Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Analysts at Work

Will the talking head on CNN International who Monday tried to make a big deal out of the fact Iraqi interviewed on the street mentioned God a lot please resign in disgrace? The Iraqis said things like "God be praised" and "If God wills." I presume they just translated the common Arabic phrases "Alhamdalullah" and "In shaa' Allah." These are just part of the language. I say them all the time, like when someone turns on a fan or when someone asks me when I will finish my degree. They have nothing to do with people's opinions of the handover.

Friday, June 25, 2004

The Ziz Valley, Morocco

There are several different ways of travelling around Morocco. One is by train. Morocco has a decent rail system as far south as Marrakesh, with bright and well-equipped train stations in all the major cities. These rail connections make northern Morocco a lot smaller, and you can, for example, life in Sale, work in Fez, and still have a commute not much longer than that in rush hour in a major U.S. city. The trains are European-style, with a maximum of eight people to a compartment, and as they travel through the countryside you see Moroccan life off the highway - more hovels amidst fields than roadside cafes and restaurants, and young boys on bicycles who try to ride alongside and wave at all the passengers.

Another way, however, is by bus, and while it takes longer as you stop for longer periods of time and periodically get stuck behind a donkey or herd of animals on Morocco's two-lane highways, you can also see a great deal as you wind through more small cities and towns with their different building styles and levels of prosperity, getting a sense of the real life of the country in places unused to tourists. Here are the roadside cafes which cater to the bus travellers, vast fields of both food crops and flowers, presumably for export, and on occasional hillsides the slogan "God, Country, King," mowed into the grass or spelled out with huge stones as part of Morocco's version of the rulers' cult which serve the same purpose as pictures of the king, though these are not found nearly as frequently as in Jordan and Syria.

It was by bus that last weekend we travelled down the Ziz Valley to the Sahara Desert in a trip organized by ALIF that was easily one of the most incredible weekends of my entire life. In fact, the previously mentioned Bostonian professor, who in recent days had become visibly frazzled by frequent exposure to people of a different age group and was considering just skipping the trip altogether, was completely rejuvenated by it - in one place where he got to go in before us he reminded me of Dr. McCoy in Star Trek II, when he's being kind of crochety but then in the Genesis cave in Regula is like, "Jim! Have you ever seen the like?" It was also cool in that aside from the major destinations, we made frequent stops in the small cities along the way, thus getting to experience more of the country than we otherwise would.

One such place we stopped was Ifrane, built as a resort showpiece in the ski resort areas south of Fez. Ifrane is home to al-Akhawayn University, built with funding from Saudi Arabia to promote religious tolerance, and according to the guidebook has a mosque and a synagogue on its grounds. The city is watered by a cool river, and has a very Alpine feel - indeed some people left the cafe we were at to do some horseback riding around the copses of trees. I had met one person from this city in Rabat, who said it was more conservative than people realize, but by visually it has signs of being inhabited mainly by a westernized wealthy elite.

South of Ifrane, one sees a couple of ski resorts, though of course the lack of snow means not much was going on. On the road between there and Midelt, however, you saw tons of nomads grazing their flocks in the grasslands between the roads and the mountains. These were seasonal nomads who migrate for only part of the year, and slept in black tents visible all over the place. Men and women oversaw the flocks of sheep and sometimes goats and donkeys, with occasional horses off to one side, while children either helped with the chores or kicked a soccerball around under the watchful eye of an adult. There were also people who simply lived there, and kept their animals in stone pens for the night while watching them graze during the day.

After Midelt, located in almost the exact center of Morocco, one passes through the snow-capped Middle Atlas and onto more plains beyond. Shortly thereafter we came to the winding Oued Ziz (Ziz River), which consisted of a swift central current with sluggish muddy waters alongside. This we more or less followed into the High Atlas, the tallest mountains in Morocco. There, after passing through a tunnel, we emerged in the fabulous Ziz Gorges, where over the centuries the river has worn down its path through the mountains leaving huge rock cliffs. People who had been to the Grand Canyon said this was bigger. The valley below was sometimes wide enough for a small village, set of fields, or grove of palm trees, while far above atop the cliffs stood the occasional ruin of an Almohad kasbah, the once imposing fortress of an empire which stretched from northern Spain into sub-Saharan Africa now a mere feature of the imposing landscape created by the God in whose name they conquered. Indeed amidst the wonder and the sense of history all that was lacking was some Aragorn to tell us humble hobbits of the deeds which had been wrought in these lands and of what caused the ruin of those who dwelled herein.

