many villages, once a week the souk comes to this rural community a little south of Marrakesh and all the menfolk head over to what is part farmers’ market, part flea market and purchase their weekly food and supplies. While the men are away for the day, all the womenfolk of the village come together for a picnic and chit chat. I was told that these villages are very, very quiet unlike our traffic-congested Casablanca neighborhood and though made of thick mud, the houses are not at all sound proof, so any kind of disturbance or raised voices are easily heard by neighbors. Therefor, once a week, these women come together and cut loose quite a bit. The gathering is actually called something to the effect of “Bad word gathering” as the women do on these occasions cut loose with their language as well.

These gatherings are known of to the men and they also know to stay away from these women-only events. On the rare occasions that men have either intentionally or unwittingly happened upon these picnics, they have been beaten up by these ladies! Once an oil seller was passing through the region and stopped by the group of women not knowing what he was intruding on. Not only did they beat and scratch him, but they also ripped off his clothes! This really shocked me and I asked how could these Muslim women defend their actions of attacking an innocent man and exposing his awrah  (portion of the body that should not be exposed to others)? Wasn’t this a hshuma (shameful) act on their part?

The elder woman explained to us that it was necessary for the women to pro-actively defend themselves and their honor from the intrusion. Firstly, their diligent behavior is a way to discourage any man from willfully spying or intruding on their events, and also necessary to defend their honor–no questions will be asked as they take action before any man can.

My guidebook made it sound like these occasions were just a bunch of cantankerous old women being meanies. Now you know the truth. Er, one truth. Fierce.

The Hijrah Dialogues: Muhajir Mama’s First Flight

From discussions of identity, belonging and race to home and family – SISTERS brings you The Hijrah Dialogues chronicling a diverse body of brave adventures and trials as muhajiras seek out their own spot on the spaciousness of Allah’s earth, in discovery of that elusive greener grass.

Part One: Brooke Benoit catches up with Iman Zaineb 44, an English as a Foreign Language instructor and professor of World Religions with an MA in History of Religions-focus on religions of South Asia, to discuss her journey from the USA to Morocco, and back again.

 A Muhajir Mama’s First Flight

When American convert Iman Zaineb was seeking a second husband, her marital forum profile insisted that hijrah be included in the package, “I want to live where I can hear the adhan five times a day, and not from a clock that looks like a mosque!” Her call sent out from Atlanta, Georgia was answered from Casablanca, Morocco.

 Iman, a well-seasoned traveller, avoided the typical expat intercultural communication and intestinal discomforts as she, along with her young daughter, quickly settled into a honeymoon period – both as a newlywed and also what expat experts call those first idyllic days of living in a new-to-you country.

“When I first arrived in Morocco, I lived in a very conservative, simple neighbourhood of working families. Because of the architecture of the place, neighbours saw each other frequently, while coming and going, hanging laundry, etc. We spent a lot of time chatting, going back and forth from each other’s houses and watching our children play. This was probably my best time as a Muslimah because there was a beautiful mosque in the area and I would often go with my neighbours to pray. I learned a lot about Islam and about Moroccan culture at this time.”

 Iman felt the rawness of being a stranger, an immigrant, and a black one at that.

It all gets real

Then Stage 2 began. As was agreed upon before the purchase of airline tickets and the nikah, Iman returned to work. She found a job at an American school where her daughter enrolled. The family moved closer to her job, which meant higher rent, and in turn Iman had to take on more work during evenings and weekends. This was less than ideal as she was now “always working” and spending few waking hours with her young child. Six months later she began a better paying job teaching English as a Foreign Language full-time at a costly international English language center in an urban district of Casablanca.

New unforeseen challenges arose for her as she was now forced to make choices she hadn’t imagined to be concerns in a Muslim country. “If I wanted the best paying classes in the banks, in the offices, of the CEOs of various industries, wearing my hijab was going to be an issue. It became a choice between looking like a Muslimah, or feeding and educating my daughter.”

Between the commuting, working long hours, de-hijabing for work, and the power plays with Iman being the family’s breadwinner, her marriage began to suffer under the stress. Iman and her husband amicably agreed to separate and she was granted a talaq (divorce).

“I went [to Morocco] to marry a Muslim man, with the desire to complete half of my deen. And within two years, I was back to being a single parent – struggling and outside of my homeland and without my family.”

By Myself

Iman moved, for the third time, within walking distance of her job and her daughter’s new school. In her new neighbourhood, not only was the masjid and Islam not “at the forefront of the scene at all,” but Iman felt the rawness of being a stranger, an immigrant, and a black one at that, “There were very few Muslims interested in entertaining a friendship with an African American single mother. Issues of race and marital status began to crop up in way that I, inspired by this Qur’anic verse, had not expected:”

“O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you into nations and tribes that ye may know one another.” [Sura Al-Hujurat:13]

When applying for her latest apartment, this time by herself, Iman was shocked and frustrated that, “I had to show my passport and have the office manager of the company vouch for my American-ness!” The landlord was upfront about not wanting to rent to sub-Saharan Africans due to stereotypes and biases common in Morocco. Innumerable micro aggressions and overt occurrences of racism became par for the muhajir’s course. In the chic interior of her job’s offices her “blackness” had her occasionally mistaken for a cleaning lady. Outside the offices, her treatment was sometimes worse:

“I was walking close to my home, after having taken my daughter to school when I saw a beautifully dressed older Moroccan woman walking past me. Her jeleba and scarf were amazing, and so I smiled and gave my salaam, since she was looking at me right in the face. She responded, “Shnoo briti, aziya?!” This is one of the strangest responses to ‘As salaamu alaikum’ that I have ever received. It’s Moroccan Darija for, “What do you want, black girl?!” Her response was an indication of the fact that to her, despite my hijab and modest dress, my Islam wasn’t enough. She saw me only as a Black person.”

