By Maria Luisa Frasson-Nori
RABAT, Morocco — A cluster of bamboo-like stalks sticks out above the crowd on Avenue Mohammed V in Rabat, attracting those seeking refreshment from a hot summer afternoon. Hamid Rhandour watches passersby until a customer stops by his stand to buy a cup of freshly pressed sugarcane juice.
“In Arab countries, there are a lot of people unemployed and this is a self-driven alternative, in order to put money in my pocket,” Rhandour, 35, says as he leans against the clunky green juicer machine, wrapped in eye-catching advertising banners that promote the health benefits of sugarcane. “It’s not a well-organized system. It’s just me.”
Rhandour is an unemployed university graduate capitalizing on the recent popularity of healthy juices to make a living. For the residents and visitors of Rabat’s seventeenth-century medina, the preferred natural refreshment is qasab bsukkar, or sugarcane juice, because of its alleged health benefits.
Rhandour and his partner bought the pressing machine from Egypt and were the only vendors on Ave. Mohammed V until 2011. They first opened the business in 2007 after Rhandour lost his job as a professor of sociology at a university in Fes, and it has been their source of income ever since.
“I’m always in the same spot because I have four friends in this area with me,” says Rhandour. “We help each other.”
Five years ago, Tawfiq Amribaj, 28, quit school and moved to Rabat to man a sugarcane juice stand near the primary intersection on Mohammed V.
“I was not able to complete my studies because I didn’t have enough money and the school was far from my house,” says Amribaj, who is paid 2000 MAD a month for his work maintaining the juice stand.
Now, you can find him behind the conspicuous green posters promoting the health benefits of sugarcane, working the crank as two deeply indented cylinders press against each other stripping the stalk of its juice and nutrients. The dry remains are deposited into a large black trash bag secured in place against the machine and a nearby wall by a thin brown rope.
“I have maybe 300 customers a day,” Amribaj says as he hands a woman and her daughter a cold cup of sugarcane juice. “This is only in the summer.”
A weekly consumer of the sugarcane nectar, Badrdine Boulaid, 35, believes in the health benefits of the sugarcane, which is farmed in the north-western Gharb region of the country, where Boulaid lives. He rattles off the various diseases and body parts that sugarcane purportedly relieves, among them “kidneys, diabetes, and rheumatism.”
“The taste is not so good, but the health benefits are what makes me want to drink it.” says Boulaid.
The advertised health benefits of sugarcane are enough to convert even the most careful customers. Bouchra Sahimda, who grew up and still lives in Rabat at age 40, says she has always been hesitant to eat or drink from street stands.
Even so, she would be willing to reconsider this rule because of the juice’s supposed positive effects on the body, which she said she read on the advertisement panels.
“Maybe I will use it as medicine and not as food or drink,” she says, adding that this trend has only recently become popular. “Maybe if I am sick and they say that this will make you recover, I will drink it.”
As a vendor, Rhandour is well aware of the advantage that the healthy image of the drink brings to his business. He reads off of the graphics on the side of the juice machine the advantage sugarcane brings: containing fiber, calcium, iron, proteins, and Vitamins A and C, the plant is good for the heart, kidneys, knees, and even foot aches.
However, the juice vendor does not consider this a long-term job. “When I find another opportunity, I will go for it,” he says. “This is temporary.”
While the qasab gives Rhandour and Amribaj an opportunity to support themselves, there is some sense of distrust toward the vendors by the public.
Brahim Elataoui, 48, the head chef at the Central for Cross-Cultural Learning in Rabat, is one such voice of opposition. The advertised health benefits of the sugarcane, Brahim says, depend on the quality of the crop. Thick stalks and a deep green tint are indicators of high quality sugarcane. According to Brahim, however, street vendors only use the cheap ones.
He also argues that the cleanliness of both the machine and the vendor cannot be trusted. “They don’t clean the qasab. I see it when they put put the wood in. I don’t like this manner,” he says, adding that he would rather buy the juice from a supermarket.
As for regular customers, many are content with enjoying the peace of mind that comes with the sweet flavor of the sugarcane juice.
“I don’t want to think about it that much,” says Boulaid, who drinks the sugarcane regularly. “You just pay, drink, and don’t think twice about it.”
At any mention of the dispute over the cleanliness of his product, Amribaj becomes defensive.
He insists that he takes care of the machine by cleaning it daily, and he turns to the woman running the neighboring corner store to verify his story. He takes all precautions, making sure that the customer is watching when he pours the drink into their cup to avoid any misunderstandings.
After all, his livelihood depends on it.