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Between Chapel Hill and Timbuktu

We didn’t reach Timbuktu, which I suppose is yet another echo of those nineteenth-century travelers I mentioned at the beginning of our journey. We were gone for six months, July in Morocco with Katie and Ian, then five months in Aleppo, then ten days in Mali. The last few weeks my attention has been a bit divided, trying to finish the book and at the same time put together a course syllabus and first lecture for my TA’s to present while I was still in Mali. Most interestingly, though, I’ve been working on a grant proposal that crosses whatever boundary might exist between my life and my work. The proposal, to create a seminar exploring diversity among Muslim societies and efforts to impose uniformity, seemed to write itself as I traveled. The move from Syria to Mali was startling. Both have huge Muslim majorities, but that seemed to indicate little about economy, social interaction, religious monuments, ritual practice, or even people’s dress. (I asked Abdulaye about the hogs I saw in a field. Who eats them? Everyone, he responded.)

I write this last blog on the plane heading back to the US (Joy, currently living in our house, may be a bit surprised…) thinking about the huge spaces we have traveled, the remarkable things we have seen, and the many, many people we have met between Chapel Hill and Timbuktu. In the end, of course, travels are not really about the destinations but about the journeys themselves, and not actually seeing Timbuktu–disappointing though it is–seems a fitting beginning to a sequel.

Thanks to all of you for your comments and your continuing interest; to new friends across the region for their support, laughter, and assistance; to Katie and Ian for coming along on parts of the journey and encouraging their mother’s wanderlust; and, of course, to William, for all the photographs, love, enthusiasm, humor, and spirit of adventure. One could not hope for  better traveling companions.

Reading others’ travel writing could become a substitute for one’s own journeys. I hope, instead, that this one has encouraged you to actually step out. Enjoy the journey.

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January 13, 2008 at 9:33 pm Leave a comment

Back to Bamako

Abdulaye, the terrific driver who had taken us to Severe, just happened to be in Mopti, returning in an empty car to Bamako, so we rode along. Four hours back to Segou, through the same remarkable countryside. We stopped there for lunch, wending our way through the weekly bazaar to a riverside restaurant. The sounds and smells were quite remarkable, but all I can do here is the photos.

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Segou’s waterfront was fascinating to watch. People and products moved from the shore to the small craft and back, people were fishing out in the river, bright colors, lots of activity.

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At the weekly market, people were too busy to really notice us, a marked difference from most of our stops. When we stopped for gas at one of the “gas stations” along the road, we drew the usual crowd of curious children and merchants selling textiles and jewelry. There are gas stations as I’m used to them in Mali, places with pumps and hoses and the like. There are also tables with liter bottles full of gasoline to serve drivers between the widely-scattered larger establishments.

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We arrived back in Bamako around 5, checked into the hotel that had wireless access a week earlier to try to contact various travel agents and family and airline companies to make some plans. Nothing seemed to work. Their internet connection was down. When we called, the Royal Air Maroc ticket agency said we need to call either the Bamako or New York office. We had four different phone numbers for the airline’s Bamako office, none of them correct. The New York office insisted we had to contact our ticketing agent. When we tried that, we found they had sold the business, kept the tickets already written, and were only available by email. We decided we couldn’t do it the “right way,” so instead we showered, repacked, ate dinner, tried to sleep a few hours, and went to the airport in hopes of flying standby.

Airport scene was pretty wild, an overbooked Air France flight with everyone trying to make it to Paris. Once they cleared out, we convinced a sympathetic ticket agent that we really needed to leave and really couldn’t contact anyone to change our ticket. I’d just about given up when they handed us boarding passes with a warning that we wouldn’t find a seat from Casa Blanca to JFK.

We decided to take our chances, and arrived in Casa Blanca after a sleepless night. There we found another terrific Royal Air Maroc agent who put us on the waiting list. Before we had a chance to contact anyone to let them know we were headed home, we had boarded the flight for JFK.

January 11, 2008 at 6:44 pm 1 comment

Djenne

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The photo of the mosque at Djenne that I have been showing my class seems to have no context, just a strange and spectacular building set off by itself.