Coming down out of the mountains we quickly arrived at the beginnings of a noticeable "desert light" similar to the country around Amman in Jordan, with the brown land being broken by frequent low-lying shrubbery. Here one finds a number of frontier towns, mostly built by the French when they were attempting to control this country, and built of stone in a sort of off-pink color. The language situation also changed noticeably, and Berber replaced Arabic as the native tongue of the people we spoke to. Because I don't even know how to count in Berber, I was reduced to picking up a snack by the point and have the guy hold out the right amount of money method.

Another town we passed through was Rissani, where the Alawite dynasty first originated, building power around their control of the trade routes across the Sahara. Despite the remote location, however, this area if fully integrated into the modern world's information flow, as there are frequent signs advertising internet cafes, and a satellite dish on almost every rooftop. This last is the real key, as it allows people to watch the satellite stations that are the key to the Arab media, where Gulf news stations such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya or the entertainment programming on Egyptian TV. Some Moroccans have said they consider a satellite dish more important than a refrigerator. In a small city called Erfoud the bus driver, a friend of mine and I went into a cafe where we learned that the American hostage had been executed in Saudi Arabia. The people in the cafe, though, we all talking about how the Saudis had killed the man believed to be heading the group carrying out those attacks, and they hoped that would bring an end to all of this, though the Arab media was allegedly speculating that the Saudis had been involved from the very beginning.

That night was spent in an expensive kasbah hotel on the edge of the desert and consisted mainly of sumptuous food, Berber music and dancing, and raging political discussion. The next day we began to push deeper into the desert. Deserts, of course, are not all endless miles of the same terrain. Most of Morocco's desert is what is known as hammada, hard-packed dirt and rock on which the sun beats down relentlessly. A layer of tiny black stones covered most of the land outside the bus windows as we travelled south, interrupted here and there by what I guess you could call sand rivers, where the wing blew small layers of sand through places where there was no rock. The desert floor was hot, and here and there small sand tornados formed where the hot air close to the ground met the cooler breeze of the atmosphere. These mainly came up to a person's waist, but it looked like there were huge ones off in the distance.

No road led to our final destination, not even a piste. They went out and checked the terrain in a four-wheel-drive, and the busses were able to get in fairly close, but we still had a 10-15 minute walk across the hammada before reaching the kasbah hotel where we would eat lunch and leave for our desert excursion. As we were leaving the bus, a number of people who had gotten Berber head gear as souvenirs (just think of the standard movie gear, with the cloth wrapped around your head and the lower part of the face) suddenly discovered a practical application for it, and ventured out suitably covered from the sun and sand.

There was a village nearby which we would have had to walk to by following some power lines, and some of us were originally thinking of going there just because it sounded cool to say we'd been somewhere no road led to. Our brief experience of the hammada, however, had convinced us that it would't be cool at all, and we basically stayed in and spent the afternoon relaxing over the ubiquitous Moroccan mint tea, made with green tea and flavored with leaves of spearmint still floating in it when they give you the cup. We did venture out from time to time, and that's when I truly discovered how hot it was. I didn't bring water or anything since I was fairly well-fortified, yet after twenty minutes I was feeling the early signs of some sort of heat sickness. The sun is your enemy out there as much as the heat. When I got back, it was decided I needed something covering the back of my head and neck (I had only a baseball cap), so a spare was found for me - given North American social realities about who is most likely to carry a change of clothes I had a women's one, but only a Berber would probably notice, and the guys working the cafe watching us agreed I needed something.

From the hotel we could see the Erg Chebbi, the vast field of sand dunes at the far side of which was the oasis where we would spend the night.As the afternoon started to melt into evening the guides brough a few dozen camels, and everyone began to prepare to set out. The bustle caused the Bostonian professor, who had opted out of this leg of the journey, to say he felt like the keeper of a medieval caravanserai as some huge merchant caravan was about to depart. The camels were all on their knees, and once we had our water and everything else we would need, guide helped us sling our bags by the front of our saddle while we got on the camel, and then the guides got the camels to stand up. Once we were all ready, waving goodbye to the few who were left behind, we set off into the erg.

