Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What’s in your pouf?

A week and two days into it I decided to take Hazel out of the 5-morning a week Montessori program she was in, mostly because I missed her too much. The ordeal of getting out the door to meet the faculty/staff bus at 7:15 (and not being able to count on a ride home at noon when her day ended, instead having to wait til the bus left at 4:30), not getting a real nap but instead napping the sweaty sleep of the upright stroller—all of it was too much on top of not wanting to miss the daily dramas of a two-year old—not just any two-year old, mine. I say “I” and “mine” because ultimately it was my own horror at her tears and lamentations (I know that these will happen again whenever it is we decide it’s time for school), my own sense of clutching-at-nothing looking out from the faculty-room balcony onto the pre-schoolers’ playground and seeing her fetch a tiny plastic stool, set it beside one of the teachers and climb up. (I felt a little like a voyeur, having stolen away from my book in the library to spy on my daughter, but even so—she’s only 2, and I want to be the one she sets her stool beside.) And ultimately, it’s my time with her, all day now. She is Paul’s too, of course, but during daylight weekday hours I’m the primary wiper of noses and bottoms, fixer of snacks and lunches, companion on walks and trips to the store, translator of almost-incoherent this’s and that’s, and I’m the one who gets an island of calm of variable size when she crashes in her daytime crib. So here we are, partners in time with plenty of places to explore.

But it’s daunting. It’s the maternal grandmother in me, Anna Louise, who loved her couch and her Sunday Times, her kitchen, her garden of daffodils and cosmos, her home. (She was not a great traveler, much as she loved the trip to Greece they took, the trip to England, the trip to see Shakespeare performed, professionally, in Canada.) It’s the part of me that doesn’t speak Arabic yet, the part of me that’s self-conscious about standing out—blonde, female—in this city, despite its vast population of Westerners and the hordes of shorts-and-halter European tourists, despite the fact that my fellow explorer is the object of disarmingly abundant affection from all corners. (This morning she received an invitation to have tea later in the day from one of the guys who shared tea with us on the street this past Sunday, a trio of chocolates from a guy who sells cigarettes out of a suitcase around the corner, many Bonjours! Ça vas? and countless kisses from at least a half-dozen other groups of people over the course of our two-hour ramble this morning.) It’s the part of me that misses the things that packed themselves into our old life, the blue plates and the rug from our wedding, the stacks of sheets and towels in the hall linen closet (at home, the bed didn’t stand naked and the towel rack empty for ten daylight hours while the sheets and towels air-dried), the army of glasses in the kitchen cupboard, the pictures in frames, the fireplace waiting for fall. (That’s a lot of stuff, especially now that we’re living in a pared-down three-towel world.) It’s the part of me that misses the constellation of friends and neighbors back in Berkeley, the part that wonders what, really, we’re doing here. Not getting paid to work is part of it. And of course, none of these feelings is particularly new or revolutionary, or unheard of. They’re just mine, in this particular place, right now, in my own particular chronology of experience. It has been a little over two years since I was in the classroom, plugged into a community with its own rhythms, imperatives, culture—and now this year, a third year “at home” where most of the familiar is packed away in my cousin’s attic in Oakland. Honestly, the writing in this “spacebook” (to quote a friend’s husband), odd as it is—blog to my ear when I first heard the word sounded sort of stupid, and, well, here I am eating crow—odd as this medium is, hybrid of some version of public, and an interior voice that’s more at home between the covers of a journal—it is satisfying to set notions down, render a scene that was striking, and thus both make room for the next and leave a trail of breadcrumbs for someone else (Hazel in some future-now?) to follow.

So I wished I had my camera this morning. Twice. Hazel and I climbed up the several deep steps of a large C-shaped concrete amphitheater that sits outside the Jnane El Harti, and there in foot-high black spray-paint letters was “FUCK THE POLICE,” in English. The words were scrawled on the inside wall at one end of the amphitheater. Hazel had climbed up and run along the top step to reach that end. There she stopped—beside the fervent declaration—in white sundress and pink crocs looking happily down at me out from under her pink and white flowered sunhat. Lovely contrast. Then, almost as if I’d conjured them out of my own sense of irony (irony, really?) one for each word, a trio of very young-looking policemen walked by in newly minted uniforms, blue hats set just so, slim shoulder to slim shoulder: first just their heads traveling left to right, bobbing along together above the rim of the amphitheater approaching the words, then walking further into my field of vision and beyond the wall of words—each of their bodies finding one word to move above, crossing the sunny plaza away from us and toward the enormous fountain, a moving invitation, refutation, juxtaposition at the very least.

A long time ago the summer before I left for my senior year of high school in faraway France, I found a scrap of Elizabeth Bishop quoted in a New Yorker article, the subject of which is long-forgotten if I ever even knew, or ever bothered to read it start to finish. I poached what resonated and left the rest. Bishop writes, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?/ Where should we be today?/ Is it right to be watching strangers in a play/ in this strangest of theaters?/ What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life/ in our bodies, we are determined to rush/ to see the sun the other way around?” The lines are from a book called Questions of Travel, from a poem called “Second Thoughts”—and I have kept these words (or a version of them since I never took the time to commit them to memory) tucked into some corner of consciousness always since then. The questions persist. In college maybe and certainly in graduate school and I know in my own classroom I’ve encountered or presented this poem again and again. But even so, I’d forgotten that the poem answers its own questions—beautifully, specifically, with all the precision, clarity, and illumination that attended-to language can contain. I won’t bother you with a rehash of the witnessed moments she plucks to do so, but even more interesting, in the last two lines Bishop offers another question, itself an answer: “Should we have stayed at home,/ wherever that may be?” [italics hers]. I love that the first part of the poem’s last sentence is written in the conditional and in past tense (and echoes the earlier central idea), while the second part is solidly in the present. (Need to check the grammatical correctness of the tenses I’ve named here, but even so.) I read the line this way: home is in the present, home is where you are, home is a state of mind and place of thought, a decision you make about wherever you find yourself. And are we ever “home”? Also, this final question concludes her last two stanzas, both italicized—they are quotations (the poet announces) from a traveler’s notebook. So she answers her questions with words themselves written somewhere along the way, away from “home,” written in the full flush of lived (and almost simultaneously reflected upon) experience. You really need to read the poem in its own context, or simply on its own. I’ve struggled all my school-life with having the patience to read poetry. So here I am, close-reading one and picking away, explicating it, when of course the real power of language is in your own solitary devouring.

