Posts filed under ‘History’


Our driver began speaking Turkish with me immediately. I asked how he knew Turkish. “I’m a Turk,” he answered. As we made our way through Syrian customs and passport control, he spoke Arabic with the officials. Back in the car, as we crossed into Turkey, I asked when he learned Arabic. “I’m an Arab,” he responded. We arrived in Antakya (Antioch) two hours after leaving Aleppo, half of it at the border. Before the city became part of Turkey in 1939, no border crossing would have been necessary.

The book I’m working on tells the story of how Antakya and the province around it were detached from Syria and joined to Turkey. But it focuses largely on national identities, how people decide to which national group they belong. Our driver made it quite clear that no choice actually needed to be made. He claimed that 70% of the people of Antakya spoke Arabic in addition to Turkish. Since only Turkish is taught in schools, however, many remain illiterate in Arabic.


The city seems much more than a few kilometers from Aleppo. The color is striking on the Turkish side of the border. Syria has a monochromatic color scheme: the streets, the buildings, the walls, are all made of stone, and everything is white. Turks paint their houses, sometimes outrageous colors (lavender apartment blocks?). Turkish signs and billboards are all in Latin characters. And most women don’t cover their heads on the Turkish side of the border. Turkey’s enforced secularization actually prohibits women students and state employees from covering. Women at Mustafa Kemal University in Antakya stop at a phone booth right inside the gate to remove their scarves as they enter campus. I waited to make a phone call as one student checked her hair in the little mirror above the phone. She giggled when I asked her if the mirror was hers. Apparently, it is a collective mirror for use after removing scarves on the way in and replacing scarves before going back into the street.


Our days in Antakya were enlightening and enjoyable, thanks largely to our “host,” Koray Cengiz. He runs the local university’s international exchange programs. I found him through “couch-surfing,” a movement my daughter introduced me to. Koray made us a reservation at Mustafa Kemal University’s guest house, scheduled appointments for me with local historians, introduced us to some of his friends, and walked and walked through the city with us. By the end of our visit, we had learned about the Erasmus program, teaching English in Turkey, the city, and the university. He had learned more than he had probably ever wanted to know about Antakya between 1936 and 1939.


  William consults on 1936 map: Where are they now?

William and I walked the routes of the myriad demonstrations during that period, nearly all of which focused on the bridge over the Orontes River. We found the best Iskender Kebab in town (maybe even in Turkey), and sat looking at terrific photos of Antakya in 1940. Our waiter called the phone number attached to the photos, and soon we sat in the office of the photographer looking through prints he had made of his first professional shots, when he was still in his early 20s.

By the end of our stay, I became convinced I had never seen such a bi-national city. On one hand, Turkish flags and pictures of Ataturk were everywhere. I was surprised by the huge number of flags displayed, and Koray explained that flags were flying throughout Turkey in response to the recent attacks on Turkish soldiers further east. There were few remaining signs in Arabic, even fewer than we had seen in the summer of 2001 when we stayed in the city for just one night.

On the other hand, the bazaar looks and sounds like Syria’s suqs, though more of the shops have glass fronts. There is a distinctive smell in Aleppo’s markets that I noticed in Antakya, too, some combination of cardamon-flavored coffee beans, roasting nuts and corn, grilling meat, and open barrels of spices.

On the bus back to Antakya from Istanbul, we sat in front of a father and son whose conversation mixed Arabic and Turkish within sentences. As we stood waiting for our bags in Antakya, I greeted the man, explaining that we were living in Aleppo for a few months. He immediately responded with a dinner invitation, which I was sad to have to decline. The amazing propensity toward hospitality seems as ubiquitous among Turks as among Arabs–no national choice necessary.

 Thanks to Russ for posting the previous three entries. really is blocked in Turkey!