Riding a camel is not a terribly comfortable experience, and leaves one sore for several days. The erg scenery, however, is beautiful, with pure golden-yellow sand in drifts across crisply blown dunes cut clearly against the cloudless sky ov early evening. Here are there was an occasional blade of grass, or even a tree that looked not so much lolely as relaxed. There were also swift, tiny birds and insects sitting on gray rock ledges occasionally sticking out of the sand. After almost two hours, we got to the oasis, featuring a number of palm trees and shrubberies watered by an aquifer about a meter underground in the shadow of a huge sand dune that took over 45 minutes to climb, but which offered a view of the desert deep into Algeria in an atmosphere of perfect stillness. (No, I didn't make it to the top.)

That night was one which I will likely never repeat, as we camped out in Berber tents in the cool night air beneath the star-filled desert sky. If you wandered around a bit outside of the camp, it was impossible not to fully absorb the vastness of creation, a sense which had been with us at least since the gorges winding through the High Atlas. People can adapt to much of the world, but the world itself inevitably marches on, and only recently have we gained the capacity to affect its core processes, and then only to destroy, not create.

We set out early the next morning to return to our base, and as we passed once more through the drifting dunes of the Erg Chebbi, the desert was already forgetting out passage, as the same sharp morning winds that blew sand into our eyes and threatened to undo the ties on our clothes swiftly wiped out the tracks we left behind us. However, I have not forgotten, nor will I ever, the sense that we are creatures of this world and not its masters, and that there are far greater forces at work than I as an individual will ever be able to control.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Medical Issues

If you have any illness such as diabetes which might cause people around you to have to take steps, please make sure people know about it and what they should do. Even if you think you'll be fine, some pretty scary situations can develop otherwise.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Meknes, Morocco/Fez al-Jedid, Fez, Morocco

One needs to spend only a little time in Morocco before realizing how close religion is to the hearts of the people. Much of the language is embedded with religious references - the standard greetings all involve God or Quranic phrases of one sort or another. Even cheap hotels often have a small room marked "mosque," as does the American Language Center where I study. Businesses are expected to be closed at 11:30 on Friday to allow employees time to get to the Friday prayers, and even those who don't go often have a radio on where they can hear the sermon.

Moroccans talk about religion all the time. Off the Place de Florence in Fez is an Italian place where we know the waiter, and he often cites mosque sermons when discussing stuff like why he doesn't want to bring up an old argument that seems settled. People often ask what religion you are, and some express interest in your precise sect of that religion, while telling you about the school of Islamic law which they follow. (Most Moroccans and Maliki Sunnis.)

There is, however, another important element to Moroccan Islam, one not found as much in the countries of the Middle East. These are the cults of the walis, the "friends of God" who are similar to Christian saints and believed to possess a divine grace because of their closeness to God. Such holy figures are buried all over the place, such as at the previously described Chellah in Rabat. Usually they are associated with Sufi orders who make annual pilgrimages to their tombs where they, too, hope to have personal mystic experiences of God.

One of the most important walis in Morocco was Sidi al-Hadi Ben Aissa, who lived a little over 300 years ago and was connected to the great Moulay Ismail, an early sultan of the presently reigning Alawite dynasty and ally of France's King Louis XIV who founded a new capital at Meknes in the late 17th century. The Sufi order he founded is actually noted for some rather extreme practices, such as swallowing glass and live snakes. After seeing some of the Moulay Ismail sights, a couple of us set off with a guy named Ben Aissa who was curious about the tomb of this famous person with the same name.

The day was brutally hot, and the relatively narrow lanes of the Meknes medina were a welcome change from the open spaces of the Roman ruins we had seen that morning. Although non-Muslims are forbidden to enter holy sites in Morocco, a practice which results from a long history of Christians in particular showing a lack of respect for them, people were more than willing to point us in the right direction, as we cut all the way through the medina to the Muslim cemetery on the far side. Along the way we saw all the usual sorts of medina shops, including some with glazed donuts which would have looked good in cooler weather. We stopped in one where someone bought a soccer jersey, and as they haggled the shopkeeper offered us all tea as is a common practice.

The mosque of Sidi Ben Aissa itself was set apart from all other buildings, and was white with green trim, green being the color of Islam. We got to the doorway, but unfortunately you could not see the actual tomb from outside. We had a nice conversation with the guardian, who after awhile decided to actually let us step inside up to a point where he thought the tomb could be seen, albeit with difficulty. There Ben tried to get the picture, but three late-middle-aged women came and had sharp words with the door guy, so we had to step out again, and the guardian just took the picture himself.