 And away we go

These unexpected treatments were immensely different from Iman’s professional life as a teacher in the United States, at the prestigious all African American Morehouse College for men. She was the first woman, the first Muslim and even the first non-Minister to teach in the Department of Philosophy and Religion. Iman did not experience open discrimination based on her religion or gender, rather she was awarded for her teaching excellence.

EFL teachers in developing nations are notoriously treated as expendable. After five years of teaching, living, loving and learning in Casablanca, Iman’s stay unexpectedly came to an end when her company restructured and she was offered to renew her contract with too little work to support her small family. Not only did she not have the time and resources to quickly find another position elsewhere, but back in Atlanta her family was begging to see her and her daughter. Iman heeded her mama’s call and flew home.

On opposite shores of the Atlantic Ocean Iman has had to consider which side is greener and why? “Sometimes, while in Morocco, I wondered why I had left Atlanta?” She admits it was partially, “a bit of an Orientalist’s desire to live in the magical, mystical world of an Islamic nation, surrounded by fellow Muslims, and to raise my daughter in such an environment.”

For all the struggling of back and forth, Iman notes that her daughter has benefitted the most from their hijrah experience. Not only is the nine year old fluent in three languages, she has learned far more Qur’an than Iman has had the time to do so since her conversion over a decade ago.

Currently Iman is embarking on a new home-based career that she hopes will travel well, either back “to Morocco or some other Islamic nation – with more awareness and more mental preparation – so that my daughter can continue to study Arabic and Qur’an.” Insha Allah!

Brooke Benoit is an American artist who is home-educating her children in Casablanca, Morocco. She hopes, insha Allah, that life in The Mahgrib is the first leg of her own hijrah endeavors. Amongst her many interests and concerns are radical education reform, sustainable living practices, self-expression and discovery through art, and sisterly love.


This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of SISTERS Magazine–the magazine for fabuous Muslim women!

Ramadhan Melange in Morocco

My family’s relocation from Alaska to Morocco last year should have had me eagerly anticipating my first Ramadhan in a land of the Muslims. However, some technicalities like fasting while exclusively nursing a new baby, while being away from hubby – my constant fasting companion of twelve years – in the parching heat of a foreign country, with family members I didn’t know very well, were not encouraging me to get the holiday giddies. As was planned, my husband and eldest son returned to the States for work leaving me newly expatriated with our four younger homeschooled kids and not knowing what to expect for Ramadhan in Morocco.

“It will be easy. We make it simple,” insisted my sister-in-law, Khadija.

Not that I thought she was lying, but one cook’s idea of simple suppers is another cook’s nightmare of gastronomical endeavours. “We’ll have soup and pancakes,” she said. Now I really didn’t believe her. However, she was not kidding.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the center of our pre-dawn meal
was a burger and milk shake! I had seen heavy meat-based dishes
at countless lavish iftars but at suhoor? However, it certainly made
sense. Meat moves slowly through the digestive system ensuring
gradual release of energy throughout the day. Burgers may not
sound appetizing at four in the morning, but in prior years while
pregnant or nursing during Ramadhan, I had boosted my protein
intake with turkey sandwiches at suhoor. Therfore, for me, turkey
burgers were an easy enough adaption. I was happy to find
avocados on the side. However, those went in the shake! Similar to
using bananas in milkshakes, but with triple the potassium, avocados
also have more good fat than olive oil. Sweetened with a little sugar
avocado milkshakes are creamy, delicious, satisfying, and a common
treat in Morocco.

I learned that burgers may not be on every suhoor table in Morocco,
but another power-packed specialty called sellou likely is. Roasted
almonds, sesame and unbleached flour ground with sugar, spices
such as cinnamon and anise, and loosely bonded with smen
(clarified butter) makes sellou dense in calories, protein and good
fats – just like nutritional bars I had eaten in past Ramadhans. My kids
likened it to “granola” and naturally stirred it into their yogurt whereas
the local people prefer to drizzle honey over its crumbly texture. Our
family’s suhoor is balanced just right to satisfy and nourish us while
keeping shopping, planning and cooking to a minimum.

I sheepishly admit that while I was maintaining some kind of a quasiguest status, Khadija did nearly all of the cooking. She served soup
every night, alternating between harira, a Moroccan minestrone-like
soup, and askeef, a traditional Berber hot grain cereal served salty
with olive oil. Also just as Khadija had warned, we did have pancakes
every night. Again alternating nights between behrir – Moroccan
yeasted pancakes, and US traditional style, but never once was there
a drizzle of maple-flavoured syrup. Think of the pancake as the fresh
flipped bread, like crepe, tortilla, injera or roti. Khadijah’s pancakes
were served with spreads and toppings to appease both the sweet
and savoury tooth: spreadable cheeses, bananas, chocolate, fresh
fruit compote, jelly, natural peanut or almond butter, and melted
butter mixed with honey.