November 17, 2007 at 3:34 pm Leave a comment

Amman: Images of The Other

Syrian food is likely among the best in the world, but after two months in Aleppo, we wanted to find something else when we returned to the big city of Amman on Thursday.   We decided to start at the Irish Pub, who advertise a Happy Hour during Ramadan, which means that if you buy one drink between 5 and 7 you got the second free. The Irish Pub looks like it belongs on Franklin Street, the main street that skirts the University of North Carolina campus.

irishpub2.jpg  irishpubsign1.jpg

Outside, groups of people had flooded the streets, apparently on their way to Eid celebrations. We saw similar scenes the next two evenings, people out in huge numbers, especially the 20- and 30- somethings out in the Shmaisani district, fashionable women dressed remarkably well, whether in long coats and matching headscarfs or the latest jeans and jackets. (Cowboy outfits seem the popular new holiday attire for the girls 4-8 year old set this year.)

diner.jpg meccamall.jpg

On the way to losing the French restaurant we had read about, we drove past the enormous grounds of the US Embassy in Amman. Apparently it is that big so US officials can live inside the compound for protection. (Is an embassy an embassy–that is, an institution set up to engage those of another country–if its members must be so completely separated from the people of that country?)

Frustrated at our inability to find what we sought, we stumbled upon Zee Diner, an effort to recreate a contemporary American diner, which in itself reflects recent efforts in the US to revive the 1950s and 1960s diner, which grew up alongside American car culture. It looks a bit like a set for a Jordanian filming of Grease. US license plates hung on all the walls, along with framed photos of old cars (no juke boxes). The menu was hamburger-heavy. Most striking was the clientele, affluent high-school aged Jordanian kids who were being cool and speaking fluent English with their friends.

I think I understood this a bit more the next day watching TV, which was repeatedly interrupted to advertise the newest season of US sitcoms that were to begin airig in Jordan in mid-October. They are all portraying and promoting an affluent (idealized?) American youth culture: clothes, cars, friends, jobs, sex and alcohol. The upscale and interestingly-named Mecca Mall sells the products they will need to enter into that consumer dreamworld. US culture, superimposed on Jordan’s elite youth, whom Malik suggested would know more about America than about Jordan and their fellow Jordanians when they become the new leaders of the country in a decade or two.

jarash3.jpg jarash.jpg williamchecksouttheacoustics.jpg jordanianpipes.jpg

No transitions seem to work from there to Jarash, a remarkably intact set of ruins for what the books claim is a typical Roman city. There seemed little overlap with Petra, except that both are striking remnants of a society that has evolved over many, many centuries. We visited the Temple of Artemis, Jarash’s patron goddess. William fulfilled the requisite speech-making in the north ampitheatre to check out the incredible acoustics, a good thing since there was a bag piper playing in the south ampitheatre (amazing what the British leave strewn around their former empire). Then on to the Amman coliseum and its attached folklore museum. A couple years ago, the government pushed a “We Are All Jordan” campaign, whose posters remain visible in many places. I’m fascinated with the disparate elements this society gets to put together to fashion that identity, and how politics, antiquity, royalty, Palestine, and US cool all fit into it.

The evening was spent with more of Malik’s wonderful friends. Mostly journalists, they answered many of the questions we had been developing over the past three months. They talked about diversity within Jordan, the challenges of being a loyal opposition, the complete comfort with which Christians and Muslims live together in Jordan, press freedom, the challenges facing the Middle East in the age of empire.

Bab al-Hara is finished, but the producers have promised a third season next Ramadan. I’m waiting for the whole 2007 season to be released on DVD. I don’t know a similar phenomenon, where the streets clear out as men and women, from school age to well past retirement, urban and rural and from all classes, stop what they are doing and watch TV for an hour each night. Seems to be a popular culture phenomenon. And this one is quite historical. I will muse for a while, I think, on the implications of Jordanians and Syrians in 2007 watching a program about the French mandate where the only real bad guy was a French spy. What is this about? Maybe people just loved the music and the costumes? Is there some role this plays in the construction of modern Syrian/Jordanian identity?

October 15, 2007 at 8:37 am Leave a comment


I understand now why Petra is included in the recent list of the 7 Wonders of the World.