So I’m imagining what people put in their poufs here. This because Hazel and I bought one the other day, a pretty petite deep red pouf for her bedroom—brought it home where I then looked around at our bare space, casting about for what soft but sturdy material we could stuff in there to fill it out and make it do its job. Ce n’est pas evident, as the French say, with no good translation. (“It is not obvious” doesn’t quite do the idiom justice.) We’d gone to this artisinat around the corner precisely because you don’t bargain, you don’t haggle, you don’t counter-offer. You just pay the already-marked reasonable amount and don’t feel bad for having done so. We three had gone last week sometime, happy to look and not feel the press of the sell, and fell into conversation with the gentleman who was ringing us up (we bought a salad bowl! now we have one!). It turns out his cousin’s son is a student of Paul’s, and it was another cousin around the corner who on one of our first days here popped us in his car and stole us away in order that we buy stuff from him—the same guy who used to have the brass dog in front of his shop, as I mentioned earlier, now gone, the same one who calls out hello and how are you and, one other time just recently, How many rugs was it that you wanted to buy? So the gentleman who eventually rung us up was the one I’d earlier asked, when we first came into the shop, “What do you put in a pouf?” Poufs seem always to be displayed sunken, propped on a shelf, a little sad-looking, or stacked, all their potential imagined. It was one of those moments where, could I have asked my question in English, I would have felt like I was conveying my notion as artfully and as wryly as I’d wished: funny even, kidding but really quite serious. As it was, he answered very seriously at first, well, you put in this or that—and then, dammit, my French still needs polishing. He did say something really funny, chuckled and turned away—did he just say you stuff it with all of your money? (Which is mildly tempting and slightly plausible given that Paul just got paid in cash for the first month’s work. If these keeps up, we’ll have to consider it.)

We go about making a more comfortable home. So far it’s two bowls (and a third one, a drab olive-colored ceramic mixing bowl that will stay here whenever we go back to the States). And Hazel’s empty red pouf. At night you can see across the courtyard into other people’s apartments and I found myself wondering what in fact people put in their poufs. From our (darkened) living room window you can see a couple of them in various apartments to left and right, up and down. Why was I surprised to see poufs in Moroccan people’s living rooms? I think it’s the exoticizing factor—poufs where I come from are a marker of the exotic, so why would they be at home anywhere, or everywhere? It’s all context. (Paul just said to me that the pouf’s in the pudding—and a good thing the pudding’s not in the pouf. Or that.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Eid el-Fitre: Ramadan ends

One of the main roads leading into Marrakech from the southeast (you almost have to take it if you’re coming into town from the airport) is Mohammed VI, the name of the present king of Morocco. The boulevard is just one of the many that run through the “nouvelle ville,” the part of town built in the early days of the French Protectorate—in the late teens and early 1920s. (The Protectorate’s first leader, General Hubert Lyautey said he had two passions, “policies regarding the natives and town planning.”) We’ve been walking the few minutes out to the boulevard from our place these last couple weeks in the evening in part to breathe a different air than what’s inside the apartment (with all its windows facing into the courtyard), in part to see the sky change from last-sun to first-star, but also to let Hazel get out her ya-yas before bath and bed (she inevitably cranks up before she winds down). And this wide, wide space with its ample sidewalks and its median that spans at least thirty feet (fountains regularly spaced, some lit from within at night, endless but sort of neglected beds of rosemary, plumbago) stretches out to mercury-lamped infinity, especially when the mountains beyond are hidden behind their nightly swath of cloud. Soon after getting here we walked a good part of its length one very hot afternoon on the way out to and back from the Menara Gardens—an enormous olive grove, rectangular basin and storied pavilion (the gardens were originally laid out by the Almohads in the 12th century)—but of course the cool of evening makes better sense, mad dogs and the English excepted. Enormous hotels, some of them chain, sit back off the boulevard, one after the other on both sides, acres of empty café chairs cluster at their bases waiting for dark and for Ramadan to come to an end. But in the waning light the empty sidewalks and fountained median, as we’ve encountered them, have been occupied primarily by what look a lot like tourists—people with backpacks hiking away from the mostly-deserted train station, European-looking couples strolling lazily here and there taking pictures of the lit palms or each other, everyone else zooming along in the dusk—little beige taxis, scooters, motorbikes, the odd Porche SUV, blue and grey French-made sedans, and once a couple tightly clutching each other on a Segue (you know—those two-wheeled long-handled tiny platforms that roll you along in an oddly static upright fashion—we’d actually already seen the driver by himself once before). Part of this phenomenon is certainly to do with Ramadan—people break the fast at home, and are presumably zooming to get there before sunset just when we’ve already eaten and are beginning our ya-ya ramble—only coming out later to take the air after we’ve gone home to keep to our 2-year old’s schedule. At any rate, Paul said tonight how different this space is from the Medina—close, intimate, pressed in together, private somehow too, with walls too high to see over, interior doors glimpsed perhaps but inevitably closed. Here—nothing but wide-open space and speed.

