It was my friend Joe’s turn to entertain us as we sat around our campfire on the edge of the Sahara desert. It was more of an anecdote than a full-fledged story, but it contained within it a moral lesson I’ve never forgotten, but which took a long time to fully grasp. And, unfortunately, practice.
It involved an affluent, middle-aged white woman who entered a Kentucky Fried Chicken alone. When she placed her order for two buckets of Original Recipe, the young black girl behind the counter asked, “Will that be for here or to go?” Indignant, the older woman responded in a huff, “Do you really think that I’d eat two buckets of friend chicken right here? All by myself?” The girl behind the counter looked her up and down, shrugged her shoulders, and said quite matter-of-factly, “I don’t know your life.”
At the time, I took it for what it was– a punchline. I found the story funny and yet I resented it to some degree because it made me hungry for something I didn’t have– a bucket of crispy, salty, golden fried chicken– and more disappointed in the steaming pot of hen flesh in front of me that seemed to fall apart in my hand.
When my friends and I sat down at the beginning of the meal, our Berber host announced that he had a special dinner prepared for us– tagine. I was deeply dissatisfied. I was hungry from a day spent keeping astride the hump of a horny, angry camel and climbing sand dunes, but tagine was the one “authentic” taste I’d grown truly sick of during our two weeks in Morocco. Everywhere we went, dishes of aromatic braised chicken were presented to us with piles of couscous or bread in what seemed a gesture of obsessive national pride. It caused me to wonder how long a Moroccan visitor to the United States would be able to bear his American hosts offering him a cheeseburger at every meal.
I knew I was being ungrateful. But I was hungry and ate without audible complaint.
After dinner,we wandered the dunes in the moonlight, sometimes laying belly up in the sand to look up at the stars. We were the only source of noise for miles– no cars or insects or planes or scorpions– just us. Someone cracked a joke, the others laughed. Someone else expressed his wish that our friend Dan could have been here to enjoy this. I wanted everyone quiet. It was the one place in the world where I had hoped to experience extreme silence and they, I felt, were ruining it.
I didn’t want anyone talking. I especially didn’t want anyone talking about Dan. Not anything kind about him, at any rate. I felt it was my job to talk about him, and then only to complain. I was the reason he wasn’t there. Frustrated, I yelled at everyone, “Shut. The Fuck. Up!” like I screamed out my window in college at drunken frat boys. My outburst was met with several minutes of well-deserved sniggering and imitation. But everyone did eventually quiet down to enjoy a few minutes of stillness before finding our way back to the camp and falling asleep side by side under our camel blankets and a full moon.
I awoke because my shoulder was cold. Jean-Phillipe, who’d been sleeping on my right, was missing and a chill had gotten in. When I sat up, I could see him a few yards away staring up at the sky. He motioned to me to join him. He headed up one of the giant sand dunes and I followed.
We didn’t talk at first. We just sat there, looking up at the moon. The only sound I could hear was my own heart beating– I’d huffed and puffed my way up to the summit. It frightened me, because it sounded as if it would burst at any moment. The silence I’d begged for earlier now made me profoundly uncomfortable, so I started talking.
I shared with Jean-Phillipe my experience with our friend Dan and why he wasn’t here, which I’m sure he already knew: We were friends and drew closer to each other on an earlier trip. He left his boyfriend, feelings got very complicated, neither of us knew what to do about it. After much discussion and many assurances, feelings were acted upon. Then he went back to his boyfriend as if nothing had ever happened. I felt betrayed and lied to and became single-minded in my demand for an official apology. I couldn’t understand why my friends– most of whom were sleeping below us in the desert– refused to take sides. I played the role of victim with all the histrionics I could muster, like a hairy-legged, bourbon-drinking damsel tied to the railroad tracks by a black-caped villain. In other words, unconvincingly.
Jean-Phillipe put his hand on my shoulder for a moment to quiet me and then he began to speak for a long time. About love and loss, the sometimes shitty nature of men, and, most importantly, forgiveness. Not self-help book platitudes, but scenes from his own life he chose to share. The silence of our surroundings made his voice almost supernaturally clear– for those few hours on top of the sand dunes, it was the only thing that existed. There was nothing else for me to do but listen. When he’d finished, we talked of other, less important things and I sat there stargazing with him in the first state of inward calm I’d felt in months. I climbed down from that dune feeling as though my heart might explode from being pumped full of so much peace and forgiveness.
But that feeling evaporated with the daylight, as things in the desert usually do. Our midnight talk faded like a dream. Or a mirage, given my surroundings. My conversation with Jean-Phillipe didn’t magically dispel my unhappiness or desire for an apology– I still demanded one. But it did manage to form a tiny crack the foundation of my stony moral certitude. I was still angry and unable to forgive this terrible perceived wrong that had been done to me. And I stayed that way until the end of our trip, which terminated in London, where I planned to have dinner with my first boyfriend, Frank.
It was dinner which was organized so that I could officially apologize and ask forgiveness for being such an asshole to him nearly 15 years earlier, because what’s a story about the discomforts of personal growth without a nice dash of irony?