Back up the road to Amman for almost 100 kilometers, we got a better look at the mountains, the goats, the donkeys, the intermittent bedouin tents, and the occasional camel-crossing warning sign. The road past Wadi Musa (where some say the biblical Moses brought water from the rock) is quite beautiful, passing through a number of small villages and two huge international hotels before descending, descending down to the visitors station of Petra. This is a national monument that the Jordanian government is clearly interested in both preserving and promoting. Admission is a bit pricy for foreigners ($30 each; Jordanians pay about $1.50).


The upper plaza is open to the sun, which was still very hot in mid-October. The walking path descends for a while before entering the Siq, a canyon paved by the Nabateans and the Romans after them, whose high walls provide shade and cool. This was the place where the Nabateans processed during religious ceremonies, and it is indeed awe-inspiring. The cliff faces on both sides rise sharply in many colors simultaneously. An open pipe carved into the rock at waist-level all along the Siq provided water to the Napatean capital.


The narrow Siq ends abruptly directly in front of what appears to be a fabulous classical building. But it wasn’t built, it was carved, carved into the stone faces. The Nabateans were spectacular carvers, and Petra displays an amazing intersection between a spectacular natural rock formation and a creative and skilled human effort. The carved building facades are quite beautiful. In some, the combination of the swirling stone coloring and the carvings made them look like something Dr. Seuss might have consulted on. We didn’t walk all the way to the Temple, but did see a number of tombs and a Nabatean ampitheater that the Romans expanded. We tried to imaging what it might have been like living in this city, what people might have eaten, how they would have used the spaces.


The Nabateans were a tribe from Arabia, whose empire stretched from Damascus south to the center of Arabia and lasted from the second century BC through the second century AD. Petra, the capital city, remained important well after the empire was assimilated by the Romans in 106 AD . A pre-Islamic Arab tribe whose writing seems to have prefigured early Arabic script, the Nabateans are an important symbol of the kind of identity the Kingdom of Jordan emphasizes.

The city is spread along a valley and up into the hillside, houses, tombs, and public buildings all carved into the stone. Vendors offer coffee, tea, soda, and souvenirs at various places within the monument. One young man from the neighboring town approached us, his arms full of necklaces, speaking English. Malik explained that he belongs to a local tribe that thrives on the tourist industry, each member knowing how to speak many languages. As we admired his wares, he talked to Malik. Their business is local, he explained. They make their jewelry from local stone, camel bone, and camel teeth. The government was thinking about allowing big firms to take over the souvenir trade in Petra, he told Malik. Why don’t they just provide support to the local craftspeople instead?


We were tired, and decided to hire another young man with a horse carriage to take us back up, up to the entrance. The horse seemed very tired. At one point he handed Malik the reins, instructing him how to drive, then left briefly to talk with someone. When we got to the Roman road, he took them back–we understand why Romans had big wheels. (We didn’t!)

Suddenly, a rider galloped past us, quite a feat inside the Siq! He called to our driver, who gave up the reins and ran after him. Seems they were both trying to get to a horse that had run off. Our driver disappeared. Malik, and then William, drove the slowest horse at Petra. We must have looked quite cute, as people from a large busloads of Israeli tourists kept stopping to photograph us. I think it was our speed–our horse was apparently used to drawing an Amish-style cart and moved at that rate.

As we approached the end of the road, we began wondering what we would do with this horse, whose driver was nowhere to be seen. He appeared at the last moment, took the payment, and introduced himself as “Dr. Love.”

October 13, 2007 at 1:13 pm 1 comment

Che and Bashar

In honor of today’s BBC’s story on images of Che, here is my current favorite, from a Christian-owned sweet shop in Aleppo (with a reputation for the best ice cream in the city). In the middle is Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hizbullah.


Che images were ubiquitous throughout Morocco.   From the coastal town of Essouira: 


From Casablanca: chesmall.jpg

In Syria, the most common images are of Bashar Assad, the President.

 basharbuilding.jpg basharsuq.jpg

While in Morocco images of the King portray him engaging in an activity related to the theme of the establishment displaying the photograph (often with his wife or a child), Bashar’s photographs are usually only pictures of his head. He is often shown with his father or his deceased brother, very rarely with his wife and children.


