Friday, July 1, 2011


Headed off to Pamukkale this morning. Before I do, I need to note that the views expressed on the previous post and all subsequent posts on this blog are mine alone, and I don't represent CLS, the American Councils, or the Department of State in any capacity.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Neither in Amman nor the Maghreb, İzmir'e geldim!

Well, it's summer again, and with school out, I'm in Turkey studying Turkish, hanging around the beautiful city of Izmir thanks the Critical Language Scholarship program.  Though it's designed to prepare young men and women to serve our country in case of war or in the unlikely event of diplomacy, they allow a few grad students along too.  I can only assume it's to scare the undergrads into  pursuing practical careers with their degrees, rather than wasting away in the dark corners of major university libraries for decades.  Unlike the Fulbright-Hays and other scholarly programs that have faced major cuts this year thanks to American voters' aversion to paying any taxes at all, the 'security' aspect of the CLS has saved it from being sacrificed.  Alhamdulillah.

Life in Izmir is pretty wonderful.  I'm staying with a thirty-something Turkish couple in what used to be the Jewish quarter of Izmir.  This has given me the chance to repeat my work in Tunisia of wandering around looking for signs of Jewish community life.  There are three synagogues in this neighborhood, established by each wave of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 and welcomed into the Ottoman Empire.  So far, I've found two of them.  One of them was open, and I might try to go to services at some point in the next few weeks, perhaps when my Turkish is more conversational, though its possible they could be Francophile due to the century-long presence of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, whose schools in Lebanon I have been researching.  Other than a few restored tourist sites like the Asansör area, its history isn't immediately visible, and the community is severely diminished, but a few Ottoman houses and a few interesting urban springs make it a nice neighborhood, in spite of the long flights of stairs one must traverse within it.

Most of the other students on my program live in alsancak (note to my arabist reader(s): the Turkish c sounds like a j), where the school we attend is located.  While alsancak is located on the waterfront where shipping and ferries arrive in the gulf of Izmir, street life is in the narrow lanes of the interior.  They're quite picturesque, with greenery creeping overhead to shade the street, which the many bars and restaurants have filled with tables, almost to the point of making them narrow hallways.  We've taken to one not far from school called Kırmızı, located in an old mansion of some sort, staffed by hip guys who wear ironic tshirts.  It's clear that urban life in Izmir has evolved as many families have moved out to the suburbs to live in highrises on the northern shore of the gulf, or in the sprawl east, leaving many of the gorgeous old houses of the center in desperate need of repair.  But perhaps in its place a new idea of urban space has emerged, though the mix of collapsing buildings and gentrification can be disconcerting.

That said, I'm quite happy to be in Izmir, in this old city on the Aegean coast, rather than in the heat, boredom, and history-lessness of Ankara.  I feel at home here, and the more Turkish I pick up (or Arabic cognates I recognize), the harder it will be to leave in September.

(Photos will be coming soon!)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Marrakech and the Dada-ist Valley

Marrakech: Vacation Within a Vacation

After the theft in Meknes of my camera, mobile phone, and some cash, I was ready to move on, and after a scorching train ride, I arrived in the capital of Southern Morocco, Marrakech.  Marrakech is heavily touristed, even by Moroccans, and holds its fair share of magic.  Snake charmers play double-reed clarinets with de-fanged and close mouthed cobras and pythons at their feet.  It's all fun and games until you're wearing flip flops around cobras.  West African merchants sell bright shirts to Arab men in cafes in their distinct accent of French.  Gnaoui troupes dance to rapid drum beats and hand cymbal claps.  Banjo players serenade the crowd, one with a rooster perched atop his head, pleading ever so humbly for a donation from the odd white guy in attendance.  Marrakech is a specter.  "From here to Timbuktu" isn't a figure of speech here; it's a unit of distance.  The sun kills in the afternoon, but at night, the city comes alive, amid the glow of kerosene lamps lighting the powders, potions, and what I can only assume are dinosaur eggs being sold by professional apothecaries and magicians.  Vendors hawk orange juice, snails, sheep's brain, and all manner of food to the gathered throng.  A smoky cloud sits over Jamaa' al-Fna through the night.

It is into this madness and beauty that I brought two American friends for the fourth of July.  After seeing the palaces and ruins of the city and eating more shellfish than Jews usually prefer, we departed for Essaouria on the Atlantic.  It was there where we awoke on July 4, and without intending to, we ended up at the sea wall.  O'er the ramparts we watched...

Making our way back to Marrakech on their last night in Morocco, we had another serendipitous bout of patriotism.  The kefta we ordered looked suspiciously like tiny hamburgers.  The gazpacho-esque soup served as our ketchup.  And we ordered some good ol' fashioned Coca-Colas to wash down the American goodness.  It took every ounce of will-power I had not to break out in a Lee Greenwood song.  


