Remembering Argana.

Sunset from Cafe Argana, taken January 2011

We raced a Moroccan sun. “If we time it right, you’ll see magic twice from the terrace,” I explained to my friend Natalie. “First when the sun sets, and then again when the square twinkles to life.” We both needed a bathroom badly, but I insisted there wasn’t time. Our waiter at Cafe Argana had served me before, and we recognized each other. He, like so many of the Moroccans I know, understood the importance of levity and laughter, so he joked amiably with us each time he passed our table. A young American couple sat nearby, discussing how they wished their still-wet henna designs were permanent tattoos. A Moroccan kid, no more than ten years old, squeezed in behind Natalie’s chair to take pictures of Djemaa El Fna, and occasionally, tourists whispered happy apologies in myriad accents while they leaned over our teapots to snap the sinking sun. Marrakech was so hot that day that Natalie and I had spent the afternoon shadow hopping; between our aching bladders and our scorching skin we were anxious for the sun to quit. But, it clung tenaciously to the sky. Finally, it dipped below the horizon and one by one the bright light bulbs hanging from each of the booths began to glow, illuminating the delicacies of Marrakech: dates and apricots, pots of snails and pots of harrira, servings of sausages and dished up tanjia. “I see what you mean,” Natalie said from behind her camera’s viewfinder. “The square is shinning.”

Djemma El Fna shines, view from Argana on April 9, 2011

I’d made a habit of sharing a chicken bastilla at the same table on Café Argana’s terrace each time one of my friends visited Morocco. “Of course you did,” a Moroccan friend said yesterday when we were discussing the bombing. “Everyone did. It’s the best. Everyone goes to Argana.” Then, he lowered his head and said: “It’s not right. How could someone do something so terrible? That’s not Islam. That’s not Morocco. I hope you know that.” I nodded and said I did and we resumed worrying: about his friend that worked nearby, about my waiter from a few weeks ago.

Cafe Argana, December 31, 2010

After that last visit to Marrakech, I came home and found a concert in downtown El Jadida. It was warm outside and the whole town was out for the party. The bands were mostly local and they were surprisingly good. They sang in English and French and Darija and Arabic. I wandered through the crowd dodging strollers and dancing two-year olds and swaying dads with daughters on their shoulders. In the grass, kids joined hands and twirled until they fell down giggling and dizzy. I thought: this is what Park Slope would look like if you passed out djellabas during Celebrate Brooklyn. And everywhere I looked people were holding each other because they were happy. This is Morocco:

And that’s what makes me so sad about Thursday’s events. This isn’t a country where bombs go off; it’s a place where people you’ve only just met invite you to tea or lunch and insist you eat until you’re stuffed. This is a country of amazing linguists. It’s a country of stories and storytellers. It’s a country where you can watch an evening come to life from a beautiful terrace. It’s a country where people laugh often, and laugh well. I’m so sad for Marrakech and the tragic events that occurred there Thursday. I’m angry that innocent people died, and that someone willingly marred the reputation and the tourism industry of a country that dearly loves and needs their tourists. But I’m also confident in the wonderful Moroccans. They will rebuild and survive and the country will continue to evolve in uniquely Moroccan ways. They’ll show everyone that this is a safe and amazing place to visit. And, inshallah, the tourists will continue to swoon over smells and monkeys and the snakes and the storytellers and the performers, just as they have done for hundreds of years, because the spirit Djemaa El Fna has more power than any bomb.

Argana at Night, taken October 30, 2010

Categories: fulbright, Morocco, Ponderings | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Bab Tales

Bab or  باب, meaning gateway or door.

Outside the bab in Essaouira, an amateur, amateur photographer lies in wait:

I heard about Mogador before I landed in Africa. An older adjunct at the university where I taught in Brooklyn narrated the story of adventuring with his family through Morocco in a VW van. “Essaouira was great in those days,” he said. “It was the 70s. About five minutes after I rolled in, a kid asked me to buy him booze. You could only buy it with a foreign passport, you see. I told him sure I would if he’d score some kif for me. He did. It was that easy then.”