Still, the photos can be displayed in fascinating ways.


October 6, 2007 at 8:47 am 4 comments

Diversity, Division, Peace?

Two different experiences today made me wonder the extent to which this book I’m trying to finish is actually relevant to the present.

Before I left this morning for the Spiritual Library, a private library owned by the local Catholic Church, I read an email from a colleague in the US who asked what I thought of recent bipartisan calls for the partition of Iraq into three separate states.  


I was on my to Aziziyah, where Mazin, our new friend and a library volunteer, thought I might be able to find some sources helpful for this book. (Mazin is a biochemistry graduate about to go to Germany for a year’s study, and he just likes being in libraries.) On the way, I asked the taxi driver about the music I was hearing, and he told me it was Kurdish. He is a Kurd, from Aleppo, and he reassured me there are Kurds in many places.

I met Mazin in front of a different church–they tell me 11 different kinds of Christians live in Aleppo. (While I was waiting and watching the two nuns wearing habits across the street, I mused on their clothing and women’s dress in the city.)

I came home thinking about various Christians, the Kurds, and the red-haired driver last night who told me he was from Antioch. He had actually never been there, he said, but his grandparents came from there, and they speak Turkish. I thought about all the times I’ve heard people explain to me that Syria is a very diverse country.

I spend most of my time here writing about the French mandate in Syria, especially the 1930s. The French appeared in the mountains of what we now call Lebanon centuries ago, claiming that they were there to protect Christians. Their behavior, their “protection,” the special privileges that resulted for many Christians, elicited a significant amount of animosity in some circles, animosity that many historians believe helped to produce anti-Christian riots in the middle of the nineteenth century. Needless to say, after the riots the French were even more convinced of the need to “protect” Christians.

That need to protect groups now more broadly labeled “minorities” provided the ideological justification for the French occupation of Syria after World War I, at least in French eyes. The French decided that they actually needed to separate one group from another, and divided what is now Syria into four different statelets, an Alawi state on the northern coast (based in Lattakia), a Druze state in the southwest, and two Sunni states, one centered in Damascus and another in Aleppo.

While using the language of protection, and convincing themselves that all these people couldn’t possibly be expected to live together, French administrators within Syria were also writing of their fears that Muslims wanted to recreate an Islamic empire, that Syrians were inherently anti-Western and specifically anti-French. Dividing the country would clearly be essential in order to prevent such plans.

Iraqis had hardly lived in a paradise, but they had clearly lived together. Apparently, even now Iraqis are trying to avoid separating into confessional groups. Why would a bipartisan group in Washington think dividing the country into three parts might be a good idea? (Oh, yes, and, after all, didn’t the partition of South Asia into India and Pakistan in 1947 lead to peace for all time?)

I guess the other observation on the relevance of my research will wait.

September 26, 2007 at 12:42 pm Leave a comment

Aleppo Modern

I continue to be fascinated with Aleppo. William and I walked today from our house to Bab al-Hadid to buy milk. Except for the supermarket at New Town, food stores specialize in certain kinds of things. One doesn’t find butter at the yogurt store, or the corner grocery, or the spice shop, for example; it is sold by the same man who sells breakfast cheese and zatar (a spice mixture).

woodhadid.jpg blacksmithhadid1.jpg  lumber.jpg

I was surprised to find, just a few yards from our house, a street of blacksmith and wood-working shops where people obviously still make tools by hand. Somehow, my tendency to see history as linear is challenged by the presence of these men working a short walk from the street where other men sell huge, industrially-produced pump equipment. I use “men” advisedly. The only consistent observation I have made here about small business is that men are the only obvious participants.


