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Muhammad Sea

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The road from Amman to Aqaba is rocky desert, beige, and tedious until a few kilometers south of Ma’an, when it seems the tall scraggy mountains converge on the car from both sides of the road. Actually, it resembled closely the desert out the windows on the road from Damascus to Jordan the day before. It was late afternoon on Tuesday by the time we left Amman. Aqaba is Jordan’s not only Jordan’s only port, but also the country’s only access to the sea, and the road between Amman and Aqaba is filled with trucks. At sunset, we passed trucks parked along the side of the highway for nearly a kilometer, their drivers breaking the fast. One group had gathered together on stools on the shoulder, cooking from a camping stove on the truck.

The darkness prevented our seeing much beyond the immediate roadside from Ma’an to Aqaba, and we went immediately to Malik’s favorite restaurant. It was 10:00 when we arrived at Dune Beach Village to celebrate William’s birthday. Dune Beach Village is a collection of small cottages with terrific views of the Gulf of Aqaba. The owners had been displaced from their previous sites when large multinational hotel chains began building on the prime seaside property in town. People like Muhammad Sea moved further outside of town, and have created a comfortable alternative to elite hotels. When I asked Muhammad how he had become interested in diving, he told me his story.

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William and Muhammad Sea

Muhammad Sea grew up in a family bedouin in Wadi Rum. He couldn’t seem to get the answers right in his three years in school; when he refused to return because the teachers kept hitting him for his errors, his parents let him stay home, help with the other children, and learn to tend the camels. Soon after his father died, he went for a month to stay with his sister, who had married a member of their tribe living in Aqaba. Muhammad was quite taken with the sea and the city, and urged his mother to move. Muhammad tried his hand at fishing, but didn’t like being under someone else’s (the captain’s) orders. He did learn to swim.

He explained that he was looking for something he could do in his country, to encourage people to appreciate Jordan and all it had to offer. He went to Egypt to learn to dive, and when he returned, Muhammad set up Aqaba’s first dive expeditions. I found the story of bedouin-camel-herder-to-scuba-dive-instructor so unlikely I asked Malik if he just made up these stories to amuse tourists. Malik reassured me that Muhammad’s story was true. Muhammad added, “I grew up between mountains and stones, not between McDonalds and Pizza Hut.”

Within a short time, Muhammad was taking trips overseas with new friends. One Australian girl he befriended took him to Amman for a visa so he could visit her country. At that time, he said, he had never seen Amman and did not know where Australia. He is now well-traveled (his favorite places in the world are the Sinai Desert and Damascus), and talk of his first visit to Amman sent him off on another story.

Back in the 1960s, Muhammad’s father came home one day and reported seeing strangers visiting near their place at Wadi Rum. As was the custom, his father slaughtered some sheep and goats and his mother began preparing bread and food. (Muhammad explained that men take care of the killing of animals and the coffee-making, and women make bread and rice and everything else needed for the meals.) After dinner, the strangers took part in a local ritual of setting the heads of the animals some distance away for target-shooting competition. When it was Muhammad’s father’s turn, he refused, saying he couldn’t shoot their kind of guns. They suggested he get his own, which he did, and got the best shot. As the strangers were leaving, King Hussein invited him to the palace in Amman for a visit. (The other two guests turned out to be Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, in Wadi Rum to shoot scenes for Lawrence of Arabia). Muhammad’s father explained to the King that he never traveled without his knife and gun, so Hussein wrote and signed a letter asking people to permit him to come to the palace wearing his weapons.

Muhammad explained how his father had to show the letter to the bus driver, the hotel manager, the Amman taxi driver, and the royal guards in order to be permitted to continue at each step. He did finally get to see the King, who was pleased to see him again and gave him 300 Jordanian dinars with instructions to buy provisions and distribute them among the bedouin of Wadi Rum.

jordanmap.pngFrom Wikipedia

October 11, 2007 at 1:54 pm Leave a 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.

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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

Intro to Medical Care

I had entered the Syrian medical system with a bit of trepidation. I had telephoned the brother of our Idlib friends, who arranged for me to see a friend of his in Aleppo, an orthopedic surgeon. I took a cab, not realizing that a name and a neighborhood were inadequate to find someone. After all, no one in Aleppo uses street addresses. Directions specify only this or that monument, fountain, gate, statue. As we approached, I called the surgeon and handed the phone to the driver for directions. He sent me into a pedestrian street, where I found the sign and went up two badly lit flights of stairs to a sparsely-furnished room with some bilingual drug-company calendars on the walls, a desk, a chair, a table, and a couch. After making conversation with a woman who seemed to be a receptionist and a friend of hers, the doctor came in and ushered me into his office, the only other room in the suite. He examined my foot, told me to take lots of ibuprofen for a week, and if it wasn’t better, to get an xray, some lab work, and return. An office visit in Aleppo: $10.  (Foot pain has prohibited lots of walking, good for writing but not for blogging.)

