Sunday, November 25, 2007

Monitoring Morocco

I might have left Morocco, but still it resonates in my regular thoughts, an experience not yet entirely digested and translated into memory in the way of Provence or Madrid. A wool blanket on my bed, a green-felt jellabah in the closet, leather tasseled slippers on the floor, & fourcontinents itself all remind me of stories left untold and impressions that remain fluid and uncertain. Loading today's New York Times recalled the political ambivalence I feel yet months after the democracy dialogue. Andrea Elliott writes about Tetouan and its ties to the Madrid bombings and fighters in Iraq.

Her point about the social pressures is a good one, but how oh how do you even begin to sway opinion at such a local level? Where can change occur such that the neighborhood soccer squad serves as a force against terrorism instead of a recruitment zone? A lot of this is still poverty & hopelessness, but development alone isn't going to solve everything. These men are from a relatively liberal Muslim society and still get caught up in the campaign - it makes it hard to hope for change anywhere. Thoughts?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Reading Life

A friend recently asked about my writing habits and aspirations, and though I answered the question simply enough, it made me remember something I had written nearly a year ago for a completely different audience. Nonetheless, its words speak true to my current life as a dedicated reader and occasional writer-dabbler, so I'll repeat myself here...

like every other girl who ever dreamed of becoming an author but graduated from college pursuing more practical career goals, I keep a notebook around most of the time, in case that one true story ever falls out of the blue clear sky. in the meantime, that notebook gets filled with minutiae and grocery lists, the occasional musing or rehashing of my uniquely dysfunctional family for the millionth time. online, I find myself blathering about benign misadventures in far-off places and mumbling my discontent with the world. somewhere in my mind, I berate my home and my roots for offering such meager material: surely there should be some great tale to be mined from the missouri river mud, but so far it seems that mark twain told every damn one.

instead, I read. I read sometimes like I'm drowning - a book in a day, never rushing my pace but simply ignoring everything else for the sake of the story. I fall in love with alice munro, whose women always make me feel less neurotic and offer vague hope for my wandering future. I wonder at andré gide and find myself wishing I possessed the theology (or the poetry) to open a dialogue about human nature. I get lost in gabriel garcía márquez and return to find the solid world made unfamiliar by his vivid reimaginings. I feel alive, sparked and yet isolated by this intimate consumption of others' thoughts. I want to write, but they leave my mute in my appreciation and humbled in my abilities. the reading list forever grows while the notebook is overrun with doodles: the truest reader makes a lousy writer.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Food (as usual) in New York (aha, someplace new!)

New York continues to keep me off balance. I had finally adjusted to my local supermarket, the Great Wall, which sells two brands of peanut butter but seven kinds of dried fish. Seriously, there are live eels and durian popsicles. Still, I'm an adaptable sort, and I'd adjusted to shopping there (not that I've bought live eel or durian popsicles yet...)

Then today on my way home, I decided to roast a chicken. It was a chilly evening and I found myself craving comfort food, so on my walk from the subway station, I poked my head into the neighborhood's halal butcher. I got one whole chicken, some lentils, and was soon in my warm apartment with the oven preheating and a cookie sheet tin-foiled into a makeshift roasting pan. Pulling the chicken out of the grocery bag, I realized for the first time just how whole it was.

Content omnivore that I am, I'm willing to handle whole dead chickens, giblets and all, but one with glazed eyes still staring up at me was almost too much. I fished out a knife and finished the cut the butcher had begun, then decided the reptile feet were simply too much and left them on, picking the meat off the slightly-charred leg bones rather than trying to figure out how to twist, pull or hack them off.

It reminded me of Morocco - except that my halal birds there still came headless and clawless. I thought of a Tomie di Paola story from my childhood, an episode about going to his grandfather's butcher shop and pretending the chicken feet were his hands, scaring his grandmother and girls in his class as he pulled the tendons with his (hidden) real hands so the dead toes jumped and pinched. I remembered thinking how stupid it was to be afraid of chicken feet - but I think I see the creepy factor better now.

Now all I have to do is pluck my own bird. There's no way I could actually kill it myself, but as far as adventures in meat-eating go, I've got to admit that head-chopping and foot-handling isn't actually all that bad.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Of paper airplanes and romanesco

Eight days on the job, three office parties...I think I can handle this pace quite well. My boss has already taught me where to find the best launch site for paper airplanes (a bank of windows overlooking 45th); the proper lunch-break etiquette (leave the building, stay gone at least 45 minutes, don't answer your phone); and his philosophy on authority ('tis easier to ask forgiveness than permission).

Meanwhile, I took my enforced lunch break today and wandered up to 47th, where I'd been told the tree-lined plaza deserved a stroll. As it turns out, Wednesdays bring a produce market to the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza - and even better, the produce market brought romanesco, which I'm taking home for dinner tonight. Delighted with my find, I returned to the office and showed it to the paper-airplane-thrower-in-chief. After I introduced it as a fractal-vegetable, he paused a moment and replied, "You know fractals and you recognized one - you're nerdier than I thought." Coming from this man, I can imagine no higher praise.

Finally, there are two other Americans in this section. As they welcomed me to the minority, one asked where I was from. I replied that Missouri was home, and he burst out: "How the HELL did you get here?!" The other new girl is from Burma - no one batted an eye (though the East Asia desk officer did ask her about her family back home and the current political situation). Here, and only here, Missouri is a stranger place to call home than Myanmar. Go figure.

I love my job.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Morocco, Postponed

I got a job at the UN...I got a job at the UN!

With that, the original fourcontinents project officially died - we'd already developed a four-friend proposal into a two-author blog, and then my co-conspirator Sarah went off and vanished into medical school. Still, I had hoped to keep up the international spirit with my return to Rabat in October. Instead, I moved to New York and am finding it in some ways more foreign than Morocco. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what it has to do with fourcontinents - I love my job, but I'm not sure it really needs to be written about, and I love discovering this new city, but I feel that this particular adventure has already been told a few times too many (who DIDN'T grow up with the "country mouse, city mouse" fable, after all?)

Fourcontinents remains alive, and I'm sure I'll find things to say, but expect an observer's perspective rather than an adventurer's - turns out I'm not going anywhere too far for a while.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


A good primer on Friday's voting available at Slate: "Why do so few Moroccans use their vote?"

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


So it's still six weeks until my return to Morocco, but as at least a few of my American friends still check in here periodically, I thought I'd at least link to others' coverage of relevant news. Recently a newsweekly in Arabic published a supposedly critical editorial and had all copies seized and destroyed, while the editor and op-ed writer were hauled into court and threatened. Actual translation of said article available here:

So yeah, I usually try to play up the good things about my adoptive home - it is a place I love most of the time - you still can't ignore that things like this do indeed happen. Censorship is still an issue. The monarchy might be modern, but it is absolute. This is why I have a hard time with some of the pie-in-the-sky democracy stuff...which I swear I'll get back to soon enough.

Further commentary on the Nichane incident available here: Long Way Home

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Lost in Translation

My family's conversation in the car today reminded me of two of the funnier language mishaps we had while on our vacation in France:

1). While in the Loire Valley, we toured a vineyard named 'Moncontour', just outside of the quaint little village of Vouvray. After a trip through the wine museum, which was surprisingly complex and long, we got to do some wine tasting. The girl who was pouring the wine seemed nice, and after the people before us had left, I struck up a conversation, as I don't seem to have as much trouble speaking in French to people I know I'll never see again anyway. She mostly understood me, and we went through basic stuff, like whether she liked working there, if she was from the area, etc.
We finished our first taste of wine, a white, and my dad asked me if they had any red. I didn't think they did, the Loire valley is known for its whites, but I asked anyway -- but when I did so, the girl shot me a horrified and offended look and said, "Of course not, this is France!". I was a little puzzled at first - there are many good french reds! - then repeated what I had asked, very distinctly...and it turned out she had thought I'd asked if they had any Russian wine, confusing 'rouge' for 'russe'! After I hurried to explain, she was mollified and we ended our visit on a good note -- but eek, never ask a french person at a vineyard about wine from anywhere else!!