It isn’t set off by itself. It is in the center of an unpaved dirt courtyard, surrounded by children playing, goats sleeping, touts offering guiding services, stalls selling assorted goods, and two foosball tables used by young men.

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It is, without doubt, an imposing structure, built of mud bricks, with poles sticking out at regular intervals to allow people to scale the walls to remud the structure. It was rebuilt in 1906. There was little the French bequeathed their former colony in Mali (baguettes, French language, and remarkably little infrastructure), but, like in Morocco, here too they began refusing non-Muslims entry into mosques. So I was unable to see what the structure looks like inside.

The mosque, a World Heritage site, seems to be what brings people to Djenne. The town lies on the other side of the Bani river, and the crossing requires the use of a four-vehicle car ferry. Our drive up from Segou passed through many more small villages, an 18-wheeler broken down on the side of the road, a collection of overloaded minibuses, motorcycles, goats, cattle, and horses. After passing through miles and miles of wheat fields, then watermelon fields, then mud-brick-making fields, we turned off the main road and encountered flooded rice fields before crossing the river into Djenne.

After seeing the mosque, we set off in search of the mud cloth William had been commissioned to find. There is one famous mud cloth maker, a matriarch who looks to be in her 60s. Her son explained the various motifs, the groups who used them, and the methods still being employed to make the cloth. It is quite impressive stuff. We were invited up onto the balcony to see the view of the city from there, and found mud, cloth, and plant material for dyes awaiting use.

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They tell me Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world, though I don’t know how that is measured, and Djenne is the poorest town I’ve ever been in. Along the route today, we passed two villages where signs announced proudly that electricity had come in 2006. . In side the town, There are no paved streets, houses are small, and the sewer system is a series of open trenches in the middle of the streets. Nonetheless, children walk around barefoot. Apparently, the street sewer is a result of well-meaning development projects. Water had been brought into town only for cooking and drinking, while washing and other tasks were done on the riverside. Those who arranged to pipe water into town didn’t consider the greater output, and there was no planning for what to do with the waste. See “How Not to Parachute More Cats.”

January 10, 2008 at 12:27 am Leave a comment

On the Road to Segou

The road from Bamako to Segou takes almost four hours. Almost as soon as we left Bamako’s sprawl, we were in a small village celebrating market day–along the main highway. Our driver, Abdullah, slowed down as he wove through people, stalls, animals, and large vans unloading merchandise.

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Most of the road, though, is quite rural, miles and miles of scrub interrupted by roadside villages with a few houses and a mosque. We started off listening to a taped sermon by one of Mali’s most famous imams–in Bambara language, with intermittent Qur’anic quotes in Arabic. When that ended, I requested music, and Abdullah put on a Tracy Chapman cassette. By midway, we were listening to music from Mali.

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Small village mosque, larger village mosque

People sat along the roadside, apparently watching each other and the varied conveyances cars going by. We passed a broken down bus, a van, and a car stuck on the side of the road. Small herds of small cattle grazed in the scrub, while groups of fewer than six goats reserved the space closer to the road. (Abdullah honked at them to convince them to stay on their own side.) He reassured me that there really was someone tending them.

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Segou seems more prosperous and less frenetic than Bamako. It is a river town, and I was impressed with the amount of activity along the Niger’s banks here. We just missed taking a huge canoe (pinasse) across–still hope to get on the water at some point during our trip.

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In the continuing series, Che here is a revolutionary cola.

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January 1, 2008 at 6:59 pm 1 comment

Christmas

Out walking with Katie in Aleppo’s old Christian quarter Saturday evening, we followed the Christmas carols to the Greek Catholic Church. A group of high school girls wearing Santa hats was practicing for a performance, singing carols in Latin. The acoustics in the small, square church are terrific. Someone was trying to make a PowerPoint presentation work behind them–tech frustration seems one of those universals.

We wanted to buy a tree, and people reassured us it was easy, just go to Sulaymaniye’s main street and look left. But all the trees there were paper or plastic! When we asked, we found it is forbidden to cut trees for holiday celebrations.  All of our advisers simply assumed that we were looking for the “regular” kind. In the end, William brought home a terrific tree, about two feet tall, with small lights at the tips of each pretend plastic branch; the lights change colors and flash in interesting combinations, apparently randomly. The box says the tree is made in the United Arab Emirates.