As we left our building in the fading light a guy on a scooter was arriving with an ornate glimmering-in-the-early-dusk silver tea pot wedged between his feet on the scooter’s central platform, together with several bowls of harira covered in foil, a promising black sack gripped in one hand. On one of the corners that we pass on the way out to Mohammed VI there’s a man who sells Winston cigarettes from a wooden box that he’s set on its end; these last two nights he’s had a tiny wobbly black and white puppy with him, and tonight a little brazier sheltered with a fold of cardboard, sparks flying up into the violet sky. We came back tonight in the near-dark and the two gentlemen who sit in the open-air (but ornately gated and elaborately arched) entryway of our building were eating, had finished mostly; we passed through the gate and they offered first me and then Hazel one of those abundantly-delectable coils of sesame-honey deliciousness. They offered her orange and mango juice, and us too—and we ate with them. I’m always knocked breathless by these moments of generosity, connection. And I need to learn the language. That is the refrain. That feeling—impotent of language—rides along beneath virtually every encounter here. I’m all for the observed drama, for green tiles and bougainvillea and lantern-light dancing beneath the dome of the dark night sky, but not really being able to listen and understand, or express to someone else (who is from here but does not speak English the way I want to speak Arabic) what it is I’m thinking, it’s almost all for nothing.

I’ve been reading this academic digestion (published in 2005) of what’s transpired between the United States and Morocco—culturally, politically—from the release of Casablanca on November 11, 1942 (just three days after the U.S. Army landed in Morocco and Algeria, thus launching the first major ground offensive of WW II), through the cold war fiction of Paul Bowles, and what he did after (among other things, did you know he published a recipe for marijuana jam in Rolling Stone in 1974?) and the brief era of the Hippie in Morocco, circa 1973 (“Don’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express,” sing Crosby Stills Nash and Young; my brother-in-law had to show me a live version of this song on youtube— I’m a child of the 70s, but only because I know The Brady Bunch, not because the music, circa age 4, is mine). The author of Morocco Bound, Brian T. Edwards (Northwestern) has academic ties to several universities and cultural studies centers in Morocco, clearly speaks Arabic and its Moroccan variety (Darija), and unfolds a capacious and convincing explanation of the forces that shape, have shaped, our domestic view of this place—as well as the ways in which we need to learn how we in turn are perceived. Among other books on Morocco in circulation, he makes reference to the first “guide-book” to the country written in English, Edith Wharton’s In Morocco (in 1917 she was squired about for a month in a Protectorate-driven jeep)—and the more you read, the further down the rabbit hole of connection you’re pulled. Who hasn’t been here? Churchill had his favorite suite in the storied Marrakech hotel La Mamounia (famously reopening at the end of this month after a facelift that will redefine the term, I’m sure); Hitchcock filmed his second take on The Man Who Knew Too Much on location in Marrakech; at least two of the Beatles and some of the Rolling Stones crashed here, and as I’m late-night surfing the HuffPost, Vanity Fair or some-such on-line, I find that one starlet or another does her bargain-shopping not in one particular store in one particular city, but in Morocco, the country. For some people, of course, the whole country is cheap.

At the end of the first week of classes we invited over several other teachers who live in our part of town—an easy way to hang out with adults while Hazel careens about with other kids and can crash or get a hug when she needs to. Selfish invitation, but a good trick. My point is that I heard stories about a Marrakech that I have not experienced—after dark at Pasha, “the biggest club in Africa”—girls dancing in cages, prostitutes (“They were, weren’t they?!!”) lounging about or being proffered, night-time splendors and sparkly excesses. Someone else talked about leaving a bar at 4AM and deciding to walk instead of catching a petit taxi, and then being surprised by a guy who pulled a knife. He was a kid, basically; the two women (one a more-than-fluent French speaker) made some noise, and then got help from obliging and sympathetic people who happened to be there too. Another plays soccer with a local semi-pro club, and Paul comes back with a story about a girl whose maid wakes her with chocolate milk every morning, excepting those during Ramadan. And a couple days ago on Sunday night, what turned out to be the last night of Ramadan, we saw two girls dressed partially in riding gear—jodhpurs, tall boots—heading into the McDonald’s at the train station. There’s money here too.

We’ve been here during a time that’s not typical—these last four weeks have happened in an altered state. And because Ramadan arrives each year according to the lunar calendar (and the time it comes shifts eleven days back each successive year), it has been almost a full generation since Ramadan fell right at this time, one of the hottest of the year. Is it new then, this experience, for everyone? On that recent Sunday evening walk we started out earlier than usual, in full sun, taking a different route, heading down a street parallel to Mohammed VI, this one narrower, residential, through part of the affluent Hivernage neighborhood (again, what the French built). Lush blooms from some of the walled houses and quieter hotels spilled out onto the sidewalks, the entire green corridor bordered by mature silver-leaved olive trees; we could see into the gloom of heavily shaded side-streets (So this is where the BMWs go at the end of the day! I found myself saying to Paul), and as we turned west and headed out to Mohammed VI, the feel was different. Something had lifted. We saw joggers along the shaded median of a busy cross street (and again on Mohammed VI once we joined it)—all of them men, but still. Two tricked-out cyclists on serious road-bikes zipped by us (one even with a helmet). Families strolled with children or sat on benches where before we’d been almost alone. People laughed. A white Mercedes (father and son in the front seat?) flashed by, and several black VW Touaregs (another subject entirely). Was it the beautiful Sunday evening, clear and cool? Everyone out for a spin or a promenade? Or because the end of Ramadan was just so close? There’s a guy (I’m assuming it's a man) who’s been practicing an instrument out into the courtyard during Hazel’s naptime for the last week—it sounds like a cross between an oboe and a trumpet and also something else entirely. Wherever he is and whatever instrument he's playing, the sound catches in the basin of the courtyard and reaches up to all the surrounding windows. The city seems to have unfolded from the month of day-light abstention.