2). Fast foward to the very end of the trip, our last night in Paris. We had had a rather exhausting afternoon hauling all of our luggage through the city to find the hostel, and had selected one of the bistros nearest to our lodgings. Unfortunately, our haste to sit down had kept us from really perusing the menu first, and we had a bit of trouble finding something that the more picky members of the family could eat. Finally, my sister settled on a a random addition to the menu, a hamburger with with the very french addition of a raw egg on top. She, of course, did not want the egg, so as I ordered, I asked for "l'hamburger (that was actually the word on the french menu!) sans oeuf" - without egg, which I thought might be slightly bizarre there but certainly possible. The waiter, however, gave me a strange stare and repeated in wonder, "l'hamburger sans boeuf?" -- he thought I had asked for the hamburger without the beef! No, even though we are American, we are not THAT weird, and we soon straightened him out, and everyone, including the waiter, had a good belly laugh.


Friday, July 27, 2007


I wrote before that my hometown is down to only a used bookstore and the university bookstore competing with the Barnes and Noble, but driving downtown today I discovered that even the used bookstore is closing - final nail in the literary coffin of this Missouri town.

On the other hand, two new Super Wal-Marts have opened since I left. And apparently we've grown close enough to that magical 100,000 mark that all the national chains are moving in - the restaurants and hotels and clothing stores are springing up everywhere, leaving only quaint downtown with any unique soul. It's all so cookie-cutter clean...

Seriously, I'm alive and well and have checked back in with the family - time to turn around and leave again before all my nice memories of this place get wiped out by progress.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Shocking Experience

just a warning: i wrote my blog entry, then went and read katy's recent ones and I feel a little ashamed...the quality and topic of my writing just does not measure up...but its done now, and its late so here goes...sorry in advance

I have returned to the States, and I thought I'd expedite my reverse culture-immersion by heading out to Girl Scout camp right after coming back. I did get over the jetlag first, it always seems to be better coming from east to west, but was still not used to America's wide open spaces, bigger notebook paper, bigger cars (bigger everything!), or people not speaking french.
I was going to camp to help with a rock climbing trip the High Adventure group was taking to the Red River Gorge. I got there in the morning, and after a bit of warm-up climbing at Swiss rock just off camp property, we headed back to camp to pack for the trip (the girls anyway). Unfortunately, as we headed for camp, so did a massive summer hit just as we were getting ready to go, lashing the camp with wind and buckets of rain. Trailz (a fellow counselor) got a call on the radio for us to head for solid shelter, so we ran for the nearest real building, the concrete block bathhouse constructed several years ago. With 2 units of girls plus counselors, it is rather cramped and hot, so everyone was perched just about everywhere, with Trailz and I claiming one of the middle cleaning-closet doors to lean against.
As the storm outside raged, we consciously tried to avert electrical dangers; we turned off and unplugged the radio, and after several warnings, managed to get a rather annoying camper from opening and closing the main bathhouse doors (complete with metal handle!) We were sitting around, talking...when suddenly, there was a HUGE CRACK!!, that sounded practically on top of us, a blue flash of light, a absolutely ginormous thunder clap...and a stream of electricity, running through our backs and out our shoes into the floor. !!!
Turns out the interior doors are also metal, although painted, and Trailz and I as well as two campers had felt some sort of shock from the lightning. It was just under the threshold of pain, not quite but definitely something, and it definitely moved from my back to my feet. Our backs tingled for 2 hours!!
Needless to say, we moved away from the door...when the storm ended, we ventured forth to find a tree about 50 yards away had been struck, was completely shattered on one side and fallen limbs were everywhere. Not to mention free wood chips. If it did that to a tree 50 yards away and we felt it, I don't want to know what would have happened if it had been closer!! Welcome back to camp, Gemini!

...and while I've heard of reverse culture 'shock', I don't think this is what they meant!!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Home and ready to leave

I found out today the last good independent bookstore in my hometown closed while I was gone. We're left with one used bookstore, one college bookstore, and a Barnes and Noble. Get me out of here!

On the upside, I did sign and fax my English-teaching contract to Rabat today. Morocco, here I come (again!)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

24 hours in Fes

I fly out tomorrow - first to Paris, then on to DC. I'd be panicking except that I genuinely believe I'll be back and soon - if not this fall than in the next couple of years.

I still have a travel piece on Tangier and a few more things to say about local politics and even sexual harassment, but for the next few days I'm going to be in limbo and then in culture shock. Still, check back in - I might be leaving Morocco but I'm not quite ready to leave it alone yet...

The Coca-Cola donkey

Friday, July 6, 2007

Le Tour de Fès

Okay, a break from democracy stuff, which will return after my weekend Tangier trip. For now, a photographic tour of Fez:

This, believe it or not, is the McDonald's. Yes, the ceiling is painted. McDo is kind of an upscale, cool place to hang out in Fez. No, I don't get it either.

Moroccan families also take their kids' pictures with Ronald.

A graffiti ad near my house

The minaret to the Tijani mosque in the medina. The founder of a sufi order born in Algeria who converted many in West Africa, al-Tijani is buried in Fez. The Tijanis were all in town last week, which was interesting to watch.

A light at Dar Tazi/Le Palais de Fes, a favorite restaurant near Place R'cif

The mural and altar in the Église St. François, my local church

And now, off to Tangier!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Democracy again: Talking about Reform

The leaving-Fes update: one week and counting...eek! As regards my imminent departure, I'm past denial and into bargaining - pray, knock on wood, cross your fingers or do whatever you do on Monday for me as I MIGHT have found a way to come back. For now, it's back to democracy and security.

Part Two: The First Dialogue
Saturday morning we broke into small groups (about 16 people each) for discussion sessions. The first hour and a half was devoted to "democratic reform in Morocco," a chance to define democratic ideals and look at how such a government might work here, as well as the US role in promoting democracy.

My notes:
-Power in the hands of popularly elected leaders
-Talk of a constitution - but what about the fact that kings have ruled for centuries (need for GRADUAL change)
-Introduction of checks and balances? Increase accountability
-Reform Parliament FIRST
-Opening of media

The idea that any change will happen very slowly was immediately evident. The king is not universally loved (see nickname "sa ma-jet-ski"), but the Parliament doesn't exactly have anyone's trust either. Mohammed VI has reformed things (women's rights, for example) and is sometimes seen as less self-interested than elected representatives. In addition to holding all political power, he's also a direct descendent of the Prophet and is the leader of the faithful in Morocco. Almost no one wants to depose him, and very few want to relegate him to entirely ceremonial status. The most common proposal looks like a modified American system in which the king would be the executive, with real power but also checks and accountability (no Bush jokes, please).

This devolved into a complaints session about the uselessness of the current elected officials, particularly the PJD. They aren't islamist because explicitly religious parties banned, but they still campaign to a conservative religious base and is more locally active than other parties, particularly in rural areas. One participant described it, "They go into the villages and give a big donation to the mosque at Eid and that's why people vote for them, because they don't read the platforms and don't know better." My notes at this point, "well, so do Republicans."

The educated urban Moroccans are definitely afraid of this success and their response is generally to point to the PJD and the 40+% illiteracy rate as evidence that real democracy won't work until the population as a whole is better educated and able to vote on real issues rather than responding to simple pandering. I kept wanting to point out that in the US we have an educated populace and we still tend to elect the taller candidate - and that "elections on issues alone" is utopian pie-in-the-sky dreaming - if you wait for the perfect democracy you'll never get one at all. Don't worry, I mostly kept my jaded sarcasm to myself, or at least my notes.

The main buzzwords we kept returning to were inclusiveness and accountability. Part of why the PJD is popular in rural areas is that many other parties don't bother to campaign there. Youth involvement is distressingly low (sound familiar?), while women's outreach sections tend to be more show than substance. Government business is often conducted in French, which half the country doesn't speak, or Arabic, which still isn't universal (a significant percentage, particularly in rural areas, speak Tamazigh). Elected representatives don't have the will or the money to return to their constituencies regularly, or they win the seat and its salary but never even bother to show up in Rabat. Because the king often steps in and takes the rein on controversial questions, there's little incentive for compromise between the parties, who fight until Mohammed VI picks a side and resolves the conflict.

A moderator reminded us that we couldn't just list problems and obstacles, that we were supposed to propose solutions, and we began brainstorming. Our suggestions (with my added commentary) were:

The Moroccan government should promote the creation of local, organic news media (such as community radio programming) in local languages. (Maybe if the people know what's happening in Rabat, they'll be more inclined to respond).