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Aziziya has extensive decorations, lights, Papa Noel, sleighs and reindeer. I haven’t found a nativity scene.  The radio has been playing familiar Christmas tunes, lyrics in Arabic.

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It’s been nice having Katie around, and we miss Ian. And friends. And we wish you all a wonderful 2008!

December 26, 2007 at 8:10 am 1 comment

UNHCR Damascus

I asked for the United Nations Refugee office, and the driver took me way out to the edge of Damascus to the UNRWA office. The UN Relief Works Agency, created for Palestinian refugees after 1949, still only serves Palestinians, who have never received the full complement of rights guaranteed other refugees.

One of the guards at UNRWA found another taxi for me, and sent me to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office. The driver didn’t actually know where the office was, or much about the neighborhood in which it is located. Syrians do not seem to learn map-reading in school, street names are not generally known (or signed), and people navigate by landmarks. Fortunately, taxi drivers here (all of whom are men) are not subject to the same hesitation so stereotypical among American men that it is a common topic among standup comics. The driver stopped every block to ask someone where the building was, at one point picking up his next fare, who helped identify it.

I spoke with Sybella Wilkes at the UNHCR Damascus office two days after busses left Damascus to return hundreds of refugees to Iraq. My only “research” into refugees was in 1998, while I was waiting to read some other documents at the League of Nations archives and found catalogues of the Nansen papers.  Nansen was a Norwegian working to assure rights for refugees from the catastrophic Great War (1914-18). Chief among the protections he advocated was the right of refugees not to be forced to return to a place where they fear persecution. This right was included in the 1951 Refugee Convention.  UNHCR’s statements that day were very careful. On one hand, they recognized the political pressures that weighed heavily on all the parties connected to Iraq’s refugees. On the other, as Ms. Wilkes informed me, UNHCR’s mission is based on the Refugee Convention. If Iraq remains too dangerous for their UNHCR staff, making it impossible for them to investigate the safety of local conditions, could they really support the busses carrying Iraqis home?

Ms. Wilkes was very clear about the huge role the government of Syria has been playing. The Assad regime has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees. Their hospitality has been hugely expensive. Food, fuel, medical care, education, and nearly everything else in this country is subsidized by the government. That means Syria is paying millions of dollars to host people displaced by a war in which the Syrians had no part. Their generosity is stunning, especially in comparison with the closed doors of almost every other country in the world. (See Human Rights Watch.)

The outlook for the refugees is growing worse. In the face of continuing widespread violence, Iraqis have nowhere to go.  Syria has just recently begun requiring visas that must be obtained in Baghdad. Jordan has closed its doors. In Iraq itself, internally displaced people fleeing violence are no longer allowed into 11 of Iraq’s 18 governorates.

Many of those who made it to Syria were middle class people, professionals, academics, artists fleeing violence. They left behind their homes, their jobs, and all the things that made them like me, Sybella explained. UNHCR uses its limited funds to provide medical care and living expenses to elderly and ill refugees, and to families with no means of support (often women with children but without husbands). UNHCR has produced a CD of Iraqi music by refugee musicians, and there is terrific artwork hanging on the walls in the Damascus office. Ms. Wilkes told me that they had been painted by some of Iraq’s most famous artists, and are available for purchase. (I can’t find a place on their web site where either the CD or the art is sold.)

December 8, 2007 at 6:56 am 2 comments

Ruwwad

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Razan picked us up at our small hotel, and as we drove past the KFC’s, McDonalds, gleaming new office/shopping plazas, and continuous construction of West Amman, she told us that she had worked for GE when she graduated from the university. Two years into the job, a friend asked her for a ride to Ruwwad to tutor that day. Curious, Razan went inside and began reading to some of the children. She promised to return the next day, and soon was a regular volunteer. Months later she had left GE to become Program Coordinator at Ruwwad.

