Wednesday, June 28

Artist, cook has traveled road to Morocco

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Story ImageLarbi Kharchaf, 65, has spent much of his life in the country of Morocco. He lives in Crown Point, is a former soccer player and coach, and is an artist who cooks at Bronko’s Kitchen Delite in Lowell. | Photo provided

Updated: January 30, 2012 10:04AM

Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman): “… Let’s see, the last time we met … .”

Rick (Humphrey Bogart): “Was La Belle Aurore.”

Ilsa: “How nice; you remembered. But, of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.”

Rick: “Not an easy day to forget.”

Ilsa: “No.”

Rick: “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray; you wore blue.”

— From the 1942 movie
“Casablanca”

I recently interviewed Paul Montemeyer of Morocco. Larbi Kharchaf also has lived in Morocco — Africa, that is.

He’s a debonair chap who speaks with a slight accent and reminds me of actor John Cassavetes, who always reminded me of actor Martin Landau.

Kharchaf, 65, lives in a studio apartment in Crown Point, is a former soccer player and coach, and is an artist who cooks at Bronko’s Kitchen Delite in Lowell.

***

Please tell me about the exotic, mysterious country of Morocco.

“Morocco is in the foremost northwest corner of Africa, across from Spain and the Rock of Gibraltar,” he said. “We had a lot of Spanish people living with us.”

But you’re not a Spaniard.

“No, I’m a Berber. Berbers in northern Africa are like American Indians in this country. My surname is the Berber word for artichoke. The different tribes of the area often had skirmishes over land. My ancestors would hide behind the artichoke plants.”

Is the Berber language Arabic?

“Yes; actually, we’re trilingual. We speak Arabic, French and Spanish. In grammar school, I took Arabic in the morning and French in the afternoon. I ended up being a French teacher in Morocco.”

Impressive.

“Before and during World War II, we were occupied by the French … not occupied; what is the word? Protectorate. The French protected the king and our people from the Nazis.

“A lot of Jewish people came to Morocco because of (Adolf) Hitler. The same with the Spanish people, who were fleeing their (fascist) dictator, (Gen. Francisco) Franco.”

Tourism in Morocco?

“There is much tourism in Morocco. The boats and ferries come in every day. It takes about two hours to cross the Strait of Gibraltar.”

Larbi, there’s a small town in Newton County named Morocco.

“I’ve been there; it’s south on U.S. 41. I asked the older people of the town how Morocco got its name; the stories I was told differed.”

Newton County Historical Society member Beth Bassett once told me that several men were working on what would become the west boundary of the town during the mid-1800s, when a stranger rode up on horseback. He dismounted and asked for directions to Kankakee, Ill.

The stranger happened to be wearing a pair of boots trimmed in red Moroccan leather. The workmen were so impressed by the boots they decided to call their town Morocco. Beth also told me Morocco is the only town of that name in the world.

“Interesting. Moroccan leather is very popular around the world; it’s tanned in the ancient southern town of Marrakesh. It’s a very beautiful part of Morocco, with many palm trees, dates and oranges.

“All the buildings are mauve. If you go to the country of Morocco, you must visit Marrakesh. Another tannery is in the town of Fez.”

Like the Turkish hat.

“Correct.”

Casablanca?

“Casablanca is in Morocco, about 350 kilometers south of Tangier. The hotel where they filmed the movie with Humphrey Bogart is still there. The lounge is still there, too.”

Rick’s Cafe.

“The American tourists follow that. The owners keep the place looking just like it did in the movie. The pianist has to be a black man.”

When did you come to this country?

“In 1971; I married a Polish girl from the south side of Chicago. We met on the beach in Morocco. We were married in Morocco in 1969. I spoke very little English and she spoke very little French. She got homesick after a few years.

“We’re divorced now, but she is a good lady.”

Did you and your wife have children?

“Yes, two sons.”

“We lived in Park Forest, Ill., so one of our sons graduated from Rich East High School; the younger son attended Crown Point High School.”

Are you a religious man?

“I’m a Muslim, but I don’t really practice. Are you Greek?”

No, my grandfather’s family emigrated from Italy when he was 10.

“I’m learning Italian with the CDs. If you know French or Spanish, you can learn Italian very quickly.”

How long did it take you to become fluent in English?

“About two years; I learned from my wife and in-laws.”

Your working career in America?

“I started out a Barnaby’s restaurant in Park Forest, then I got a job at (General Electric) in Chicago Heights, Ill. I worked there about 14 years until it shut down in 1987.

“After my divorce in 1980, I moved to Chicago Heights, Ill. I used to hang around with the Italian people at places like Savoia’s Restaurant. I would come to Dyer to buy cigarettes because they were cheaper.

“I went to bartending school after GE closed down. I tended bar at Idlewild Country Club in Homewood, Ill. It was a private Jewish club. Bartending started getting boring after awhile.”

Then what?

“I got homesick and went back to Morocco for six years. My friend opened up a little coffee shop. Music was played there; my friend was a very good lute player.

“I worked for him and slept at the coffee shop. Then, I started painting post cards. Some of my paintings are hanging in the Main Street Cafe in Crown Point.”

When did you return to the United States?

“About ’93, I moved to Lowell. I’ve been in Crown Point since ’95. You come next time and I’ll prepare couscous for us. It’s like a grain pasta. It’s all wheat — very healthy for you.

“You put it in hot water first, a little bit of butter, a little bit of salt. Then you cover it and let it stand for five minutes like rice. You eat it with a spoon.”

You eat pasta with a spoon?

“We serve it shaped like a volcano with a hole on top. In the crater, you put the chicken or beef. We place the vegetables around the base of the pyramid. You wet the volcano with a bowl of sauce and a ladle on the side.”

Like marinara?

“No tomatoes. Spices like olive oil, parsley, cumin, garlic … .”

No tomatoes?

***

I learned a lot from the likeable Larbi Kharchaf.

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