Morocco should relax press restrictions so as to allow for greater dissent (censorship is still a problem if you want to criticize the king, for example)

The Moroccan Parliament should stress accountability through a program tracking members voting records, a written code of legislator conduct and the creation of contracts between individual representatives and their constituencies. It should also tie salary to attendance and consider the creation of an accountability committee to propose further reforms.

US democracy-promotion efforts should cooperate with international partners and create clear objectives for local organizations and individual participation in order to encourage accountability, track actual progress, and create a self-sustaning system.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Democracy in Morocco: the Rabat Panels

Even before the now-finally-blogged trip to Marrakech, I attended a "Moroccan-American Youth Dialogue on Democracy and Security" in Rabat. The conference made both Al-Jazeera and the BBC, and a comment of mine even made it into the final BBC Radio edit (yes, a Katy in international news - I could get used to this...) However, I didn't write about it at first because I wanted concrete ideas on the topic first. Then I didn't write about it because there was a shiny music festival in town and stalking rock stars was more fun anyway. Last weekend, a second conference brought some of those same discussions back to Fes and I still didn't write about it because the whole topic depresses me.

Democracy in Morocco is a pesky, messy question and American democracy promotion a more complicated issue still. And truth be told, I'm not sure that very many people involved in Moroccan or American politics really care if Morocco ever democratizes. Still, it's an interesting case study in American foreign relations and Middle Eastern politics both domestic and international, so here goes...

Part One: the Players

Day One of the conference involved a series of discussion panels representing many of the interested parties. Ali Amar, publisher of the government-critical magazine Le Journal Hebdomadaire, skipped out at the last minute, but Yassir Mezouari represented the Youth section of the USFP (socialist) party, while Lahcen Haddad spoke for the Mouvement Populaire party. Mezouari went on about the need for greater youth involvement in politics and lamented his generation's disinterest (sound familiar?) Haddad described a society in need of greater education and economic stability in order for democracy to flourish, worrying that the present population, impoverished and half-illiterate, is too susceptible to manipulation.

A second panel included Julia Demichelis of USAID and Eric Duhaime of the National Democratic Institute, who discussed the how of American democracy promotion in places like Morocco. Ms. Demichelis was my favorite of the participants, describing parliamentarian education courses in proper legislative etiquette and the creation of a governmental documents library to store and catalog the activities of the legislature. Mr. Duhaime added that the NDI works with a number of local and national organizations, including offering GOTV training to Moroccan political parties (I want THAT job!)

The final group of speakers went off the record because Craig Karp, the political affairs counselor to the US Ambassador to Morocco, did not want his remarks broadcast on Al-Jazeera. I was nonetheless disappointed when he followed his "off the record" request with a presentation carefully crafted and absolutely correct - if you're going to go off the record you might as well enjoy the opportunity to be frank! Mohammed Ben Hammou followed him with insightful remarks I've since forgotten, which is a shame.

We ended the discussion panels with dinner and a free evening to mull over all we'd heard in preparation for the next day's discussions.

Sunday, July 1, 2007


(Murrakush, or more commonly, Marrakech)

I'm medina-wandering a lot nowadays, trying to anticipate and memorize memorize those sights and sounds I will most miss. Today I think I will test whether Principessa's built-in microphone and GarageBand are able to adequately record the call to prayer from a hotel terrace over the medina...wish me luck. If you have any souvenir requests, by all means, make them - but otherwise I will try NOT to wallow in leaving-Fes too much. Besides, I'm behind on other stories, like the fact that I went to Marrakech over a month ago and never wrote about it, even though Marrakech is the one Moroccan city all the tourists, likely tourists and armchair tourists want to hear about.

Having adopted Fes as my home base, I expected to dismiss touristy Marrakech as a Disney-fied sellout, check it off my "been there, done that" list and return to my (obviously superior) town. Thankfully, the reality was more fun than that - Marrakech has made its concessions to the visitors but it's still very Moroccan also, and I enjoyed spending two days lost in its medina - and could have stayed longer.

First, the Jemma al-Fnaa, supposedly the largest public square on the African continent. Farrin and I arrived there after dark and so first discovered its nocturnal incarnation as a place of picnic-table eateries, a heaven of 3-dirham harira and overpriced tagines that bustled with life even at 10 pm. I asked directions to the hostel from the man at orange juice stand number 12 and made a mental note to return when next I needed a 3-dirham glass of fresh-squeezed.

Making dinner plans with Laura, I chose juice stand 12 as a meeting point and set out to find him once again. Approaching the row of juice carts and CD vendors, one man called out to me and I began to walk in his direction until I realized that his was juice stand number 13 and turned instead to my friend at 12. As I ordered a glass of grapefruit juice, the purveyor of stand 13 left his cart and came down to berate me for buying from a competitor, a tirade that ended in "fuck you! fuck you! fuck you!" Laura arrived just in time to witness my welcome to Marrakech, and we quietly rejoiced in returning to stand 12 as often as possible during our stay, partly for delicious fresh juice and partly to watch the man in stand 13 throw evil eyes our way.

The next morning Farrin and I set out to get lost in the medina - an easy task considering I had not brought my guidebook along and therefore had no map. The streets were generally wider than the alleyways of Fes, and they all had names and markers, a very un-Moroccan level of organization indeed. The salesmen on the main streets had all learned just enough English to shout "Fish and chips!" at us as we walked by, which both confused and amused me greatly. We soon wandered aimlessly away from the main streets and past the mosques, schools and shops - including one restored museum-madrassa - of the central city before reaching another gate and hailing a taxi back to meet Laura for lunch.

For the afternoon we meandered through the Palais al-Bahia and took advantage of its cool, shadowed gardens during the heat of the afternoon. I took photos of the tilework, plaster carvings and painted wood. My comparison of a floral design on one shutter to Norwegian rosemaling earned me the nickname Wikipedia for knowing one obscure trivium too many, apparently. After taking our pictures of arches, windows and walls, we returned to the Jmaa al-Fnaa and watched the sunset from a café terrace before descending to the square for more orange juice and harira.

For day two, I negotiated myself a shirt-length caftan for half the original price and navigated my way to a small riadh-cum-art studio to see a photography exhibit and drink spiced coffee. After one last bowl of addictive harira and a stop at the juice stand to get a liter-bottle filled for the road, Farrin and I caught the evening train back home and found myself once more in Morocco's soul and my own little house early the next morning.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


List additions... To "Things I will miss": Fayrouz soda, especially in mango. To "Things I'm looking forward to at home": Access to Livejournal and Google Earth (both blocked in Morocco); a washing machine (though I might miss my clothesline).

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Attempting Balance

Okay, so there are definitely more things that I will miss about Morocco than things I'll be happy to leave, but I am trying to find an upside in my imminent departure as well. For example, things I WON'T miss:

Long sleeves on hot days (even though I choose to wear them)
Boys who say lewd things when I walk by
Bugs in the house
Communication issues, not understanding what people say
The guilt that comes from walking past the beggars and turning the street kids away from my door

And even a few things I'm looking forward to at home:
Air conditioning
Family and friends

I'm going to copy Katy...(sorry Katy!)

So Katy's list has made me think...I've been realizing lately how much I will miss Grenoble. It has been my first experience abroad, so I don't have other leave-takings to compare with, but I also have something definite ahead of me, in contrast to Katy. For me, a lot of what I miss about a place comes down to the people; while there are some little things I miss about Nashville, for the most part I miss the friends and acquaintances and professors of which I was fond. That will remain true about Grenoble, the people I have met through lab that I work and hang out with will be the major nostalgia I have. And yet...the people I really know and love will stay with me, because we won't let our friendship get away. This I have learned from moving away from university, at least, so perhaps I will not have to miss them as much as I think.
But there are definitely some things that I will miss about Grenoble as well. At a risk of looking like a copy-cat, perhaps you will excuse me for making a list as well, it seems easiest at the moment.