We went out again last evening (a couple days have passed since I began writing)—the first day of Eid el-Fitre, marking the end of Ramadan. We passed cafés filling as the sun set, the train station swarming with arrivals and peopling kissing hello (the train we saw had just come in from Fès), the two green-tiled fountains to left and right of the soaring entrance splashing away, and the chairs and tables outside the McDonald’s that give onto the wide tiled space surrounding the station totally packed with families. (The smell outside the McDonald’s is, sadly, the same as the smell outside of every other McDonald’s in the States that I’ve ever walked by or had to stand inside. I’ll go there to eat something only if I can’t think of ANYTHING else to write about. It will be a sad day, I think, if that happens—though interesting maybe in the anthropological sense. I have a feeling what I’d write.) Walking by one of the cafés on our way out to Mohammed VI Paul saw a man who lives in our neighborhood that he’s talked to on several occasions; he’s Moroccan and was sitting with another Moroccan man. I hadn’t met him before—we stopped and shook hands, spoke together in a mixture of English and French. Hazel said her soft Bonsoir and Ça va—so quietly! (She sometimes pitches those small words almost dog-whistle high.) It was an interesting moment in part because I felt we were one act of the evening’s sidewalk theater—all the café chairs arranged facing out, side by side, tables in front or to one side; in part because everyone sitting on the sidewalk was a man (one woman sat inside at a window looking out). Just a tiny moment of gendered self-consciousness. The day, now fading, had been blue and clear; now out beyond the teeming boulevard the Atlas caught the last light leaning at the them from the far west, faintly rumpling their surface (creating a look like crushed iridescent taffeta from such a distance); the tiny sliver of the moon hung above the train station in the space the sun had just quit—a tension had broken. The evening felt full, bustling, a surge back into the streets. Most people we saw I’m sure weren’t hungry! In those earlier days, many of them so very hot—almost the entire time we’ve been here, actually—the feel was strained at some level, whether I was imposing my perception of people fasting and thus hungry onto the scene or because indeed there was a certain something at work in a place where most everyone was doing so. So. The fast is done, bars reopen, cafés, restaurants, the ice cream place beside us as well. And what parts of this place shift that we can’t see?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


It has rained now several times in the last couple weeks—most recently in a sky-boiling late afternoon deluge that, after we dashed the two blocks from the bus to home, left us looking like we’d taken baths fully-clothed. The clouds, piling greys and blues and whites, had gathered in the southeast over the mountains—clear blue sky to the north and west—gathered in mass, color and intent as the otherwise sunny afternoon wore on. We got on the bus just in time it felt like, everyone looking over their left shoulder at the layered thunderheads towering, oncoming, then looking out the bus windows at the unusual grape-like curling clusters of charcoal-dark cloud almost overhead. We got to town and the skies closed to black like a curtain falling prematurely on a stage scene still lit, the rain-sound crescendo’d, the windows streamed, trees thrashed and branches came down (the traffic beyond the enormous out-of-scale bus windshield a soaking zig-zag’d pell-mell frenzy), and then it was our stop. One large step from bus to sidewalk over the gushing torrent, thought for a split-second about hugging each other and the building under an eave, and then went for it, Hazel already a drowned rat in my arms, tiny orange sundress plastered to her tiny goose-bumped frame, legs pressed tight around me. I’m sure she could feel the urgency of the moment, didn’t protest the dash or the rain, didn’t make a sound, in fact. I hugged her to me as much to keep myself warm as her and we all three ran (Paul with all our bags), waiving off the many groups of people urging us under an awning (I had to shout as we ran by, “We live just right there!” to convince people we weren’t insane in addition to being foreign). One of those moments of collective (though mild) panic, motion, witnessing. The streets had turned to rivers in a flash—three, four inches of water moving swiftly to where?—gone by morning except for the innocent glisten of a puddle here and there in the freshness and sunlight of the 8AM streets.

The mountains had first appeared early last week. Paul saw them in a flash down a southeast reaching side-street from the bus as we headed off to school. A clear morning, maybe it had rained in the night, fresh-feeling and cool in a way that was new. Is this what it feels like when the season changes here? Someone, a native of Tangier, said to us recently that of all Moroccan cities, Marrakech is the only one with four true seasons. We’d been waiting for them, the mountains, wondering how high they’d be when they came out from behind the haze that seems to sit in with the heat, hunker down, press close, blot out anything but what is in the present, what is on your mind this moment—you just can’t see beyond that perfect sin-wave undulation of brown hill down that avenue, or what’s at the end of that green stretch of palm-lined boulevard down that way. But then there they were, revelation.