I heard more stories, too: supposedly, Hendrix wrote Castles Made of Sand while he was in Essaouira. This turned out to be untrue, but I liked the story for egocentric continuity; in one college apartment, my rooomates and I adorned our living room wall with paper and spent weeks working on a pointalist portrait of melting castles.

I forget sometimes, now that I’ve lived here for a few months, that I’m just a visitor. I forget that most of the American writers who loved Morocco lived here much longer than I have. I forget that grants and studying abroad and being an expat is like borrowing a library book whose pages you can climb into. And for a little while, you write yourself into those pages, effectively changing the narrative of the place, of your own life. There are options, of course: return the book, renew it, allow it to become overdue. Still, the original story belongs to someone else. Or does it?

Ultimately, Essaouira was disappointing. Likely, this is because I had so many preconceived ideas about what I would find there, most of them sourcing from the idealized orientalist perspective of beat-generation writers. But what I’ve come to love about Morocco is how bizarre and mystifying it is, how hard I have to work to get through each day, how generously and kindly my neighbors and friends treat me.

An example: a few days ago I received a pink slip under my door. Since I cannot read Arabic script, I guessed it was a notice about my water bill from the illustration in the corner. At the time, my cell phone wasn’t working and various trips to the local Maroc Telecom had resulted only in some customer service receipts and instructions to wait a few more days. When I needed my friends, I went to their houses, and like the Moroccans in my neighborhood, I called out for them until they poked their heads out the windows. The point being, I couldn’t call my landlord. So, I went to the cafe on my corner, had a conference with four or five of the regulars and the waitress until we decided my water would likely be shut off that day. It wasn’t. When I did show my landlord the notice he said, mashi mushkil. And then he left. I still have water. This is my enigmatic Morocco.

In Essaouira, I didn’t feel the spirit of cultural emersion I’ve grown so accustomed to. I watched a lady in linen scarves breeze onto a rooftop bar where the band was playing Bob Marley, and I said to my companion, “She’s one of those whispy women who believes in the magic of Morocco.” No less than five minutes later, the woman cornered me. She talked about her experience playing with “native children who couldn’t even speak French.” She went on to explain that she, “liked Morocco better than South America. There’s just so much more magic here, I guess. It’s raw. It’s untamed.”

The thing is, it’s not my right to criticize this woman. After all, I am an American charmed by Morocco. I barely speak the language. I chose to sit on a rooftop where I sipped an alcoholic beverage and listened happily to a band that played old-school reggae. And it’s not fair to say that Essaouira is overly touristic when I was only a weekend tourist myself. The truth is, I met a wonderful young woman named Charifa who told me, in Arabic, about her upcoming wedding this summer. I laughed with some ladies about my silly-sounding Arabic at the port. I went strolling and watched Moroccans buying papers of chic peas, just like they do in El Jadida and in many other Moroccan cities. I have to remind myself to look closer.

Because this trip, for me, is all about narrative. I’m writing my own and listening for new stories. And when I look closely, I see them intersecting everywhere. My favorite memory from Essaouira? Hanging out next to a bab and watching the world go by one story at a time.

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Categories: Activities, fulbright, Morocco, Ponderings, Uncategorized, wanderings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Go out and cry mutiny!

During my freshman year of college, I developed an overwhelming and unrealistic crush on young Orson Welles. He’d died in 1985 at the age of 70 (I was four), but that didn’t matter. At 18, I lusted after his long takes, swooned over his severe angles, and eagerly awaited his shadow play and deep focus shots. He was a genius confident and cocky enough to appreciate his own genius. And he had a nice radio voice, which he used to play a prank on the good people of the United States with his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. I spent so much time in the Music and Media Library watching Welles movies, they hired me to work there.

I was particularly interested in Welles’ Othello, which represented the Wellesian trait I admired most: he was so intent on making his art, that he would do just about anything to realize his visions. And Othello was doomed from the beginning. The producer ran out of money. The scenes were fragmented. The filming locations weren’t always consistent. In some cases, he couldn’t afford actors that spoke English. Indeed, the film is flawed and ego-centric; it’s not my favorite version of Othello, mostly because in it Welles does what Welles does best – focus on himself rather than the narrative. Race is almost a non-issue in this version and the writing is certainly not Shakespeare’s. But, Welles finished the film. He redubbed a good chunk of the movie himself. He filmed scenes where and when he could over the course of three years and several countries. And then it won the Palm d’Or in 1952.