Things I will NOT miss:
dog sh*t on every sidewalk
people peeing on walls in the street
immensely long bureaucratic processes
longer bureaucratic processes
French road signs - IMPOSSIBLE

Things I WILL miss about Grenoble/France:
all other forms of public transportation
feeling marginally safe biking in the city, thanks to bike paths
rose gardens
big public green spaces
jours feries
RTT days -- random days off every month
coffee after lunch
hour-long lunch breaks!
the breathtaking mountain view around every street corner here
being so close to awesome skiing and hiking
my Girl Scouts
train travel
easy access to other countries!
people who speak other languages everywhere
speaking french (wasn't sure I would be able to say that at the end, but its true!)
hello and goodbye in every store
my fruit/vegetable store

As you can see, the 'miss' list seems to be much longer than the 'good riddance' list... so please join me, us, in hoping that the next 2 weeks go rather slowly!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Still Alive

...and not coming home. I leave Morocco in 16 days and the initial anxiety attacks have set in. I hate the goodbye process part of this routine, and this particular return is harder than after previous studies abroad, when my friends were also leaving and I had plans waiting for me once I got back home. Here, I'm leaving behind a number of friends both local and expat, and I'm returning to a lot of unknowns. I'm trying to convince myself that it's a good time to leave, but I've also promised myself that I'll return. Tomorrow I'll come up with a list of the things I won't miss about this place, but for now, the things I will:

The turtle in my yard
Boys who compliment me as I walk by
Almond milkshakes from the café with the crazy old man near the Moulay Idriss II shrine
Egyptian music videos
Cherries, olives, preserved lemons (and produce in general)
Never needing a watch
Taxi drivers, having life flash before my eyes on a daily basis
Women with Berber tattoos
Feeling fabulously wealthy
Tea, friday couscous, and food as a communal tradition
Camel heads at the butcher's shop and chicken death row
Beachgoers in hijab
Le Coin Berbère
The ever-present hope of my own riad in the medina
The Coca-Cola donkey
Sufi chant and ganaoua music
Saffron (see "feeling rich")
Wearing pjs to class - under a jellabah
The call to prayer
Train travel, and fellow passengers
Getting lost in the medina
Palm trees

Saturday, June 23, 2007

France Trip Highlights

So...I've gotten a little behind on the whole blog thing. Being with my entire family for 3 weeks with maybe yes/maybe no internet and sometimes 4 people wanting to use it was not conducive to regular updates! We went on a 3-week tour of (mostly) northern France, saw some new things and some old things (for me anyway) and got to hang out in Grenoble and meet some of my friends from here. I have discovered that while Loire Valley chateaux are big, sumptuous, and slightly disgusting sometimes, they all look slightly similar after a while. I have learned that Strasbourg-ian french sounds very German, and "Bonn-shoo!" just sounds weird to my lilting-southern-french-listening ears. I have realized that the abbey at Mont St. Michel is not always as cold as it was in January and can be a bit more enjoyable. And I have realized how much I have fallen in love with Grenoble, the scenery and people and places here, when I experienced the joy of showing it off to people I love.
More later on specific funny instances, we had more than a few!!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Siin, Sahd, and Dirty Jokes

Arabic has two letters best transliterated as "s," one called siin and the other called sahd. The main audible difference between them is actually in the successive vowel, since siin comes from the front of the mouth and sahd from the back of the throat. In any case, it's sometimes hard to know which is which when hearing a word and guessing its spelling. One of my classmates will often ask which to use when taking notes, but today her question made the professor stop for a moment.

"That reminds me of a joke," he remarked, then paused.
"Tell it!" Amanda requested
"It's a very dirty joke." Silence.
"If we were boys you would tell it," she retorted.
"Yes." Awkward laughter and more silence.

At least he's honest about it...and perhaps less biased than many. Amanda did bully him into telling the joke, the punchline of which involves a girl's confusion of the two terms "to touch" and "to suck," caused by the fact that the only difference is that one is spelled with siin and the other with sahd. Some days I really wonder about my classes...

Thursday, June 14, 2007


When I was setting out for Morocco, my dear old New York Times didn't offer a lot by way of travel advice. Now, it feels as though they've stalked me here. A profile on Fes, a close-up on my rug guys, and now an article on food and cooking! Though Joan Nathan writes today about ferrane, communal ovens in Assilah, I get the feeling she found a slightly different Morocco than the one I call home. For example:

"People eat seasonally, shop at the outdoor markets, buy live chickens to have slaughtered on the spot, feathers flying helter-skelter. (In the big cities, where health inspectors and supermarkets are taking over, this is a dying custom.)"
Dying? I'm in the third-largest city in Morocco and I watched a chicken die on Saturday because I happened to be walking by a butcher's stall in the medina just as a customer made her purchase - he picked up a bird, held it around the neck, and slit its throat with an already-bloody knife. I go to school three blocks from a storefront in the ville nouvelle nicknamed "chicken death row" for the cages of birds squawking and stinking just off a main street. I don't buy my poultry that fresh because I'm too lazy to deal with feathers, but to call it a dying tradition? Not yet it isn't.

"Today many people have gas stoves or propane cooktops at home, and the communal ovens are disappearing...In Assilah, as in other Moroccan towns, the ovens are in transition, still in use even though many people have their own stoves."
I lived with a solidly middle-class host family and they did have their own oven and baked bread at home, but even they considered this a luxury, even in the new city where families are more isolated and independent. In the medina, houses are compact and crowded and the ovens are still very much alive and necessary. In Marrakech, I watched a little boy carrying his family's bread home get in a fight with another boy. He set his tray down ever-so-carefully in the road before proceeding to kick his opponent in the groin. This was a kid who knew that coming home with dusty bread or no bread at all would be a big problem, and who took his job as oven-runner seriously. If a six-year-old takes it that seriously, you know it's important to Mom, too.

"Ms. Sella insisted that the couscous be steamed three times, something that cooks rarely do in the United States."
It's also something many Moroccans cheat on, apparently, considering that my own teacher only insisted on twice :) Still, her couscous recipe looks like a traditional royale (rather than the standard vegetable mix - a classic couscous nonetheless). Note that even the NYTimes foodies don't try bastilla, which I'll admit I'm both eager and terrified to attempt...but it tastes so good there's no way I can't at least make an effort to bring it home with me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Lost in Translation

One of my teachers this term is an animated, slightly crazy man prone to unexpected tangents. Through his many wandering stories I had learned such unusual Arabic as pornography (al muwaaqa ila baahia) and homosexual (mithli, an adjective stemming from the comparative particle "like"). But today he reached into English for a colloquial expression and ended up creating something else entirely. Speaking about multiplying problems, I offer you the new saying:

"Out of the oven and into the frying sauce."

I love non-native speakers of my mother tongue...

Fences and neighbors: update

So the boys finally left yesterday - and took the outer half of the doorknob on the gate with them. Now getting into my own yard is a bit of a Houdini act even with the key, as turning a small square axle is a lot harder than you'd think.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fences and neighbors deux

The loquats have all been picked or rotted and the situation with my neighbor-boys seems to be doing the same. Two weeks ago, a friend staying with me let the usual group into the yard while I was in class. Farrin knew that I let them pick the fruit but didn't know that I hung out and supervised when they came by, so she wandered back into the house for a while. Later, she took the broom out and offered them 10dh to sweep the walkway, which they halfheartedly did. She went back inside and got distracted, only to find later that the boys used the broomstick to push a window open - she caught them trying to lift a shoe through the metal bars. They left, but after Sam got back from his short trip, he discovered that his laptop power cord, a blazer and two dress shirts had gone missing, vanished out that window.

Farrin paid for a replacement computer charger and we dismissed the incident, resolved simply not to let the boys back in the yard. Two days later, three of them rang the bell and asked for water. I glowered and yelled at them in a broken attempt at darija about the thefts but still took them a bottle filled from the tap because it was, after all, a hot day. They rang the bell again, demanding food and money. One started to come into the yard. I closed the gate on him, and after ringing the bell another ten times, they left.

Today they were back. They asked for food and I said no but went to fill a water bottle again. When I returned they had already gone, but an older woman was at the gate and accepted it with thanks. An hour later, I looked out my back window to see the ringleader standing in my back shed with a black plastic bag in hand. Yelling for Sam to join me, I stepped into the yard only to find him vanished. Standing at the clothesline, wondering where he had gone, I heard a noise and realized he was still hiding in one of the outbuildings. I poked my head in and he stood stock still behind the door, pretending I hadn't seen him. Finally Sam came out and half-dragged, half-pushed him out of the yard while I picked up the bag he'd left behind - one of my bedsheets, my blue jellabah, some of Sam's towels, all plucked from the clothesline moments before. He climbed up and sat on a low spot in our wall, jeering.

