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 thunderstorm...it 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.