Culture & Conversation Economic Justice

Moroccan Eatery Serves Hope for Women—and Dessert

Kira Zalan

Most of the women at Amal were child maids or didn’t have access to education; many are single mothers who were shunned by their families and communities.

It’s a scalding Moroccan afternoon and Amal just ran out of its signature lemon-mint juice. While most patrons know enough to make lunch reservations in advance, this correspondent showed up unannounced—and grateful there was enough food to accommodate those like me. The restaurant, consistently ranked by TripAdvisor reviewers in the top three in Marrakech, is often packed with an equal mix of expats, tourists, and locals—many are regular customers.

There are no menus. It’s Friday, and that means the women in the open-air kitchen at the back have prepared large vats of airy couscous and chicken stewed with lemon long enough to fall off the bone at the right time. Before a prepared dish leaves the kitchen, it is styled with gourmet touches. The traditional tajine is garnished with squash shredded into thin long ribbons and chickpeas cooked to perfect texture, while the couscous is sprinkled with exactly the right amount of cinnamon to tie together the delicate flavors.

Amal specializes in expertly executed Moroccan and international dishes, with an upscale twist. But it’s more than a popular restaurant—it’s a social enterprise. The women cooking, baking, serving, and welcoming customers are trainees, learning skills that will help them land jobs and generate an income. Most were child maids or didn’t have access to education; many are single mothers who were shunned by their families and communities.

Morocco often receives praise for having some of the most progressive family laws in the region, but traditional attitudes are slow to change. Cultural obstacles, stigma, and discrimination affect some 27,200 unwed women who become pregnant each year, according to Institution Nationale De Solidarité Avec Les Femmes En Détresse (INSAF), a Casablanca nonprofit that fights for the socio-economic betterment of these women and their children. An estimated two-thirds were sent to work informally as domestic help before the age of 15. In 2011, Fadwa Laroui, a 25-year-old single mother of two, set herself on fire in protest of being denied housing on the basis of her marital status.

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With organizations such as Amal, INSAF, and Association Solidarité Féminine providing advocacy, resources, and professional training for single Moroccan mothers, the narrative—and the norm—is slowly changing.

“Moroccan Women Are Magicians With Their Hands”

When Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, an American-Moroccan living in Marrakech, met Saida (a pseudonym), she was only vaguely familiar with the prevalence of the problem. Walking her daughter to school, Fitzgerald would pass Saida and her two small children on the street day after day. She would stop to talk and give her some coins or children’s clothes. One day she asked how much Saida was able to collect begging: two to three dollars a day, she learned.

[Photo: Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen sits at a table.]

Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, founder of Amal Restaurant. (Photo Credit: Abderrahim Bouglas)

“I think we all are conscious that there are people like this in the world, and that this is a world problem. But we protect ourselves from this reality because its overwhelming and we don’t know what to do about it,” Fitzgerald said, recalling that moment in a recent TEDx Talk. “But every now and then something pierces through the protection, pierces through the armor into our hearts. For me it was that moment—and because of that, not doing something was not an option.”

She wrote a long email to family and friends, detailing the social taboo and poverty that exist in her country and asking them to contribute.

Later, Fitzgerald also helped Mariem (a pseudonym), whom she knew for years before the unmarried woman became pregnant. Like many poor women, Mariem went to work at 10 years old as a maid. When she became pregnant at 40, she had nothing to her name, and nowhere to turn. After taking her in, Fitzgerald helped the new mother rent a room. In the past, women like Mariem gave up their babies, either voluntarily or by force from government authorities, but that norm is slowly changing.

Both Saida and Mariem worked jobs cleaning houses, but mostly they depended on money from Fitzgerald and her network. After five years of this, Fitzgerald felt drained and disillusioned; the setup was not sustainable. She began to look for a solution that would really change their situation instead of keeping them afloat.

Her husband was working at a language and cultural center nearby. What if they could make baked goods that kids would love?

“Moroccan women are magicians with their hands, they can make amazing things out of the simplest ingredients,” said Fitzgerald. “Literally with flour and oil and water, they can make these super-delicate baked goods and fried breads.”

Fitzgerald collected recipes from her American parents: chocolate chip cookies, lemon bars, brownies, and cheesecake. “These are foreign to Moroccan baking, but I’d teach them the recipe and they would take it and run with it and make it so much better,” she said. “They could see a recipe one time and then take it to the next level.”

Soon the women were earning around $140 a month, or just half of the country’s minimum wage, which enabled them to pay rent and support their kids. “I remember them saying to me, ‘The color’s come back to our cheeks,’” Fitzgerald recalled. “You see, they had never worked for themselves before, never not been domestic servants or in abusive work situations.”

In 2013, after months of “obsessing” about the need for a space that would provide more women opportunity and visibility, Fitzgerald founded Amal, which means “hope” in Arabic. She borrowed money from friends to rent a building and then received a three-year development grant from the Swiss Drosos Foundation. In 2016, fully self-sufficient, Amal opened a second location, with a state-of-the-art kitchen and a plot that could be turned into a garden.

On a recent visit, the new kitchen hummed with purpose. A fresh batch of women were at various stations, focused on their instructors. They were selected through referrals and interviews, with priority given to single mothers and child maids. Those who agreed to step away briefly said they were hopeful that the four-month course would change their situation.

Fitzgerald, who serves as the organization’s president, says the factors that make people invisible—skin color, nationality, disability, age—change with location. In Morocco, poverty plays a significant role in how people are marginalized too.

“When we scan a room, we don’t register them because we tend to ignore people that we perceive as less important than ourselves. It’s kind of an automatic thing. We don’t start out like that, but somehow our brains acquire this pattern,” Fitzgerald said in last year’s TEDx Talk. “Being seen is important because when you’re invisible to the people who have privilege and who have power you become erased from the narrative. And decisions in society are made that don’t serve your needs. And you don’t benefit from the advantages that society should give you. Space creates visibility. And this is what Amal Centre is. It’s a dedicated space for these invisible women to come into existence and be honored for who they are.”

When the women leave the training program, they’ve mastered 40 to 50 recipes; learned to read and write in Arabic, French or English; and trained in life skills like stress management and communication. Amal also connects its graduates with a network of employers, placing the women into, often, their first formal job with a paycheck.

“They become agents of their own lives,” said Fitzgerald.

Some 180 women have now gone through Amal’s program, which currently employs 25 full-time staff to oversee the training, including the two women who inspired the project. Mariem oversees the cooking courses for tourists, and Saida is in charge of the desserts.

And those desserts deserve their own story. Back at the restaurant, the chicken tajine was followed by a delicate lemon mousse, topped with crushed pistachios—a culinary ode to Morocco’s rich flavors, with a touch of magic from the women who make it all run.

UPDATE, March 8, 12:30 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include additional information about Amal’s staff size.

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