I need to call my landlords and start hanging my laundry indoors to dry. Thankfully all the windows to the house do latch firmly and we have bars on all of them...but now that the house has become a target I'm not really sure how best to stop the harassment.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Youm al-Juma'a

On Thursday, not only did I play the good student and go to class rather than to carnatic chant, I also stayed home that evening to do homework (gasp!) housework (what?!?) and cooking preparation (now that sounds more like the Katy you all know and love).

You see, in a moment of confidence and folly I had decided to invite my classmates over for Friday couscous, a near-sacred tradition. While every other day of the week is named for its number, from Sunday's first to Saturday's seventh, Friday is instead the day of gathering, coming together: Mosque day, the day of communal rather than individual prayer. After worshipping together, extended families gather while smaller families join friends and neighbors for lunch, which is invariably couscous.

I had loved this tradition when living with a family, and now that I had a kitchen of my own I decided once again to participate. I'd observed and assisted in couscous preparation, but had not tried it solo. Still, it's simply not a dish made in small portions, and so I invited the girls from my class to become guinea pigs and three cheerfully accepted.

Thursday afternoon I wandered through the market, buying zucchini, pumpkin, cabbage and carrots; saffron threads, extravagant even here, though far less so than at home; ripe tempting cherries and lemony green olives as accompaniment. Friday morning I rose early to cut vegetables and dissect the whole chicken before class, returning at noon ready to put the whole mixture on the stove.

A couscoussière is an oversized steamer - the chicken-and-vegetables mixture all goes in the bottom half while the couscous sits above it in a colander-like pot, making this a one-burner meal. The hard part isn't so much the cooking process but the couscous preparation. First it has to be dampened and hand-rolled until it unclumps, then put into the steam pot. After twenty minutes of cooking, you have to take it back out, add more water and oil and spices, unclump everything again without burning your hands, and transfer it back into the pot. I understand now why couscous hasn't really caught on back home - this stuff is considerably more work but also much better than its instant boxed cousin.

Amazingly enough, it turned out. Some chickpeas had to be sacrificed when we found the flies had gotten into them, I spilled couscous on the floor during one of the bowl-to-steamer transfers, and the whole finished product ended up on the slightly bland side - still, the company was good, the conversation fun, and the experience good enough to inspire another try in two weeks' time. Now I just have to figure out how to get my couscoussière home so I can bring a little more of Morocco back for family and friends.

Friday, June 8, 2007

From Pakistan to Chefchaouen: Festival Days Four and Five

Tuesday night, I returned to Bab Makina to catch Akhtar Sharif Husain, Qawwal Arûp Vâle. A qawwal is a chant-singer or cantor, while Arûp is a town somewhere in Penjab, Pakistan. Akhtar Sharif Husain and his group belong to the sufi Chishti order and are the official qawwals for the temple of Data Ganj Bakhsh (patron saint of Lahore) and the only performers allowed in its sanctuary.

All this attempt at explaining their apparent fame aside, their chant was an incredible performance and very different from the sufi brotherhoods I'd been hearing in Morocco. It was more melodic, and with three harmony singers, had far greater musical range than the local style (which is reminiscint of gregorian chant in its slow-changing melody lines). The tabla player put on an incredible show, with an encore solo that enticed the entire audience to clap along.

Yesterday, my classmates Amina, Amanda and Sarah decided to see the arab-andalusian singers and I convinced Maryam and Fatima Zahra to join us as well. Running late, we three slipped in to join the others but were stopped by ushers who forced us into the back section marked as the B seats. While I'd bought B tickets every night, the three previous concerts had been left open (the venue is huge and never more than half-full). This night was not any busier, but when we went around to try one more entrance, the same thing we sat at the back and grumbled.

We could still hear well, and the three North African women performing were lovely even as specks on the stage. Behidja Rahal from Algeria sang the only songs with a notably Spanish influence, strumming a flamenco-style guitar as accompaniment. Fadwa Malki of Morocco received the loudest applause, naturally, and offered more upbeat material, while Sonia Mbarak from Tunisia was left to perform for a rapidly-depleting audience as everyone started creeping out after 10. Their loss, because her final number used the entire accompaniment orchestra and spread an infectious jazz beat through the remaining crowd.

Amanda and Amina met back up with us after the show to go hear sufis at Dar Tazi once again. A brotherhood from Chefchaouen entered the stage, and I recognized a funny little old man in thick glasses. When Pam and I made our day trip, he had been sitting idly in the main square and made friendly chitchat for some minutes before welcoming us to town. Now, he was in a cream-colored jellabah and turban in the center of the group. I smiled and settled in to listen as they began a call-and-response.

After nearly an hour, the little man in glasses stood up and began to wave his arms. One by one, the others joined him as he began to jump up and down. The chant grew breathless, taking on an insistent tone far more energetic than any of the previous groups. An older European woman in the audience began to jump-march along, smiling broadly and oblivious to the Moroccans' amusement at her awkward participation.

Finally at one, I decided that sleep and homework trumped seeing the performance end and slipped out quietly, not knowing how it would resolve but choosing instead to be a good student for once. Tonight I'm taking an evening to catch up on my coursework - Angélique Kidjo from Benin will just have to sing without me, and tomorrow I will return to see "Sacred and Profane Love" performed by Lebanese and Syrian singers. The only real question is whether I should or shouldn't cut class that afternoon to catch Vasumathi Badrinathan performing Indian carnatic chant. Votes?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

American Tourists

Okay, so you remember Mr. American Tourist in "W - The President" shirt? If not, he's right here.

Ian offered a comment: "That guy is just trying to make us look bad. You're not supposed to wear shirts with words, let alone something political. Granted when I go to Glasgow I might wear an Obama t-shirt, but Glasgow isn't Fez and Obama isn't well known enough to be controversial."

Well, Ian, this ISN'T Glasgow, and this guy really seems to have issues. Last night at another concert I spotted him again. Same beard, same khaki pants, same blond wife...and wearing an official campaign t-shirt for Barack Obama, of all people.

Go figure.


Four singers sit behind their microphones while a circle of men sit cross-legged in front. On each side, a row of four girlish youths in funny tall hats sit also. The crowd hushes and one singer begins alone, soon accompanied by chanting from the sitting men, then by the call to prayer as nearby minarets join the chorus. The group finds a rhythm and sways to the name of God, dipping and bowing in unison as the words repeat again and again. The circle rises and begins to rotate as the men sidestep to their devotions, a first turn to begin the process.

After a long while, the boys rise and begin to turn ever so slowly, arms crossed over their chests and long skirts caught in the strong breeze. One by one, they relax, arms opening down, then floating lazily up over their heads and finally draped up, wrists gently limp. They turn faster, heads tilted, eyes seemingly closed, skirts billowing but never quite at full whirl. The central circle has closed in and chants louder, faster, more urgently. They are now clustered tightly and swaying in time.

Abruptly, they return to a calmer pace and work their way back into an organized circle, then settle cross-legged once again. Some dervishes pause and also sit, returning to spin seemingly at random. A flute stands out, and I realize I've completely lost track of time. The spell seems broken, for now I listen but it seems familiar rather than exotic, though the still-turning dervishes maintain their hold on my imagination.

Yesterday over lunch I tell classmates about the concert, still cheerful at the experience. Sarah looks at me and says not unkindly, "yeah, but you can see those all the time." Her family is from Egypt, and I get the point - and the wonderful thing about an international festival is that there's something exotic for everyone...tomorrow she's coming to see Andalusian songs, after all.

(This concert was on Monday night - I'm now running a bit behind, but tomorrow should catch up with a review of both the Pakistani qawwals I heard last night and the Arab-Andalusian fusion I'm going to catch tonight).

Monday, June 4, 2007


People-watching is always fun, but the past two days have provided even better opportunities than usual. First, there was Queen Rania:

Then there are the locals who turn out:

And perhaps best yet, the foreign tourists (yes, this guy really is wearing a "W THE PRESIDENT" t-shirt in public in Morocco):

More to come - six more days to go!

Festival, Day Two

Sunday being the last day I didn't have to juggle classwork around concerts, I decided to see as much as possible. The marathon began at 4:30 with the Gregorian Choir of Lisbon, who performed the better part of two masses. Sitting cross-legged right in front of the stage, I got to watch not only the energetic conductor and the French tourist next to me capturing it in watercolors.

