Sunday morning. Took my sleepy puppies out into the garden just before dawn this morning — a rooster crowing in the distance — and the air was sweet and damp, still full of the night-scented jasmine. One of the great gifts of sobriety is being able to enjoy the dawn each morning, to wake up clear-headed and eager to begin the day.
A friend is coming for lunch. She rang, sounding down, and I invited her over. I shall go Arabic because I have a small bottle of pomegranate juice. For the main course I shall make Mjaddarah, which consists of golden caramelised onions with lentils and rice, very basic, but delicious. Then a spinach dish with cinnamon and tomato, and a salad of finely sliced raw fennel bulb, oranges and olives. My friend is not vegetarian, in fact she is a dedicated meat-eater, but at this time of the month, a bulb of raw fennel is as good as it gets and she will get a chance to expand her culinary horizons. I will warn her about the cinnamon because it is a key ingredient but startling to someone who only encounters it in pancakes with syrup. If she really hates the food despite the fragrant and enticing aromas filling the house, I shall make her a scrambled egg on toast.
Then we shall have halved fresh figs with honey and a creamy Greek-style yoghurt. I am tempted to poach the figs in pomegranate syrup with star anise but this is a friend of little imagination who is fond of the familiar. She likes spreadsheets that balance and meals with three courses that arrive on time. But today she must sit out on the grass and eat tender figs with honey running down her chin while the puppies gambol around us.
When I was eleven years old, my father took my sister and myself with him on a business trip to Tangiers in northern Morocco, off the Straits of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. A Phoenician port that became Roman, then Byzantine, French and Berber.
I loved Tangiers, the desert flowing up to the city walls, the tall raffia palms, the alleys and labyrinths of the souk, the older parts of the city still medieval. When I went out and walked around with the hotel guide on hot afternoons, we could hear fountains splashing from behind the walls concealing courtyards of orange trees and date palms. I desperately hoped somebody would kidnap me and let me stay in a harem with blue mosaics and patterned rugs, smoke opium and loll around in veils, wearing nothing but musky perfumes, eating sugary pigeon pies all day.
In later years I read Arabic love poetry, ghazals, and then the novels of Paul and Jane Bowles set in Tangiers, as well as the North African writer Mohommed Choukri. Another kind of Africa entered my imagination, replacing the overheated adolescent daydreams. Before I returned to travel through the three countries of the Maghrib — Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia — I had read the feminist fiction of Zahra al-Jlasi, what is collected as al-Nas al-Muʾannath and I had stopped having fantasies about harems. I still have fantasies about the food though, and make the fiery chilli paste known as harissa each month, along with tagines of lamb with couscous. The other favourite in the Maghrib is rosewater, but that is too sweet and cloying for me, although I like a spoonful in a basin of water to wash my face in the summer heat.
As the sun rises in the sky, it is getting uncomfortably hot and I need to get back to work. I put cubes of ice in the puppies’ drinking water, their stainless steel bowls filled to the brim, so that the clean water stays cool for longer. I myself prefer steaming hot cups of leaf tea, which oddly works to keep me cool.
Abundance. Something else to be grateful for on a summer morning with swallows looping over the grass and the newly planted drifts of agapanthus.