Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Eating my way around the world...

Morocco, even more than France, has a beautifully direct relationship with food. The lettuce in the market is still grimy with earth and the butchers in the medina hang fresh camel heads out in front of their counters. Whole fish stare out blindly from their display piles, and it's impossible to ignore that tonight's delicious dinner was only yesterday a creature very much alive. None of these things are sterile or packaged, but my culinary wanderings thus far have brought far more flavorful joy than digestive ills. There is a McDonald's in Fes, but it hasn't yet tempted me. I don't much miss the supermarket or processed edibles...not when for 20 dirhams I can walk out of the marché central with a kilo of clementines, three apples and a mound of strawberries, or about four pounds of fruit for just over $2. My temptations are massive bright oranges, translucent early asparagus, and bold peppers both familiar and foreign.

The sense of abundance is overwhelmingly lovely, and I want nothing more than an oversized straw basket and a paring knife - though a complete kitchen certainly enters my dreams. I buy dates, olives, almonds and preserved lemons, finding all my traditional favorites and discovering ever more. On Saturday, Tara and I prepared a multi-course feast including lamb, citrusy beets, avocado hummus, stuffed dates and strawberry-asparagus salad, spending the morning in the market and the afternoon in the kitchen. Even settling for those things I can eat without cooking, I have a veritable feast of fruits, cheeses and cheap dark chocolate on hand. Here I have whole cumin, cinnamon bark, wild honey and harissa, and until an American grocery store can offer wares as fresh and as savory, I intend to find happiness instead in the kind of cornucopia only my Mediterranean markets can offer.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Youssef Story, Part One

"He's here on a wife-hunt." "He converted in Iraq." "Watch out - he's a bit off." The whispers fly from student to student as everyone adds what they have learned or fabricated about the newcomer until a consistent story forms, gels and instantly takes on the authority of legend. While even this compiled version may contain certain untruths, its wildest elements are those which have been most extensively verified.

Timothy was born and raised in Manchester, England. He left school before the age of 16, or else left despite having failed the standard exams at the end of that year. Somewhere in this murky youth he took up drugs and a vague group of wanderers, drifting as they did. Unemployed and unhappy, already in his mid-twenties, Timothy joined the military in search of discipline and stability. He got shipped to Iraq, where the seemingly authoritative teachings of the Shia imams spoke to his lost and wandering soul, and he converted unquestioningly. He condemned his former friends, decried his compatriots and accepted the decadence of Christianity. Casting away his old Christian name, he became Youssef and felt himself at a new start.

Once again in England, he found the local Muslim community less tolerant of his ignorance and less patient in their teachings. Moreover, he had decided that the greatest promise offered by Islam was that of a wife, and when he could not find this source of leadership and companionship at home, he decided to seek it elsewhere. Fellow British muslims impressed upon him the need to learn Arabic and study for himself, and Youssef set out inspired to find certainty in a new language. Enter Morocco.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Ash Wednesday in Morocco

Among Muslim countries, Morocco is about as secular as it gets. Islam is the religion of the king, and therefore of the state, as well as the faith of 99% of the population, but belief is not mandated. Fridays remain work days while Sundays the shops all close, and both Christian and Jewish communities live in relative peace (though woe be to him who proselytizes; I do know of a man arrested for distributing Bibles). Still, I am an obvious minority, and those few other Christians in Fez are not Moroccans but rather imports like myself.

Despite this odd climate, I have been attending regular services at a Catholic church near the center, amused to have found the St. Francis Parish on the Avenue Mohammed es-Slaoui. The priest is Italian, the mass is in French, and the first two pews belong to a group of elderly European ladies who often wear their fur coats on cold mornings. Behind them and surrounding them is a young congregation arrived from all over sub-Saharan Africa: Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, Rwanda, Sénégal... the continent is well represented and many are taking catechism because they come from as many Protestant denominations as they do countries.

My small group of Americans take up a rear pew, all the better for enjoying the spectacle. A choir sings hymns in French and Latin but with tunes I've never known and rich tropical harmonies. Even a rendition of "All Glory, Laud and Honor" took on new rhythm such that I didn't recognize it until the third verse. The old priest offers meandering homilies on the church as a boat and an Ash Wednesday meditation on imagining one's own funeral in order to better value our purpose during Lent.

Nonetheless, the passing of the peace is warm and authentic, and the sense of communion is all the more valuable in a place where we are few. I had been prepared to spend my time in Morocco isolated in faith, but instead I have found a community in a church I don't usually claim. I don't plan to convert to Islam, but for now I don't mind pretending to be Catholic.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Volubilis, mostly photos

600 years before the Arabs claimed North Africa, the Romans cast ashore, built a town, and maintained a presence in central Morocco for two centuries' time. On Friday, Sarah and I negotiated a taxi from Meknes to drive us the 20km to this town, called Volubilis in Latin or Walili in Arabic. While the names sound nothing alike, both derive from the Berber name for the ever-present oleanders that grow there: alili.

