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

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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Drinking with the Colonizer

(hi friends, I’m a little behind on updating my blog. But! I’m back!).

In Lyon, I wore a short skirt with bare legs and pretended I was back in New York. Signs across France proclaimed le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivé!, and to compliment our dinner of squid, foie gras, and scallops, my friend and I drank cocktails mixed with the new wine. Then we ordered a bottle, and after that we went to one of the boats on the River Rhone for another pot. The floating bar was filled with women and men mingling, the first time I’d been in a mixed crowd where alcohol was flowing freely in a long time. I felt scared. I felt silly. My friend reminded me that I’d only been away from America for 3 months. Still, I found myself wrapping my scarf around my neck and wishing I’d worn tights. We navigated our way through conversations in French, and I realized I couldn’t speak La Langue without bits of Arabic. Luckily, we’d found North Africans to keep us company: an Algerian and a Tunisian, who, although having grown up entirely in France, knew what I meant when I accidentally said chwiya or bzaf in the middle of a sentence.



The morning after the Beaujolais Nouveau release, we ate breakfast at a cute café facing a church in the old part of Lyon. We had headaches for hangovers, because Beaujolais Nouveau is actually a cheap red wine after all. Our waiter, an older man who owned the place, wanted us to drink wine with our breakfast. Even when we politely declined, he insisted. We devoured omelets with figs and goat cheese and decided to stick to our abstinence at least until after our first cup of coffee. Over the owner’s shoulder, I noticed a row of Lavache Qui Rit; I thought about Morocco. While the laughing cow’s spreadable cheese is everywhere, in my town you’ll only see alcohol at hotels, or in Italian restaurants. There are a few bars, but I wouldn’t dare go into them by myself. Don’t get me wrong – Morocco has a booming wine industry based out of Meknes – but you’re not likely to see folks openly sipping the sauce with their breakfast like I did in France.

After days of eating and drinking our way through Lyon, we decided to check out the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Croix-Rousse. It was the most beautiful market I’ve ever seen – towers of aubergine, fromage so fresh it was painful, accordion players giving a musical voice to any cliché you’ve ever wanted to believe about France. We got a baguette, ham, and figs and made our breakfast on a park bench. There was a pre-winter chill in the air; I hadn’t felt so cold in months. When we finished we went searching for roasted chestnuts and vin chaud, and decided instead to get cozy inside a café with a pot of Côtes du Rhône.

When we returned to Paris that night, I was delighted to find our cab driver was a Moroccan from Oujda. We spoke a French/Darija mixture and I was so happy to communicate a little more freely than I had most of the week. My Arabic is surprisingly better than my French, especially when giving taxi directions. Still, meeting this transplanted Moroccan served only as proof that my petite vacation was coming to an end.

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It’s all about Ishmael.

Here’s a story you probably know:

Old Abe was a crotchety, but pious, feller roundabouts 86 years and climbing. He had fine-looking wife named Sara, who also happened to be his half-sister. But they didn’t care. Because she was hot! But Sara was also barren. Still, she wanted her husband to have everything his big ol’ heart desired.

“Oy vey, Sarah! I need some children sprung from these here loins!” Abe said.

Since they hadn’t invented feminists yet, Sara got the bright idea that she would make a present to her husband of her attendant, a right nice Egyptian lady named Hagar, who would be Sara’s surrogate. Hagar made Abe a happy man, indeed: along came a little bundle of joy named Ishmael. Later, it turned out Sara was actually fertile, so she gave birth to Abe’s second son, Isaac. Now, there were about 13 years between Isaac and Ishmael, but wouldn’t you know, they got circumcised around the same time?

Ouch!” Ishmael said.

God said: “Don’t worry, dude. You’re going to be a really old man who begets 12 – and I mean 12 – chiefs. That’s a whole nation, son. Femtini?”

It’s no wonder, then, that Ishmael, having been circumcised while lucid, got to picking on his half-brother, Isaac, who was barely weened. And Sara, being literally the mother of all Jewish mothers, wouldn’t stand for her brilliant boy taking any flack down at the pre-school. So she said, “Off with her head!” Just kidding. Different story. Anyway, let’s just say: Sara and Hagar parted ways. Hagar, next time we meet her, is hanging out by a divine well out in the wilderness.

Even though Abe’s life was going along pretty well for a spry centenarian, he was plagued by night terrors. Now, these dreams were really just God calling to invite himself to an upcoming sacrifice. “Is that static on your end of the line, Abe?” God wanted to know. But, Abe finally got the message. So he took his son up to the mountain and stood at the altar with the boy and was like “All right, Boss, I can’t believe you’re asking me to do this, but you want him? You can have him.”

Upon seeing how loyal ol’ Abe actually was, God said: “Whoa. Hold up. I was just playing. We cool?”

And Abe was so relieved that he sacrificed the first animal he could, which happened to be a ram whose horns were all twisted up in the briar patch.

I’m always lecturing my students in both America and Morocco on the importance of not being vague in their writing. And while most of you reading this will assume the son I’m talking about is Isaac, grammatically speaking, which one was it?

Can’t tell? Good.

In the Muslim version of this Old Testament tale, Isaac isn’t even born when Abe takes Ishmael up on the mount. And what’s more, Ishmael is game for the sacrifice: “Pa, give the Lord what he wants.”

Today, in Morocco, it’s all about Ishmael. It’s Eid Kibir, or Eid-al-Adha. Almost every family has a ram, and today, just like Abraham, Muslims will make a sacrifice. And if they couldn’t afford to buy their own muton, someone else will likely have bought them one, or at least invited them to join in on the festivities.

There are rams everywhere. For the last few days, I’ve heard mutons bleating from rooftops and windows and garages-turned-farmyards. I’ve heard them in my hallway. Almost every time I’ve left my apartment building, I’ve seen a group of men wrestling a ram out of a small truck. There are rams on the tops of busses, in wheelbarrows, in bathrooms, on terraces, on balconies.

Muton bzaf.

But my favorite muton moment was yesterday morning: I was waiting for a petite taxi on Mohammed 6, when a ram came charging past. Shortly thereafter, 10 Moroccan men came sprinting around the corner, hot in pursuit of the furry fugitive. Strangers on the sidewalk joined the herd of shepherds. I didn’t stick around long enough to see if they captured the little guy, but I didn’t need to; his fate’s inevitable.

Eid mubarak said!

Categories: fulbright, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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