Atlas Shrugged / by George Bajalia

So as a retreat/break from our research, the Fulbright Commission here took us all to a small steppe town near the Atlas Mountains, Ksar Timnay. The closest major town is Midelt, but we spent the weekend on a ranch/hotel owned by a retired Moroccan Linguistics professor. He owns a number of acres around the ranch and uses them to grow the produce and livestock for the hotel, and also to experiment with other ways of sustainable hydraulics and irrigation. The soil around Ksar Timnay, he said, is extremely salty and thus a harsh host for many plants. However, after planting a plant native to the American Southwest, he found the soil much more suitable.

One of his favorite olive varieties, and indeed the only one that will grow on this land, is a French variety that can deal with the colder weather. He was a truly gracious host, and took us out on his land to see these crops, and to see the tumuli (ancient burial mounds) that he has been trying to protect from gravel harvesting bulldozers. After a brisk walk through the ranch grounds, he treated us to tagines.

Somehow, I think I’ve neglected to mention tagines before on here. Tagine actually refers to the bowl used for cooking (for example: http://www.katherinemartinelli.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/tagine.jpg) but more commonly refers to the meal. Typically, a tagine includes a type of meat and a group of vegetables marinated and cooked all in the same bowl. The top of the tagine allows it to breath and simmer but also keeps most of the flavors in. In my experience, the vegetarian tagines include loads of potatoes, and just a smattering of other vegetables. At Ksar Timnay, though, they served the vegetarian table a traditional Amazight (“berber”, in fact this term is subject to much political and social debate… that’s another post, though) tagine with no meat (or chicken, which I’ve come to learn is not meat and therefore acceptable food for vegetarians). The vegetarian table consisted of myself, Ian (another Fulbright vegetarian in tumblspace http://dakhla2tangier.tumblr.com/) and some omnivores who were distinctly less enthused about this tagine, as it contained only vegetables. 

Anyway, while I was lunching on this delightfully meat free tagine, with only a minimum of potatoes and a variety of other tasty vegetables, I started to think about the walk we had just taken. Without the plant from Arizona soaking up the salt, how many of these vegetables would have been able to grow here?  The French olives worked just fine in the tagine, but were they really part of a traditionally Amazight dish?  Without agricultural globalization, the sustainability of this ranch falls flat. And yet, with it, the hotel can produce nearly 100% of is needs in house, and recycle their water back into irrigation. 

In this basin of the Atlas Mountains, tasting the tagine, you would be hard pressed to call this dish a product of “globalization.” And yet without it, the ranch could not provide the crops for the dish. To be honest, I’m not qualified to speak about the ecological effects of introducing these non native crops to the Atlas Steppes. Perhaps it’s devastating. Perhaps it’s not. But, I do know that introduction of non-native crops to different parts of the Mediterranean region is what has produced the variety of gastro-traditions that have come to characterize the Mediterranean.  The rice in Spanish paella? The tomatoes in a Pizza Napoletana? Both were brought to these regions by Muslim travelers in the medieval period. Hummus- is it Greek or is it Arabic? I have my own opinion about that, but the point is that these sorts of exchanges have produced a rich variety of traditions. Perhaps this paradox of the modern era isn’t so modern after all.

By the way, I know this post had nothing to do with what I promised in my previous post. Don’t worry, that’s coming too.