Normally my in-laws have rejuvenating juices with their iftar, but
because of the high sugar content versus low nutritional value of
juice I preferred to dilute it with water, especially bubbly, or used it
in smoothies. We agreeably switched to the latter – every iftar I made
smoothies or panaché, made from an abundance of local fresh fruits.
A few nights, I cheated by bringing home yummy looking things
from the bakery. In hindsight, the additions were truly a waste, both
of money and food. My in-laws’ rigidly simplistic and unfaltering
Ramadhan menu is so vastly different from the years of both
spontaneous and fastidiously planned feasting my family had
partaken in, both privately and amid Muslim communities in the
United States. However, there is an abundance of wisdom in the diet
based on decades of fasting experience and genuine nutritional
needs. When one’s niyah is to fast all day and complete the entire
recitation of the Qur’an during the nights, it is smart to eat like an
athlete training for a thirty-day marathon.

Looking Forward
There are plans for two new traditions this Ramadhan. I will be doing
half the cooking, and instead of pancakes we will likely be making
bread puddings and frittatas since they can be slipped into the
oven and left behind in the hot kitchen while we go read Qur’an or
distract some little kids who keep demanding to know when we will
eat, again.

Brooke Benoit is an American artist and educator currently living in
Morocco. In the midst of other adventures, she is also experimenting
with new materials in the kitchen, such as slaoui, warqa and raib. She
has chronicled her expat experiences in The Hijrah Diaries for SISTERS Magazine.


This article originally appearred in the August 2011 issue of SISTERS Magazine–The magazine for fabulous Muslim women! And as planned, I am cooking this year and have added fritatas, bread puddings (croissant, raisins, bananas and chocolate!) and a Morning Glory cake to the iftar table on my nights. 😉

An Architect Accidently Builds A School

From deep within the Atlas Mountains comes the story of love, growth, community and development. Brooke Benoit digs in and shares Itto’s story.

“Want for your sister what you want for yourself” is one of those Muslim maxims that readily rolls off all of our tongues from time to time. In a small village in the remote High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, one sister wanted something exceptional for her children. And when she glimpsed the chance to get it, she worked hard for it – for herself and her neighbours.

Leaving behind a hectic urban lifestyle, Itto, a revert German Muslimah, and her husband – Abu Bassou, a Berber from Morocco, resettled their young family in the country-side valley of the High Atlas Mountains. It was here that she had first come to love the Muslim-based culture and country.

Initially they lived in AbuBassou’s father’s home and at the time, their son’s education was a distant but bothersome concern. Itto was preoccupied with her discoveries of the local culture, language and the simple ways of living. Electricity had only recently come to their village and their house, like most, was without running water. While caring for their child and helping her husband with his own work, she designed their ideal future home using her architectural and interior design training:

“The house was made without machines, only by the blessed hands and sweat of local workers. Although with a traditional looking exterior, I designed the interior with some European comfort and created an eclectic dialogue between our two cultures. We didn’t have much savings but subhanAllah, God helped us with His mercy to realise our own house, bit by bit. The concept of the house was huge, as we wished to rent rooms to tourists in the future.”

They had their second child during the building phase and as their first son grew closer to school age, the more Itto pondered how she would educate him with so few options available to her, “He is a very curious, strong and vivid child, alhamdulillah. With him I learned so much about childhood and myself, about old patterns and preconceptions. I knew that I didn’t want to follow conservative ways of disciplining and educating.” And so she began her reading journey into child rearing, time management and attachment parenting.

The Swiss seed

In the spring of 2007, the couple organised a tour in the valley for a little private school from Switzerland, Scuola Vivante, to learn more about Moroccan culture and Islam. Scuola Vivante is founded by Veronika and Jurg Maeder who developed a pedagogy that emphasises “humanity, respect, tolerance, and follows the personal rhythm of the child.”  The cultural exchange truly went both ways:

“We immediately felt very touched by the politeness, natural curiosity and enthusiasm of the students and by the spirit of the whole group. It was a meeting of two different cultures and religions but also of like-minded souls. I soon wished our sons would have the chance for an education like theirs. When the group left, Veronika said to me: ‘If you ever wish to build a school here in the valley, we will help you.’ SubhanAllah, Allah is the Best of planers: the seed was sown and it slowly germinated subconsciously.”

Itto’s parenting research took on a different tone. She began learning more about various educational methodologies and was enthralled when a friend off-handedly mentioned homeschooling: “I soon read book after book and discovered blogs and websites of other like-minded women. A whole new world opened up to me – subhanAllah – full of inspiration, support and new ideas.” She “felt a new enthusiasm and encouragement,” and began implementing the methods she was learning about. She gained confidence that she could provide her children with an education in their own home and began seeing herself as an “unschooling mama.”

As her son’s friends and neighbouring children came through their home she naturally shared their new system. “When I offered the other kids the possibility to express themselves creatively, I saw the hunger they had for this. I saw the need for positive adult attention, the need for a place to be accepted as a child, the need for inspiration, encouragement, good learning materials, books and a place where they can follow their own pace. I slowly began to think about the possibility of providing such a nourishing and respectful environment for other children.”

