Posts filed under ‘Morocco’

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.

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

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From Casablanca: chesmall.jpg

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

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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.

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Still, the photos can be displayed in fascinating ways.

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October 6, 2007 at 8:47 am 4 comments

Updates

Josh Landis has summarized coverage of the incident.  BBC suggests that the Israeli press is worried about the IDF flight over northern Syria on the sixth.  I found the story but no related news online while looking for information about the military aircraft flying overhead for about 20 minutes this morning.  No news, no reassurance, no alarm.

I still can’t read Katie’s blog, which is blocked by the Syrian government.  She is now in Turkey, and can’t read my blog, which is blocked by the Turkish government

 William put together a wonderful panorama of the leather dyers establishment in the Fez suq.

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September 9, 2007 at 9:01 am Leave a comment

Communities and Transitions

We arrived safely in Aleppo yesterday, before I could write my last Morocco blog.

I’d been thinking about the definition and importance of communities for a while. My research is on collective identity. My friend Greg Gangi has talked about the need for community in order to create a sustainable society. I live in an “intentional community.” During my last few days in Morocco, I found myself musing about the connection between community and fear. (The first paragraph of Chris Hedges’ recent piece seemed to fit here.)

It seems that, in every Moroccan city, people leave their homes to take to the streets. They stroll, or talk, eat, attend performances–but it is striking to an American to see so many people simply out at night. I first noticed it in Marrakesh, of course, as huge numbers congregated on Jama al Fna, but that seemed such a unique place! We noticed it again in the desert city of Zagora, as people seemed to come from everywhere and walk toward the river, just to be out and among others. In Fez, we walked with Muhammad’s family along the boulevards in the center of the new city, people just walking to be out and together. In Rabat, the main street was the site of both a concert and huge numbers of people simply walking together, or sitting and drinking coffee together and watching other people walking together. In Casablanca, Katie and I were just out for a walk when we saw big groups gathering by the fountain in the square. They seemed just to be walking around the fountain, families or friends in groups. In Casablanca, as everywhere else, the large groups brought out the vendors, and people bought ice cream, popcorn, orange juice, pastries, grilled sausages, or fava beans and chickpeas sprinkled with salt and cumin. The fountain wasn’t even on for the first half hour we were there. The point seemed to be out in the evening, just to be out and among people.

At each stop, we mused on this outpouring of people into collective areas. In Chapel Hill we seem to do this intentionally three times a year: two officially sanctioned festivals and Halloween. In each case, we seem to be afraid of the appearance of huge groups of people, and make sure we have significant police presence. In the US in general, even in Kansas (my previous residence), people seem to be frightened to go out at night.

I found myself wondering about the possibilities of creating communities when we are frightened to collect informally, just to walk the streets together. And I wondered why people here seem so unafraid to be together informally, and what that implies. (Needless to say, I find it ironic that Americans warn me of the dangers of being in the Middle East; people in Morocco and Syria seem to feel safe enough to be out in crowds, while those doing the warning seem nervous even on their own streets.)

Our last day in Rabat, I found myself in the middle of a new effort to create international communities. Someone a couple of years ago created a web site for “couch surfing.” If you have a spare bed or a couch and would be willing to host travelers, you sign up. Those who have used the system post comments on the web site about their hosts/guests to discourage people who would abuse the system or endanger its participants. Some months ago, Katie tells me, the site’s founders began suggesting that local couch surfers meet. When we arrived in Rabat, Katie contacted one of the local hosts, who invited her to the first Rabat Couchsurfers Meeting, held at the park with the tomb of former rulers Muhammad V and Hassan II. I accompanied her to the event, partly because of my own anxiety. I was fascinated at this effort to create international communities.

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After two days in Rabat, mostly spent walking through Sale, in gardens created by an eccentric Frenchman, and among “old stones” stretching from the Romans, through the medieval Muslims and into the present, we returned to Casablanca to the most friendly and helpful hotel staff ever. We found “Rick’s Café,” an effort to create the setting that Bogart might have presided over (they run the film nonstop in the lounge upstairs), and spent our last two days in Morocco walking (and walking and walking).

Our own community decreased in size. Ian flew back to the US to move into an apartment and begin the next semester. Katie bought a bus ticket to Madrid to start the next part of her adventure , and William and I flew off to Beirut. Thanks very much to Ian for his intermittent comments, and to both for letting me use their photos. I’ll miss them, their insights, and their humor enormously!

