Thursday, June 10, 2004

Ville Nouvelle, Fez, Morocco

The city of Fez, considered Morocco's spiritual and intellectual capital and founded in the 8th century by Moulay Idris I and Moulay Idris II, is today laid out as a number of different sections separated by patches of countryside with sheep and other livestock grazing in the fields. The three key ones, where we spend almost all out time, are all located within walking distance of each other in a mini-arc from north to south. Furthest north is Fez al-Bali, which is basically the original medina and home to Fez's most famous monuments. Just south and a bit west of that is Fez al-Jedid, the "New City" built in the 13th-15th centuries and consisting mainly of the royal palace and the Jewish Quarter.

Directly south of Fez al-Bali and about half an hour away by foot is the home of the American Language Center, the Ville Nouvelle, built by the French in the 20th century and today housing Morocco's yuppie class of westernized elites. People in the Ville Nouvelle definitely make more than the 3 dollars and 25 cents a day which is Morocco's national average. People who have been here longer than I say they take pride in not going to the medina, just like people in the medina can't afford to do much in the Ville Nouvelle. While you still see some people in traditional dress such as the jalaba, a body-length robe with pointed hood, for the first time in an Arab country I have seen women wearing tank tops, and one cafe owner even wears shorts on hot days.

I live in the small villa of the language center, across the street from the center itself and next to the four-star Hotel Menzeh Zalagh. At the center one finds students studying Arabic at all levels, from people just learning the alphabet to a history professor from Boston learning about medieval Maghrebi handwriting. I've met one other student doing more or less the same thing I am, though she is working on al-Idrisi rather than al-Baladhuri. My own studies are going pretty well - the focus here is less on analyzing a text than simply reading it, which seems to work for me. There are also a number of Moroccans studying English and some Moroccans and others working on French.

French and not English is the primary foreign language in Morocco. Streets usually have names in both French and Arabic, people automatically speak to foreigners in French, and restaurant menus come in those two languages (except for one place where I could only get a French one). Computer keyboards are also in French, which is why I can't type dollar signs. This sometimes makes communication frustrating, and the other major alternative is the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, which is different enough from Modern Standard Arabic that I'm not even attempting it much, except for pronounciation - expect me to return to the U.S. with a noticeable Moroccan accent on some things. People's understanding of Modern Standard Arabic is uneven - I've met some people who are fluent in it, while others have no idea what I'm saying at all. Twice I've been in situations where another customer in a business would translate for me - when the person behind the counter looked at them strangely as if to say "What is he speaking?", the helpful translator said "Fus-ha" (MSA).

When the French laid out the Ville Nouvelle, they did what imperial powers have always done and made a city like those in Europe, with broad avenues and buildings set back from the streets with lots of wide open spaces. It doesn't actually work as well here, as you can't get as much vegetation, so when the wind blows you always get these large dust clouds which combine with the pollution to irritate my asthma. That aside the main way you can tell you're in in North Africa and not southern Europe is the tight security all over the place. Depending on the time of day, there are 5-10 police, soldiers, and private security guards posted within a few blocks of the center, all guarding various establishments. This should not be cause for alarm, as the people at the center say they've never had any problems and our guard is just there "to keep order." Security throughout the country has generally stepped up since the 2003 Casablanca bombings and the 3-11 attacks in Madrid, and now we're supposed to carry our passports at all times as we can be randomly stopped and asked to produce them.

Since the Ville Nouvelle Moroccans obviously don't go to the shops in the medina, they have to depatment store/supermarkets - Asima near the center of the Ville Nouvelle, and Marjan near what seems like the edge of town. There are also a sampling of small shops in the Ville Nouvelle - there's one a block away from us run by a father and his approximately 10-year-old son. That son can be happy because he's basically set for life, as he will presumably take over the shop from his father at some point in the future.

Even in the Ville Nouvelle, however, one finds many hidden corners to the Moroccan economy. You still have beggars and kids walking around peddling cigarettes and the like. As part of the class wedge you have the government trying to eliminate these problems, not because they want to help the poor, but because it gives Morocco a bad image. I don't know what their opinion is of the trash collectors who go through garbage for cardboard to sell to hammams as kindling, but since that labor supports the low cost of living for those who can afford it, they probably don't care.

Where Morocco stands in in relative economic terms can perhaps best be seen by taking a jaunt over to the medina during the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, which brings together groups from all over the world, ranging from whirling dervishes to chanting Buddhist monks to a gospel choir from Harlem for nine days of performance and celebration. You don't have to go deep into the medina to find the events, as they're held mainly at the Dar Batha Museum and one of the gates frequented by tourists. Getting in requires purchasing a ticket of between five and twenty dollars and passing through a bit of security.

The concert I went to was by the Sarine Choir from Russia. My friend and I got there early enough we got seats on a little platform directly in front of the stage. From there, you could turn around and see the audience pretty easily, as it really wasn't that big. What's more, it was pretty much all white, composed of people who had come off the tour buses that spent the week parked on side streets all over the Ville Nouvelle. I asked the handler for the group we saw about that, and he said each group gave free performances in addition to the paid one, and that the people of Fez went to that one because they couldn't afford this one. As further explanation, he said: "As with everything, there is one thing for the rich and one for everyone else. You are here because you are one of the rich." This is not something one normally hears as a grad student, but it is definitely true in Moroccan terms. Even in the Ville Nouvelle few Moroccans can afford to eat at the restaurants the prices to which are set in part by the heavy tourist trade.

These boundaries which combine perceptions of class and ethnicity can be difficult to pierce in certain contexts. Like many others in our group, I tried to find the "real festival" where the Moroccans go and which spills out into the streets late at night, and people kept directing me to the paid concerts where the Europeans went. The only people I know who actually encountered one of the Moroccan concerts did so mainly by wandering aimlessly around the medina for an hour. It wasn't some sort of hostile segregation, but simply a perception that we belonged with the rich people - after all, most people in our group eat at the two or three dollar a plate restaurants every day. Why would we possibly be looking for the other festival?

This leads to what is perhaps the hidden secret in the Ville Nouvelle's self-image, as what they call rich here is basically having a car, air conditioning, and prospects of an education. On another level, however, it's the conceptual segregation of living like the unquestionably rich westerners. But then, the process works in reverse, as well, as Americans and others in search of sophistication flock to the medina in the belief it somehow represents the "real Morocco" that we can then claim to have experienced and tell stories about, forgetting the huge shantytowns we will never see. In the end, people can be pretty much the same, bored with their own traditional cultures and out to seek the perceived freedom of something different - if we can afford it.


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