All of this, and the subsequent further conversation with the guardian and another man who had come to see what all the commotion was about, was conducted in perfect friendliness that puts to rest the notion that Muslims are invariably hostile to non-Muslims around holy sites. In fact, when we got into the discussion of nationality and one person tried to apologize for being an American, the guardian would have none of it, pointed to the sky, and said that before God all men were brothers regardless of where they came from. And when we were about to leave, Ben said his name, causing something of a stir; and the guardian grabbed his arm, took him over to a side window, unlocked it, and flung it open revealing the elaborate tomb of the wali covered with Arabic writing while bystanders started gossiping, "Hey! This American's name is 'Ben Aissa'!"

At one point I asked the guardian a question about walis in Morocco, and in reply he mentioned Moulay Idriss I, founder of Morocco's first dynasty in the late 8th century. In 750 the Abbasid dynasty came to power on a wave of popular discontent with the preceding Umayyads and the belief that a member of the Prophet Muhammad's family should rule as caliph. They were descended from the Prophet's uncle, Abbas, and had a certain interest in marginalizing more direct descendants. Thus Idris, the Prophet's great-grandson, decided it might be a good idea to go to Morocco, where he arrived at the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, high on a hill-top overlooking fertile green valleys near Meknes.

Today Volubilis is in ruins, but its mosaics are remarkably well preserved as the city remained occupied until the 18th century. Today its population consists mainly of snails keeping cool on the underside of tree leaves, tourists marching around with or without guides, and storks who live in roots atop the pillars of the Temple of Jupiter which in taking off resemble airplanes as with wings spread they seem to be lifting off from the ground even though it is really the ground falling way under them. From here Idris, after winning the respect of the people and beginning to consolidate some political control of the area, began the building of Fez as a capital for his new kingdom.

However, Moulay Idris was to live here for only a couple of years before at last the assassins of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (of 1001 Nights fame) caught up with him, and he fell of poison, a martyr to his followers, who buried him in a magnificient tomb on a nearby hillside where today a town named Moulay Idriss is clearly visible from Volubilis. That town, considered the holiest city of Morocco, is its most important pilgrimage destination, and for centuries was closed to non-Muslims, but today people will welcome you, and even urge you to step up farther in the mausoleum until you come to a marker beyond which non-Muslims may not pass. There are also guides who can show you the viewing platforms which allow anyone to look down into the courtyard of the mausoleum at the bright green roof of the burial chamber.

Amidst all this, it is of course easy to forget that there is another important religious tradition present in Morocco, one which has been present for centuries but which came in the greatest numbers in the 1400's when the Christians drove them out of Spain during the Reconquista. These are the Jews, and though today their numbers have dwindled their culture and holy sites remain throughout the country. Fez is the home of the original "Jewish Quarter" in Morocco, built as part of Fez al-Jedid originally to house the Jewish refugees from Spain, a legacy seen clearly in the open housing style with large windows and wooden balconies looking out over the streets. Today this quarter remains, in the shadow of the vast royal palace, called by the locals the "Street of the Jews" though only seven Jewish families remain here today, with the other 5000 individuals scattered throughout the city.

Fez al-Jedid is only a 15-minute walk from our part of the Ville Nouvelle, and is a good place to go if you want to feel like you're in Morocco and not France. The high buildings and narrow streets make walking around there a cooler experience, and the shops include a large number of electronics, music, and (frequently imitation) name brand goods. There is also an extremey large number of dentists, all with signs featuring smiling teeth. One place to visit is the newly restored Ibn Danan Synagogue, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you can see the Torah scrolls covered in red cloth and an admittedly moldy if deep mikveh in the basement. More interesting, however, is the Jewish cemetery, through a black gate in the walls of Fez al-Jedid and home to a blinding sea of 18,000 white graves dating from at least the 1600's to January 2004. Among them is one black one covered with Hebrew script - because of the large number of candles placed in a small compartment venilated by a smoke stack we guessed it was probably the grave of a miracle worker, while further up the hill was an elegant white tomb with green trim belonging to a young girl martyred for refusing to marry the governor of Tangier.