From seed to plant

In this High Atlas valley children only finish the mandatory first six years of school and then must leave their immediate families to continue studying in larger towns and cities. With such limited options and possibly only “harsh and poor conditions” available to the local children, it was obvious to Itto and AbuBassou that they needed to share what they were creating for their own children. They decided to develop “a little school.”

Abu Bassou began the tedious, disappointing work of researching logistics. The paperwork was extensive and the preparations needed a lot of money, which they didn’t have, but with the support of Scuola Vivante they continued following the path as it unfolded. A partnership organically formed between the two families, communities and cultures. Itto visited the school in Switzerland and small groups of students visited the valley. During one visit with the young students, Itto was inspired by seeing her house as “a vibrant place of learning and opportunity.” She suddenly realised that with a few minor conversions they already had their schoolhouse. She drew the necessary alterations and the couple applied for an official school license. Then she prayed istikhara:

“Things seemed to become so serious now, time flew and I felt that I had to put all my trust in Allah. And subhanAllah, Allahu akbar, after the prayer of guidance was done, everything just came into place: friends from France offered their help to collect materials, we found Rachida – the most convenient lovely teacher and we got the permission from the government. Alhamdulillah!”

École vivante, “the lively school,” initially opened a youth centre last summer with a humble offering of “some little stools and tables, crayons, watercolour, paper, some toys and a ball.” The response was overwhelming, but encouraging. “The hunger for meaningful occupation, for creativity and play, for sports, for love and care was so pressing and immense. For a dirham per person, we opened the workshops for three hours every weekday and also provided a snack for everybody.” This was the sign Itto needed to push forward the plans to open the school.

From plant to tree

Abu Bassou founded a non-profit association to manage the burgeoning social aid and service aspects of the project and they began accepting applications. Having only 15 slots available for the first year, the school unexpectedly needed an admission process when 40 potential students applied. Itto arranged a meeting with the parents to thoroughly explain the school’s philosophy, “Our aim is to give access to motivated children and to those whose parents truly are interested in a new way of being with children.” Rather than offering the expected style of “classical and frontal” teaching, Itto wanted it to be “clear that children in our school have the right to be children, to play, to be active, to follow their own pace and interests; that we put very little focus on results and measurable success but much more on the entire personal development of every individual; the national curriculum is a guideline but we spend more time doing practical and creative work than using books – even in math, language and science.”

École vivante is not just a school in the High Atlas, it is an exceptional learning environment, “It is eclectically based on ideas of free-spirit, independent learning and respect towards the needs of every individual child, rooted in the Muslim faith, and on the holistic pedagogical concept of Scuola Vivante. It is adapted to the needs of the local Berber people, in harmony with their religion, culture and traditions in confrontation with a modern and quickly changing world.”

The school fixed their tuition price at 200 Moroccan dirhams per month, which is an immense price for families in the area but still well under private tuition and completely insufficient to cover the school’s costs. 20% of the students don’t pay any tuition; instead they are supported by external sponsorship and sometimes offer their own support to the programme by way of donating natural goods, such as eggs, milk or wool. And just as some families must rely on the help of extended family to cover tuition fees, the school itself has only come to fruition through an extended arm of aid from varying places: the Swiss partnership, the couple’s network of friends and family both in Morocco and Europe.

For the children who were unable to make it into the classroom when the school opened full time in the fall of 2010, there is plentiful opportunity for them through the various social programs école vivante has and is creating for the general public. On Saturdays the school has continued the summer programme with sports and games, as well offering a free clothing bin and some basic medical first aid and supplies. Itto is delighted that, “children come in large numbers and seem to really enjoy the atmosphere and the possibilities, alhamdulillah.” For mixed-age groups and adults, the association has held numerous skill-exchanging and sustainability-related workshops.

Itto, who originally came to the valley as a university student to learn their traditional mud house building techniques, is optimistic about the opportunities for cultural exchange and thoughtful adaptation in order to support and sustain the valley, rather than continue to have a one way export of people and loss of culture. There are plans underway for a library, meeting spaces and a large hall. Her optimism and enthusiasm are met by her neighbours; several have already changed their plans to send their children out of the valley and instead are helping to further extend the school and along with it, their community.

In September of 2010 école vivante—“the lively school”—began their first school year and youth center program offering a truly unique, customized pedagogy for the children and families in their rural High Atlas Valley of Morocco. The goal of the community-based project is to foster each child’s individual personality and needs, while sustaining the valley’s rich culture in an environment of positive cultural exchange. The anticipated student body has nearly doubled for the 2011 school year and the community is motivated to see their programs flourish, insha Allah. To contact the school about participating in their ongoing development or to offer support, please visit their website: école vivante 

Brooke Benoit is an American artist mama living and praying in Casablanca, Morocco. Amongst her many interests and concerns are radical education reform, sustainable living practices, self-expression and discovery through art, and sisterly love.


This article appears in the August 2011 issue of SISTERS Magazine-The magazine for fabulous Muslim women. All images of école vivante are copyright of Itto and/or école vivante.

The Hijrah Diaries #8 via SISTERS Magazine

Day 150: The culture shock books don’t say how long it should take me to stop bristling under my skin every time someone wags a “no” finger at me. This is perfectly acceptable, not-at-all rude and frequently used here, which is completely different from my own cultural training that dictates finger wagging as a very, very rude action only used to scold particularly naughty people. I’m pretty sure that I grimace each time someone wags at me, which must seem pretty weird.