A sandwich-and-pastry break later, it was time to go catch the free public ganawa concert at Boujeloud square. Majda Yahayoui attracted a huge crowd of locals but nearly none of the European tourists who had packed the Gregorian choir. The band included the traditional drums and cymbals but also a trombone and tenor sax, and their sound mixed standard ganawa with a jazzed-up sound for lively effect. A short thick woman in turquoise jellabah and bright purple scarf pushed us forward into the crowd and helped us work our way to the front. Two white girls in a crowd of Moroccans, we received a warm welcome in the claustrophobic cheering mass. After the concert, we turned to thank her and she told us "Assalamu aleikum - hi!" and wished us a good night as we set off for a quick coffee before the next show.

It took three wrong turns, but we eventually arrived at Bab Makina for a Brazilian performer named Tania Maria. She played a mellow jazz piano with no apparent religious overtones, but it was nice to sit in a chair again and relax for an hour while listening to "besame mucho" and the like. On the way out, a news crew stopped me, so I might or might not have made it onto the 2M evening news in French.

Finally, finally, we returned to Dar Tazi for the sufi chant show, this time performed by a brotherhood in from Tangier. They had a young girl performing with them, and also added instrumental accompaniment for the last numbers. What began as a close cousin of the gregorians' style grew in tempo and volume to become a hand-clapping, rapid-drumming chaos that swept the crowd right along into the music. While by 1am I was exhausted, I still couldn't help but pick an offbeat and clap along while the boys in the back added their own chorus.

Home at 1:30, I crashed into bed knowing that class this morning would hurt. Still, for a four-concert, three-continent day at 200 dirhams ($25), the extra cup of coffee needed to restart my brain afterward was well worth it.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

On music and royalty

The International Sacred Music Festival began here in Fes on Friday, bringing with it hordes of European tourists and even some celebrity guests. On a morning shopping trip in the medina, I walked past a lovely woman surrounded by men in suits but thought nothing of it until I caught up to Amina. She was stopped dead in the street, still staring at the mini-procession - and informed me that we'd just passed Queen Rania of Jordan.

After a light lunch with a visiting Scarlett, we rejoined the others for an Iranian singer performing Rumi poetry, where the queen graced us once again with her presence. The music was meditative and the five accompanying musicians offered incredibly talented solos as well. Afterward, I got a blurry shot of the queen while a friend-of-a-friend with the group approached closer and returned to say that he'd shaken hands with Bono, whose presence next to Rania I'd completely overlooked.

We stopped for juice, then joined the crowd at a free community concert in a nearby square, watching parents and toddlers as much as the Moroccan singer with her Egyptian-MTV lighting effects up on stage. At 11, Scarlett and I ventured out one last time for sufi chant at yet another medina museum.

After two hours of steadily repetitive devotions (of which I followed at least a little in Arabic..."There is no god but God" is easy to pick out), I felt relaxed and refreshed. Following the alleyway to the taxi stand, I spotted a man in a bright violet shirt and sunglasses even in the dark of night. I paused a moment to be sure of my recognition and continued along, spotting a less-conspicuously-familiar face a few yards behind. Surely enough, both Sir Bono and his band-mate the Edge are wandering Fes listening to sacred music this week - I'll snap a photo if I run into them somewhere light.

Wallet Wonderful-ness

So. I had an adventure just before leaving leaving Grenoble for family vacation...mostly accentuated by my stupidity -- but there you go ;). Here 'tis:

I found out at the beginning of the week that I 'might' have beamtime on the neutron instrument, D22, on Thursday, at 5 or 6 pm. This wasn't so hot, because Thursday was going to be my last day at work before leaving on the 8 am train on Friday with my brother to Paris, but eh, beggars can't be choosers when it comes to beamtime, so I said ok.
Thursday rolled around, I did in fact have beamtime, but we started about 6:30, and I knew we would be at work late, so I left all my stuff in the office. DATA :) pm rolls around, we get some pizza and are sitting near the office having it, when this random guy from our lab comes down (still at work!) and says he is leaving, do we need the spare office key or can he take it. The people I was having beamtime with say, oh no worries, we can let you (me) into the office for your stuff, so take it (instead of putting it back where its supposed to go...).

All right -- but this meant I was in a hurry when getting my stuff -- people were waiting on me, etc, -- so I managed to get my bag and leave something rather important in the desk drawer...that's right, my wallet. RATHER IMPORTANT FOR GOING ON A 2-WEEK VACATION AROUND FRANCE!! Doh!
However, I only realized this at 3:30 or so in the morning, when Trevor, my boss, dropped me off at home, with my bike, after the beamtime finished. I was finishing up some packing, realized I didn't have my wallet, and after cursing just about everyone and everything even remotely involved in the whole situation, resignedly got on my bike to go BACK to work, at 4 am, to get my wallet.

Unsurprisingly, there is no traffic at this ungodly hour, so I got there fairly quickly, managed to get through security onto the site, and got just about up onto my floor when I finally remembered this whole exchange earlier about the keys...and realized that there was no way I could get into the office! OH NO! I panicked -- and couldn't think of what to do. Finally, after waking one friend from lab up at this insane hour (sorry Estelle!!!) I realized that the guardians of the site have master keys. So, onto the bike again, out to the front gate, brain ceased to function. I think my request/question was the most garbled mix of french and english I have ever heard in my life! When I said 'CIBB' (the building), it came out like Cay-Eye-Bee-Bay, and I totally blanked on the word for wallet (rather important for this situation, I would say) and had to describe it as the thing that you put bank cards in...ugh, completely ridiculous!
Thankfully, they did manage to understand me, I got my wallet, got home with no incident, and even got to take a shower before getting to the train station for my train! Note to self: only forget wallet when NOT going on a long trip early the next day. Oh, and I learned something new: it starts getting light in the mornings at 4:45 in Grenoble...I was still up and outside!!!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Mashi Mushkil

The other evening I used the darija expression "mashi mushkil" in an online conversation and my correspondent decided to google the term. All it means is "no problem," but it's often transliterated (if darija, an unwritten language, can be transliterated) as mash mushkil instead. This fortunately-chosen alternate spelling led me to the blog shwiya b shwiya, or "little by little," another expression in darija. It's written by a Peace Corps volunteer living somewhere way south, learning berber and teaching health issues. And better yet, her name is Katy (with a y!) The world is a small place, but the Internet sure makes it smaller sometimes...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Internet Relations

Let the debate on internet borders begin: Slate offers a good article on what might just be the first coordinated government web attack. Estonia's government websites have been intentionally crashed, and by computers in Russia. Still, knowing the guilty IP address doesn't necessarily mean knowing the guilty party, and the Russian government is certainly smart enough to deny any knowledge of the hack. International politics meets internet, and I'm certainly staying tuned to see how this spat plays out.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Girl Guides the Last

Yesterday was my last french Girl Scout meeting, as far as I know. Its funny, I always worry and fret about Guides, about what we're going to do, about the planning, I've panicked at random times, and its generally been stressful. But actually AT the meetings, it never is, its lovely. They flow, we generally had enough to do, I know a million games if we don't, and while the understanding (their french, my american-accented) sometimes gets a little hairy, no one gets upset or annoyed about it.

And yet, somehow, I am always surprised when the meetings go so well, since I am always worried beforehand. Yesterday was no exception to the rule; I approached Saturday afternoon with vague dread, but once my girls started arriving, we had so much fun. We went bowling to celebrate our last time together, but none of them had socks, so we stopped by my place to snag some from the drawers. Then on to Echirolles, where I cleverly got us off on one tram stop too early and I was yelling "Depechez-vous" (hurry!) as we crossed exits to a major highway...several times. Yikes!

No one got hit by a car however, and after we got past the one girl who had never bowled before and was afraid of throwing the ball, we all had fun. She ended up coming in second, so not so bad at all for a newbie! Afterwards, we went outside and found a nice patch of grass near the pool to have our snack, a 'Quatre Quarts' and Nutella - their favorite - with Orangina as a treat. We tossed the frisbee around, took random pictures, and generally had a relaxed, nice time. I didn't want it to end!!

On the way back on the tram, the kids started asking me why I couldn't stay for another year -- they all hugged me before they left, were sad at the end. This was really the first real signs of affection I had seen, so blatantly anyway, so it was very touching. They probably won't remember me very well, but hopefully I will have given them another year or positive experiences through scouting - and met their first real American on the way!