The Atlas tower. They float. They are close. And these days they seem to send out daily emissaries, stacked and urgent, and whether or not they deliver the message, the source of it is clear. Someone else, a native Marrakechi, explained that these weeks now, the last days of August, the first weeks of September, this is when the rains come. And then looking up at the sky from our apartment window, or out the moving frame of the bus, I wonder what the wide and busy space of the Jemaa El Fna looks like in the deluge, what the narrow cobbled streets of the souks look like when the rains pour down, what the view of the coming drama is like from the top of La Koutoubia. The mountains hug themselves around the southeast border of the city—or, rather, Marrakech gets as close to their mass as possible without crowding that bulk. The city sits at an appreciative distance. 

It turns out I latched on tight to one high school chemistry experiment in particular. In 1989 M.F. poured a liquid into a liquid and lo and behold, the two made a solid, just like that, spontaneously and seemingly out of nowhere. The pumpkin-colored bits sifted lazily down through the unappealing cloudy liquid and settled on the bottom of the beaker. That’s my vision of how things can sometimes happen—bolt from the blue, thunderbolt-sudden. One thing precipitates another thing entirely, none of the rest of it expected.

I burst into tears the other day and had to put down Reading Lolita in Tehran—nothing to do with Lolita or Tehran or reading, only Nafisi remembering how old her daughter was when a certain something happened (the daughter was eleven). I just convulsed in that way—spontaneous well of tears. In that briefest flash I was overwhelmed with gratitude for what is to come for Hazel—and of course for me, too: the years of growing and laughing and talking together (I will cry, she will cry, I know that too). But it was there for the first time—this unfurling ribbon of yet-to-happen that I could all but see, just begin to imagine. She’s beginning to tell stories (she said the other day, and I wish I had the steel-trap mind to catch her words verbatim, that Ms. Tammou had gotten a tissue for one of the kids who was crying in her class—she says this to me as we are eating lunch in one of the cozy nooks at school, sitting together on a curved stone bench that hugs the inside wall of an open-air alcove, backed by what I’ve been telling her are Hazel-size windows: she can stand on the bench and look full out onto the school’s southeast-facing view toward the mountains when they’re there)—and when she does relate a tidbit of her vision, her eyebrows go up, or she tilts her head down and looks out from beneath her bangs, or lets out a little puff of air for emphasis once she’s made her statement, or stretches both her arms up and out, fingers spread wide, when the words fail her—all these narrative flourishes have arrived in just the last two weeks. 

On the bus to school yesterday I had another thought—what are we doing here? A replication of my parents’ experiences abroad, my grandparents’, aunts’ and uncles’, brother’s even—Mom growing up in Tehran, Dad in the Peace Corps in Tunis (and again together there later), Taylor in Ain Batoum in Tunisia too, my extended family in Saudi Arabia, Beirut, India, Afghanistan, so many people in so many elsewheres. And here we are in Marrakech. Now we’re in Marrakech. Replication with what intent exactly? Connection to what exactly? My perception of the inherited belief in the imperative of the importance of knowing another place? I think of that moment growing up when I realized that if I look a little like mom, and she looks a little like her dad, and he looked like his mother a bit—how far back do you go? You go back and back endlessly searching for the original (as Virginia Woolf would have it, searching for “the thing itself”), a search embarked upon in the first place to stave off encroaching insecurities? or to erase the yawning chasm of meaninglessness just on the other side of living and doing, thinking, feeling—being? These thoughts, shuffling, reshuffling for a long time now—precipitate here, in this place.

A former student just wrote (after seeing a picture of Hazel) and said, among other delightful things, that Hazel is a perfect combination of both of us. And she is her perfect and very own self, her own original, her own source, whatever it is we have given her, whatever it is that she’ll perceive of who came before and what they did where, and in full view of what mountains.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Today we saw the King drive by

We stand on the night-time roof of a riad in the Medina—feeling the cool movement of air, watching the moon rise in the east over the dark city, the lanterns’ flickering light set dancing by the cool air, looking around at the (now I’m counting) four-level roof terrace. Cushions and low brass tables, glasses of fresh-squeezed orange, strawberry and banana juice, potted plants (were they palms? more over-spilling bougainvillea?), narrow tiled steps leading from here up to there—who does Morocco like this? And we can see around us other rooftop terraces also lit, one with a series of at least a half-dozen arches marked out by tiny white lights. One star (which planet, really?) hangs close to the moon, and through that break in the buildings to the east I can just see the streams of people in white pouring into the plaza beneath La Koutoubia. Various windows in the mosque’s tower are lit and what we can see of the warm-sand façade, the crenellated balustrades, the final domed roof stand alone against the deep night sky.

Last Wednesday night, a week before Paul's classes began, the faculty were invited to break fast at a riad in the Medina. We met at 6:30 on the plaza beneath La Koutoubia (a space which was fitted with an outdoor speaker system amplifying the muezzin's evening prayers—completely deafening in that step or two as you passed the tripod-mounted speakers), took a group picture in the fading light (odd to be in such an obvious mass of mostly Americans and other non-Moroccans, first milling in a diverse knot then standing in two haphazard rows), then crossed the filling streets en masse and almost immediately were swallowed up by a series of tunnels and open-air passageways, twists and turns that eventually deposited us at the red arched entrance of the riad. ('Riad' comes from the Arabic word for garden, and the design—rooms arranged around an open-air courtyard, often with a fountain and green growing things—is based, they say, on the Roman villa, more specifically, those found in Volubilis, ancient Roman city to the north and east of Marrakech.) It was impossible to determine from the outside where another building began or this one left off, impossible to get a sense of perspective or scale even. And of course, we were of a group, ushered, shepherded, generally pulled along by force of numbers, the glom of us. Paul and Hazel and I and another teacher with her daughter were the stragglers of the group. We arrived by ourselves to a semi-circle of staff clad in red loose trousers, buttoned jackets, slippers with toes-curled-up and tasseled fezzes sort of corralling us all to the left (they whisked away Hazel's stroller), up a couple stone steps and over the wooden lip of the arched doorway into the dark, narrow, low-ceilinged entrance hall. 