Frank patiently listened to my extended apology with the open calmness of a trained clinical psychologist, which he happened to be. He’d forgiven me ages ago and moved on with his life. But he was smart enough to know that I hadn’t yet forgiven myself and kind enough to let me talk. The slow, horrifying sense of what a hypocritical ass I’d been began to creep over me. I’d assumed Frank would have held a grudge against me for treating him poorly, because lord knows I would have held one against him if the shoe had been on the other foot. But he’s not that kind of person. I hadn’t seen him in years. I didn’t know his life, but he was clearly living a much happier one than I was.
I booked myself into psychotherapy as soon as I got home.
In the weeks that followed my first session, I found myself riding that angry camel into the desert over and over again back to that campsite and the tagine and Joe’s story.
I kept thinking about that woman in the KFC and the girl behind the counter who didn’t know her life. And then I imagined Dan as the woman and me behind the counter, not judging, for a change. I didn’t know his life or state of mind anymore than I knew if he could eat two buckets of Original Recipe at one sitting. It wasn’t up to me to examine his motivations or actions. My therapist hinted that it was up to me to start examining my own. And I really didn’t like what I saw.
But I took some comfort in climbing back up the sand dune with Jean-Phillipe, where I sit under a full moon and mine his words for wisdom. I did that frequently. I kept hearing him urging me to forgive and move on. It took dozens of exhausting mental ascents and therapy sessions to realize he wasn’t just talking about the need to forgive another person, but the necessity of forgiving one’s self as well. Or so I like to imagine. I found my behavior even harder to forgive than Dan’s.
Eventually, Dan and I met up at my local park to make peace. We both apologized. I felt it was important for me to give him one. The strange thing was that I no longer needed one from him. But I took that lesson from my first boyfriend in London to heart and let him do it because he simply might have needed to. Then again, maybe he didn’t. I really couldn’t tell you because I simply don’t know his life.
Tagine with Olives and Tomatoes
You may find yourself asking why I’ve chosen to make tagine, since all I’ve done is complain about it. The answer is this: it’s incredibly forgiving. The chicken can simmer more or less unattended for hours, cooking until it falls apart when you touch it, which is what it’s supposed to do. It is tenderness itself. And that’s something everyone could use a bit more of in our lives, both from within and without.
And I’ve wanted to write about that evening in the Sahara for a long time, but just didn’t know how because it was one of the most emotionally complicated nights of my life. I spent that dinner wanting something nonexistent and critical of what was warm and nourishing and present– not only the tagine, but the friends who shared it with me.
This month, Jean-Phillipe died very suddenly in Montreal. He has been in my thoughts ever since. With the exception of that night on the dunes, we were never close. On the few occasions when I did see him, he’d fondly remember our conversation. I just wish I could have told him how important it was for me.
Serves 3 to 4 people, depending on hunger level
• 5 to 6 chicken thighs, depending upon the size of your vessel
• 2 tablespoons of olive oil
• 2 tablespoons of frying fat from the chicken
• 1 whole yellow onion, sliced thinly lengthwise
• 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
• 2 tablespoons of tagine spice mix*
• 2/3 cup chopped olives (choose ones you prefer)
• 2/3 cup oil-packed roasted tomatoes
• The zest of 1/2 lemon, julienned or grated**
• 1 cup of water
1. Add the olive oil to the bottom of your tagine, which has been placed on your stove top. If you don’t have one, any heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid (like a Dutch oven) will do. Turn heat to medium. Salt your chicken thighs, then add them to the pot skin side down until golden. Flip them over and brown the less attractive side. Set aside for later use. They do not need to be cooked through.
2. Remove all but two tablespoons of the chicken fat/olive oil mixture at the bottom of your pan. Reheat and add the sliced onions and stir to distribute the cooking fat amongst them. Add your spices and continue to stir until the onions are fragrant and softened, but not browned. Next add the water, olives, tomatoes, and lemon zest. Stir to blend, then place your chicken, skin side up on top of the mixture. Cover the pot with its lid and cook over a low-medium flame for about 45 minutes. Do not keep checking its progress— this is one instance in which letting off steam is not a good thing. Go do something else, like make couscous or something constructive.
3. After 45 minutes, remove lid and turn the chicken thighs skin side down. Cover and cook for another 30 minutes or until the chicken barely holds on to the bone.
4. Remove from the heat and immediately serve over heaping piles of couscous or, if you prefer, with slices of crusty bread to absorb the wonderful sauce.
5. Share with friends and be grateful for what you have in front of you. Tell your stories and listen to theirs. You never know when they might come in handy.
* I like to use a ready-made tagine spice mix, because it’s convenient. If you’re one of those people who like to do things the hard way, combine equal parts: cayenne, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, allspice, clove, and paprika. Also, if you’re one of those people who likes to do things the hard why, you probably won’t be making tagine– it’s too easy.
** You may use preserved lemons, if you like. I simply have neither the taste nor the patience for them.