It’s been a month since I had dinner with the Princess Lalla Hasna of Morocco (and 250 other people,) but the details of the evening will forever be emblazoned in my mind. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and nothing like I expected.
The dinner was part of the World Environmental Education Congress, as the Princess was the President of the congress committee. But of the 2500+ people who attended the congress, only 250+/- got to attend the formal event. We applied in advance, and didn’t really know until the day before if we were indeed invited or not. There were a lot of disappointed congress attendees who didn’t get a ticket, despite their registration months in advance. I wonder if it was due to security issues, or fluctuating numbers, or what. But in any case, the day of the dinner I stood in line for an hour, and was rewarded with my formal dinner invitation.
I had planned and planned what I was going to wear, and got all dressed up the night of of the dinner.
The dinner said 8 o’clock, and there was no way I was going to be late. So at 7 o’clock, I grabbed a cab to the Congres du Palais and boarded a bus with my fellow attendees to the Palais El Badi, an ancient palace in ruins. Here is a picture of it during the day.
When we entered the palace around 8:15, they told us all not to take pictures, and I was glad I had not lugged my huge camera. But as soon as we were in, everyone took tons of pictures for the rest of the night. And I was kicking myself that I had not brought my camera. The following photos are from friends of mine from Lebanon and Spain… Thanks R and J!
We made a red carpet entrance. All the Moroccan ladies were in beautiful traditional dress, as well as some dignitaries from other countries. It was funny though, because we were an environmental crowd, there was some discrepancy in what people considered formal. Some of our granola crunching members (ok, so I fit in with them but I had a dress!) were in cobbled-together outfits, with a rumbled cotton hiking shirt under a borrowed jacket, or a sundress. But whatever. There were many people in formal wear and everyone felt welcome.
Don’t my friend J and I look dashing?
The palace was absolutely fabulous. The crumbling walls were all lit up with coloured lights. A brisk wind blew right through the ruins… later we found out that it had been designed that way, to cool off at night. There was a huge platform over the pools you see in the picture, and the tables were glamourously laid out in the huge open centre of the space. I went with my new friend from Lebanon and her thesis supervisor from France to a table where my buddy from Spain and his Catalonian friends were seated. We chatted for almost an hour, until finally, just after 9pm, the Princess arrived!
She was escorted in by music, and as soon as she was seated, the show began. It was a wonderful musical show based on the elements of the earth, with traditional Muslim songs, fire dancers, drummers and an amazing singer from Mauritania, and child and grandfather narrating the whole show. Obviously, no expense had been spared, and it was very grand and lovely. Our Lebanese companion speaks Arabic, so she translated the dialogue and songs into French for me and her supervisor, then I translated it into English for my friend J, and he would translate into Catalonian for his friends. It was fun because we were constantly chatting just to understand what was happening.
After an hour, the show finished. Man, we were getting hungry! It was after 10pm, and I hadn’t had supper. Our waiter started bringing out pretty tangine pots full of sauces and preserves. One waiter per table? We wondered why, but were soon to find out why. Next came out the huge haunch of lamb! Delicious! We were all prepared to eat with our hands, as we knew Moroccans generally did, but the waiter waggled his finger at us, and told us when dining with the Princess, forks were the only way to go! The Princess, by the way, was sitting with Vandana Shiva, Wanjira Maathai and other speakers and dignitaries (including one of my old profs, nicknamed “Jickles” by his students) just three tables away.
But no later than ten minutes after the lamb arrived, the platter was whisked away. The waiter hurriedly cleaned up all the tangine pots of condiments, and then arrived with my favourite dish of the night, the seafood! Hmmmm.. Squid and shrimp to die for. But then again, almost comically, not everyone was even served at the table, before he came to whisk it away. We had no idea! But the tradition at these formal events is to burn through the courses. I kid you not.. We ate five courses in less than an hour flat! We were all stuffing our faces, laughing, and enjoying the heck out of a totally different cultural experience. Each course, we treated our bustling, sweating waiter with applause and enthusiasm, which he thought was hilarious.
The fruit course arrived, and just as we started peeling bananas, the Princess was ready to leave. So we all stood while the music escorted her out. Our table sat down again, but then realized that all the Moroccans were leaving out the doors too. Huh? We asked the waiter if we could spend a while eating our fruit course. He smiled, shrugged and said “Well, you can stay for two minutes.”
Well then! We all let the fruit go, got up, and made our way outside of the palace. As we were walking back towards the square where some of us were getting cabs, we couldn’t stop laughing. What an awesome experience… But nothing like we had imagined!
I’ll never forget the glamorous, hungry evening… having dinner with a Moroccan Princess.