It does seem rather absurd to claim that “modern” and something else coexist in Aleppo. The city just seems to include a whole variety of forms of production. That range is evident not only among purveyors of tools and equipment, but also among clothiers (ready-made shops sell the latest European fashions and tailors make men’s shirts to order) and food producers. These photos juxtapose our stroll through part of the new city on Thursday evening to a “fast food” restaurant (great kebab) and the local equivalent of Starbucks (to-go cups, flavored syrups, cold coffee-drinks) with our walk through Bab al-Hadid area today. Thrown in are a couple of pictures from Saturday, when we took our Japanese housemate for her first walk through the suq. The reality of meat was almost enough to turn me into a vegetarian. We introduced her to our favorite foul shop (vegan).

fastfood.jpgcoffee.jpg  meat.jpgfulrestaurant.jpgfullunch.jpg

August 20, 2007 at 5:53 pm Leave a comment



University Entrance

Hala, my wonderful Arabic teacher, met me at the entrance to Aleppo University’s Faculty of Arts. She had introduced herself to the chair of the History Department the previous day to ask if he would be able to meet me. We walked into a huge hallway, past the empty hall used for exhibitions, and up to the third floor. Professor Abbasi welcomed me in his office, and, since what I had really wanted was simply to meet another historian (do most historians miss being around other historians when away from home?), we, of course, talked about history. Professor Abbasi does his research on the relations between the Ottomans and the Safavis, from 1501 to the mid-1700s. He also has studied Mosul, but 200 years earlier than me.

I asked him about the faculty. There are only seven full-time history faculty members in Aleppo, and the department relies on the teaching of a number of professors visiting each week from Damascus. He told me with some pride that nearly a dozen of their own graduates were now working on graduate degrees in Europe and other parts of the Middle East, and he was hopeful they would return to Aleppo to strengthen the local department.

Aleppo University Dormitory


Undergraduates in the department take an incredibly rigorous course load. Each history major takes six courses a semester. Their required courses include one in Geography, at least two years’ study of either Turkish or Persian, one European language, and a whole series of chronological/ regional courses on the ancient, medieval, and modern histories of the Middle East and Europe. They take one course on eastern Asia, and one on America. Although some students take more courses in geography or economics, they remain quite focused on their own major department. Hala, who finished her undergraduate degree in Arabic literature, tells me it was the same for them: an intensive course load that focused almost exclusively on the major. Hala is currently writing her masters’ thesis on Arabic children’s theater.

I enjoyed the company, the coffee, the history conversation, and then returned to work on my own project. When Hala arrived at 5:00 for another intensive Arabic hour, she brought a whole tray of kubbe that her mother had made for us! Trying to figure out what we could send back in the tray, I experimented last night with a Syrian peach pie. I know it is a poor craftsman who blames her tools, but I really do think that some measuring cups and a real pie pan would have improved the crust. We’ll try something else.

August 16, 2007 at 2:24 pm Leave a comment


I awoke in Rabat Friday morning. Morocco’s capital is on the coast, and much cooler than Fez.

It’s also a good respite. I thought Fez would be one of my favorite cities. It was a hugely important political and intellectual center for successive governments, including those who had gone on to rule Muslim Spain. But from the time we arrived in the city through the time we left, we encountered young men intent on acting as “guides,” insisting on taking us to carpet shops, showing us the tanneries, walking us to the best restaurants. On one hand, I am fascinated that this informal information economy seems to work to provide income and encourage language skills in what appears to be a huge number of young men. On the other, I found the “welcome” to be completely overwhelming and the men to be more ubiquitous, persistent, and impossible than any I have ever met.

We did get to see (and smell) one of the places they tan and dye leather. Walking without a guide, we ended up actually on the tanning floor, with the huge vats of “natural” chemicals and the overpowering smell of animal hides. We were invited further in, but politely backed out and found our way (with half a dozen “guides”) to the terrace overlooking the work. It reminded me of the Met’s film on Al Andalus, and I wondered if this part had been filmed in Fez. (A nice man with a basket of mint stalks hands them out to visitors on the way up the stairs. Thank you!)