Smiling, nodding, thanking people, shaking hands with our host, drinking in the color and light, the cascading bougainvillea (I saw a single white blossom flutter down from way up there to land on the water’s surface), the carved ceiling above, palm fronds, roses trained along lengths of twine reaching up, the quietly burbling fountain and the orange fish in the green pool, a rectangle of dusk-blue beyond the arches two stories above us—trying to take it all in. Here was a situation where I felt particularly foreign, not even necessarily American—just one of a crowd, together with people I'd only just met or barely met, wondering what we looked like to the fleet of wait-staff. (These men were more than engaging with Hazel, chucking her under the chin, grinning at her, touching her cheeks, her hair, giving her kisses.) We met our host (his private riad, it would seem), then sat down ten to a table (snowy white tablecloths and napkins, gold chairs with red velvet cushions) beneath the dizzyingly detailed painted ceiling, surrounded by zelije tiling (“that intricate mosaic tiling using hand-cut tiles,” nod to TimeOut Marrakech) and various cushioned banquettes and even deeper couches reaching back into arched alcoves that made me feel a lot like curling up and going to sleep. Already on the table were small fancy plates of hard-boiled eggs, dishes of salt sharing space with a half-moon of ground cumin, dates, dried figs, tiny sweet pastries of sesame, honey and fillo, and the same sticky brown coils of honey-sesame confection that we shared with Abdellah in his shop-front. This version, however, was slightly different: more molded, shaped, each individual coil separate from his brother rather than a single delicious crumbling tangle we all broke into.) Each place-setting included soup bowl stacked atop salad plate stacked atop two dinner-size plates. We sat, all of us, in appreciative stunned delight at the promise of such a meal. (Though I have to say, it was late—Hazel was tired, squirming, ever-curious, an unpredictable constantly-in-motion handful. Paul and I did not so much sit in appreciative stunned delight as breath-held hope that we’d make it through even to just one more course beyond this auspicious beginning.) From beyond the riad’s muffling walls (and maybe via the open sky above the courtyard), you could just hear the siren marking the end of the day’s fast. And so we began.

First the soup (harira—Paul said he liked Abdellah’s mother’s recipe better—this was saltier and had a hot bite). Then various cold salads—cooked eggplant, zucchini, green peppers, vinegary tomato and onion. Then a chicken tagine (two whole chickens), which arrived in an enormous conical silver-lidded dish and was placed in the center of the table—top removed with cinematic flourish. Then coffee (sweet, milked) or tea (mint—hot, very sweet) and then up to the roof for cold drinks. As we ascended the narrow twisting staircase, you could glimpse into rooms to right and left—a parlor that looked a lot like something out of the turn of the last century: covered fireplace decorated in green tile, chandelier-style wall sconces against warm yellow plastered walls, great potted palms, wing-back chairs arranged in conversation; and above to the left just before arriving outside, a bed chamber up a couple steps from the ante-room featuring an elaborate wood-carved headboard framing a deep-orange bedspread gracefully reaching the floor. Once on the roof, Hazel made a bee-line for the cushions arranged on two sides of a deep-piled white wool rug, pillows also leaning against the wall, flopped, rolled, sat up, lay down, drank with both hands holding her glass of fresh orange juice, watched the older girls leaping from one set of cushions to another, then was satisfied (for a while) lolling in my lap or looking at the moon from my arms. The rooftop interval lasted just long enough for me to briefly wish we could stay on without Hazel to look after.

We managed to make it through to the lamb cooked with raisins mounded atop a heaping portion of couscous (again presented in an enormous tagine-style silver-lidded dish), the couscous fortress buttressed all around by thick-cut sections of carrot. But the tide had shifted. Hazel was done. Two others with small kids simultaneously hit the wall and we all bowed out as trays piled high with oranges, bananas and grapes were paraded in. Off we went. Leading us into the night and along the same route we’d taken in was a riad staff member dressed in white; and then we were back at the mouth of the Medina, moving into a sea of people exiting La Koutoubia, salmon swimming against the stream. One of the Moroccan teachers had offered us a ride; and as we followed his lead across the square beneath the mosque, weaving among families and men walking together in groups of twos and threes, again, this feeling of not-from-here. But even despite this foreign-ness (the outfits, the language, a religion full of ritual and meaning with which I am not familiar, all of the incomprehensible signifiers of culture), the scene felt a lot like the mayhem that follows a football game.

I was thinking of the days of old in Hudson, Ohio and the high school football team that would play on Friday nights in the stadium at the end of our dead-end street. The up-late-ness of it (when I was first allowed to actually go to a game), the perpetual mystery of big-kid culture, the night sky beyond the towering lights, the pressing crowds streaming out the gates on the way home. We folded ourselves and the two (by-now-asleep) girls into his car, inched out into the hordes—crowds of people and cars, scooters, buses, all heading away from La Koutoubia. In a truly cinematic moment, we passed (well, crawled) by a fight on the sidewalk at the center of a swaying knot of young men—shoving, shouting, arms raised—and was that a white-cuffed policeman that just shot by on his scooter? Unaccountably avoiding it all. Paul points out a trio of women, arms linked, in varying degrees of religious observance—one in kaftan and no head scarf, one in headscarf and skinny jeans, one in a short sundress, all (I think) Moroccan.