The first big surprise in Volubilis is that for a city nearly two millennia old, it's in remarkably good shape. The houses are still clearly outlined, an entire wall of the temple remains standing, and many of the mosaics are complete. We wander with the feeling that the city might well spring back to life, as though we could easily be transported back into Roman times. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine that it has suffered two earthquakes and that all its marble was stolen during the building of Meknes - it is worn down, but time has been kinder to it than I would have imagined.

The second is that the city remains untouched. Unlike similar sites in Europe, there is no museum built around these ruins, no glass to protect the fine tiles nor railings to prevent our free exploration in the open air. A giant bird's nest perches atop one of the columns of the forum, while a donkey grazes in the salon of one of the houses. The tiny town of Moulay Idriss is just up the road, but otherwise the site is surrounded by open fields and protected by the hills. It is easy to see how it could have been forgotten so long by the Europeans, who neither knew nor cared about its fate until the early 20th century.

After an hour's wandering, Sarah and I could easily have opted to spend longer wondering at this odd outpost of Western civilization nearly erased from the history books, but we had negotiated our taxi's wait in advance and needed to return to Meknes if we didn't wish to be abandoned or charged a higher fee. Morocco is full of surprises, and it's Roman past was no more astounding than many of the other beauties and secrets it has been revealing over the past month...


I've been to Africa! And yet, I don't really feel like it, since once I was on the ground, Morocco had a very Arabian, middle-eastern feel. The architecture seemed a mix of Spanish and Arab, the language was Arabic (it sounds almost like music, very cool language, good choice Katy!), and people were a range of skin colors from white to dark brown for the most part, instead of the dark chocolate color people think of when they think of Africans. From the airplane, it did look like Africa, noticeably different than any other place I'd been before, somehow very wide open, dusty...different from out West somehow...more crops, different ones maybe. But once safely landed, thoughts of Africa mostly left until I was again airborne.

I noticed random things the entire weekend. On the drive in from the airport, I saw a large number of men, boys, just people everywhere. Mostly just sitting in cafes, on the ground under a tree, against a building...everywhere. Walking along aimlessly...people everywhere. It turns out it was lunch/break hour, between 12 and 3, but even in other times there were always people everywhere.

They have orange trees everywhere...of an almost inedible variety. Why? So that people don't eat them? Decorative but very sour. The American center was smaller than I had imagined, but beautiful with a lovely courtyard and flora everywhere. And I got to meet Katy's Moroccan family, also beautiful, very nice people. Everyone, individually, within 5 minutes of seeing Katy, asked her about her exam, about her day, etc., and there was joking and laughing, good tea and cake, and fun. You can tell they love each other I think, and some of that generously already spills on the stranger they've known for only 3 weeks so far living in their house.

The medina, old town market, in Fez, is an experience. Katy's right, I certainly got a lot of attention from random men/boys, which got tiresome after a while. If you respond in any way, they persist, trying out their english or flirting, or trying to sell you something or be a 'guide' for you. I learned how to say 'no' in arabic and used it. (which is apparently insulting to them when they were trying to speak english to me, which made me feel slightly vindicated from time to time). Some of their english was funny though, things like, "You have nice socks," making one think that perhaps their english is not as good as they think. :) And I think that much of the heckling is just part of the shop/medina culture, its an overextension of hospitality perhaps, in Western eyes, but much was not intended to be rude. I think it could be gotten used to with time.

We went on a day-trip to Meknes, another of the imperial cities about an hour away from Fez, and we saw some Roman ruins called Volubilis. They were amazing...methinks Katy is going to speak of them..., so it'll suffice to say that I felt a sense of awe at their age, imagining the people that lived there and built that, and its still standing even today. Wow.

As I left, boarding the plane from the tarmac as we had descended earlier, my thoughts again turned to the new continent, for me, and that I was leaving it. But if Morocco could be such a new experience, so different from anything else, and its not even very African!...this will definitely not be the last time I set foot on the continent!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Becoming Moroccan

I fixed lasagna tonight for the family. I think it went over well, but then again they're quite good at humoring me, so who knows? In any case, it tasted good to me and it was fun to work in the kitchen with Souad. Last night, I served Pasta Stephanie for a group of students at Caroline and Neal's apartment, where we had more guests than plates and opted to serve Moroccan-style instead, with six forks in one bowl. The equally communal chocolate mousse disappeared even faster...

