Monday, October 26, 2009

Sidewalk talk

I want to capture what it feels like to walk around this city. We’ve been here long enough that we (Hazel and I) have worn into our days certain patterns that make what was new and strange a month ago now seem like the humdrum of the everyday. The physicality of the streets and sidewalks is still striking—and I know I’ve referred to this in earlier posts—but it’s a daily lived negotiation of rough and smooth—you pick a path out of the maze. In some places the grooved tile, alternately of rose and sand (done in designs that are reminiscent of M.C. Escher) gives way to a broken jumble, an empty section that’s packed hard dirt, or disappears completely under a parked car, a pile of gravel or sand. I guess I’m stumbling over what I unthinkingly expect back in the States, but there it is. Walking home the other evening down a relatively quiet cross-street a restaurant bloomed briefly out of the dark and the uneven sidewalk—an impossibly tall flung-open front door and wide floor-to-ceiling windows showed a swank, sleek, elegant and empty space, a sweep of marble and towering thirties-era crystal chandeliers, curve of leather and several expectant suited emcees—it looked like a place Myrna Loy and William Powell might sit down for drink. Then back into the dark, the rubble underfoot, like I had dreamed up the whole vision. Shops meticulously wash clear their own stone stoops and sections of slick tile, but what’s not obviously connected to a business or apartment building, those lengths of geometry that follow a stretch of blank (or graffitied) wall seem to fall prey to whatever forces of entropy are at work. Early on when we first got here, in the intense oven-breath of mid-morning heat, wildly hot even at that hour, we were out walking on a busy street that feeds into Mohammed V. I was successively snapping digital frames and simultaneously watching the progress of someone in a wheel chair opposite us. He (she?) was moving along on the other side of the street, in the street, skirting a series of cafés whose chairs completely blocked the sidewalk, a sea of parked scooters, a set of curbs without handicap ramps, a construction site whose spilled detritus had devoured the sidewalk whole—and of course was moving in the flow of traffic to avoid all of it. It didn’t seem easy. Around the corner from our apartment the sidewalk to either side of a big hotel is blocked by scrollworked gates that effectively privatize that section and force you out into on-coming traffic, if you don’t feel like walking their arc of driveway, often blocked by a midnight blue Jaguar anyway. But on the wider boulevards there’s just more room for whatever else is happening besides you.

Construction is everywhere—from the five-story deep ochre-red pit that takes up an entire city block on Mohammed V to the half-finished luxury hotel that’s catty-corner from our building, to the other hotel gathering shape on the opposite corner (someone said this one is owned by somebody on the school’s board). Cranes tangle over rooftops and swing their burdens across dusty lots, cluttered sites in all stages of completion checkerboard the city, but the Théâtre Royale is an empty shell of unfinished grandeur.

We happened inside the other day—it sits magisterially across a busy fountained thoroughfare from the single enormous arched entrance of the train station, looking as if behind its sandstone façade and beneath its elongated dome roof hides all the tiled and carved glory that a royal structure ought. But it is in fact a shell. A couple times on earlier walks (back during Ramadan on quiet early evenings) we’d noticed especially the gorgeous arched glossy wooden shutters and doorways—and at that time of day the entire massive structure was lit with the soft golden fire of the setting sun, a spectacularly arresting vision. I caught site of a single shutter on an upper story window blowing gently in and out with whatever wind was playing at that height, like breath softly inhaling and exhaling, the kind of random movement you associate with some part of an unattended and maybe abandoned building. We’d heard from somewhere that the theater was never finished (guidebooks attest to this fact)—whoever was responsible ran out of money (does the King himself run out of money?).