Day 158: Today I negotiated to buy a fixer-up bicycle – fixed up. Well no, I’m not completely sure what I negotiated. We seemed to agree at 400 dirhams, but I’m not too sure what that includes. I think I’ll get a frame and new gears that the mechanic will transfer from the mountain bike we were both gesturing at, and I hope he puts on new tires because he kept saying “mzee’in,” meaning “good” – but what’s good? Ok, good, he’ll do it or no, the threadbare tires are good so he’ll leave them on? And I felt confident that the pick-up time was agreed upon for one week from now, but in hindsight, dude pointing at his watch and making rolling motions with his index finger and my response of counting off the days of the week in English on my fingers – that doesn’t seem very clear does it? I have no idea what was agreed upon!

Though it was a little rusty, the frame was nice, but purple –  which I don’t normally like, however I’m trying to get my preconceived aesthetics anyway. I am curious to see how he fixes it up for me, kind of like when I would go to a new hair stylist and say “do what you think is best.” I am so excited about having a bike and someone to occasionally watch my littlest people so I can actually go riding with the bigger ones.

Day 165: The bike situation is not going well. I got it. He seemed disappointed, perhaps I came back later than he expected – more pointing at his watch. I am really disappointed with the work and not sure how to proceed. He didn’t change the wheel and in addition to it being threadbare, all of it is warped. I peddled away feeling kind of wobbly, thinking wow, I was really rusty. Uh, no, it’s the tire! And some spokes are broken. The breaks do not work at all; found this out going downhill to the beach. He only put gears on the back, none on the front. Grr. Unsurprisingly, the husband is not happy that I adventurously handled this transaction by myself. Yeah, yeah haste makes waste, but I’m just not willing to wait a few more months for a bike, nor are the kids who are now expecting to go to the beach every weekend. I’m negotiating for every other weekend and holidays off. But first I need to go back to the mechanic and do a lot of pointing and fingering wagging. And I’m going to continue to try hard not to read into why the dude felt he could do such shoddy work on my bike. Female? Foreigner? Allahualim—my business is getting a rideable bike!

Day 170: The sister-in-law and I are going to try an organised cooking schedule. This forced meals at specific intervals is killing me, but I concede that it probably is best when you’re feeding eight to ten people at non-arbitrary times. I am very used to squeezing food in-between all the activities and stuff the kids and I were doing, but now the meals are central and squeezables are much more rare. We are going to try switching off for whole weeks at a time, she will be in the kitchen for one week, then me the next week and so on. Not only are we going to trade off the cooking, but it will be overall kitchen management, so also cleaning and shopping. The days of living like kings will now come to end for my boys, who will be back to regularly contributing to cooking and cleaning. They are huffing and whining about – gasp – having to wash dishes by hand! But they are looking forward to cooking and making their favorite dishes again. They are also plotting science experiments and have started a list of needs, including food coloring, cupcake wrappers, rock salt and cornstarch. These kids know their crafts and snacks!

I’m hoping to reduce production time in the kitchen. I could easily, and sometimes do, spend four to five hours a day cleaning, preparing and cooking food – plus sauces and vinaigrettes are made entirely from scratch, as most Moroccans do. It’s not uncommon for folks here to make mayonnaise from scratch – no way! Sometimes I feel like my sister-in-law and I are one upping each other, getting far too grandiose creating multiple dishes for each meal. Living in the Mediterranean is really a gourmet delight, but it’s just too wasteful to spend so much time pleasing our tongues. So, I want to find ways to satisfy eight to ten different preferences and dietary needs and not be too extravagant about it. And we are going to have to get some canned tomatoes in this pantry.

Day 177: The house next door has been sold, emptied and demolished in the past couple of weeks. We are now the last house on the block, and one of the few remaining houses in the neighbourhood, which is full to capacity of zone-allotted six-story apartment buildings. Actually, they follow the silly European protocol of calling the second storey the “first storey” so we are shadowed all around by seven storey buildings. And due to the unique, non-uniform shape of our block – we are now wedged between three concurrent construction sites. Two are immediately next to us on the north and south side of the house and another is just about five meters off of the east/back side. I could stick my arm out several of our windows and reach a construction worker. Nice. That’s three different angles from which we are hearing construction sounds all daylight hours, six and even seven days a week. And they occasionally drill and hammer holes into the outer walls of our house to do various things for their sites. We have new and bigger cracks in the plaster all the time. Whenever someone slams a door in the house or the Chergui winds swirling around the house slam the doors, a grandparent yells something about how the front balcony is going to fall off.

I’m trying to remain positive. After all, the construction sites are endlessly interesting for the kids to watch and learn from. The work is done quite differently from the States; much more is done with bare hands and even bare toes in sandals! Still, I can’t help but feeling the very literal encroaching of urbanism all around us and it is choking our dreams of a little land, a vegetable garden and some animals. The “BAM, BAM, BAM. DUHG, DUHG, DUHG. TUNK, TUNK, TUNK” is chipping away at my sabr, sabr, sabr.


As originally published in the June 2011 issue of SISTERS Magazine–while you’re over there, check out their article “The Down Low, Let’s Talk Clinical Depression.”