It's amazing how quickly life settles into routines. Last Thursday morning, I got up and took a full shower (my first in a week) before doing laundry - with a system of large plastic buckets in the same bathtub I had recently vacated. It wasn't until Hannan walked in and chuckled at my slow and somewhat clumsy pace that I remembered that this was indeed not precisely normal, that in some other world I threw my clothes into a machine and picked up a book.

Likewise, having Sarah visit made me realize how accustomed I'd become to being the foreigner in the street. With her blond hair, we received easily twice and possibly thrice the attention I merit, and she found herself sensitive to the number of young men who greeted us with outrageous compliments in stilted English. I don't know if it's that I'm at least brunette, or that I've begun wearing traditional clothes most of the time, or simply that I've learned not to make direct eye contact with others in the street, but fewer strangers have tried to speak with me lately, and I've become comfortable with these bizarre exchanges.

In short, I'm becoming more Moroccan bit by bit...though I can't change my pale skin and don't intend to abandon my faith, I'm learning to fit in otherwise in a place that isn't so different after all. Souad just poked her head in to see what I'm working on and sends greetings to my other friends and family, courtesy of my Moroccan family - this has become my home, in a way.

les enfants amusants :)

So I JUST got back from Morocco, and you will hear all about it later, but before I forget, here were two amusing incidents that happened on the voyages to and from:
ON the plane (important to note here), but still on the ground in Paris. The cutest little girl ever and her dad sit next to me,
"Salut! My name is Maria! I'm half french and half arab!"
Me, slightly amused: "Hello!"
"We're going to Morocco! Where are you going? Are you going to Morocco too?!" Hehe...

And on the way back, on the train I sat about 2 seats behind a dad, 2 little boys, and the grandfather I think. The dad was very patient with them and seemed to enjoy playing with/amusing them, hence they actually were very well behaved. An announcement came on,
"Next stop, Lyon Part-Dieu" (the name of the train station in Lyon, our destination)
Little boy, in a slightly shocked/horrified voice: "Lyon est perdu?"
Total hilarity among family members and all the people in the surrounding seats ensued. ('Perdu' means 'lost' :)

These are one of the many reasons I love kids. :)))

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Friday, February 9, 2007


Soooo...I went to Normandie last week. And Bretagne, or Brittany, the region directly west of Normandy. I had a mini-adventure right off the bat, missing my train in Paris due to snow, catching a different one to a slightly different city, and then frantically calling people back in Grenoble to ask them to search on the internet for a hotel for me in Caen. Other than the one moment of desperation/tears in Paris Gare St. Lazare, it was all right, and makes for a good story. I ended up staying in a Holiday Inn in France, which sounds slightly absurd to me, but there you go, now I've done it. There are apparently no hostels in the city of Caen which answer the phone in January...weird. Anyway, since I was in Caen, I decided I was going to see some of it, so I walked around in the morning and saw some churches, the Hotel de Ville, and William the Conqueror's Castle, the dude who won the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and made (at least part of) Britain part of France for a time.
After becoming slightly lost in Caen and actually running through the streets to make it to the hotel in time to check out (note: running in thermal underwear equals bad idea, it makes you smell rather delightful), I caught a train to Bayeux. It is a delightful little town, with typical Norman architecture, small buildings, different materials than in the south of France. I saw the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Battle of Hastings, and is amazing and amazingly well preserved for being nearly a thousand years old! I also got to walk around in a British WWII cemetery for a time, which was sobering but good at the same time.
Then it was off to Mont St. Michel. I stayed in a very nice hostel, run by an old British couple (yaay for PG Tips!), and they even picked me up at the train station. I biked it to the abbey the next morning, the Normandy farmland is very pretty, if a bit cold in January. The abbey was amazing, walking around in the dark, heavy stone corridors I could almost imagine I was a monk 800 years ago, truly nothing has changed in there since then I don't think. I attended mass in french just for the experience, which I will remember forever as the coldest church service I have ever attended -- you could see the priest's breath!
At this point, my solitary journeying was at an end, I popped into Rennes that evening and joined the other Fulbright scholars for the midyear meeting. Although I was rather dreading it leading up to the experience, it actually was very enjoyable. It was good to hear about what other people are doing, the American accent was nice to hear for once, and the people were much less stuck-up than I remembered. I think everyone must have just been stressed during that first orientation; understandably so, everyone was newly into the country and still trying to adjust at that point. So, three days in Rennes, many galettes and nights out later, I headed back to Grenoble to find a synchrotron run staring me in the face on Thursday. But now I have been to an absolutely beautiful part of France, and I'm actually starting to be able to hear differences in the french accent from different parts of the country, which makes me happy. :)

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

The Tragicomedy of Youssef

Looking at a chart in the book:

Youssef -It's a present verb. I don't know what all this other stuff is.
Katy -It's conjugated.
Youssef - I don't know what that means.