Just this morning on the bus to school a Moroccan woman sitting beside me (no headscarf) said this is the first wife of the king of Morocco that the public has been able to see, that she is highly educated, she works, that the king’s ideas are modern, he is open. And at the end of the day, as it happened, Hazel and I stumbled into the king’s path—crowd-control blockades lining Mohammed V, khaki-clad white-spatted military guards with their stiff backs to the emptying streets, policemen out in full force and then, all of a sudden, two screaming Sureté National cars go zipping by—men sitting outside of shops get up off their chairs, pedestrians turn toward the curb, everyone looking up the avenue. Then a phalanx of motorcycle police on bikes right off the showroom floor zoom past and almost before I can turn back from following them, and in the blink of an eye, five or six black tinted Mercedes sedans—all at about 50 mph—are gone before I can tell what happened. A jubilant shout here and there, arms upraised. The young man next to me smiles when I ask, “C’est tout?” That’s it?! He grins again and Hazel and I turn toward home, feeling jubilant somehow, having witnessed this galvanizing public moment. (Paul later tells me that he’d heard the king was going to visit the local jail, to inspect conditions there.) 

I’ve been thinking not only about feeling foreign here but also about being female, in this Moslem kingdom, in this city that last June elected its first ever woman mayor (and the second only in Morocco), a city that proudly boasts plenty of women driving scooters—a novelty elsewhere in Morocco but a reality here since about the mid-1980s (this last fact from a native of Marrakech, someone Paul met through school). But here I sit on our couch at home while Hazel naps and Paul spends his day out in the world. I’m at school in the morning with Hazel (hanging out in the library, planning on volunteering there, tutoring writing and maybe college-essay crafting? —huh), but divorced from all the familiar outlets at home (and I don’t mean shopping). It’s an odd and un-moored feeling. Suspended between west and east in some way, defining for myself the imperatives of each, buying vegetables for tonight’s dinner.

This is not very much of anything at all in comparison to the lives I’m reading about in Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran—in Nafisi’s narrative, these women lead lives circumscribed in ways I can only imagine through someone else’s telling, where they fight to keep a grasp on the private territory of their own imaginations. 

Friday, September 4, 2009

Take a chance on me (thanks to Paul, with a nod to ABBA)

In a silly sort of way, we had to psyche ourselves up to go back into the souks. We went yesterday. There's just a certain sort of discomfort not knowing what exactly people mean, what exactly their intentions, not wanting to offend but also wanting to move with your own desire as guide, not bob along on the variable current of whatever comes your way. So we were prepared to do what we'd come to do: a friend had given me the address of a rug dealer she knows and our intent was to visit him. We walked from our place—a good 25 minutes along sun-baked and busy mid-morning avenues, stroller navigating around this mound of gravel, that car parked on the tiled sidewalk (all these obstacles that take on, if you let them, a very different aspect only because they're Moroccan, not because they're any different from home), doing our best to make like the Marrakechis and dash among the traffic—and arrived at the walled Medina at a different entrance than we'd done so previously (avoiding completely the yawning maw of the Jemaa El Fna). Through one of the several arched openings we found ourselves exactly where Paul thought the map said we'd be—at Rue Bab Doukala, one of the many narrow points of entry into the craze of narrower streets dizzily knotting themselves together. At the corner where a scooter repair shop buzzes amidst the bustle, all of a sudden there's someone at Paul's elbow asking where we want to go and telling us, Oh no, you want to go that way, that way—and urging, insisting us on down the street, gesturing to the inside curve of the city wall, away from the street we're (pretty?) sure is where (now we think?) we want to go. Hmm. Not wanting to offend, wanting to take his kindly advice, off we go, already veering away from what we thought the trail was going to be. We waive off a second offer of direction and advice, this from a petite mustached man in bright blue, and keep on.

We’ve made our right turn now into the souks, passed the pungent stacks of bundled mint and parsley to right and left, the mounds of zucchinis and green peppers and pyramids of purple-skinned onions, the hanging carcasses of meat and one particularly fresh looking pile of what looked a lot like several hundred lamb chops—plunged into it. Again, out of nowhere (and everywhere?) appears a man in a white polo short, maybe late 50s, walking alongside me, striking up a conversation—how did it begin? Was it Hazel in her stroller? We talk of there being a unity in all of humanity, that Moslem, Christian, Jewish, we are all the same, there is but one god, and before I know it I've fumbled around in my bag for the rug-dealer's address (scrawled on a torn-out college-ruled notebook sheet in my American-school-girl hand—so conscious that my numerals and letters just do not look like the European-influenced hand here), shown it to him, and told this gentleman about our search. Now he's turning us left down an empty street, narrower still, not at all crowded, and we're into a residential quarter of the old city. He's telling me his brother works in the souks and so he knows that this particular rug-dealer has just opened up a larger store, maybe three years ago, that it's just on the other side. Kids play here and there in the streets and doorways and arched entryways of courtyards; we pass even narrower alleyways, and the omnipresent but only occasional scooter zips by but not-so-fast. He's talking politics: about how the riads, these old dwellings in the old city that date back to the 17th century, have been sold to foreigners by the children of the older Marrakechi families—sold to make money, of course—and that the king of Morocco has now forbade such sales to foreigners. I’d just seen a magazine cover picturing Mohammed VI and his son dressed in traditional Moroccan garb above the caption (in French): The Modern Face of Tradition. (Paul found on-line a consortium of Moroccan political blogs that reported several publications had been pulled from Moroccan newsstands for running a story on the King’s popularity rating: 91%. They were pulled because you just don’t rate the king. His popularity is not an issue. He is the king. Period.) We're zigzagging through a maze of cobbled streets, beneath underpasses held aloft high above by smooth-worn beams in the cool gloom, how could I find this same way again? And then we’re out into the blinding sun. Our impromptu guide leaves us at the mouth of the neighborhood, points down a curve of exhaust-choked street, and says, It’s that way, ask anyone, they’ll tell you, and promptly disappears.