Iqra! Women’s Literacy in The Mosques of Morocco

A few folks have asked me about the murchidates program (women religious leaders) here in Morocco, so for SISTERS Magazine’s June issue I spoke to a student (grandmother of seven, masha Allah!) of the program. By the time she told me that she “would be nothing”  if she hadn’t learnt to read through the program, R’kia and her interpreting son were both crying. I, of course, remained stoically professional. Below is the full article from SISTERS and you can also read about the production of and watch the documentary, “Class of 2006,” about the murchidates program online at the PBS site.

I was recently able to visit the Sunna Mosque in Rabat and saw a couple of dozen women studying as a class, in small groups and individually in the vast women's areas off this courtyard.


Grandmother of seven, R’kia Irda, grew up in a rural valley of the
Atlas Mountains and never attended the mosque as child. Her
mother died when she was very young, and left her with no one
available to take her to the mosque or to school. She had never
learnt to read and only memorised a few of the shortest surahs to
recite in her prayers.
As a young teenaged mother, R’kia moved to a rapidly developing
neighbourhood in Casablanca. Like many young women emigrating
from the countryside, she seldom left her home – and never without
her husband – and she kept the tradition of staying away from the
R’kia was in her forties when her oldest teenage daughter began
her journey to the deen by attending the Friday prayer and a host
of lectures at the mosque. R’kia began to join her; first for the Friday
prayers and later attending the women’s classes by herself. Every
Friday for over a decade, R’kia has regularly gone to the mosque for
her classes.
In 2007, Morocco commenced the free nationwide Mourchidate
programme to educate women; it included lessons on Islam as well
as a literacy campaign. R’kia heard about this programme at Jumu’ah
and was excited about the opportunity to learn to read.
When the programme was first announced the excitement
surrounding it was tinged with controversy. There was unease about
women teaching religion, about exactly what would be taught and

even disagreement about who should benefit from the programme.

With Morocco’s illiteracy rates amongst women being about 60%
in 2007, some people who supported the program felt that “old
women should be sacrificed” and that the resources would be better
used directed at younger women and children.
R’kia heard about this problem – that some people wanted the old
women to be excluded – but she says that many women had long
been campaigning for a literacy program and by the time it was
formally announced at her masjid, they were assured that the classes
were going to include grown women.
Looking back, she says she “would be nothing” if she hadn’t learnt
how to read. Through the Mourchidate classes she can now read in
Arabic, she has better learnt the surahs she previously only heard
and she is also learning many longer surahs. She has learnt the duas
for the different positions of prayer and she can now understand the
lectures she attends.
Recently the literacy program began testing its pupils to determine
the success of the program and its participants. Last week Grandma
R’kia anxiously prepared for her first exam ever. As of today she hasn’t
received her results yet, but for her they are superfluous. For the
literacy programme at the mosque has enabled her to learn to read
and she can now continue to learn her religion and better herself.

Hijrah Diaries: Traditional Medicines of Morocco

Here is April’s Hijrah Diaries from the print edition of SISTERS Magazine:

The Hijrah Diaries

In Part Six Brooke arms herself and prepares to take on the Moroccan herbal scene but learns that there aren’t any concoctions that miraculously create extracurriculars.

Day 97 Last night I was introduced to yet another herbal concoction by the in-laws. The first Moroccan remedy I was ever introduced to was when a friend of the family wanted to give my first baby louiza tea (lemon verbena) on an especially fussy-filled evening. My gut reaction was to say “NO!” But I second-guessed myself since this woman had her five, healthy grown children, masha Allah, and I had just one newish little baby. I sheepishly agreed. He drank the tea. Loved it. And slept well and long, Alhamdulillah.

Since being in Morocco I have seen lots of cooking herbs brewed and chewed and poulticed and pumiced. Initially I tried to just politely and quietly accept the practices, but I could hear my doubtful tongue weakening and I decided it would be best to arm myself with some knowledge before I have another louiza incident. The Biologist (sister-in-law), The Husband and I all sat around the computer researching the various herbs that their family has used for generations. Cute past-times we have, eh? Most of them are common enough that we knew their names in English, so off we went on a lovely virtual flower and herb tour. This has, of course, seeded a bunch of homeschooling projects, and flower seeds for grandma have been added to the list of stuff to bring back from the states. Before this demanding study was undertaken, my conscience kept waffling – mythical old wives’ tales that are good or mythical old wives’ tales that are bad? Are there both kinds? Or only one kind? I mean, I’m as crunchy as they come. I home-birthed most of my babies and happily use homeopathic remedies straight out of their hermetically sealed packages. Still, I had nagging doubts about the validity of the remedies.

Well, it turns out that everything herbal taken by the grandparents for whatever conditions they suffer from, have been scientifically proven to actually work for those conditions. The kids, as in the hub and his sis, momentarily considered retaining this information from their parents, but ultimately it was a millisecond of pride swallowing on the kids’ part and a parental response equivalent to, “well no duh.” The parents have endured sideway glances for decades, but they always knew they were right! I’m still taking my coffee with milk and sugar, no thyme thanks.