The old city is huge and quite amazing. One of my unsung skills is getting lost, and Katie insisted on taking advantage of it before we left. The two of us started out heading down into the suq, then wandered off onto side streets, an hour and a half of wrong-directional walking that took us into dead ends and terrific courtyards. It seems the “guides” stay on the main road, and quite nice people actually live in the city. We were offered a ride by an old man on a donkey, who grinned at us and said, “Taxi?” We giggled with two 10 year old girls who thought we were hilarious and tried to speak to us in brand new French. Katie called me over to look in an open window in an otherwise completely blank wall–someone’s breakfast was laid out in a nicely tiled kitchen. After being consistently harassed by street men, it was wonderful to see that there really is a city back there. (There are truly advantages in this talent of getting lost!

The best part of our time in Fez, though, was spending the day with William’s Arabic teacher and his family. They live in NC during the school year, and spend many summers in Fez and surrounding towns with their families. Muhammad walked with us in the morning (the “guides” even hit on Moroccans!) and, with his wife, picked us up in the evening to take us to his mother’s house for “tea.” “Tea” includes coffee, mint tea, pancakes, croissants, doughnuts, and a huge array of cookies. We were delighted to get to meet Muhammad’s mother and sister, his wife and two children, both completely bilingual. They took us to the main street of the new city, quite crowded with Fassis walking up and down the streets, enjoying the cooler evening and the city’s wide streets and many, many impressive fountains. A local band played music at a street festival showing off some of Fez’ traditional crafts, and one could even buy tickets for a miniature train ride through the streets. We were all thrilled to get to meet William’s teach, a quiet, kind, and religious man–I’m told he is also a terrific teacher. And I really loved his wife and was grateful for the whole family’s kindness.

The other high point of our time in Fez was the local restaurant-in-the-wall. Just at the entrance of the suq, there are a whole series of little “restaurants,” more like storefronts with a sink and a couple of burners. It is amazing what they produce from such minimal equipment. We all love street food, and this man’s cooking was terrific! We managed to have three meals he cooked during our four days in Fez.


We hired a car and driver one of those days to go see the Roman ruins at Volubilis (Walili), the tomb of Moulay Idriss (great-grandson of the Prophet, credited with bringing Islam to Morocco), and the former imperial capital, Meknes. All three are in the mountains west of Fez, set in beautiful country that is also incredibly fertile. It seems most of Morocco’s wine is made near Meknes. This was the only place we had seen large-scale wheat farming. And the olive and orange groves were quite impressive.




Katie is touring the edges of the old Roman empire (thanks, Cecil!), and Volubilis made an impressive addition to her list. There are actually mosaics still left on the ground, between the fallen-down walls. The city remained in use until the huge earthquake in the mid-18th century finally destroyed it.

We couldn’t see much of the tomb, Lyautey’s influence again, but the town was quite nice. In Meknes, too, the chief site was closed to us (the one day a year that marks the death of the saint), but we did get to wander the city some and visit the remarkable structure that used to house the 12,000 horses of the ruler. The place feels as if it is air conditioned. Our house in NC is heated by heating water that is pumped through pipes in the floor. This place is cooled by sending cold water from a nearby spring through pipes under the building.

Yesterday we walked through Rabat. The old city is quite small, and it leads to the old kasbah overlooking the Atlantic and the river separating Rabat from Sale. Lots of people enjoying the water, swimming, surfing (Californians would be pretty dubious about calling it “surf”), sunbathing. We walked through the overgrown but impressive Andalusian gardens, then all the way from the northern tip to the southern end of the city to see the Archeological Museum and the Shallah (Chellah), the old Roman city.


Like Fez, the new city is crowded at night. Throngs of people walk through the main streets. There is a thriving “informal economy” of people who spread out their blankets selling books, jewelry, shoes, clothing. A stage had been set up, and a sound system. A DJ was creating techno music while a very enthusiastic man with a microphone was doing a call and response performance with his audience.

July 24, 2007 at 10:24 am 1 comment

Berbers on the Train

Trains don’t go to Essaouira, so we made our way back to Marrakesh just long enough to buy train tickets and food for the 7 hour ride to Fez. William managed to get the man squeezing oranges to fill the 1-liter Carolina Speakers water bottle while Katie and I bought bread, cheese, yogurt, and cookies.