When I again pull out the address and ask first one, then another man sitting in front of another shop, one in particular—after poring over my scrawl and also a map that he retrieves from inside, and then checking with his friend—laughs warmly and says, “We are sons of Marrakech and even we haven’t heard of this address!” Foiled again.

Paul notices a bowl. That’s how we stop. “Zwin, zwin,” Paul says to the lean gentleman in the doorway—“Beautiful, beautiful” (then, as I type this, he adds, “one of the few words I know”). Abdellah Kharbibi and his son are in his wood shop, the warmly polished inlaid bowls hang on both sides of his open doorway and he works in the narrow shop’s entrance. Paul is admiring an intricately worked ebony and lemonwood and cedar bowl—and then Abdellah, with a lathe that he powers with his right hand (he uses a bow), braces his work against his naked feet and with his left uses a chisel to make Hazel a small cylindrical oleander-wood pendant that includes a tiny ring wrought from the same piece of wood. He quickly buffs the curved end, uses an awl to work a hole through the other end (he brandishes the awl with a smile and says, “Berber Black & Decker!”), fishes out from a multi-colored tangle a length of henna-brown cord, cuts it with another tool, threads it through the tiny hole, knots it and gently puts it over Hazel’s head—this all in about 45 seconds. “Ca porte du bonheur,” he says—that brings happiness, good luck. His son, maybe 10 or 11, then makes one for me in the same manner and it takes maybe a minute. I’m not sure now how it happened or in what order, but before we’d bought a thing he was inviting us to return at 7:00 and break the fast with him, join him for harira, the soup that during Ramadan you begin the evening’s meals with. “It’s a recipe from my mother, my wife makes it—delicious!” he says. In my hesitating way, I pause and say Oh, Paul starts his work tomorrow, the school year begins, not tonight.

What?!! Why aren’t you just saying yes—immediately—to this incredibly kind and generous offer?!!? Paul looks at me, really? Why don’t we go?

It’s actually been more than a few days since this all transpired—blogging could be a full-time job if you don’t have a 2-year old (and probably is for some who do) and you don’t like to sleep. At any rate, we did go—how could we not?—made sure to get there early, returning exactly the way we’d made our way out of the souks that afternoon. Hazel asleep in the stroller—this time, on the way out, we met for the second time the very same petite mustached man in bright blue; he fell into step with us, then ushered us out of the Medina—though we knew we knew exactly where we were—pointed out the direction of a particular mosque, a well-known fountain, and asked for some money in order to eat, helped us over the broken stone of one of the smaller arched openings in the old city wall, disappeared—then reappeared a moment later (probably once he saw that we were paused on the edge) to help us wade out into the relentless traffic to cross the first street beyond the wall.

We returned to the shop through cooling streets in time to see people hurrying, hurrying to make it to wherever they were going to break the fast, to feel the streets begin to empty, then to watch as shop-workers brought trays of harira to each other, hard-cooked eggs and little papers of salt, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coils of sticky sesame-and-honey confection. We sat in the entrance of Abdellah’s shop, Hazel on a tiny-tiny stool he’d brought out from the back of his shop for her, paused with everyone—at seven o’clock exactly—to listen to the muezzin’s call from a small mosque around the corner, and then began to eat. (The soup was thick, made with tomatoes and chickpeas, onions, rice, ginger and saffron—delicious.) The whole scene—to be of it but also in it, to have been invited to share the evening’s first meal, to watch this man with glasses alternately on his nose and perched on his head sitting outside his shop on the cobbles, having given his seat to Paul, smoking away on his Winstons (in the month of Ramadan you can’t smoke during the day)—the entirety of it was overwhelming. The sky deepened, Hazel pointed out a star, and soon the waxing moon rose above the roof-line opposite the shop. Abdellah asked again, nodding, really you’ll be here the whole year?—and invited us to come back, to meet his family (my wife could do henna for you, he’d said when I showed him my embarrassed hand), and we gave him our address. Time to go—Hazel is the clock. We said our thanks, which seemed exceptionally paltry in exchange for such generosity, said that we’d come again, as he’d insisted we should whenever in the souks, then wheeled Hazel out into the night. It was good to walk the half hour home, to move through the dark and think and wonder about the evening. (Hazel ran most of the way once we left the Medina, incidentally, wound circles around us, literally, weaving among the arcades along Mohammed V.)

In the few days since the evening with Abdellah and in the process of writing, I’ve been thinking a lot about memory—seeing the Medina in all its overwhelming, over-stuffed, over-abundant glory as metaphor, as memory itself: what if you could walk through your own teeming gallery of memories and, leaning out at you, asking you if you need directions, would be your confident ten-year old self, or Teddy Clements who moved off your old street when you were five and have never seen since, or there for sale your favorite plaid skirt from third grade? I’m thinking about relentless time, relentlessly unspooling, each second wedded to his brothers on either side—in contrast to the unhinging and illogical, unkempt and disordered tangle of what has been. Even the writing of it all down just jangles it a particular way, never as clear as the way it must have happened.