And so it was. Last week walking by we saw a man in white khakis and white oxford shirt looking a lot like an official guide sitting on the front steps of the Théâtre Royale. We asked if we could look inside and he took us in. Enormous deep-pink marbled foyer, wrap-around double stair case lifting up and up, tile-work and high wooden archways in all directions. He said this entrance space is used for artisan showcases and as a gallery. He lead us through a soaring anteroom (open air, actually, onto which second and third story windows opened), back outside and on through a gated side-garden (empty tiled pool somehow supporting a gracefully bending papyrus plant, bedraggled beds of roses and bougainvillea in weed-choked beds), up a steep ramp to one of those beautiful shining wooden doors, over its lip and into an odd nowhere-space, an area between the backstage of the high-backed amphitheatre to our right and the vaulted, gutted, tiered space of the theater-proper to our left—echoing, empty, deathly still, airless, profoundly disturbing. A concrete-block and battleship-grey cement interior, three tiers of stacked balcony in the silent gloom and a wide stretch of empty cement on the sloping main level all looked down at a non-existent stage and a gaping pit where scenery would otherwise hang when not in use. Opposite all this raw space hung a huge expanse of dark curtain, while on the other side sat an open-air stage, its narrow boards cracked and sunken from exposure, facing curve after concentric curve of steeply rising cement seating, capacity one thousand, our guide said. A slice of deep blue dusk looked down into the performance space. Films, primarily, are what people come to see in the amphitheater—no acting company with any regard for its actors’ footing would mount a production on that outdoor stage, let alone a dance company. The interior space, of course, has never seen a production.

We had mint tea, orange juice, fresh fruit and croissants on Saturday with a Tunisian couple and two of their girls. Kaïs is a pilot and flies out of Marrakech for Royal Air Maroc; his wife was a lawyer before she had their three girls, all under age 4. The two older girls go to Paul’s school—that is the natural and original connection. He is lovely—we’d met him on the street in front of our apartment just after we got here as he corralled two of his girls (the third was then yet-to-be-born) and we promised to get together. I emailed weeks later, then he called weeks after that just as we’d returned from the doctor’s and gotten Hazel stable, but only just, while she was in the bath. And then we ran into him Friday night, again with the two older girls, and made a plan for Saturday morning. We met at Grand Café de la Poste, which occupies the enviably central location behind (huh!) the main post office right off Mohammed V. It’s the place guidebooks say you find a lot of Americans and ex-pats, and it does have the feel of what you might expect of a Moroccan café in the French style, from the Protectorate days of old. There are potted palms, dozens of votive candles flickering amidst the greenery by night, a forest of white canvas umbrellas shading the carefully arranged wicker seats and tables that cluster around the deeper shade of the wide porch. Inside, the décor is all whites and creams (tablecloths and lampshades), curves of black wood, brown leather club chairs—what colonial times would have called gracious and cool and civilized, and not unlike the idea of home.

We all seemed to gravitate to a secluded spot up the wide central flight of stairs—thick knotted rugs, glass-topped low tables and clanging brass ash-trays, stiff brown leather poufs, banquettes, and the thick twist of maroon tasseled velvet rope invitingly looped across the next flight of curving stairs—the girls treated it like a swing. We stayed three hours.

Eventually Paul and Kaïs fell into conversation about school and Souad and I talked about life in a Kingdom. It was gratifying to talk with someone who is both an insider, in the sense that she is a native French and Arabic speaker, but an outsider too—she is Tunisian. Without reservation she spoke about the poverty here, that narrow band of wealthy who see to their own affairs above all else, and the great mass of everyone else, uneducated, who live without a sense of the wider world, without the cool privilege of gardens and pools and air-conditioning, who live primarily in the streets. She said that three years ago she used to love that area in Jnane El Harti—the one with the two enormous cement dinosaurs that face each other, their expressions benign (they are herbivores after all), in an oval of sand that also sports several yellow swing sets. But now the swings themselves are gone, the broken chains hang limp, the dinosaurs, whose backs are traversed by a narrow path up and a short slick slide down, are filled with city-trash—used diapers, cigarette butts, candy-wrappers, probably condoms if you looked closely enough. When Hazel and I have been there, usually just before noon, gaggles of teenagers sit on the cement edge, shoving and laughing, kind of pawing at each other with that adolescent combination of abandon and restraint. Souad used the deterioration of that section of park as an example of how people just don't care about the greater good—and maybe more significant, are not educated enough to cultivate a sense of the importance of civic life. I brought up the empty Théâtre Royale as an example of this kind of civic neglect—Paul, later, says who has money for theater when you’re struggling to feed your family? I’ve puzzled over that disparity here—the unbounded love people have for children and the paucity of any sort of child-friendly space that you don’t have to pay to get into. Kids play in the street. There's an alley across the way from our apartment that churns with play—kids of all ages on bikes and trikes, in doorways and in the dirt and cement and gravel sweep that is both front yard and thoroughfare all at once.

