Filled with shame, I stood there silently as my neighbor squatted outside of my front door, pointing at me with the machete and yelling in Arabic.
I didn’t understand a word she said, but I knew I was guilty as hell.
I was embarrassed, but also overwhelmed with love and gratitude as she helped me with yet another situation I’d gotten myself into since I ended up “stuck” in Morocco during the coronavirus lockdown began two months ago.
This one was one of the minor obstacles compared to some of the other things Nagete had helped me with, but I knew without needing Google translate this time that she was accusing me of being a murderer here in her tiny village, less than an hour but a world away from Marrakech.
It was true.
My life had changed enormously in the past few months, but today I had to admit that I had become a murderer since the quarantine started in March. A savage sardine murder who had no idea how to properly butcher, kill, or clean my food.
What kind of village woman had absolutely no idea how to clean a kilo of sardines? The bloody mess in front of me looked like an explosion of building eyes and mangled, slimy intestines and fish feces as it unraveled and swirled around fish tails and fins, making me want to vomit.
But Negate squatted and sat on the tiny child’s stool her son brought form next door, and she attempted to instruct me in what was sounded like a mixture of broken Arabic, French, Darija, and Berber of how to properly kill, cut, prepare and cook a simple meal of sardines.
She had already taught me how to make a delicious drink from milk, dates, amlou (almond butter), honey, and frozen bananas that would make any crack addict switch from the pipe to a straw, so I should probably trust her with this.
I tried it once a few weeks ago, buying the already murdered, innocent fish from the guy who drives by once a week on his bicycle, calling out in Arabic.
I never quite knew if the person yelling out was selling sardines, eggs or tomatoes as they pedaled past my house on the dirt path, more than five kilometers from the main road.
I had no desire to put myself through the ordeal again, but the men usually looked so excited to have someone willing to buy their wares, and it was so cheap I didn’t feel right saying no, thank you. Or hell, no, as I was secretly thinking. I had no interest in torturing myself again, smelling up the entire house with the fish smell that still had not gone away no matter how many times I cleaned.
In this small village where I have been living since the coronavirus pandemic attacked the world suddenly and swiftly with barely any warning, I found myself “stuck” in Morocco, buying potatoes and tomatoes and very little else had me sick at the thought of yet another vegetarian meal.
Meat, chicken and fancy fish were impossible to get at either of the two tiny village shops; the “bodegas” I’d nicknamed them.
Most people here seemed fine with the extremely limited options since tagine, a sort of beef stew with very little, if any, beef, was a popular Moroccan dish made up of mostly carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes. No one seemed to complain about having the same old boring meals over and over again.
Even though I had scored a few tiny pieces of chicken once in a great while, finding meat protein options were rare here.
But sardines are a delightful bbq option for locals, so I sighed, and said to myself, “When in Rome…”
The first time the man on the bicycle stopped on the dirt road, I was surprised to find that a kilo of sardines was 30 dirhams (or $3). Shoot, I could learn to love them.
I figured, how hard can it be to cut off the heads and tales and wash them?
Perhaps not that difficult. Unless you live in a place with no running water (except a short time once in the morning when you need to scramble to wash dishes, water the plants in the garden, do laundry, take a shower and fill up a bunch of water bottles and buckets).
I should add that while I love salmon, I’m repulsed by fish scales and bones, and have never had sardines before coming to Morocco.
But I thought, really, how hard could it be?
I took the fish and began washing them in a giant bowl. Good. Some of the scales washed away. Looked like they might need a bit more than one bottle of water though. Another bottle. Then another.
I decided to take a break because the scales just seemed endless. Perhaps I should cut the heads and tails and come back to the cleaning.
Now my family and friends know one thing about me; I get queazy easy. They absolutely cannot talk to me about sickness, health, injuries, vomiting or…blood. I get sick just typing the words.
But, I have been a (mostly willing) vegetarian for the past 2 months, so I would learn to love sardines. I’d been called a “soldier gal, a real rasta” by Jamaicans in Kingston, so I could easily survive in mild Morocco. I was tough. A Brooklyn gangsta’ girl. So what if I was forced to become a one-woman Mafia murderer of sardines. My Crown Heights hood would be proud.
But that meant I needed to cut off the heads.
I stood there for a few minutes, then decided to start with the tails. I heard the bone crunch as I sliced away, and I stopped breathing. My stomach turned and I held on to the kitchen counter for support.
It was now time for the head. This is where things got difficult.
They were staring at me.
And they each had different personalities, these oily little herring. Some stared up at me woefully, as if in shock that I was actually going to be cold enough to chop them up in little pieces, like Jeffrey Dahmer on a mission to create a zombie army of tiny sardines. Others looked at me boldly, their eyes popping out in defiance, challenging me to eat their fat little heads.
I picked up the knife, closed my eyes (yes, I know this is never wise when attempting to be an executioner) and aimed somewhere behind the bulging, yellowish-white eyes.
As the head came off, a trail of blood and mucous and slimy unknown things trailed along behind it.
Ohh, this was not going well.
Perhaps I could make a salad. Sure, the tomatoes were soft and mushy and I did not think I would be able to tolerate one more cucumber tomatoes onion salad without lettuce but think about how much weight I could lose.
No, screw the diet. I needed something other than carrots and potatoes AGAIN for dinner.
I sliced open the belly and pulled out the main bone, digging around in there for as many smaller bones as I could find.
Ten minutes later, the bones were gone from this one fish, but still, it was covered in scales in spite of the fact that I’d washed it several times.
After attempting to clean several sardines, I realized there was no way in hell I was going to eat any fish, animal, or living creature that I needed to kill, cut, or clean; ever.
I gave the whole mess to the dogs and cats in the village, and dreamed about the eggs I would have the next morning for breakfast.
This morning, a few weeks after the savage sardine murdering incident, I knew I had no other choice but to try again.
After learning that the process of begging the village macadam, (local sheriff) for transportation permission documents, a riad owner in Marrakech for accommodations, the US Embassy for assistance to get to the city “Godfather (the caid or governor) for permission to actually live in Marrakech until the lockdown is over, and a friend for a ride into the city so that I could be closer to a supermarket, hospital and help in an emergency, I was told that it was not possible after all. I was truly stuck here in this village and had no idea how much longer the lockdown was going to be.
I was simply going to have to learn how to survive here in the Agafay desert. And my next lesson would be to learn to be a savage psycho sardine murderer.
Negate took pity on me, showing me how to clean and cook the dinner I knew I could never eat now. But I stood there, forcing myself to watch her as she performed what was just another simple daily task in a day in the life of a village woman who could kick the ass of any mass murderer America could produce.
So…how have you changed (for better or worse) since the coronavirus lockdown? Comment below.
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This article was written by April Hope.
To learn more about her and her travels throughout Morocco and around the world, click here.