July 27, 2007 at 1:59 pm 2 comments

Fez

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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Full Circle

Full circle, back in Marrakesh for two nights to return the car, regroup, and plan the rest of our trip.  This time, Marrakesh felt more familiar, certainly cooler, than it had seemed when we left it.  Now we had traditions, strange as that seems.  Back to the Jama al Fna for dinner, harira first.  This time, the man who had been pressing William a week earlier won out, and we had dinner at the booth of the one who always talked about Thomas Hardy and English writers.  After dinner, as we moved off to listen to a group of drummers surrounded by a circle of spectators, our host pulled William aside.  “You don’t believe me, do you?  I studied English literature.”  He pulled out his notebook and began reading his own poetry. 

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Bahia Palace the next day, another structure with outrageously impressive ornamentation: carved wood ceilings, carved stone decoration, zilij tile mosaics, inlaid marble floors.  In 1912, French officers took it over as their Marrakesh headquarters.  Only part of it has been restored, part is now used by the King. 

When it began to cool off, we spent a bit of time in the market next to the square.  Katie bought a new purse to replace the one she got last summer in Turkey, worn out from a year of constant use.  This one had already begun fraying.  We picked it up from the man who had sold it to her.  Muhammad talked with us about fabrics and prices, then sent us down the shops to a man who sold very nice jalabas.  This shopkeeper used to be a Math professor, but when the university switched from French to Arabic, he explained, he couldn’t continue.  “I’m Berber,” he explained. Now a designer, seller and exporter of caftans, jalabas, jackets, and blouses, he loves his current work. 

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For our last evening, we returned to the square, to the booth we had visited our first night in Marrakesh.  Her husband told us that Rashida, one of the cooks and the person for whom the space was named, began as the first woman cook on the square 24 years ago; she was still only one of two women who worked at the food booths.  She has a huge smile, a big hat, and I’m sure she must have heard me that first night exclaiming that we needed to go to the booth with the woman cook–she seemed terribly amused then, and again seeing us a week later.   It seemed the crowds had grown even larger, and there appeared to be more musicians.  But the performer that still intrigued me most was the story-teller.  Constantly surrounded by large audiences and accompanied by three musicians, he seemed every night to delight his listeners with new tales.  They smiled, then laughed, grew serious.  Watching their faces was quite remarkable.  The square has been named a UNESCO World Cultural Site for the oral traditions on the square.  I wish I could tell stories even a small part as well as he does. 

Greatest missed photo: the woman covered in gray from head to toe, only her eyes visible behind eyeglasses, gloved hands, riding a motorbike.

 We lost power around 10, as we were packing to leave Marrakesh.  That meant an even earlier start for the bus station.  We waited to check our bags as the ticket man greeted his friend, who showed him the front page of the paper: photographs of Morocco’s king, Osama bin Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Both men told us how angry they were–bin Laden, they said, was not only targeting the King for encouraging Western tourism, but targeting the whole country. It seems this does not make friends, at least among some newspaper-reading Moroccans. Goats in trees on the way to the coast.  We walked all the way through the walled city of Essouira to arrive at our hotel, in a courtyard not far from the Atlantic Ocean.  This beach town is a fraction the size of Agadir, with small hotels and easy beach access, a former Portuguese naval stronghold from the 17th century.  If Casablanca is the white city, and Marrakesh the red city, Essouira is the blue and white city. 

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It was a wonderful weekend, a much-appreciated break from the heat of Marrakesh and the desert.  Essaouira still seems to be a small fishing town, with lots of tourist infrastructure.  Unlike Agadir, though, most of the tourists seem to be Moroccan families.  An early morning walk on the beach, where groups of twenty- and thirty-something men were playing soccer, a lesson in making mint tea from a 14-year-old teacher, walks through artist galleries and along the city’s ramparts, watching Moroccans on vacation–a good, quiet weekend before moving on to Fes.  We celebrated our anniversary at a small restaurant; when we told our young waiter it was our anniversary, he grinned enormously, and wished us a large family!

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July 16, 2007 at 6:39 pm Leave a comment

Observations from the Road

Goats sometimes stand in trees.

It is possible to make a left turn across three lanes of traffic.

Maybe lane lines are a hindrance.