Day 103 Finding extracurricular activities for the kids is proving to be really complicated for reasons I, once again, cannot wrap my head around. I keep having that pestering thought that maybe it is easier for wholly expat families, not one foreigner and one citizen, like us. The cultural stuff is so complicated to maneuver and as a clueless expat I could just mindlessly barrel through it all. Obnoxious little fantasy, a’udhubillah. And so much more obnoxious when compared to the experiences of immigrants to my country. I do know that many things that would be so difficult for me to accomplish as a foreigner are pieces of halawa for the husband or his family to accomplish. But then again, things which I think should be so simple to accomplish seem to need unnecessary nagging and persistence to get done, or are still not done!

Maybe one challenge is that which I can only recognize as “hang ups,” that which I know I would have if I were on my own home turf. Like, I wouldn’t take the kids to X because it has a bad reputation or if I knew of someone who went to Z once and hated it. So sometimes I am being saved from those kinds of situations.

What I think may be happening is that the husband and his family have preferences or avoid certain places and things based on their own assumptions and experiences. Some places look just dandy to me, but it’s possible that the husband or his family don’t like the neighbourhood or the street or have heard something about the owner or something. It’s the same with me at home in San Francisco, there are certain places I try to avoid or give an undeserving preference to – not necessarily based on direct experience, but just gossip or reputation. Or maybe it’s something else even. The pace is different, the priorities are different, and the urgencies are different. Different does not mean more than or less than. It means not the same. This, I must make my mantra and repeat over and over. I just don’t know what the delay is and I am frustrated that I have very active little kids and no parks and no recreational facilities, no bike paths, no yellow pages, and I need some Kung Fu or Jijitsu or something! For them, of course. For me, I have found a lovely little lady-friendly cafe with delightfully delicious petit fours and crepes and briouats and panaches. All of which I am in need of right now.

Day 105 Hassan and The Oldest Child are packing to leave tomorrow and I am being a big baby again, as per usual. I’m in here pouting while they strategically calculate how many pairs of socks to take. I am trying to hold onto the positive aspects of this trip; less people to share the bathroom with and an excellent father-son opportunity. It will probably also be easier to adjust to this extended-family living stuff. As much as I complain and fuss, it may be hardest for Hassan since he sits at the center of the spokes and he is constantly worrying about everyone’s well being. He’s like a cultural attaché 24-7, explaining me, explaining the kids, explaining the parents, explaining the cultures – and of course not getting it all right and often having to make further amends. Very confusing for me, but surely very stressful for him. A little break, a change in the programme, may do us all good, insha Allah. Although this will increase my sister-in-law’s work load (‘The Interpreter’), oh yeah and mine (‘The Primary Care Giver’)… grrr… very, very hard to remain positive and thankful right now. Alhamdulillah.

Day 107 My 12 year old baby is going to miss Ramadhan in Morocco. I didn’t point it out to him because he seems pretty excited to do some more travelling or whatever it is he’s excited about. But I am a little bummed. Not only is it going to be nice to have big suhoors in the house with a bigger family, but we will also be fasting with the ENTIRE NATION. The son is too young to know what he’ll be missing out on, but I’m stoked! Of course, never one to just accept that gift horse-thingy graciously, I am also a bit worried. Our Ramadhans in the States have evolved so much since I was first married that I currently have a bundle of persistently hungry little joys. I have learned to be a keeper of K.I.S.S. – keep it simple sister – and very fearful of what may be expected of me to contribute in the kitchen. The in-laws insist that they also keep it simple and don’t do a lot of work – but we have very different ideas about what “a lot of work” is. Well, since Ramadhan is a few more months away, I guess I can go back to worrying about other stuff, like childhood illnesses and parasites and homeland security, oh – or my deen. Think I’ll go worryfully work on that right now.


Here’s some tea recipes for using louiza (lemon verbena) and other herbs Moroccan style. The louiza is my favorite and I drink it iced all summer.

The Best Midwife: From outlaw midwives vol 1


Cover of outlaw midwives zine. Mother nursing baby in lower right corner with butterfly shadow-like behind them and multiple strips of text reading "outlaw midwives" behind them.

My third son and child was conceived while I was living overseas in what some people call a third-world country. Others call it a developing nation, still others say it is post-colonial. At best these are misnomers. At worst they are derogatory. The last barbarian invaders to be expelled from this nation were fair-skinned thieves who had used airships and guns to murder the citizens, who were armed mostly only with swords and sometimes only rocks. After many years the barbarians, who truly saw themselves as sophisticated folk bringing civilization to this nation (while reaping the financially benefits of being “colonizers”), were finally expelled by the tenacious citizens. However. The citizens did choose to keep some of what they thought were the best bits of the barbarians’ culture, such as their pastry recipes and some architectural innovations, though the citizens generally had far superior architecture already. The citizens also kept the barbarians’ native language and allowed their media to continue to enter the nation’s ports and airwaves. This, I feel, was a grave mistake on the part of the citizens.

I can see how it could happen though. Keeping the language could have eased the citizens ability to have economical dealings with the barbarians’ and their rich neighbors’ nations. However, isn’t it somehow faulty thinking to expect the people who recently hated you, stole your land, and murdered your family–isn’t it at least naive to expect these barbarians to participate in fair trade with you? Several decades later, today, the barbarians remain horrid racists and nationalist who will never accept the citizens as equal and still only abuse the citizens, never allowing them to participate fairly in trade or to receive the same quality of life the barbarians enjoy. Some citizens will emigrate to the barbarian’s lands, but will only succeed if they refute all traces of their heritage. Though their skin and their hair and their noses and their eyes will not betray their ancestry, still their tongues will try.