The opening scene still gives me chills:

I spent a large chunk of last spring thinking about Othello. I saw the Peter Sellars’ version of the play at the Skirball Center at NYU and while I appreciated Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s villainy, I found the conception of the play confusing and distorted when compared with the original. And, like Welles, Sellars’ basically ignored race. Last summer, I taught the play to my literature students at Medgar Evers, which was really fun and prompted me to watch just about every version of the film that exists. In the middle of studying the Moor of Africa with my students, Fulbright called and invited me to move to Morocco. You know, the original home of the Moors?

El Jadida, my new hometown, is where Welles’ filmed most of Othello. That opening scene up there? Those are the walls of our fair Portuguese city. From the jetty, you can see the spot where the imprisoned Iago gets dropped into the bay.

Perhaps El Jadida’s most famous landmark – the old cistern – is the setting for a very intense chase scene in the film:

Indeed, visiting the cistern today is a magical experience, from the soft lighting, to the ancient arches, to the thin layer of water that covers most of the brick floor. When I go in there, my imagination spins into hyperdrive. I think about the past – it was constructed in the 1650s after all – and I think about what happens next: how will future generations use this place? Will there come a time when there’s so little fresh water that the inhabitants of Jadida will use the cistern for its original purpose again? Will they laugh about the years that movies were filmed inside its walls and tourists came simply to look at the well?

But mostly when I’m inside the cistern, I think about how happy accidents can add up in one person’s life: an 18 year-old-girl sits on wooden chair in Atlanta watching the walls of a city where she will live ten years later on a tiny television.

People often ask me how I chose Morocco. I tell them I didn’t. Morocco picked me.

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Categories: fulbright, media, Morocco, Ponderings | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Road to Marrakech is Paved with Vocabulary Words.

The woman sat next to me, pressed my body against the public bus window.

-Salaam, I offered while adjusting my bags and my position. She ignored me. My traveling companion was a big woman wearing a sage veil, and I’d watched her board with a younger woman and two children. She had lots of wrinkles around her eyes, which I imagined she’d acquired from hawkishly watching the other three. Every few minutes she twisted her neck to scope the back of the bus where the others sat. Unquestionably, this woman was the matriarch of her family.

There are many differences between men and women in Morocco, but one of these is the palpable sense of ownership, of control, of fearlessness, of sagaciousness, that an older woman often embodies. I suppose I could use some of the same words to describe both my grandmothers, women who presided over their households in America. But it’s different. I don’t want to use cliché phrases like “a lifetime of hard-work” to describe the women here. Because while that’s true, both my grandmothers’ faced their own struggles and worked very hard. Maybe what I’m looking for is a sense of connectedness to the land, of using hands and feet and backs to make a life. I’m not sure. Think of that famous Dorothea Lange Dust Bowl photo of the woman with her children, and you’ll see a face that expresses what my words fail to do.

Ten minutes into our trip, my seatmate eyed me skeptically. -Labas, I tried.

-Shnu? she asked, almost aggressively. As if I’d rudely asked her to move over.

-Labas? Bexair? Hi, are you well? I smiled.

Then, the woman started to chortle – one of the loudest, heartiest laughs I’ve ever heard. The entire bus turned around to look at us.

-Bexair, Hamdoullilah. You speak Arabic?

-Chwiya, I explained. Only a little. She laughed again and slapped my knee. I giggled. And then she announced to everyone that the American spoke Arabic. She told me a little about where she was going, about her family and wanted to know what my  exactly my travel mug was. I tried to explain that it kept my coffee warm for hours, that I usually ordered two café nus-nus to fill it up before a journey. She didn’t believe me, so I unscrewed the lid and together we watched the steam rise.

When she got off the bus half-an-hour later, the skinny woman with a pointy nose across the aisle slid in beside me. It was obvious she wanted to talk, so I asked her for her story: Where was she from? Where she was going? Who was she meeting there? She wanted to see my mug, too, and when I pulled out my red aluminium water bottle, she was equally amused. Neither of the women spoke French or English. My Arabic is so limited that conversations always stay on the surface. Still, I’m always grateful for the practice. And every person I meet teaches me something new about Morocco.

