Another Happy Birthday

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Last week I celebrated my birthday in Morocco for the second year in a row. Having had so many birthdays now, celebrating an event that is rapidly becoming a measure of pessimism might seem unusual. As of April 11th I am now just one year away from being classified as a septuagenarian. I looked that word up to make sure that I spelled it correctly and found the following sentence quoted from a passage in the novel THE AMERICAN by Henry James: “But there passed across his vision an image of a haggard little septuagenarian taking measured sips of a glass of sugar and water and finding them quite impotent to sweeten his desolation.” I have yet to sink into a state of desolation, and some of the time I do not feel haggard, but it is true that each passing year requires more effort for the simple task of living than once it did, and thus my happiness at what occurred over this past weekend.

We had lunch on Saturday at the home of Zoubida, Denise’s househelper when we lived in Fes in the eighties, and Denise had requested a special meal. She prepared for us a tagine of beef, eggs and almonds that is one of our favorites. We had not reminded them it was my birthday, but I enjoyed very much sharing that meal with three of Zoubida’s daughters and three of her grandchildren, as well as a friend of Denise and her five year old son. It was a lively affair to have up to ten or eleven people sitting around the traditional round table. As always, Denise and I were made to feel very special and this occasion was the first time we had shared a meal with such a large group this trip.

On Sunday we planned to eat lunch with another family with whom we spend a lot time. The father is Abdesalam, one of our Arabic teachers when we first arrived in Fes some 29 years ago. Friday evening Denise decided to bake a cake to contribute to the meal the next day, but we didn’t mention my birthday to them and she didn’t put any candles on the cake. However, social media transcends distance and nationalities. Facebook friends of ours include two of Abdesalam’s sons in Morocco, as well as a daughter and son who live in Jacksonville. After another nice meal, a daughter and grandson who were also visiting walked in the salon carrying a real live birthday cake, compete with two lighted candles (obviously symbolic) and singing Happy Birthday to me in Arabic. Mehdi, the grandson, blew out the candles for me, perhaps thinking that was beyond my ability. Again, the length to which these friends went to honor me in that way was very special.

Denise and I have decided that Mondays will be our day “off” while we are here this year and make it a sort of rest day. I realize that might sound strange for someone here on “vacation” to need down time, but there are days when having lunch with 10 or 12 people is something I’d rather do another time. Regardless of whether that “felt need” is legitimate or not, Monday Denise offered to take me to lunch at the Zagora Restaurant in downtown Fes. Thus my birthday celebration which began on Saturday was extended into a third day. That’s appropriate in this culture, I presume, since some parties, especially those associated with weddings last for several days at least.

The Zagora is owned and operated by another acquaintance we met in the eighties. At that time he had a much smaller, and less expensive restaurant called the Mounia. It became the “go-to Sunday lunch place after church” for us and a number of our expatriate friends. We all had children at home then and it provided a great place for us to find some cultural comfort for a couple of hours. The patron put up with a rather raucous group of foreigners, and he became a great friend over the years as we returned for regular visits. Evidently, he possesses a lot of business acumen as he now has a significantly larger restaurant whose business is primarily serving groups of tourists as part of the provision of an organized tour. He seems to be quite successful. We hesitated before going because he often sends an employee out during our meal to buy a gift for our “children” whom he remembers as being about 9 and 13 years of age. He did not embarrass us yesterday with a gift, but he did welcome us with demonstrative heart-felt greetings, evoking long established memories of an era that ended almost three decades past.

Mint tea for Denise and café-au-lait for me provided a fitting conclusion to another event with the probability of it becoming a memory in this part of our history in Morocco. I wonder if another decade or so down the road we shall be connecting present activities with friends and acquaintances of that by-gone era. I believe such memories might be potent enough to sweeten even the desolation I might feel at that time.

Pictures by Denise

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