Ruwwad is located in Jabal Nathif in East Amman, across an invisible boundary between the eastern and western part of the city that seems to divide very different worlds. The area has been populated mostly by Palestinian refugees since 1948. The people who live here are very poor, but since the place was never designated as an UNRWA facility, they get no help from UN funds. Until Ruwwad provided the space, the Jordanian government provided neither a health clinic nor even a post office. The government has just recently promised to create a police station. The schools were unimpressive, in sum, Jabal Nathif was a very “under-served” area. Ruwwad has done more than offer services. It has allowed the local children to think about opportunities that they could not have even imagined two years ago.

Ruwwad was Raghda Butros’ dream. When we met her in 2003 she was a Humphrey Fellow at the University of North Carolina, in transition between jobs. After she returned to Amman, she decided she could actually carry out her project. Of the many things I admire about this woman, one is her ability to do things that I would find unlikely at best, and probably impossible.

When we first saw the Ruwwad site in the summer of 2006, there was little but a shell of a building and Raghda’s dreams to fill it. Now, Razan was taking us through three stories filled with children, volunteers, staff, and a flood of remarkable ideas they seem able to implement almost as soon as they arise. Raghda explained that the staff had decided to move its offices out of that initial colorful structure, leaving the first building to the programs and the children who had, by that time, moved into every inch of it. They found that the children followed them into their offices in a neighboring building-–Raghda’s has not only the desk, books, and computer one would expect in an NGO director’s space, but also puzzles, books, and bean-bag chairs for the children who drop by to hang out while she is working.

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Ruwwad opens into a library full of children’s books. (They could always use more…) It is brightly painted, and furnished, like most everyplace else in Ruwwad, by the refurbished castoffs that the volunteers and staff collect, clean, repair, and decorate with great imagination. (The kids even designed the ngo logo.) After an existence of less than two years, Ruwwad’s two buildings today offer a computer lab, a library, courses, a preschool, a furniture-refurbishing shop, and a large meeting space.

The programs that fill the place, though, are the most exciting. “Windows” offers local kids an opportunity to do art, usually available only to Amman’s wealthier children. Adults attend literacy classes in Arabic and English classes offered by volunteers. The large conference room on the top floor is the setting for monthly discussions about topics chosen by local high-school and college-age students, conversations often taboo and unbroached at home or in school.

These older students are often recipients of Ruwwad’s scholarships. Each scholarship student, in addition to attending community college or university, is required to volunteer for the organization. These volunteers provide the labor needed to improve local homes and to build new ones (with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter).

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Rami was with us as we toured the facility. At 17 and in 11th grade, he has made a gradual transition from a local ringleader to one of Ruwwad’s big neighborhood supporters. His friends have followed him, providing a huge support to volunteer efforts to rebuild the community. He came along as we went to a neighbor’s house for sweet, minty tea. Our host has four daughters and three sons. The youngest child, Sarah, is four months old.; the oldest is in her 20s. We met three daughters, including one about to take her exams to get into the university. The family’s house used to consist of one room, an entryway beside a small, walled-off toilet, and a moldy kitchen. After Ruwwad’s volunteers moved the toilet onto the patio and installed a shower, they recreated the entryway into a second room, essentially doubling the usable size of the house. And they treated the mold and repainted the kitchen. Our host, now in her 30s (she married at 17) seemed quite delighted–and delightful. After tea, she urged us to stay for coffee and lunch; when we declined, she insisted that we return another time.

Still less than two years old, Ruwwad now employs 23 people. The programs seem both remarkably innovative and very comprehensive. I keep deleting the words here, because I seem unable to convey the complexity of the program that Raghda and her staff have created. I am used to writing in a linear way, but the varied parts of Ruwwad’s program seem so connected to other parts, it would be more comprehensible with a diagram than a paragraph. I’ll try to give a sense of it. Their varied activities enrich the lives of residents physically (improving living quarters, providing job skills through volunteering, and finding funding for urgent medical situations); academically (offering scholarships, tutoring, literacy programs, English lessons, and encouraging reading); socially (providing volunteer opportunities, creating community cohesion, offering youth a space and resources to talk about important issues); and emotionally (improving living conditions, creating community, responding to urgent local needs). All who benefit are expected to give back through volunteering, which, of course, provides more resources to the Jabal Ndif community. Why didn’t we all think of this decades ago?

The Ruwwad web site does a much better job describing this remarkable place.

November 29, 2007 at 3:51 pm 1 comment

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