I had never realized how daunting such instructions could be. How does one find a lab? Where do Syrians get xrays? I went online, of course, searching for radiologists, podiatrists, sports medicine clinics. I was reminded that Syrian businesses are seldom online. And I have seen only two telephone directories in the country so far.

Three weeks later, my foot still hurting, we got the name of a sports medicine doctor from a German friend here, along with directions. Sulaymaniya neighborhood, go to the roundabout, take the road to the right, walk 100-200 meters, it’ll be on the right. After many meters, we asked a local shopkeeper. He had never heard the name. We crossed the street, walked a ways, asked a man in an office. He exports bearings to Russia, and actually had one of the two phone books I’ve seen in Syria. He had never heard of the doctor, and he wasn’t in the phone book.

I contacted our friends in Idlib and arranged to see Nabeg’s brother, a radiologist. His clinic was quite different than the orthopedic surgeon’s office in Aleppo. He has one of two radiology clinics in Idlib, a city of 400,000. His includes not only standard xray equipment, but also MRI and CT scanners, flouroscopy and sonogram machines. He is awaiting delivery of new equipment for mammograms and bone density scans. The hospitals in town don’t have radiology equipment, so everyone comes to one of the two clinics. One other doctor works in his clinic, and a number of technicians. The setup was quite informal, with each patient’s family coming into the office to look at the films and discuss the results. A woman sat next to the doctor typing onto a computer form as the doctor dictated reports.

He set up the xrays, then had one of his staff people walk me around the corner to his friend, an orthopedic surgeon, another two-room office. Plantar fasciitis/heel spur, no standing or walking for six weeks, anti-inflammatory drugs (he prescribed Feldene, reassuring me that it’s made by Pfizer, along with something to counteract the effects on the stomach–I think I’ll go with something a little more basic.) All these drugs, like antibiotics, are available without prescription. No charge, nice to meet you, best of luck, thanks so much!

One of the staff people from the radiology clinic drove us out to our friends’ house, where we stayed for iftaar. Ramadan has been very difficult for people in northern Syria this first week. Temperatures have been climbing steadily into the high 90s. No food or water from 4:30 in the morning until about 6:30 in the evening, through school and work. We arrived around 4, with two and a half hours to go till sunset.

It is great to see our friends, whom we have come to love very much. Nabeg and Rima are clearly bi-cultural, functioning as easily in their native Idlib as in North Carolina. All four children are similarly bilingual and bicultural, and three of them are old enough to be fasting. All kids I know seem to come home from school ravenous–we used to call the time between 4 and dinner the arsenic hour. These kids were quite easy-going, considering how hot and tired and thirsty and hungry they must have been. The waiting got overwhelming, so we played basketball. (It’s a North Carolina thing.)

Dinner was terrific, a wonderful dish that is called “upside down” because the lamb and eggplant that start off at the bottom of the pan end up on top of the rice when the cook turns it into the serving dish. Had a fascinating conversation about networks, about relying on family and the people you know in the absence of easily available information about businesses and addresses.

And then it was time to leave, the one-hour bus ride back to Aleppo. The taxi driver, like all the others, wanted to guess where we were from. After a half-dozen misses, we told him we are American, and he grinned. Welcome, welcome! Americans are wonderful! Bush, NO! Americans are wonderful! Bush, NO!! Over and over. He refused to take money from us for the ride.

We hear it over and over and over. Americans, welcome. Americans are great. Bush, NO!

September 20, 2007 at 6:05 pm Leave a comment

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

Children

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Syrian children learn English in school, and each one I meet wants to try out a couple of phrases whenever I leave the house. I respond countless times each outing to “Hello, how are you?” And “What is your name?” They run away giggling before I can introduce a new phrase.

Among the dozens of children on our street, most are friendly and curious, which seems to be an appropriate response for children who live in an area where foreigners seldom come. Friends in Syria seem surprised that we live in this old neighborhood, where restoration has begun quite slowly, where most of the residents are poor, and where people interpret Islam as requiring that women cover not only their heads, but their entire faces as well.

We had issues with only one young boy among the dozens that greet us each day, a child probably ten or eleven years old who harassed my Arabic teacher whenever she came to see me. William had words with him, and we haven’t seen him for two weeks.

