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Give the Turkey a Miss and Go For the Tajine
Marrakesh, Morocco

by Sarah Shuckburgh

It's business as usual in Marrakesh over the festive season, making it the ideal spot for a tinsel-free celebration, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

On Christmas Eve we wake to the cooing of doves, the bubbly chirp of the bulbul birds in the bougainvillea and the muezzin's crackly call to prayer.

I reflect on how, a few weeks earlier, I hadn't been too happy with the idea of avoiding Christmas. I kept thinking wistfully about my tinselly decorations, gathering dust in the attic - and my friends didn't help. "Isn't it wonderful when everyone is together?" gloated Jane. "Christmas is a time for families," agreed Caroline.

When I told them about my tinsel-free plans, I detected a note of envy. "There'll be 10 of us at every meal for a week," moaned Jane. "I've got 26 for lunch on the 25th," sighed Caroline.

Listening to the early-morning sounds of Morocco, it all seems a long way away. After breakfast, instead of struggling home with the groceries, my friend Guy and I spend the morning at the hammam, being pummelled and kneaded, rubbed and slapped.

We have lunch by the pool, then take a long siesta. Later, wearing jerseys against the evening chill, we hire a horse-drawn carriage and trot round the walls of Marrakesh, the terracotta radiant as the sun sets, the minarets and palm trees forming inky silhouettes against the glowing sky. Our driver steers us through the narrow streets of the
medina, where grubby children hammer in dark workshops, and then through breezy palace squares towards the Koutoubia Mosque.

Alighting from our carriage, we weave a path through the Berber crowds in the Djemaa El Fna, the city's main square, past dentists pulling teeth, gesticulating storytellers, tumbling acrobats, belly dancers, snake charmers, fire-eaters, scribes sitting cross-legged under black umbrellas, water sellers, hawkers of medicines and herbs, plus assorted rogues and charlatans. Rows of makeshift kitchens produce aromatic meals from hissing burners.

Laws have changed in Marrakesh since my previous visit. Hassling tourists is now illegal, and the throngs of would-be guides have dwindled. A small boy ventures a tentative "Un dirham?", but a passing adult clips his ear.

We have dinner at a riad - a former merchant's house - in the winding alleys and ramshackle arcades of the souk.
When we emerge at 11pm, the market is still buzzing, with shoppers inspecting spices, shoes, kitchenware and clothes. One stallholder asks us if Pere Noel will fly through the sky tonight. I think of sleepy children far away, asking
the same question.

That night, I dream of our London garden, bleak and grey. When we wake on Christmas Day, warm shafts of sunshine are streaming through our French windows. Outside, children dawdle on their way to school, veiled women sluice their thresholds with water and robed men open their lock-up shops.

While families back home are opening the contents of their stockings, we drive out of Marrakesh towards the snow-capped Atlas mountains, past wayside stalls selling pottery tajines, 3ft-wide ammonites, patterned kilims and carved wild boar looking like aardvarks. Sheep graze on the verges, watched over by grizzled shepherds who peer at us from under their jellaba hoods. Camels pull wooden ploughs across tiny, stone-strewn fields.

The valley narrows and we pass dozens of rickety wood-and-wire bridges leading to Berber hamlets among walnut groves. Small children play on the wobbly bridges, hopping over the missing slats. The hillsides, vermillion in the sunshine, match the red walls of the villages clinging to the steep slopes. Farther on, the earth turns a paler dun colour, and here the scattering of mud houses has a matching honey glow.

At midday we stop at a cafe by the side of the road. It is no more than a shed with a makeshift veranda. Two young men in tattered woollen jerseys lounge on the concrete step. A chipped kettle hisses on a Calor-gas stove on the floor. We sit at a table with a tattered plastic tablecloth and order mint tea. I think of my friends peeling Brussels sprouts back home.

Three blackened tajines perch on smouldering charcoal in a metal trough. One young man lifts a conical lid to reveal simmering onions and chicken.

"Tu veux manger?" he asks, the intimate tu coming as a shock to my old-fashioned ear. We nod, and settle down for a leisurely wait.

Our cook picks an armful of dusty vegetables from a pile on the ground and starts to chop and slice. Periodically, he lifts the funnelled lid and adds to the steaming pyramid that is to be our Christmas lunch. He arranges each piece delicately, forming an intricately woven, symmetrical mound.

Across the road, a stream flows parallel with the wider Ourika river below it. Every now and then, the younger of the two men strolls across the dusty road to the stream to fill a rusty beaker with water for the tajine.

Another customer arrives and shakes hands with our cooks and us, his face cracking into a toothless grin under his pointed hood. Out of the mud shack next door skips a small child wearing a frilly party frock over frayed woollen trousers. She tips a bucket of water into the dust and disappears indoors.

I glance at my watch: it is 1pm. There is no time difference between Morocco and home and I imagine, at this very moment, my friends sitting down to roast turkey and cranberry sauce.

A small boy scuffs his way up the road, clutching an exercise book with the word "Aladdin" printed on the cover and kicking a punctured football. At the stream, a woman arrives to do her washing with a baby lolling sideways from a shawl on her back. Beside her, a barefoot toddler leads a sheep on a string. As she moves, the baby lurches alarmingly while the toddler, still clasping the string, shuffles as the sheep moves from one tuft of bleached grass to another. I think of distant children tearing wrapping paper from PlayStations.

Our Christmas lunch arrives, with a salad of tomato, onion and grey olives on a chipped plate, and tiny dishes of cumin, salt and pepper. Vegetables, herbs and chicken have become a soggy mass - but the chicken falls off the bone, and every mouthful is delicious.

The bill comes to 50 dirhams (£3). Our 100-dirham note throws the cooks into confusion - the absence of small change is one of the mysteries of Morocco. With apologetic gestures, one of the young men sets off down the road and is gone.

After a few minutes, we decide to let them keep the change. We drive on until the road peters out, then walk up an arid but beautiful valley, past crumbling hill villages from which curious children scamper to greet us. Women look up from their washing and wave. Old men, squatting in the shade, nod and smile. I think of all the fractious families back home, cooped up in front of the television, overfed and squabbling.

At dusk, we drive back towards Marrakesh. As we pass the concrete shack, our two cooks dash into the road in front of us, flapping their arms and shouting. They run to the car with our 50 dirhams, then shake our hands warmly. As we drive away, they are still standing in the middle of the road, waving and smiling.

First published by the Telegraph

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