Dades Valley: Berbers are the Bedouins of the Maghreb

I arrived in Bou Melna du Dades after the vacation within a vacation ended.  After promptly passing out from lack of sleep, I awoke and rode the station wagon (stuffed with 14 people) to the end of the line at the Dades Gorge. After continuing on for a few kilometers, I realized that the riverside trails were in the opposite direction and began trekking back.

Grafiti in Berber/Amazigh covered street signs and buildings.  Having spent almost five years studying Arabic, I go to an Arab country and promptly move to the place where Arabic is a foreign language, an unwelcome mark of governmental dominance in local affairs.  Some young girls washing clothes at the river asked if I was Saudi because of my accent.  They began doing the "Are you my husband?" interrogation.  They didn't ask me if I was Muslim, only if I prayed.  Preferring not to self-identify as a kafir infidel, I said I was Christian.  Maybe the fact that it was in Arabic and not Berber confused them, but they seemed to not know that religions other than Islam exist.  This is the middle of nowhere.

After ten kilometers of trekking in the morning sun, I arrived at Ait (pronounced like the contraction of Alright) Ali, a Berber village in the valley.  Muha invited me into his shop/home, where we drank tea and fanta and he applied kohl to my eyes to protect me from the dust.  Only the fact that Berber men do this frequently saved me from facing the fact that I was wearing eye-liner. 

Had I been to the Sidi Boubkere gorge?, he asked.  Since I had not, he invited me to come back the next day, hike the valleys, and stay with his family.  When I arrived today, we set out, hiking through fields of corn, groves of almond and olive trees, and women washing clothes in the river.  

"Do you have anything that will break if it gets wet?" he asked me.
"Ummm.  Passport.  iPod.  A camera that was lent to me."
"Oh.  That means you will be careful.  Take my keys and lighter."

I was now wading in chest-level water carrying my satchel over my head like a soldier in Vietnam.

After an hour of wading and rapids, we emerged at a small pool at a narrow point in the gorge.

"La piscine natural!" Muha exclaimed.

After swimming and male-bonding over sardine sandwiches and dirty jokes, we began the long hitch-hike home.

And this is how I got adopted by a Berber man whose life consists of swimming in gorges, tomato sandwiches and pots of mint tea.

Not sure if I'll make it to Casablanca.  Ait Ali is paradise.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Merry Old Land of Fez

After wandering the streets of Chefchaouen for a few more  days, I was ready to be in a real city again.  After one of the worse bus rides of my career (lots of sick children and no operable windows in the heat of summer), I arrived in the old imperial capitol.

Fez reminds me a bit of Damascus but on a much larger scale.  It's big and dirty and alive. Life continues amidst the remains of a milennium of history.  Caravanserais erected over several hundred years still serve as shops.   The city's history is not placed under glass like in Rome or Venice, monuments to the past civilization.  As I snapped a of a lane in the medina, a teenager started laughing.

"Why are you taking a picture of this little street?"

"It's beautiful."

He then ran over to his friends to tell them that the silly American said the street was beautiful.


After visiting the Jewish cemetery, I went searching for the synagogue.  A sign pointed to a large 19th century building at the end of an alley.  I knocked on the door.  After making a very large woman very angry with me with my persistent ignorance of the French language and her refusal to speak Arabic, her daughter arrived and diffused the situation.  For a twenty dirham "donation," I was ushered into their house, which turned out to be the synagogue. (Note to self: get a job as the caretaker for a historical monument whose community has emigrated).  The daughter showed me the gallery, the basement mikvah, and then she opened the tabernacle to show me the battered Torah.  All I could muster was, "I think we're supposed to say something before we do that."


I followed my nose to the tanneries on the river.  River might be an exaggeration, though, as it was mostly a brown stream of chemicals and discarded fur.  In what looked like roofless, abandoned buildings, workers shaved, cleaned, and dyed the skins in a steady stream of smoke.  

With my eyes and nose reacting to the chemicals, I crossed a bridge and walked up the hill towards the mosque of one of Fez's local saints.  This particular Wali was important in the Islam's spread through Niger, Senegal, and the rest of West Africa.  Pious Muslims from those countries come to Fez to get baraka (blessings) at his tomb before performing the hajj to Mecca.  Streets around the mosque are filled with West Africans buying bright colored jalabas, the maghrebi version of dishdashes and galabiyyas.  (Arabs can't pull off orange or deep blue, but fat African men look awesome in those colors) 

I can only see the place through my own particular lens, but the diversity of nations, languages, and ethnic groups crossing paths in Fez makes it still seem like the imperial capital it once was, even if its best days were five hundred to a thousand years ago.