But those incidents made me begin to worry about the kids, about what their parents said about the local strangers.

My anxieties were calmed on Thursday evening. Returning from dinner, we greeted a family walking on the street past our door. A small girl (maybe four years old) ran over to say hi and I greeted her back. Then her father smiled, picked her up, and held her up for me to kiss her. She seemed delighted when I kissed her on both cheeks.

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August 31, 2007 at 12:24 pm Leave a comment

Visa Extending

Today was the day to go to the immigration office to try to get our visas extended. There is no “security” in the building, no metal detectors or body searches. (We had noticed this at the Syrian embassy in Washington, DC, too. We walked right in off the street and no one even checked our bags.) The first floor is for Syrian passport applications and renewals. The second floor is for foreigners trying to extend visas and get identification cards.

People walking, waiting, and talking in the long corriders and by the long counters were wearing the most diverse kinds of clothing. Kurdish women and bedouin women wearing colorful dresses and headscarves, men with long jalabiyas and checked scarves, people dressed in western-style clothing with heads uncovered, women wearing long black coats (it’s in the 90s here) and scarves that cover their faces, and the Gulf women–I’ve not yet understood how they can make those long black dresses, black scarves, and spiked heels look so distinctive, distinguished, and elegant.

We had gotten eight copies of our photographs from the man with the camera in the courtyard, collected both required forms, and were waiting in the downstairs lobby for Ahmad to finish his passport renewal when a man in uniform with three stars on his shoulders spoke to us in Spanish. When we obviously didn’t respond to his entreaties, an old village woman tried the same thing (I think) in sign language. When he tried in Arabic, it became clear that he wanted us to go down the hall and to the right. We stood in the hallway until he arrived and showed us into his office.

Syrian hospitality and friendliness toward foreigners is really quite remarkable. When he learned I was a history professor, he was delighted. He had studied history, Middle East history, in Chile (hence the Spanish). He wanted to know why we were in Syria, how we liked Syria, what we would be doing here, and insisted that we drink tea. The conversation became more detailed when Ahmad appeared. Our host talked about the history of Syria, its tremendous importance in the world’s past, the importance of all the varied groups in the Middle East working together. He quoted the second Caliph, ‘Umar, on protecting people during war, and talked about Syria’s historical tolerance for others. Then he insisted we drink orange juice. When two other men from his village came, he greeted them, we all drank orange juice, and they sat opposite us and listened.

Somehow, it seemed clear to everyone that the conversation was over, and everyone rose to leave. Our host walked with us to the officer upstairs, who sent someone with us to the long queue. We waited there, two Americans and dozens of Iraqis, while our various forms were signed and stamped, stapled, copied and approved. It is a bit awkward, waiting in lines with Iraqis who are trying to get permission to live in Syria because of what my country has done to theirs.

When we returned to thank our host, he offered to take us to see some of Syria’s historical sites. I left hoping Syrians receive the same kind of treatment at a US immigration office.

August 25, 2007 at 10:22 am 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).

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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.

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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).

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August 20, 2007 at 5:53 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

The South

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We rented a car on July 4 and drove south.  Our first stop was Tellouet, kasbah of the Glaoui Pashas, whose collaboration with the French first elevated then destroyed them.  The kasbah was pretty impressive.  It had been home to a very large household of guards, retainers, family, and servants.  The first structure, now in ruins, dated from the mid-18th century.  The custodian took us around the most recent building, completed only in the 1940s, with its spectacular zilij (mosaic) walls, carved moldings, and painted wooden ceilings.  We got to see the second building, finished shortly before World War I, with the kitchens and guest accommodations. The French occupiers wanted a ruler who could keep the trade routes and resistant tribes in the south under control; the Glawi leaders wanted to rule the region.  When the French gave them new kinds of weapons in the 18th century, both realized their desires.  For almost two hundred years the Glaoui Pashas ruled the region, putting down rebellions and securing the routes.  They built fantastic kasbahs, the latest of which was the one we visited at Tellouet.  But when the French were thrown out after World War II, the Glaouis were destroyed.  In the Middle East, collaborating with foreign occupiers brings rewards only as long as the occupation continues. 