There were two men in our compartment by the time we got there. I can’t remember how the conversation began, but one of the men, a physician, told us that the big problem in Morocco wasn’t religion, it was suppression of Berbers. He was unimpressed with the new effort to teach Berber in the schools. He was reading an Arabic newspaper, so I asked whether there were any Berber papers. He said no, it wasn’t important, and anyway, there were so few Berber intellectuals. I began trying to explain about Benedict Anderson and his argument about language, literacy, and culture being central to the development of national identity, but couldn’t find the words in any common language to convey the argument.

When the two men got off some hours later, we took over the whole compartment. I was half way through the book Ian had given me (Gaimon’s Neverwhere) when a young man took a seat with us. He told us that he taught History at Kairaween University, and proudly showed us photos of his wife and six-year-old son. I was completely delighted to meet a colleague, a Moroccan historian, so I asked him what he taught. I couldn’t quite understand his answer. I asked him what his research was about, and he seemed a bit angry. I decided he must be a graduate student, who didn’t want to talk about how his research was going. Then he explained that he really taught young children. Katie handed me the Lonely Planet guide, pointing to the paragraph that read, in part,

I didn’t pay much attention, and I was really curious. How do you explain Moroccan history and Berbers to your students? I asked. Well, he answered, there are Berbers in some places in Morocco. They live in caves. And some still live in the Rif mountains and a few places in the desert. My parents are Berber, he continued, and they taught me a couple of Berber words. He went on to confuse the basic chronology of Moroccan history, and I finally became suspicious. Poor man. It hardly seems fair to encounter a historian on a train when you’re just trying to get hired as a guide.

We have encountered “guides” in many places in Morocco. It is fascinating to hear them tell stories about places. Some seem quite freely to make things up that they think their employers would like to hear. Fiction as history does seem quite entertaining!

We spent our first day in Fez wandering the streets of the old city, literally downhill into the suqs. Main street of the old city survives as a major shopping area for local residents. You can find not only clothing here, but also shops specializing in buttons, others selling trim, one selling spectacular upholstery fabric. All the shops are small, and the variety of food, hardware, kitchen goods, clothing is quite astonishing. There are young men at every information sign posted, all offering their services as guides. Many of the monuments in the old city are also located in this labyrinth of streets, many in the process of being restored, a great thing unless you’re a traveler who wants to visit them. We did get a glimpse of the tomb of Moulay Idriss, and stood in the square of the copper-sellers where local lore has it that Leo the African stayed for a while.

The French legacy in Morocco seems huge today. I mean, in addition to killing many people. They created a category called Berber. They built new cities right next to the old cities, and I’m really curious about the consequences on the local urban and economic fabric. And Lyautay decided that non-Muslims were not to be permitted to go into any mosques. Was he worried that Christians would convert? Was he worried that they would take over the mosques and Muslims would be angry? Concerned that their own soldiers would desecrate holy places? Throughout Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, it seems, anyone can go into mosques, a policy consistent with the historical universalism and interest in conversion that Muslims have embraced. Over many months with art historians during my dissertation research, I visited and admired many Ottoman mosques. Some French colonial ruler decided that Muslims should not enter mosques, and Moroccan officials seem to believe simply that this is the way things must be. So we have not been able to see, appreciate, admire any mosques in Morocco.


July 17, 2007 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment



Zagora is hot. Russ looked it up online: at 6 pm, he said, it was 102, presumably in the shade. But there isn’t much shade.

This was the end of the line–or the beginning, depending on which way your caravan was headed. I remember reading that the Sahara was more like an ocean, encouraging, not forbidding, trade. People, merchandise, ideas, styles passed through the desert for centuries. The diversity of clothing style and skin pigment make the centuries of connection quite apparent. Like Timbuktu at the southern end, Zagora at the northern end became a center of Muslim learning.

We were there not only because it’s the northern end of the trans-Sahara route (a sign on the south side of town claims it is 52 days to Timbuktu–see above, with Ibrahim). William had spent a month in the town in 1995 and wanted to go back with the family. We arrived Saturday evening and immediately met Ibrahim, one of the men he had known 12 years earlier. Back then, William had asked where he could get a black shesh like the one tied on his head; Ibrahim immediately sold it to him.

