Cooking Hope

January 25, 2019

Every day at mealtime, Jinnui would himself take the rice pails to the front of the monastery hall, where he’d dance and laugh heartily, saying, “Bodhisattvas, come and eat your food!”

Xuedou commented, “Though he acted like this, Jinniu wasn’t being kind hearted.”

     ~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 74

 

There is something in Jinnui’s dance that is grander than kind-heartedness., in my mind There is an imperative in his action, it seems to me, that goes beyond calculation of merit or blame, and even of good or bad. He dances not only to serve his monks, but to save the world. It is the dance of giving and celebrating life.

 

Recently, I traveled to the Moroccan city of Marrakech with my family and we signed up for a cooking class. The class was on the outskirts of town, and our taxi dropped the four of us off on a dirt side-street before a high gate of a fairly large house complex. The cooking school was started by Nora Belahcen Fitzgerald, born in Morocco of American parents, and is called the AMAL (hope in Arabic) Women’s Training Center. She opened it in 2012 in her home to serve women mostly in their 20s and early 30s, who had no meaningful income and were of difficult social status ~ meaning divorced, widowed, or a single mother. Many of these women are among the most economically desperate in that country: former child laborers or beggars with children. Almost all are illiterate.

 

In the last six years, AMAL has graduated over 200 cooks from a six-month course, over 80% of whom go on to get jobs in local hotels (Riads) or start their own food businesses. The program now has 25 employees, including teachers in language, hygiene, and communication, as well psychologists and counselors. Each year, AMAL, which is free, has hundreds of applicants, offering two meals a day and daycare for small children.

 

We had a wonderful time with a dozen other tourists cooking chicken and lamb tagine (a kind of stew), couscous and pastilla (a filo-dough meat pastry). Wandering through the herb garden to the compost heap, where a goat was standing, munching away, I was struck by the enormity of the gap between need in this poor country of 35 million and AMAL’s capacity to affect the lives of only a couple dozen women a year. Like Jinnui above, Belahchen Fitzgerald’s own dance has an imperative much greater than calculation of merit and kindness, it seems to me. It is the dance of giving, and of celebrating life. 

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