Somewhere around here there was supposed to be a museum about Moroccan Jews who had left for Israel, but we were having problems with hustlers and didn't want to fight it then; still, as that sounds like a highlight, I hope to return. Until then, it is perhaps presumptuous to try to put together a comprehensive picture of the religious picture in Morocco. However, while there is certainly a presence of Islamic fundamentalists I'm just not running into, Morocco is arguably one of the least fundamentalist places around. The call to prayer is in the Wahhabi style - a flat monotone to avoid sounding too much like music - but aside from that legacy of the puritan Almohads from centuries ago Morocco today shows little inclination to part from its distinct heritage of personal religion and folk traditions. In fact, I've met some Moroccans who refuse to identify themselves as Sunni or Shi'ite and say only that they are followers of Sufism.

Perhaps the best statement I've heard of liberal Moroccan attitudes came from a guy in a restaurant who gave his favorite verse from the Qur'an, which translated means "What is licit and illicit is clear." This he applied not only to Islam, but to all religions, saying that right and wrong were not complex questions and everyone agreed on the basics. This, of course, is something the student of comparative religion will quickly notice, and its application in the lives of people is a comfort to live around.

Monday, June 14, 2004

France 2, England 1

Seriously, I wouldn't have been surprised to hear this soccer score somehow integrated into the call to prayer this morning. Everyone was into it, and at least one cafe set a huge big-screen TV outside where people sat around watching it. Moroccans apparently root for the French soccer team as well as speak the language, so the whole national uprising against the colonial power thing seems to be pretty much gotten over.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Reagan in Morocco

I haven't looked into the Moroccan reaction to Reagan's death because, to be honest, I didn't think there would be one. But today I talked to a middle-aged Moroccan man who said that yesterday thz Arabic newspaper he reads had a lot of Reagan coverage playing off the funeral. A key difference from what I've heard about the American reaction is that many Moroccans know him primarily as an actor, and his movies have enjoyed some popularity here. The man told me people were divided over Reagan as a President. In his opinion, Reagan deserves a lot of credit for the fall of the Soviet Union and a victory over dictatorship. He wouldn't talk about criticisms of Reagan today. Anyway, I'll try to grab a paper and see if I can find more, but since I have a rather busy weekend planned, no promises.

UPDATE: Here is the Al-Ahram Weekly obituary for President Reagan. I couldn't find anything on their Arabic site.

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.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


So I take it somebody important died back in the U.S.?

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Sacred Music Festival Report

So I went to the choir concert with a girl from Kiev who is fluent in Russian. Afterward, she actually went over and hung around outside their dressing room until they started coming out, and they all talked in Russian for about an hour. There was also a man working on a documentary for an American TV network who wanted to interview some choir people, but didn't know Russian. He got the girl I was with to be his translator, and drafted me to help set stuff up. The choir wanted to get back to their hotel, though, so we all boarded this bus marked "Special" with the festival logo on it and went to their hotel, where the guy interviewed two of the 12 singers. Then we left.

I guess I got to see yet another side of the festival.

Incidentally, the concert was at the museum where the special exhibit was. That was a tad disappointing, as it was just one small room with various henkas, Torah covers, circumcision chairs, and some other stuff from synagogues in Morocco, with captions explaining Jewish holidays like Purim and Hanukkah. They were all nice, though.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Sacred Music Festival

Right now the city of Fez is packed for the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, which brings together people from all over the world performing and listening to everything from Buddhist chants to an American gospel choir. I haven't been around it much yet, but this afternoon will probably go see a Russian choir with a friend. (I couldn't find it listed on the "about the acts" section of the web site.) The Dar Batha Museum also has a special exhibit connection with the festival; this year's is something like "Sacred Objects in Synagogues." I hope to take that in this weekend.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Rabat, Morocco

From my 4-dollar-a-night hotel room in Rabat, one could see on the right one of the great gates to the Rabat medina (old city), a castle-like structure built during the early modern period and inspiring with little imagination images of merchants and other travellers arriving at a guarded walled city on whatever business brought them here. Stepping out onto the terrace and looking left, you could see the huge Hassan Tower, originally begun by the Sultan Yacoub the Victorious in 1195 and intended to be the minaret of a mosque which was never completed. Looking out of the southernmost two streets of the medina you could see Avenue Hassan II, which forms the border between the medina and the villa nouvelle, and across it huge hotels and flashing neon signs with advertisements appealing to Rabat's rather large population of wealthy elites and travellers.

The street below was busy, as in the narrow lanes of the medina one finds all sorts of merchants selling their wares, from clocks to eggs to silver vessels all interspersed with restaurants and hotels, some of which featured interior courtyards with banana trees. Among the flow of pedestrians in the streets were the usual flow of beggars and in this case a small army of battery vendors calling their prices in French and Arabic and being largely ignored by the non-battery-buying Rabati majority.