Zagora has expanded enormously in the intervening decade. The city to the south of the gates has remained six blocks wide and a few long, but a huge amount of building has gone on north of the gates. And a large, apparently brand new regional army headquarters has been built between the town and the river.

Saturday evening, we went with everyone else to the river. Groups of young men walked and rode motorbikes along the road and the river. We saw a couple of older men doing their prayers by the water. Young women walked together, the variety of dress still surprising me. Western clothing was everywhere, shirts and trousers on both men and women. Both also wear jalabas, long gowns with hoods hanging down the back. Some women wear a very long piece of cloth that is tied so it looks incredibly graceful as they walk, functioning simultaneously as a skirt, shawl, and head covering. Women with bare shoulders walked and talked with women who covered their heads, as everywhere we’ve been so far. The European and American effort to class covered and uncovered women as two distinct groups seems quite far from the mark.


Ian writes to describe the market we found on Sunday morning in the center of Zagora. “The market was like something out of a movie scene-you know, the one where the main character is looking for something in the bustling middle eastern market. There were rows and rows of stalls selling all kinds of things, from garden implements to music to spices to ten foot poles and ladders to produce to buckets made out of old tires. Some of the stalls were covered with expanses of slanting burlap, but most of them were open to the sun, and the heat baked the entire scene. Even more interesting in some ways than the things being sold were the people there to buy them. You had an absolute throng of humanity there, with covered women wearing elaborate and beautiful wraps brushing past young men wearing US army surplus pants that were too short for them with Charlotte Hornets t-shirts. You had men wearing jalabas and turbans with big knives stuck in their belts, and other men with impressive beards that looked like they hadn’t seen a sharp edge in months. It was an absolutely incredible scene.” William bought one cassette tape he heard playing in the market.

The sun was overwhelming, and I had to quit before the others were quite ready. After a brief rest, we drove south to Tamegroute to see the library. I don’t know anyone who has worked in this library, but Lonely Planet makes it seem an incredible resource for medievalists, with a collection containing “illlustrated religious texts, dictionaries, astrological works”the oldest dating to the 13th century. The town was a religious center from the 11th century, and the zawiya (17th century) includes a mosque, a school, a tomb, and the library. We couldn’t get in–we waited until it was supposed to open at 3, then were told that the person who opens it was busy. We did see the school’s courtyard, then drove far enough south to see some dunes and collect some Sahara sand.


When we returned to town, William went in search of his friend Lasan, who had managed the establishment where he stayed for a month more than a decade ago. He found Lasan in great spirits–his Japanese wife had just had a baby girl in Japan (a bit early) and he would be leaving in a few days to join her and hold their first child. We all went to his new “camping” to meet him, an incredibly warm man with a huge smile and lots of energy. He insisted we stay for coffee, and told us about his new apartment he was finishing for people wanting to stay longer-term in the new establishment he owns south of town. (Looks like a great place to stay to do research in the nearby library.)

Leaving Zagora was a bit difficult. We had planned to drive to Taroudannt, but the small, walled town (street sizes to population about the same as Avignon during the summer festival) seemed just overwhelming after the small mountain and desert towns, so we kept driving all the way to the Atlantic. William got to show the kids how to change a tire by the side of the road.

Taroudannt had been teeming and crazy busy on market day. Agadir was busy in an entirely different way. It is clearly a very successful tourist resort city. We heard very little Arabic, and walking along the waterfront (which one couldn’t get to because of the huge hotels) we saw an English pub, a taco restaurant, an invitation to supersize one’s meal, many boutiques. The new Agadir seems a European resort more than a Moroccan city. It does have a constant reminder of its past, though, in the huge mound that reads in Arabic “God, Country, King” slightly to the north of town. The 1960 earthquake did such extensive damage that people moved the city instead of trying to reconstruct it.

July 13, 2007 at 2:36 pm Leave a comment

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