What I mean is that you feel at every turn the uncomfortable rub of poverty with the ephemeral money of tourism—and the rush and buzz of all the industries that gather round that inconstant flame. (Paul reports that a lot of his students, when asked, have said they want to go into the hotel industry.) So there is the huge billboard, four stories tall, showcasing the improbable blonde with plunging purple neckline stretched across the façade of the Zara department store (a Spanish company, it fittingly shares a block with the McDonald’s), across the snarl of traffic from the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and across the street from the Grand Café de la Poste. I’m leaving out the arc of fancy stores (which includes a Levi’s that sells jeans for 1145 Dhs, roughly $150) and several other European-style cafés all within a one-minute walk from the dilapidated dinosaurs in the sand. To be fair, the Jnane El Harti, if you’re a grown (child-free) person with time on your hands and a good book, is a lovely place to sit—you’re in the company of palms and lantana and laurel, roses, stretches of well-watered rosemary-bordered lawn (not for walking or lounging on, however—this garden is very much in the manner of the French, not known for their creation of green space intended for foot-traffic: pelouse interdit!). Though an ice cream cone is cheap and really good, a pint of Häagen Dazs costs $8. It’s a city, like many others, but the poor seem poorer and more numerous, the wealthy fewer, more remote.

And I haven't even gotten to the plentiful and omnipresent donkey carts, hauling everything from cement bags to children's car-seats (these were stacked in a mountain of boxes that towered high as a semi), or the incredibly enormous and unlikely loads balanced on the backs of spindly scooters: a full-size wooden couch-frame, thousands of fresh eggs cushioned on dozens of wide cardboard pallets, two dog-house sized panniers of fresh mint, a family of four.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Getting here...

I've been meaning to post these photos since the beginningCleveland to JFK to Casablanca to Marrakech. Here is Hazel in CLE with her "pack-pack," kindness of Jennifer C-L. She was so excited to put it on, march about, take it off, put it on...

Mountains and mountains of things, and Paul forgot his ukulele back on Elm Street:

We say goodbye to the folks...

Waiting at JFK for the flight to Casablanca. Here Hazel takes what I think is her first self-portrait:

Reminiscing about the old before we encounter the new. Paul goes through a Berkeley photo-book (hurray, Little Farm! Yay, Eden and Saira!!) somewhere over the Atlantic:

Pure pleasure...

First photo on the ground in Morocco. We're on the tarmac about to wait 5 hours with no information until 5 minutes before departure for Marrakech. Hazel's still in her pajamas and the white muffling light makes the scene feel simultaneously like anywhere and nowhere. I remember looking around, hoping for a physical marker to make us feel like we were here. I love the way Hazel looks so present, despite the three flights in 18 hours and the 4 hours of sleep, and one flight still to go.

A departure from the mostly-Marrakech thoughts, and more a rumination on memory

At the end of the day waiting for the bus, standing in the warmth and the pebbly dust in the parking lot at school (yesterday was family day at ASM), I ended up briefly telling a circle of people about the mark of the tourist (see post from August 27, We go it alone). I hold out my clenched fist as illustration, the skin across the back of my hand stretched tight, the better to show off the seven or eight black hairs that refuse to return to their invisible blond former selves. Why is this? I have kept vigilant watch over my hands for more than half my life now. It was senior year of high school in Rennes, in the afternoon French Language class with Mme. Le Breton, that this awareness was born. She was emphatic, tall, possessed of the precise cadence and finely tuned pronunciation you’d expect from someone who makes the teaching of language their métier. It was always overly-warm in that classroom in the afternoon, the sun pouring in the warbly-paned floor-to-ceiling windows. Mme. wore countless silver bangles and several silver rings on either hand (significantly, we thought, she was divorced and wore no wedding band)—maybe her adornments threw a spotlight on my own hands, or French grammar drove me to inspect whatever was nearest. I remember holding out my writing hand, fingers splayed against the shiny dark faux-wood desktop, comparing it to the memory of my mother’s hands, thinking myself into some far future when my hands would have aged—how would they do so?