Upscale restaurants play bad American 80s music.

The tea is great (hot, sweet, minty and green), but don’t expect to find good coffee in a Berber village.

It’s cool to be Tuareg, or at least Berber and nomadic, especially if you want to sell jewelry.

“Share the road” is taken seriously in Morocco.

Love the tagines, but I miss the Ottomans at dinner.

Back in Marrakesh, which now feels welcome and familiar. A week of driving introduced us to terrific people, wondrous places, amazing sights. We stayed in quiet places, villages where internet was available only 27 kilometers away, where there were only two satellite dishes (ubiquitous in most of the country), where we saw large groups of women walking together along the streets up the hillsides in their best jalabas, obviously going to some celebration. We saw the remains of the Glaoui Pashas’ efforts, the beginning of the desert, sustainable small-scale farming, and markets that were unlike any I had seen. Throughout the small towns of the south, people have organized into cooperatives to make and sell crafts and agricultural goods. There are many cooperatives specifically for women. I have no idea how successful these are in alleviating some of the poverty we have seen in Morocco.

Driving here is a remarkable experience by itself! Any vehicle is assumed to have use of the entire road, especially the middle, until meeting another vehicle. Our car’s gears were a bit old, which made driving through the mountains even more exciting. Towns brought different challenges. The roads are used by children playing, people walking, sheep and goats crossing, bicycles, motorbikes, and donkey carts. Considering the huge numbers of people and animals on the road, and the propensity for cars to try to pass on hills, curves, and across many lanes of traffic, it is quite remarkable that we saw no traffic accidents. The system really does seem to work: everyone, drivers and pedestrians, expect driving to be a fluid project. Rigid lane markets would be quite unhelpful. William actually drove in the old city of Marrakesh as we returned, where you can reach out and touch someone, and someone else, and their donkey, from the windows of the car.

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When we blew a tire on the highway, we found that tires have many lives in Morocco. There seems to be a resale market for tires–the owner of our car was surprised that we actually bought a new tire to replace the old. The third time around, tires are made into the buckets that we saw for sale in the markets in the south.

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We got pulled over once for speeding–lots of police check points and speed traps on the roads here. The officer was astonished that we really didn’t have enough dirhems to pay a 400 DH ticket. He explained that he couldn’t take all of our money–what if we needed some down the road? So he took 200 DH and sent us on our way.

I asked Ian to write about the remarkable music he and Katie have been groaning at when we go to mid-range restaurants in Moroccan cities. “So, about the restaurant music here. Let me just say that I haven’t heard a DJ as bad as whoever makes the music mixes for upscale Moroccan restaurants since I stopped going to middle school dances. So in the last six or seven years. Every single mix includes Hotel California-which is a good song, don’t get me wrong, but it seems a little strange to constantly have it stuck in my head while traveling in northern Africa. Especially since I didn’t bring my ipod. They also love music from the eighties-particularly Brian Adams, Rod Stewart, and Sting; every time we eat at a nice restaurant, we hear at least two of the three. And there was one song last night that I swear I wanted to get up and start slow dancing to. Middle school slow dancing; that’s what it reminded me of. So, if you’re going to a nice Moroccan restaurant, expect great food, great service, and good decor. But absolutely terrible music.”

Goats in trees are part of the process of creating argan oil, which seems to have many medicinal, cosmetic, and culinary uses, recently in much demand in Western cities. The argan nuts have a coating which can most easily be dissolved by the digestive system of a goat. At harvest time (now), the goats are in trees eating the nuts. Farmers acquire the seeds from goat dung, and press them into oil. I admit to being less than excited about eating the salads advertised as coming dressed with argan oil.

Alas, the Ottomans never ruled Morocco. Dinner here comes either grilled or cooked in a distinctive pottery vessel, a tagine, that apparently turns a stovetop into an oven. Moroccan food is terrific, but the lack of Ottoman presence is quite apparent in the menu. All over the eastern Mediterranean, rice is served hot; the milk of sheep, goats and cows is made into white cheese; fermented milk (yogurt and dried yogurt) are important dietary staples; and the leaves of grape vines are almost as important as the fruit. Throughout Morocco, rice is served cold, I haven’t figured out where milk goes (except to baby animals), and people seemed shocked to think that one could roll food in leaves.

July 14, 2007 at 2:55 pm 1 comment

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