From Telouet we drove through Ouarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco.  As we turned around each bend in the hghway, it seemed, we saw a new scene straight out of the Orientalists’ fantasies: palm groves against desert backgrounds; kasbahs rising out of the mountainsides, nomads’ tents pitched in the rocky desert.  The movie industry has taken advantage of the scenery, filming blockbusters based out of Ourzazate.  Star Wars’ Tatouine seems to have been near Ourzazate, parts of Lawrence of Arabia were filmed here, Alexander the Great, Gladiator, and the list goes on.   We drove on to  Ait Benhaddou, where we checked into the hotel where David Lean had stayed while filming Lawrence of Arabia.  The hotel was right across the valley from the old village, restored for use as a film set.  The population of the village had moved down the road a bit to a new site with electricity and running water.  We would see this again: the old village site was abandoned as people moved into newer buildings close by, still near their fields, to take advantage of the amenities that make life so much easier.  The old buildings, made of mud bricks, gradually fall back into the ground. 

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We were in Berber country, and spent the next few days driving, walking, and meeting people in villages set among spectacular mountains, perched over dramatic gorges, and overlooking miles of palm groves.   Berbers.  Daoud, who speaks at least five languages and leads tours in the desert in his new Toyota Land Cruiser, claims they make up the majority of the population of Morocco.  The children of his village learn Arabic when they begin school; within a few years, they will learn French and English at the secondary school in the town 27 kilometers away. (They come back to the village for weekends and holidays.)  Only in the past few years have the schools taught literacy in Berber, a result, he claims, of the new King’s mother’s ethnicity. I asked about this term, Berber, introduced by the French to indicate non-Arabs,  in order to try to divide the local people against each other during the colonial period.  Daoud explained that there are actually three distinct groups, which they distinguish among themselves.  For outsiders, though, they seem to have accepted the name Berber.  But the effort to divide Moroccans wasn’t successful.  This seems different than the Kurds, who claim to be “from Turkey,” .  “We are Berbers,” he told me (and we heard again and again), “and we are Moroccans.”   

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Muhammad, a friendly man we met in Todru Gorge the next day with a bum foot and a bit of English, offered to  took us on a walking tour of the palm grove, and in the process explained a bit about how their town worked.  From above, the palmerie looks like a simple grove of palm trees along the river.  Inside, it is an extensive garden with a very complex organization.  Each family has a part of the property to farm.  Even if one sells his/her house in the village, the land stays within the family.  The irrigation system is extensive, long main channels flowing from the river, and subchannels into each field.  People are growing tomatoes, peppers, mint, alfalfa, potatoes, wheat (just harvested), cabbage.  We haven’t seen any of the parsley or cilantro so often in the food, but mint grows everywhere on terraces or in yards as well as fields.  Muhammad explained that the trees (almonds, walnuts, date palms, pomegranate, figs, peach, apricot) are available for anyone to come, pick, and eat, but you can’t take the fruit away.  The guy in charge (the chief or sheriff of the palmerie, William couldn’t figure it out and neither could I) would demand payment for things you take that aren’t from your own garden.  He would also fine you if you stepped on someone’s fields–we walked on the raised areas between farms.  I don’t know how he is appointed, but it seems he sees all.   It’s much cooler in the palmerie.  I was impressed with the number of people down there.  It was hardly a place to be alone, though it appears both hidden and private.  Many children were playing–a group of boys seemed quite excited about a snake they had caught in one of the irrigation channels.  People farm in what we have come to call French style; the double-dug gardens with partly raised beds are planted close together to discourage weeds.  The soil is so rocky, it must have been exhausting to create such an extensive farming system, especially when the main implement is a device that looks like a hoe, but with a head the size and shape of a shovel.   

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We had arrived on threshing day. Katie, Ian and I, out for a walk in the afternoon, stopped to watch as men attached a mechanical thresher to the Massey Ferguson tractor.  Women carried wheat stacked along the road in hand-tied bundles to the thresher, and a man in his late 20s wearing a sunhat fed the bundles into the machine.  Two women at a time carried grain away in baskets, while more women put the next basket under the thresher.  The hay came out into a large sheet they had attached to the other end.  Women carried huge bundles of the straw attached to their backs in these sheets–I wondered whether more pack animals would be what they wanted most. 

We stood a bit away on the shadier side of the road to watch.  Other women were using short straw brooms to sweep the street from the previous threshing across the street, children and old men were watching, along with the men who brought the thresher and tractor.  One woman smiled and suggested we help, which, to their apparent surprise, all three of us did.  After a few armloads, they indicated we should stop and seemed amused and pleased.  Katie took a few photos of the threshing.   Daoud told us later that night that he had been helping his own family with their threshing earlier in the day–each family plants and harvests its own wheat and brings the bundles to the road.  Each family pays for the use of the thresher. 

