Just like New York

Pops called me daughter, dropping the grand. Sometimes he called me oh girl. “Oh girl, oh girl, oh girl,” he’d say when he entered the room, and I knew he was talking to me. He had voice, and I loved him for it. But, I liked it best when he said “Just like New York.” He said it about anything fancy, or modern, or strange. He said it about people. He said it just to say it. Both Nannie and Pops had lived in upstate New York, and for a short time when Pops was in the army, Nannie lived close to New York City. I never knew exactly which New York he was referencing. But I was obsessed with living in NYC, so I liked to assume that’s what Pops meant. Every time he called something just like New York, I wanted desperately to know why he said it, to understand the comparison, to gain some insider knowledge. Most of the time, I was looking for meaning where there wasn’t any.

This morning, while walking back to my apartment after my early lesson, I saw some graffiti on the gates of several closed shops. “Just like New York,” I said aloud, before I even realized what I was saying.

*this was supposed to be an entry about Moroccan hip hop and graffiti. Whoops. But click on this photo to check out some Maghrebi hip hop. Photo links to Bigg's (above, left) Mabightch, or Don't Want To.

When I decided to move back to Morocco, I’d felt the need to justify my decision to everyone I knew, especially my friends and family in New York. How do you leave a city like that behind?  Maybe you don’t. And maybe that’s what Pops was thinking to. Once New York City builds a miniature version of itself inside you, it’s hard to escape. So, I’ll keep looking for pieces of New York wherever I am. Because the similes bring me home.

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

“I came to Casablanca for the waters.”

In Brooklyn there came the sound of the ice cream truck, maddening in its frequency and cheeriness, a sure way to recognize the summer season if the foul smell of garbage cans and the oppressive heat hadn’t already clued you in. There’s an equally irritating aural villain in my neighborhood in Casablanca: the cd salesman. This gentleman pushes his music cart through Maarif’s busy grid, playing sample songs on a boombox with one loud speaker, hoping to entice nearby Moroccans. His song of choice this week is one for teaching children a blessing: “Bismillah, Bsmillah, in the name of Allah.” I took this for a good luck omen when I first moved in; bismillah is a blessing offered at the beginning of things, climbing stairs, for example, or beginning a meal, or getting into a taxi. But the music is boring. And eerily upbeat. And the singer has the high-pitched voice of a child of indeterminate gender. I’ll take an Egyptian habibi song over this any day of the week. But the very worst part is that each time he passes under my apartment, I hear an internal version of the ice cream truck melody. A particularly gruesome double torture, if you ask me.

Sorry, fella. I'm up here shaking my fist at you.

And just like that my extended sojourn from this blog is over. I’m back: in Morocco, on the internet, to teaching and to writing. And I’m excited. Maarif, my new neighborhood has a little of everything I loved about living in El Jadida – friendly hanut owners and fresh olives and vegetables down the block, and cafe nus-nus aplenty. But it’s also on the edge of Casablanca’s upscale shopping district. It feels like a nice blend of New York and Morocco, which so far, has made life considerably easier than it was this time last year. I already speak enough Darija to get things accomplished by myself and when I can’t, there’s an incredible amount of proficient English speakers in the neighborhood to help me.

My classroom's view.

So another year of exploration begins. I hope you’ll join me.




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Hey Blue, this blog’s for you . . .

The sharqi blew the streets of Tangier and Tetouan clean. So we climbed into a grand taxi and blew ourselves away too.  One hour of winding Rifian roads later, we found the sun hanging over a city washed with blue. Joni describes the way I feel about Chefchaouen best: Ink on a Pen/Underneath the Skin/An Empty Space to Fill In. 

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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

Passing through Banana Village

Outside of Agadir, on the back of a moped: I had Paul Simon stuck in my head — my pavlovian response to the open road, thanks to Graceland having been one of the few tapes (along with Legend and Forever Your Girl) that my family could count on during car trips when I was young. I was singing about ghosts and empties while we ziped toward Taghazout, a town that promised to be a little bit hippie, a little bit surfer, and a whole lot Berber.

“This is Banana Village,” my friend shouted into the wind, halfway to our destination.

“What’s a banana village?” I called back.

He didn’t answer, but I figured it out when we stopped in the middle of Aourir for a bunch:

There’s a Moroccan joke about how hard it is for tourists to pronounce the word for mint, which is na3na3. And in the joke the tourist orders atay b’na3na3 (mint tea), but because they can’t pronounce the eins, the waiter brings out banana tea. The tourist is, of course, appalled — “This is Morocco! You’re famous for your Mint Tea!” — And the waiter is equally appalled: “But you ordered atay banana!” Cue the symbols.

Beyond Aourir, the coastline upgrades from beautiful to spectacular:

And at the bottom of one of these cliffs we found a small beach cafe, perfect for enjoying our bananas…with tea, of course.

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

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