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. 


  1. This blog is such a gift! It makes me want to hop on a plane and go to Morocco. I can see you all manuevering the streets, taking advantage of the local culture, accepting invitations to celebrate and to dine. Your latest adventure sounds like it is already a success!


  2. I'm impressed that you are able to embrace the un-moored feeling, rather than scrambling to be moored prematurely to the first solid thing that comes to hand--that seems very brave to me. When I was adrift in a new culture (Paris, not nearly as different) I found that lack of connection incredibly terrifying and missed, I think, a lot because of the fear. Apropos of nothing, just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (the gift of a friend, to read right after Isabel was born)--which is fantastic.