My point really is that the women circled around me yesterday were all at least ten years younger. I was conscious of my right hand being older than theirs. It would have been different if the circle had been, say, my students ten years ago at Reserve—but here everyone was faculty, ostensibly of the same group. A little (I know, a lot) self-conscious—but it has to do with the passage of time, the way memory informs the present, or can set up camp and make itself an unwelcome spectator. And I find myself grateful for the opportunity to unburden myself of the awareness, to tell on it. (Come to think of it, arm hair, hand hair does not grow out—the black has not slowly grown out to reveal the telltale blond roots—it’s an oddity of the body, no? This thought would be tucked away in a footnote if the blog could do that.)

That’s one of things that fascinates me right now: how comparatively little we brought with us (our rooms still echo) and how often all the endless rooms of memory seem to empty themselves out into the now. Hazel loves to look at pictures on my laptop, revels in the bellyshots of me before-she-was-born, the seventeen-second movie of her in the sand with Grammy and Paul at Rodeo Beach in Marin last July 3, and even the seventy seconds from two weeks ago: Hazel nakey except for my glasses perched on the teensy bridge of her nose rolling around on our bed while she explains how she “goes to work.” (We have a lamentably slow internet connection that makes uploading video thus-far impossible—I would have shared this clip by now if I could have.) The towels we brought were a gift from Paul a million years ago when we lived in Ohio, the nubby green and blue fish dishtowel from a summer in Vermont before we were married. All the things of the past (those few that we brought) are thrown into high relief against a present that shimmers unfamiliarity. We brought an orphan napkin, a single frayed rectangle of plaid cotton that, my mother informed me before we left, came from Tunisia circa 1972. I thought then that there was a certain symmetry in its return at least to the Maghreb, if not the exact country. And here of course is the crux of it all.

My folks lived in Tunisia for six years from 1968 to 1974, Dad for three years before that (Taylor then later for two). They have a remembered history that, over the thirty-five years since moving back to the States, has turned into the implacable bedrock of family legend. I grew up inside the stories from that place (buried beneath them?), and only arrived at my own version in 1997—and this only three weeks after Taylor had died. What a time to return to the place of my own birth, which was also the source, in many ways, of my family’s definition of itself. And if not definition then at least the place of galvanizing identity. So what are we doing here in Marrakech?

Last night Paul and I had a heated debate about the few pages of an introduction to a slim volume on post-colonialism. In the cooling-down aftermath of it all, I was realizing that part of the emotional understory of my side of the argument is that I’m not teaching this year, the third year of Hazel’s life and my third year away from the classroom—and that because of this time away (from the familiar and from the classroom too) I have the time to entertain these very thoughts, to tease them out for myself, time to read Reading Lolita in Tehran and then Henry James after that, and Edith Wharton’s account of her month-long 1917 trip, In Morocco, and now the slim volume on post-colonialism. I have time to “hold out judiciously at arms’ length” (thank you, Dylan Thomas) the whole of this family past and think about how I’ve fit myself into it—or decided to throw some of it off. I guess I mean that there’s a part of me (defensive, insecure) that’s very aware of not having my own classroom in which to work out these thoughts about the politics of literature and the world, that’s wallowing in the ambivalence of being with my girl most of the sometimes excruciatingly long! day—but that ultimately I am learning to be grateful for this time a part, even to relax into it. Does this mean I could only see any of this precisely because we have traveled away and are making a home elsewhere? Or because I’ve also chosen to write about it in a way that’s more formal than private musings? Though granted, this feels private enough. I feel a certain confessionary squeamishness myself.

I keep re-landing on the word precipitation—that any of it, all of these thoughts have precipitated because we are here.

Brian T. Edwards talks in his book Morocco Bound about the way in which westerners have, in a reductive way, written onto the unfamiliar landscape of Morocco (and the Maghreb in general) the familiar associations of home—The desert looks like the films we know, or The Berbers weave blankets like the natives of the American southwest, or Arabs as a race are noble like the American Indians—thus robbing this place and its people of an identity that is its own. He argues that many westerners have come here over the last century (he chooses the years between 1942 and 1973) with too firm a hold on where they’re from, unwilling to see people inside their own context. But how do you travel so light that you don’t bring with you an informing past? I find that impossible, and the project becomes a negotiation of the inevitable baggage of memory, a sifting through and salvaging what’s sterling, jettisoning the dead-weight. Easy to write about. Harold Bloom wrote in 1973 about the “anxiety of influence”, a term that figured largely (at least as I recall them now) in my college literature classes. Bloom codifies an entire universe of explanation for the way in which poets struggle with the weight and words and poetic worlds of those who have come before. I love the way Ezra Pound both speaks to this anxiety and sweeps it away. He calls up Walt Whitman, grandfather of the new and uniquely American voice, and essentially says in his poem A Pact, that even though I used to detest you, “Let there be commerce between us.” It’s a lovely invitation to influence, a settling reconciliation, an opening to what can come of such communion with the past. I suppose I’m talking about this kind of anxiety and this kind of graceful resolution.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some photos from last Saturday