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The kids and I had talked earlier in the day about how much more difficult this process is without combines: in Kansas, the wheat stays in the field and the combine cuts it in place, separates the grain from the straw, throwing both into separate trucks to be driven off.  Here, the family has to cut the stalks, bundle them, carry them to the road, feed them to the thresher, carry off the grain in baskets and the straw in sheets.  But in the evening, Daoud talked about how easy the new process is!  His family used to have the donkey walk for hours on top of the cut wheat.  Then, he explained, you had to spend hours going like this, moving his arms together quickly over his head.  The thresher really made the work much easier.  Families sometimes had enough for their use all year, sometimes more and sometimes less.  The grain was milled into flour in a nearby village, and the flat, round bread people eat here is baked in the local hammam.   

When we left Todru Gorge for Zagora on Saturday, temperatures had climbed.  I thought we were just unaccustomed to the heat, but the hotel manager explained that the heat wave had begun three days earlier (about the same time we left Marrakesh), and would likely continue for three weeks.  The man who sold us water at a gas station as we headed out of town asked how we were tolerating the heat.  With that send-off, we headed south, toward Zagora in the Moroccan Sahara.

July 11, 2007 at 1:48 pm Leave a comment

Gardens and Squares

Gardens are a big thing here.  Seems any available space has plants.  The roof patio of our lodging has plants so vigorous that we need to push away branches to get to our door.  We sat at lunch on a terrace overlooking the Saadi tomb complex and the storks that have made their homes on the walls, and saw cactus gardens on a neighboring roof.  The sun is very hot, the city is very dry, and the green seems to be everywhere, and everywhere welcome. 

Yesterday we walked all the way into the new city in the continuing search for Katie shoes.  Then we walked, and walked, and walked up Muhammad V Street, trying to find the Majorelle gardens.  Built by a French artist expatriot in the early twentieth century, we had read about these gardens, and they sounded better and better as we walked past the large (red) hotels, office buildings, and malls of the new city.  By the time she saw the gate, Katie said, she just hoped that’s where we were headed because she would have entered in any case.

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The garden was spectacular.  We have a fiddle-leaf ficus that pretends to be a climbing vine in the two-story front of our house.  This garden has one that must be a 60 foot tree with a huge trunk.  Turtles and large goldfish swam in the water-lily pool.  The cactus collection was amazing, situated in the center; the bamboo forest was around the edges.  The Museum of Islamic Arts attached to the garden had terrific examples of Moroccan doors, jewelry, carpets, and very old pottery.

We decided in the afternoon to try to find the Suq Cuisine [sic], but instead found a commercial area of the old city that had no other apparent foreigners.  I’ve always loved getting lost.  One man found us and led us to the most remarkable collection of herbs I’ve ever seen.  It was a wholesale place specializing in remedies, perfume ingredients, even incense. 

Back to Jama al Fna for dinner last night.  We ate our harira (soup almost as good as Sahar’s version) at long tables with many other people.  Then wandered looking at the various options for dinner.  (“Ali Baba!  Ali Baba!”)  We tried to figure out the nature of the various stalls, some were empty, others completely full.  The most popular was selling merguez sausages to Moroccans two lines deep.  Moroccans were also patronizing the shops with sheep heads and boiled egg sandwiches.  We chose the only one that had a woman cooking; they sold vegetables, grilled fish and kababs, all quite good.  Katie decided to try cinnamon tea and cinnamon cakes, which this young man was delighted to provide.  It was so strong I could barely sip it.

SquareCinammon tea

The crowds were even bigger last night.  The celebration on the square is clearly for the people of Marrakesh, and the biggest audience was for a story-teller accompanied by two stringed instruments and a drum.  Foreigners are warmly (sometimes too eagerly) welcomed, but the show is hardly for us.

Today it was the Saadian tombs and palace.  The palace was quite destroyed, but workers were putting up stands and a stage for the music festival to be held here next week.  The tombs are quite remarkable.  All the artistic elements I associate with Spain were, of course, present at the tombs and in the restored minbar housed inside the palace complex.  Muslim conquerors came in waves from Morocco to conquer Andalusia and put a stop to the decadent lifestyles of earlier Muslim rulers of Spain; as ibn Khaldun found, it took only a few generations for each to begin their own massive building and beautification projects, inviting another group with pious rigor to take over. 

A remarkable scam artist met us at the entrance to the old Jewish quarter.  He was trying to explain Jews to us.  You know, Jews pray at a synagogue on Saturdays (“Shabbat Shalom” he added), Muslims pray in a mosque on Fridays, Catholics pray on Sunday.  Where do the Catholics pray? I asked.  On Muhammad V, he answered.

July 3, 2007 at 3:55 pm Leave a comment

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