The second woman exited at Sidi Bennour, a town that’s home to many of my students. She invited me to visit her there or in El Jadida. When she left, two small children appeared in the still-warm seat. They were shy at first, but soon, like children from any country, we were playing and laughing and talking freely. I often find children a great relief because our language skills are a closer match, and because the world is so filled with magic for them – just as Morocco is for me.

The bus stopped mid-way between El Jadida and Marrakech for a break. I didn’t brave the stretch I badly wanted, because I couldn’t figure out how long our halt would last. I’d watched four men help an old woman hop onto the already departing bus back in El Jadida, and I knew I wasn’t ready to perform such a trick in the event it was necessary. Men boarded proffering bags of clementines and bananas bunches for 5 dirhams. A hunched back woman climbed aboard, asked for change. Another man lectured the crowd for about 10 minutes. He was selling something – a product, a political notion, I’m not sure. I tried to talk the fruit vendors into selling me one piece of fruit for a dirham, but none of them would bite. I gave the old woman my dirham instead. Baraka, indeed, because soon after I gave away my coin, the mother of the children flanking me offered me a banana and a clementine.

The children spent the rest of the journey teaching me Arabic prepositions, which we demonstrated with one of the tiny oranges. Fuq: above. Thht: below, Mura: behind, qddam: in front. I taught them to count in English to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Soon, we were deep into the desert and the number of degrees inside the bus escalated. The kids taught me the word for hill, and for cow, and by the time we entered the outskirts of Marrakech, I had learned so many words that I was starting to forget everything. The kids took turns sitting on my lap.

At the bus station in Marrakech, the children shouted “Au Revoir, Erin!” until I couldn’t see them anymore. I hopped into a petite taxi, and headed to Djma El Fnna to meet my friends for a weekend of food and shopping and laughter.

Since this entry is already long and you can read about the awesome, but very touristy city of Marrakech everywhere else on the web, I’ll leave you with my photos and their captions and an offer to give you more details upon request. My new friend Kate, posted a great bargaining guide on her blog, so if you’re visiting Morocco and want to shop, make sure to read her tips first.

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Categories: fulbright, Morocco, Ponderings, wanderings | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ode to my basil plant.

Marhaba, nebitas dyali = welcome, my plant

Shuma = shame

My first afternoon in Morocco, I noticed a nursery stand in the Rabat Medina with basil plants lining its perimeter. It stood out because somewhere on the interwebz, I’d read that basil was hard to come by in Morocco. Smugly, I thought that less than 24 hours into my life here, I had proved the Internet wrong.

Shuma. How foolish of me.

A month later, having thoroughly interviewed several local purveyors of vegetables and herbs as to when the weekly allotment of basil would arrive, and, having questioned everyone I’ve met about where I might buy a basil plant, I was still at a loss for my favorite food flavorer. And cut basil, when I find it, is expensive.

So, when I trekked to Rabat this past weekend for a small reunion with the Fulbrighters, the first thing I did was head to the medina to buy a basil plant. And I snagged a beauty for only a few dirhams more than the handful of basil I bought to make bruschetta for our dinner party that night. After a brief stroll through the market, my new plant came with me to a cafe, chilled in a hotel room over looking downtown Rabat, then enjoyed the scenery from the train window all the way back to El Jadida. While hardly a replacement for my companions far away in New York (feline or Trout), I’ll admit that it’s nice to share my living space with something that lives and respires once again. I’m just trying not to talk to it. Too much.


Marhaba, nebitas dyali. You will live a good life here with me.

I know I’m supposed to be learning about and enjoying the local cuisine – and, I am. But as a bon vivant, and a mostly-vegetarian, I can’t deprive myself of pesto, flavorful omelets and tomato and mozzarella salads. Morocco, I must ask you: for a country that eats as much pizza as you do, how do you live without basil? And why deprive yourself of such a sublime herb?

Next on the agenda: finding some good balsamic vinegar.

Categories: fulbright, Morocco, Ponderings, wanderings | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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