Of Loquats and Kings

In the neighbor-boys update, I looked out my window yesterday to see two climbing the tree and opened the front door just in time to see them sprinting for a low spot on the wall. As they scrambled over it, I yelled out (in French, silly me) that they should ring the bell if they wanted to pick fruit. Thankfully, a man looking amusedly over his balcony from the apartment building next door translated, and they walked around and smiled sheepishly at my gate. Today they're back with a third friend, three eight-year-old (ish) monkeys reaching for the highest fruit their older friends left behind.

As for life in general, Fes seems to have adopted a carnival atmosphere with the sudden snap into summer this past week. I first thought the new cheer was due to the kings' visit (Mohammed VI and Abdullah of Saudi Arabia were in town on Thursday and Friday.) Fading murals were painted over in fresh, clean white along the major roads, and the fountains along the Hassan II all began flowing on Wednesday night. My own cross street now has twinkling lights strung up between the light poles, and on Thursday and Friday I had to walk across the closed avenue and work my way through the street bands and throngs of people waving Moroccan and Saudi flags to get home. Yesterday the bands and throngs had cleared, but the decorative lights remain up and the fountains are still running. As sunset comes later every night, more families are out in the streets enjoying the cool air at the end of the hot day, and even after it grows dark the main boulevards remain abuzz, rather than the early, eerie quiet of February. The afternoons are becoming stifling, but if the evenings remain this pleasant, I daresay evening walks along the gardens of Hassan II are going to become a new favorite pastime.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Fences and neighbors

I mentioned the tree in the front yard... the doorbell rang a moment ago and I grabbed my keys and unlocked the front gate to find the soccer-playing neighborhood boys gathered at my door once again. One pointed to the tree and mumbled something about mzeh, the darija name for my odd fruit. I nodded and for five minutes the troop picked loquats and stuffed their t-shirts before departing with shy mercis. Y'know, I think I like this neighborhood...

Edit: Two minutes' peace and they're back with a few more friends. Fourteen boys swarming the front yard and asking me what mzeh are in French (nefle). Crazy kids.

A Small Place

I have a house. It's not the riadh in the medina I'd spent a month dreaming about (buying a refrigerator and transporting it by donkey just proved to be too big an undertaking, let alone other necessary furniture and considerations). Instead, another student went home and I took over her lease for a small orange house in the ville nouvelle and moved in just over a week ago.

It has a yard, complete with a turtle and a loquat tree heavy with ripe golden fruit. My room has a window facing the front yard, a large bookshelf, and a National Geographic map of Africa curiously left behind. Across the hall is Sam's room, and then we share a bathroom (and its narrow, deep tub with shower extension but no curtain), a living room (couch, coffee table, and dining table), and a kitchen (propane stove, countertop oven, ancient refrigerator). A door off the kitchen leads to a weed-grown backyard with a clothesline and a strange outbuilding with three additional empty rooms.

The windows allow a soft sunlight in during the day, and the concrete stays relatively cool even in the afternoon heat. Set back from neighbors, I enjoy quiet except when the neighborhood soccer game gets out of hand and the little boys ring the bell to retrieve their ball from the yard. The previous residents installed a DSL line, so I still enjoy constant internet (oops), which makes up for the fact that I'm back to washing my laundry in a bucket in the bathtub (oh well, keeps me busy).

Yesterday, I finally declared my scrubbing/dusting/organizing project to be complete and served a housewarming dinner to friends. Maryam, Angus, Roshan, John, Laura and Mark gathered for chicken artichoke pasta, fruit salad and chocolate cake. It was a perfect opportunity to introduce old friends and new, and now that the place has been graced by the presence of the cool kids, I finally feel properly at home once again.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Last weekend, I flew to England to visit Andrew and Lara, two friends I met in Grenoble who have moved back home recently, and to see London. I got treated to some typical English weather - ( get the idea). The countryside was still lovely, however, Andrew and I bopped around a little in West Sussex, a county next to the sea, and saw some castles, cathedrals, and pubs.

Then we went to London for a day. There is so much to see! We spent the whole day just walking around, didn't actually go in anywhere, but we were still busy! I managed to finagle Andrew to take me to Pax Lodge, the London Girl Scout International Center, so that makes 2 in the past 2 months! That was very fun to see, and I think Andrew knows a little more about scouting now :). Then we met Lara and wore out our shoes for the rest of the day. The neighborhoods in London are so different from each other; I definitely heard more than several languages being spoken throughout the day.

On the last morning, I got up WAY too early, but I got to witness some of the daily London commute, and I walked across the London Bridge, with mist rising from the Thames below me. Pretty neat :).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

اربع قارات

So today in my tutoring session we went over maps of the Middle East and I learned the word for continent. Thus, the title of this post is simply "four continents," or "arba' qaaraat." Perhaps more interesting, the name seems to have defined the blog's audience more than its authorship (thanks, boys who never write anything :) ) See?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Weddings and Other Beginnings

This term, the American Center didn't have an appropriate class for me, so I began private tutoring at the Subul al-Salam Center until I can re-enroll in a full course. It's run by two wonderful girls who have more-or-less immediately adopted me. Case in point: I arrived a bit early for class last Thursday and in the course of a very brief conversation got myself invited to a family wedding that Saturday. Of course, I accepted the impromptu invite and began to wonder what to wear...

Thankfully, another American friend of mine was also invited and had already been to another wedding, so all I had to do was smile and follow along. Saturday morning, we wove our way into the souk Attarine in the medina to rent our formalwear; beaded, embroidered double-caftans called taqshetas. I chose a light teal shade with a sparkling floral design and wandered out to the nearby shoe stalls to select a pair of silvery sequined heels to match.

After almond milkshakes from my favorite little cafe, we met the rest of our group at Fatima's house, where we changed clothes and piled into taxis. We were the first to arrive at the wedding hall, and women of the family all stopped to greet us and exchange names and kisses as they entered after. Finally, distant music announced that the bridal party had left the house down the street and were making their way to the hall. Surely enough, a few moments later the bride in her silver chair appeared in the window and then squeezed through the door, followed by a host of guests and a full band.

We danced, we ate, and EVERYONE had their picture taken with the couple. While the party might have been a fairly standard reception for the guests, it doubled as a multi-hour photography session for the newlyweds, who departed and re-entered the party six times for clothing changes.

A videographer wandered the room, shining bright lights on the guests and filming everything from the man dancing spastically in the middle of the floor to the grandmother sampling a mini-chawarma in the back corner. The groom sang with the band, the adolescent girls whispered and giggled, and waiters poured countless glasses of sweet mint tea.

The wedding staff danced the bride and groom about the room in three different types of chairs, and about five hours into the party, a spiraling cake stand came on display and the bride entered one last time in a western-style wedding dress, albeit with a white hijab tucked into the low neckline. The cake was cut, candy parcels were tossed into the crowd, and at about midnight, the couple prepared to depart.

In keeping with the white-dress-and-veil tradition, the bride had also acquired a small bouquet of fake roses, which she tossed over her shoulder on her way out the door. Somehow, the flying flowers bounced off my unsuspecting shoulder and landed on the floor at an older woman's feet. She picked them up, but no one paid much attention other than Scarlett, who raised her eyebrows and smirked at me. Let's hope that it's not some terrible kind of luck to get smacked by the bouquet and still not catch it...


This Saturday, I accepted an invitation to tea, where the family gathered to watch the video - all four hours of it. I'd always thought of the wedding video as a sort of one- or two-hour recap that only the couple would ever bother to watch, but ten of us sat down and relived the whole event all of a week later. There were my friends, looking somewhat sillier dancing on tape than I remembered in person. There's me, taking a cautious bite of a mysterious pastry. There's the bride in the traditional Fassi dress, barely able to walk in its stiffness and weight, being tucked into the final dancing chair, and there's the groom standing up in his so as to lean over and plant a kiss on her forehead while the room cheers him on.

It was an over-the-top affair and a completely crazy experience. I even ended up being dragged out dancing and befriended a group of little girls simply by twirling them about. And after tea, I think I've now got two new substitute families in Fes if I ever need them. Every time I forget just how exceedingly generous hospitality can be here, I find myself surprised once again to be welcomed into the strangest of places.

(Endnote - I took considerably more photos, but you have to ask for them if you'd like to see the whole roll...)