None of this really explains why I've started thinking of Fez as the Emerald City.  Well, to get here from the North, you pass through Morocco's equivalent of the poppy fields of Oz, fields of flowers and "cash crops" bound for Europe.  When you get here, huge walls surround and cut through the city, protecting the royal palace and gardens from the plebes across the street.  When you get up to a rooftop, you can look across the city and see the green-tiled roofs of hundreds of mosques and madrassahs.  Most of all, it's in the attitude of the people.  Watching the U.S. play Algeria in the World Cup, I talked to a guy in the cafe, trying to get a sense of how Moroccans view their neighbor.

Breaking down the maghreb, he explained:
"Tunisians are women.  Algerians are men.  Moroccans are kings."

While that's mostly meant as a cheap shot at the other two, it offers a hint at Morocco's national pride and the magic of the place.

[I still maintain that Cairo's work ethic and operating hours are closest to Oz.  Get up at twelve and start to work at one.  Take an hour for lunch and then at two we're done.  Jolly good fun, indeed.]

Monday, June 21, 2010

Episode sixty-something, in which I draw a crowd

As I sat at the eastern gate of Chefchaouen, sketching some buildings, a Moroccan man and his wife approached me.  In French, they complimented my poor drawing abilities.  I switched the conversation to Arabic so I could understand.

"Please, will you do a portrait of my wife?," he asked.

[In addition to not really being able to draw, drawing also takes me an excruciatingly long time, which is kind of why I like it.  It also makes live portraiture not really an option.]

"Oh," I replied, "I wish I could, but I only draw buildings."

"You are a believer, a good Muslim, so you won't draw people," he answered.

[In Islam, allegedly, on Yom al-Deen, the Day of Judgement, God will ask anyone who drew or otherwise "created" a human being to bring it to life.  Not being able to make the drawing live, you get condemned for your false creation.  The point of the story is that only God creates things.]

"No, I'm not a Muslim.  I'm just a bad artist."

"But she is beautiful, yes?  It is easy to draw a beautiful woman."

"Oh, my friend, she is too beautiful for me to draw."

And with that, I escaped without having to hastily do a portrait of this man's wife.


Later a group of Frenchmen approached.  They looked at my drawing with condescension.

One of them noticed I wasn't wearing shoes.  Chefchaouen is a bit of a hippie hotspot in Morocco, so he assumed I fell into that crowd.

"You are bitnick?" he said, then walked away.

"Bitnick?"  I was puzzled.  Oh, I realized.  BEATNIK.  I'm not that either.


Having moved to a more secluded street to draw a few doors, a group of girls, aged 5-25 approached.  After asking the usual giggly questions of where I'm from, whether I'm married, and whether I'm a Muslim who's looking for a nice Muslima to settle down with, the conversation moved to a much more fun direction.

"Do you know Shakira?"  They asked.  Being part Arab, Shakira is a big deal in North Africa and the Middle East.

"Do you know Beyonce?"

"Do you know Lady GaGa?"

And with that, Dear Readers, I joined a ten year old Moroccan child in doing the Thriller-meets-Twist dance from "Bad Romance."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Across the Strait of Gibralter

Well, after a tremendous visit to Andalucia, I turned twenty three on a boat traveling to Tangier, satisfying the namesake of my blog.  Maghreb reached.  Tangier is fun, but it's not really my scene so I'm headed to Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains tomorrow.  My to-do list includes finding a small musical instrument and eating lots of avocados.  These seem eminently achievable.

I'm surprisingly getting caught up in this World Cup business, though I maintain soccer is just a slow, sissy version of hockey.  I would like it a lot better if it weren't a third play-acting for the refs.  Anyway, I've been meeting Moroccans in the cafes watching the games.  My rooting strategy follow:

1. USA
2. Do I know someone from this country?
     a. Do I like this person? If yes, root for this country.
3. Have I been treated poorly by this country's public transit system?  If yes, root against this country (Greece).
4. Was this country ever occupied or colonized by their opponent?  If yes, root for this country.
5. Otherwise, West Africa over Latin America over Europe.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)

When your rooster crows at the break of dawn,
Look out your window and I’ll be gone.
You’re the reason I’m travelin’ on,
But don’t think twice, it’s alright.

I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road, babe.
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell.
But goodbye’s too good a word, gal,
So I’ll just say fare thee well.

[Moved from El-Manar to El-Kram, near La Goulette, and in a week, I'll catch a plane to Spain.  I have mixed feelings about Tunis.  My Arabic improved a great deal and I like the food, but it never felt like home, and I never fell in love with the place.  I ain't saying you treated me unkind.  You could've done better, but I don't mind.  You just kinda wasted my precious time, but don't think twice, it's alright.]