I did find the medina dirtier than those in Fez, Tangier, or Jordan and Syria, as the patisseries and fruit stands seemed home to a rather large number of insects wandering freely over the food, but still it was an interesting place to stroll through about 9 a.m. in the morning as shopkeepers turned the poles to crank up tentlike awnings and cats sat around licking themselves clean for a good hard day of being catlike. Hanging a left by the old Jewish Quarter, I eventually came to the carpet suq (market), which in days long past was the slave market for captives brought back by the Sallee Rovers, pirates named for Rabat's sister city of Sale across the river to the north.

This lay in the shadow of the kasbah, built in several stages during the first half of the last millennium as a military outpost for campaigns either against tribes to the south or Christian Spanish to the north. Inside it was cool, and the narrow lanes were all blue up to about three or four feet and white above, lines mainly with houses and a few shops along the main alleys. At one point there was a large viewing platform where lots of people were gathered taking in the view of where the river empties into the Atlantic, with views of Sale on the right, and a lighthouse to the left separated from the mouth of the river by some beach cafes and general waterfront stuff.

The kasbah also had a museum, but it was closed, as was the major archaeological museum in the Ville Nouvelle. In fact, the entire city seemed under renovation, as they were working on Boulevard Muhammad V, the great north-south thoroughfare. This made something of an adventure for the pedestrian going to and from the pigeon-beseiged train station and taking notice of the red-and-gold Parliament building, which paled in comparison to the huge white buildings to the south housing the government ministries and certainly the walled-off royal palace of King Muhammad VI, son of Hassan II son of Muhammad V and a descendant of the prophet Muhammad.

It was still clear that the city was nice, as if you went to a place like the Hassan II tower you found a fountain-filled garden near where two soldiers on horseback holding Moroccan flags guarded the entrance to the mausoleum of the previous two monarchs. (I thought of entering, but they required respectful dress, and after noticing everyone around there was wearing a suit, decided I might not qualify after all.) The construction in Rabat is really a good sign, as you see development all over the place, perhaps not countering the country's deeper economic problems, but interesting nonetheless, as Morocco generally gets poor ratings for the quality of its infrastructure. Still, on both intercity trips I've seen road work, with the train ride back featuring the contruction of a completely new highway - I didn't catch where it was going, but as the two men in my train compartment spoke of it approvingly in French-influenced Moroccan dialect I did hear that it was expected to be finished in about two years.

My favorite spot in Rabat, though, it probably south of the walls of the Ville Nouvelle, where John Kennedy Avenue comes up outside of town to a huge traffic circle from which a single lonely lane leads to a fortress-like structure amidst the open countryside. This is the Chellah, which houses both the tombs for some sultans of the late medieval Merenid dynasty and the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Sala Colonia. There I wandered around for a couple of hours, through the Roman ruins and the mosque and madrasa destroyed by an earthquake around 250 years ago, and peered into a small walled pool which on the bottom featured lots of change and not a few pieces of egg peel, presumably confirming the story that women came here to offer eggs to the eels when they wanted to conceive children with the aid of the baraka of the wali buried nearby.

Because it was hot and I was tired, I found a suitable place to sit, and after a few moments realized I was in the graveyard of the mujahadeen who had died fighting the Christians of Spain centuries ago in the wars which left Spain Christian and Morocco Muslim. This seemed really odd, especially considered the ways in which today "mujahadeen" has become a somewhat loaded term. The graves were really not that impressive - the long stones lain in rectangles around the spot of burial were all cracked and in some cases actually missing, and between them grew little besides the occasional weed. Still, it gives one pause to reflect that despite all the strife of the time they lived, today I was still as a Christian able to relax among them, chatting with a Muslim couple from the United States, an area opened to European (and Islamic) influence by the Spanish. In fact, this whole city was in part the product of Christian-Muslim conflict, from its development as a haven for Muslim and Jewish refugees from Spain to the role in played as a base for the Sallee Rovers and the wars against Europe, yet today it is a very open city with a major street named after an American President and a deep French imprint left over from the colonial period but still discernably present. And that perhaps gives hope for the present, when the conflict between those two faiths isn't nearly as bad, and in which the ruined graves of warriors amidst the main attraction of a religious building and learning institution remind us of what people the world over truly value most