The citizens of my host nation eat “family style,” with the whole family sitting around one big dish and all eating equal shares from it. Or they use to. Or some still do. See what happened is that the barbarians introduced the country to these new enormous shallow bowls. The bowls were dispersed far and wide all over the country. Men would climb ladders and stairs carrying these huge bowls onto the people’s roofs. Then, they would attach these bowls on their sides to metal rods in a diagonal position which left them completely useless for enjoying and sharing a warm meal from. The food in this nation really is spectacular as they have expelled many invaders always keeping their best recipes. Actually, even though they tout themselves as modern and civil nations, the barbarians’ rich neighbors still steal the citizens food products and resell them for much higher prices marked as being produced in their own lands, but that is another tangent. So these bowls were some of the worst of the treachery left behind by the invaders. The barbarians poured their media into these bowls and from there it trickled into the citizens’ homes. And these bowls told the citizens that their bowls and their way of eating were far inferior to the barbarians. And some of the citizens believed that.

Media is a seductive liar. It is a subtle thief, charmingly disarming. It entertains your eyes and nafs (base desires) while reaching into your pocket and stealing your identity and the keys to your life. My country has this same problem with media, except that we export it. Still, my fellow country folk also often believe the lies that our own media tells us, such as that women are weak creatures and childbirth is dangerous for us to manage on our own. We have been told, and most of us believe, that men should manage birthing and that they should be compensated ridiculously well for doing so. How supremely absurd that is even if you just superficially think about it. But that’s the amazing trickery media is capable of.


So, while I was pregnant and living in this country I couldn’t find a midwife to attend my homebirth. That just isn’t done here anymore. Afterall, that is not what the barbarians do. This country has embraced the barbarians’ brand of civility and medical intervention and sterileness and clinical birth settings. The citizens have bought (literally) the barbarians’ lies which tell them that if the citizens don’t adopt the barbarians’ ways of life then the citizens are in fact the true barbarians. I have even been told that homebirthing is now illegal here. Though the barbarians still think of themselves as models of civility and like to say that the women citizens are oppressed, women barbarians have very little birthing choice in their country and very high rates of doctor-decided cesareans.

In this nation, a nation you could maybe call in an identity crisis, I couldn’t find a midwife to aid me in an uneventful birth, even though I knew that there must be women trained to attend births somewhere within these borders because even my husband had been born at home. Eventually I returned to my country and hired some midwives to attend my homebirth, which ended up being a hotelbirth, but that’s a whole other story. What I just discovered, six years and a couple babies later, what I just found out is that there was a midwife sleeping in the room next to me for nearly a year while I was living in this foreign country. We ate off the same big bowl together everyday for 300 and something days. This midwife was trained by one of the best midwives in her region and attended many of my husband’s cousins’ births. She is my mother-in-law.

That best midwife, who trained my mother-in-law and attended my husband’s birth, was my grandmother-in-law. She was also the go-to-woman who performed what my people call, “well-baby check-ups” for the families in her region. My sister-in-law was conceived while living in this same city where I could not find a midwife. My husband’s young mother could not find one either at that time. Since her city neighbors, who haled from regions near to my in-laws, had become accustomed to doing as the barbarians did and hadn’t learned how to help their nieghbors-in-labor my mother-in-law birthed her first daughter in a hospital (which was at that time run by the barbarians). Her next two children were born at home with the help of a neighbor-friend who had moved to town from their old region. My mother-in-law attended five births for the neighbor-friend.


My primary interpreter during that time when I unsuccessfully sought out someone to attend my labor in this city was my husband. He has been by my side at the birth of all five of our children and agrees that birthing at home is a much more comfortable environment as compared to our one experience with midwives in a hospital setting. I asked him yesterday if he knew that his mother attended births. Yes, he did. Then why, I asked, didn’t he suggest her? He replied that he thought I was looking for a “midwife.” She is a midwife, I replied. He said that I wanted a “trained midwife.” She is trained, I said.

Sometimes my husband still believes some of the barbarians’ lies. And I suspect that if I could ask myself of six or so years ago, I would have also considered this woman, trained by the best midwife in her region, along with all of my acquired knowledge–I would have considered us inadequate to manage my son’s birth. As smart and strong and capable as I am, with all my access to information and opportunities, I have still believed so many of the barbarians’ lies. Seven years ago, though I didn’t know the difference between a midwife who is CNM or a CPM or a DEM or a CM, I understood that they have been vetted by a system that, really, I am naive to be so trusting of. And I am worse to have been so exclusively trusting in this hegenomic system that I know was and is controlled by the barbarians and their neighbors, but I probably would not have trusted my mother-in-laws system (tradition) which is based on shared knowledge, shared wealth, and love.

I asked my mother-in-law if she preferred to birth in a hospital or at home. At home she said. Why? My husband’s interpretation of her responce was that its better, its her culture and what she is comfortable with. “You know how it is” he said. Yes, we do.


outlaw midwives, the zine about revolutionary birthing, pregnancy, midwifery, loss and all things related, is accepting submissions for it’s third issue–yaye to volume 3, insha Allah! So I thought this would be a good time to post–in full–my piece written a year ago for volume 1. You can see the entire 56 page zine online right HERE.