It's time to give up, my friend.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Home Life

The 5:30 call to prayer reassures me that morning will dawn once again soon, but for the moment I burrow deeper into my blankets and drift back into dream-filled sleep. The decidedly profane beeping of my cell phone alarm irks me awake at 7:30, and I slowly gather the will to creep out into the cold. Once dressed, I join Omi in the kitchen for a cup of coffee (mostly milk), a bit of dense brown bread with jam, and her daily chronicle of maladies (the cataract in her left eye, her diabetes and the sore tailbone from the exercise bike appear without fail). I brush my teeth, throw on my jellabah, grab my backpack and slip out the door to catch the bus to class.

At noon, I make the return trek for dinner. In the living room, I complete the morning's assignments or watch incomprehensible television programs while Hannan embroiders and Omi nods along approvingly from her sickbed on the couch. At one, Sidi Mohammad wanders back in, followed shortly by Souad and Lubna, and Hannan moves into the kitchen to finish preparations for lunch. We all gather around the living-room table to eat from a shared dish while watching the midday news in French. Hannan prepares hot lentil stews, heavy mixtures of vegetables and couscous, dried-pea soup flavored with lamb: thick warm dishes to guard against the cold and nourish well, simple but delicious and entirely homemade.

I return to classes from four to six, then check my email and chat with friends at the student villa before squeezing onto a packed rush-hour bus for the final trip home. At eight, Souad and Lubna return from work and we gather in the kitchen for tea, brewed from whole leaves with lots of mint and sugar and served with dry nut cookies, homemade once again. Our 10 o'clock supper is a light meal, but an animated once. Souad lets her hair down both literally and figuratively (she is the only sister who observes the hijab), and Lubna begins her merry teasing. Hannan scolds her father for adding too much sugar, Lubna translates choice bits of conversation, and Sidi Mohammed always finds some small joke to amuse me. We eat grilled sausage and cheese sandwiches or fried eggs and lamb kebabs or my new favorite creamy sugar-cinnamon rice soup followed by fresh fruit and further conversation. The girls teach me the Arabic names for our food and tableware, while I offer the English term in reply. Amongst themselves, they often slip into darija, and I watch entire conversations without an inkling of their content. Finally, the table is cleared, the dishes are washed, and I bring out my pajamas to warm them against the small gas heater in the kitchen. In my room, I turn out the light and step out of my house slippers at the edge of the carpet. Tucked tightly into bed, I sleep calm and quiet until the neighboring mosque cries out morning's arrival once again.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

America the Stupid?

I have a new roommate. That is, there is a french boy/man named Xavier who lives in Iga's room right next to mine in the flat, who no longer speaks to her Polish mum and dad, who no longer comes home at 10 o'clock from the lab and who no longer gives me polish vodka from the freezer. I have lived amicably enough with Xavier for the past several weeks, saying bonjour et bon nuit, ca va when we come home and how was your day...but that was about it so far. Tonight was something of a breakthrough as far as Xavier-old roommates relations go; we had about 5 hours of hilarity, probably instigated by the Belgian beer followed by french Bordeaux, but nonetheless we all had a good time flailing around the appartement, learning new verbs in french, english, and russian, making fun of each others' pronunciation, and railing at Sylvie. It turns out despite the French Connection, Xavier is indeed on our team as far as proprietaire-coloc relations go; he seems to think Sylvie is as bizarre as she is, which is refreshing somehow.

And somehow in all the talk tonight, we got onto jokes that Americans tell on the French, on the English, and vice versa in all the combinations, even Xavier laughed about the trees on the Champs-Elysees (I warned him several times about being offended before telling him...). And apparently, quite unwittingly, I have only recently come to serve as the foil for Lara against all American stereotypes she has lived with/become accustomed to/internalized in the past several years, since she semi-subconsciously decided to boycott the US and all things American... my intelligence surprised her?!? I think I knew that all English people don't agree with the US and its actions in the world recently, but I didn't realize to quite what extent of contempt the US people in general are held. Lara I guess is one of the few true-blue Brits I know; Andrew has lived in Atlanta and Estelle is originally from Gabon, Trevor from South Africa... and apparently she thought I would be a right-wing warmonger insensitive to others and redneckish in the extreme... It is very natural to lump all people belonging to a group together, but I guess I have a slight shocked feeling - I didn't have such a set expectation of British people. It will wear off...and I guess I better keep it up, being un-'American'...