image, via flickr.
Walk through the shantytown which surrounds our home and you will see children as young as six or seven hurrying forward, oversized trays balanced across their arms. Over the tray there's always a cloth, pulled down tight. Under it there’s a loaf of flat round dough, ready for the oven.
The children scamper fast through the narrow alleys which run between the shacks, with the trays. They run around the side of the bidonville, where the donkeys laze hobbled in the morning sun, and present them to the baker.
His name is Mustapha. His arms are scarred from the wood fire, his hair all singed at the top from the interminable heat. All day long he shuffles the loaves into the oven with a long wooden paddle, and then shuffles them out again.
In Morocco there is no food as sacred as bread. Indeed, it’s far more than any simple food. It’s a symbol of something far greater than a food designed for alimentary sustenance. The idea of ever throwing away a morsel of bread, however stale, is completely unthinkable.
In our home, a piece of bread that’s unfit to eat is never thrown away – not ever. Instead, it’s passed on to someone or to something who will have use for it.
I once wondered what happened to all the stale old bread that was unfit to eat. There must be tonnes of it created in Casablanca alone every day. After all, no one throws it away. They protect it, defend it at all costs from the dustbin, and ensure it is given a fitting end.
I never asked anyone where the bread landed up, but the question was always in my mind. Then, one day, I was strolling through the muddy junk yard in the nearby area of Hay Hasseni, searching for old Art Deco basins as I do, and I saw it… a sea of stale old chunks of bread. There was every shape and size, every colour from white to the darkest brown.
I went over. The stench was terrible, as a great deal of the stuff was rotten, or gnawed at by rats. It was winter, and the Atlantic winter climate is merciless... especially on bread.
Every so often someone would stumble up, hand a small coin to the bread guardian, and saunter off with a bag of the stuff. The guardian told me that people bought it for their cows, that it kept them healthy and free from illness even in the coldest weather. ‘It’s a sort of miracle food,’ he said.
In the bidonville, Mustapha the baker told me he knew of the bread dealers in Hay Hasseni. ‘They make quite good money,’ he said. ‘And I thank them for their work, they are honorable men.' He paused, shuffled another paddle of loaves into the fire.
Through a kind of alchemy, Mustapha and the other bakers transform the raw dough into the magical comestible and, as such, they are regarded with special esteem. As bakers – and they are exactly that – men who bake bread, they continue in a profession which remains unaltered since ancient times.
One mention of the history, and Mustapha holds still, rests the end of his paddle on his thigh.
‘The Prophet said never to discard a crust of bread,’ he said, ‘and that if you ever see it even the smallest piece on the ground, you must pick it up and put it on all wall. Then, if a beggar is passing and is in need of food, he will not have to stoop down. Because however poor a beggar, he has dignity too.’