Monday, April 30, 2007


Saturday night, Laura decided a good Sunday plan would be to take off for Rabat for the day. Two minutes later, she had talked me into not only tagging along but rather planning the trip. I nearly talked her out of it just as quickly when I told her she'd need to be ready by 8am, but after a moment's pout she resigned herself to waking at such an ungodly hour.

Surely enough, we caught a nearly empty train just before nine and arrived at our destination three hours later. It felt like we had changed continents rather than merely towns, for the wide boulevards and modern architecture looked more like LA than Fez. The ostensible purpose of this jaunt was a shopping trip, so we set off to a mall, curious as to what we'd find. Walking in the door, I entered a surreal sort of dreamworld of couture and gelatto, fancy shoes and a food court complete with a restaurant that claimed to serve mexican food, though I've never before been served a burrito with a side of cauliflower-green bean salad. This place even had an ice skating rink, so go figure.

After a thorough tour, Laura bought the makeup she'd dearly wanted and we decided to spend the afternoon closer to the waterfront. Sitting on the beach, she lamented her tennis shoes and long-sleeved shirt, which I simply dubbed "moroccan beach wear," as none of the other women wore anything more revealing. Nonetheless, she sprawled in the sand in her big sunglasses with my scarf wrapped 50's movie-star style over her head while I pulled out my book and ignored the boys behind us who had begun to catcall in French. At one point in an otherwise banal conversation, Laura inserted the non sequitur "Comparative hominid anatomy is actually one of those things that excites me for no reason," leaving me shaking my head and wondering how it is again that she can't manage to cook rice.

Eventually, we wandered back to the train station and bought sandwiches for the considerably more crowded ride home. Upon opening our planned picnic, however, we discovered that they had been garnished with the sickly-sweet goo that passes for ketchup here and that each had one whole pickle folded squarely in its center and pitted olives hiding throughout. Safely returned home, I got out the leftover pasta and we enjoyed a pleasant meal more befitting to an otherwise weirdly relaxing day.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Stolen Bicycle Musings

People. Just a complex, interesting mix of everything. Having my bike stolen in Grenoble last week has been making me think of the striking difference between the hostility, or at least utter unconcern, of the person(s) who took my only means of self-transportation, the caring shown by people around me upon hearing the news, and the act of complete generosity shown by the girl who lent me her bike for the next 3 months, even though she only knows me through a friend. So much of what makes us tick is community, a sense of group. The person who stole my bike didn't know me, and hence wasn't bothered by taking something important to me. I'm sure they would never have taken a bike belonging to someone they know, hang out with, etc., because they are people to them rather than a random, faraway person more immediately represented by the money invested in my bicycle. On the other hand, the person who lent me a bike didn't know me either, but due to our shared community, we're both scientists at the same workplace, we have a mutual friend, I was worthy of a lovely, kind act. Perhaps part of the answer to the violence and hostility in the world is expanding our communities??

Far from Home

Tonight my father, stepmother, sister and stepsister are all going out to dinner with two of my best friends from college. Tomorrow, they'll be hanging out on my campus, enjoying the April sunshine on Alumni Lawn. And instead of enjoying the return to my alma mater and the tradition of the half-marathon visit, I'm about 4,000 miles away hearing about the dinner they've planned from David while he decides what to wear to the delicious Italian place they've chosen. Most days it's lovely to be in Morocco and all the quirks of life here make up for those American things I lack...and then there are moments like these, which bring with them a twinge of jealousy.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

God is Great: praying in Morocco

The new gardener is praying now, on his knees behind a leafy bush near the back fence. He knows that I am here in the clearing but is likely unaware of my spying on his private ritual. By now, I have witnessed countless individual prayers and it always leaves me vaguely uneasy, wanting to join in while simultaneously compelled to flee, feeling myself an interloper to the divine conversation.

Christians are called to be in constant prayer, though no one I know actually manages this continuous sensation of God. For many, even daily prayer falls aside. I myself tend to observe a simple grace before most meals but otherwise do not pray outside of Sunday services. Coming from such a tradition, I find myself amazed at those Moroccans who do stop to pray five times a day, while the adhan's call of "allahu akbar" reassures even my dhimmi spirit. Perhaps I should resolve to respond with my own observance - hearing the call to the faithful, I often do so reflexively, but the adhan doesn't always interrupt my activities or even reach my ears.

On the other hand, I belong to a faith which exhorts me to perform my prayers in secret and keep my devotionals a private act rather than a public display. When I arrive home to find my roommate prostrate or step into the garden while the guard unrolls his prayer mat, I feel like a spiritual intruder invalidating their acts. Yet in a place where such prayer is common, it often happens amid daily life instead of interrupting the day's rhythms. The prayer room at the school offers quiet but sits constantly open so that I may watch my teachers as they perform salat, while at home Omi used to wash out in the hall before closing herself in the bedroom to pray. Prayer here can be an individual act, but it is also the core of shared worship, a communion of believers as important as the bread and wine I know. My witness is nothing unusual, though my inability to participate leaves me perpetually unsure of how to respond.

For the moment, I listen to the call: "there is no god but God," cries the minaret nearest me, and in the distance other voices echo. Perhaps some of my brethren manage constant prayer, but I find the reminder an awesome expression of faith and a song to my own soul. I will certainly miss hearing it at home, just as I already miss waking up to it now that I live in a better-soundproofed house. Still, I wonder just how angrily the folks at home would get if I returned suggesting we adopt a similar system...I'm afraid that's one element of worship that simply gets lost in translation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Our Chalet

This weekend, I went to 'Our Chalet', one of the four international Girl Scout houses in the world. The other three are in India, Mexico, and England, but the one in Adelboden, Switzerland, was first. Every girl scout learns of the world centers, I've known the Our Chalet Song since I was 12, and I have always wanted to visit.

Being a 6-hour journey away was too much to resist, though I couldn't miss work for too long. I went for a weekend, in between seminars and programme activities, just a scout making a pilgrimage of sorts. And it did not disappoint. Everyone there was instant family, conversations were easy, histories and stories fun to share, things common to scouts quickly apparent. Its amazing how many songs cross continents! I went hiking and skiing during the days, but that was far from the highlight of the journey - the memorable, wonderful parts were the communal dinners, happy birthday in 12 languages, learning bits of other tongues, combing the songbook cabinet, checking out the piles and piles of scout handbooks from all over the world, looking at the walls, at the bits of themselves that scouts over the world have left to share...

I can't imagine how cool a seminar there would be if a random visit like this was so wonderful. If there are that many handbooks in the center, on a shelf, just think of how many are out in the world, everywhere, touching girls, making them stronger and more confident, building the next generation who, hopefully, will be ready and willing to focus on the things people share rather than our differences.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Into the Sahara

For each step I climb, I slide back halfway again as the ground shifts beneath my feet. The hill is steeper than I anticipated and between gasping breaths I find myself wishing I had carried the skis from the campsite for the returning descent. Instead, I press on to reach the top and finally emerge to see a hazy sunset through the sand blowing in my face. I perch on the dune's edge and admire the play of shadows on sand while my heart finds its usual pulse once again. I half-run, half-slide back town the steep hill into camp, where I dump a quantity of the Sahara out of my shoes before joining the group for tea.

The weather is already cooling and my telephone has no reception - all the better to enjoy the stars and the drumming here in our own private oasis, where the camels sleep outside and we find mattresses waiting in low Berber tents. It's hard to imagine how close civilization remains: under the endless stars it is possible to believe in our isolation but surreal to remember the posh hotel only two hours' ride away. My own mind prefers the fantasy of life as a hermit to the memory of the breakfast buffet, for romantic notions abound amid the dunes. As the cold slows my mind, I crawl beneath the heavy blankets and turn to sleep as a defense against its force.

Signal or no, my cell phone still beeps its morning alarm at 5:30 and I shiver awake, slip into my still-sandy shoes, and fight my way back up the mountain dune to await sunrise. Classmates scatter to more distant peaks as we each seek quiet solitude in which to welcome the morning. Soon after dawn, we drink one last cup of mint tea, zip up our backpacks, and climb onto our camels for the return to civilization.

The trip that yesterday had been novel today hurts with every jouncing step. I watch my camel's feet squish against the sand and wonder how a motion so seemingly fluid jolts my tailbone so much. Our caravan creeps at snail's pace until two hours later we collapse back into the hotel for yet another breakfast buffet and a long bus ride home, leaving those images of asceticism and fancy back among those dunes after our short escape from reality.