We headed into the souks last Saturday to take back the rug to Abderrahman and for a visit. Into the busy city. This first is of scaffolding going up in the late afternoon sun at Place Jemaa el Fna:

Too narrow a view, but here is the spice souk, the tiny plaza where even until the early 20th century slaves were still sold in Marrakech:

That slice of sky no photo can capture, the view from La Petite Boutique du Tapis:

Place Jemaa el Fna at night, looking toward the souks:

And inexplicably (to me), the McDonalds's on Mohammed V is a roiling mass of humanity at 7:30 on a Saturday evening. What the #@%*?!! What is the draw? Also, not able to capture on film but overwhelmingly present: the air at this hour is a thick soup of choking exhaust. You find yourself taking shallow ineffectual breaths, wondering how far still to walk on the way home, and wondering what damage you're doing to Hazel's little lungs. It's not a good thought, something we don't like to think about, but a factor in pondering how long we intend to spend here...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Marrakech Mischief

Hazel threw up all over our new rug. So even though Abderrahman had said to bring it back if it doesn't completely please (“People have brought rugs back from France!”), I think we’re keeping this one. I was alone with her at home (this was last Tuesday October 6), it was after her nap, and she calmly stepped away from the couch and onto the rug to be sick. I think it was a shock to her—first time her body had done this particular involuntary thing to her, though she seemed to take it all in stride (and then stepped in it). Over the next two hours she threw up another six times—nothing is more anxiety producing than to be with your sick child, partner is away, and no phone. Paul wasn’t due back for another hour and half, and when he did walk thought he door, the battle was well lost. My sponge couldn’t keep pace with Hazel’s tummy. I’d tried to clean the rug with fair to middling results (the colors began to bleed), but I was opting for clean over color. I got her in the tub and was washing the rug in the sink beside her, trying to manage both concerns (it’s a beautiful rug!). This worked until she was ready to get out, get dressed, sit back on the couch—and then start the cycle over again. Umm—wash, rinse, repeat? With Paul back (bringing with him the single mobile phone that works—note to self: activate the other one we brought), I called another American from the school (she’s been here eight years and is married to a Moroccan). Her recommendation was to go directly to the pediatrician. I made the mistake of calling the office first and was met with a surly and thoroughly unhelpful receptionist who wanted, at 5:45, to go home. I explain the situation, tout en francais, comme il faut—my French is not bad—and yet:

Receptionist: Flat, without affect. Unconcerned. Oh, you can come in tomorrow morning.

Me: Raging silent disbelief for a split-second. My daughter just threw up five times in the last hour and half—and you can’t help me?!

Receptionist: No.

Me: Barely containing myself but doing an admirable job, all things considered. Do you have any recommendations for where to go?!

Receptionist: Non. Au-revoir.

I was gobsmacked, as my friend Sravani says. I could not, could not believe that that’s what this woman had just said to me. Come in tomorrow?!! I was in tears (pointless angry ones) punching the tiny ‘off’ button on the mobile phone. Where’s a clunky rotary phone with its dead-weight receiver when you really need to slam the phone down? We ended up taking Hazel to a local private clinic and emergency room where—eventually—she was seen by a Paris-trained Moroccan pediatrician, all brisk efficiency, no-nonsense shushing when Hazel wailed at the shot in her bum. We’d waited a good twenty-five minutes in the incredibly high-ceilinged examination room, blinking around at the bright unrelentingly white, watching each other and Hazel and a couple black bugs on the white tile floor. Before that we'd waited at the buzzing front desk. I was nudged ahead in line by a really nice young woman after several people had just stepped up in front of me—clearly I am here with my sick daughter!!—but it was every patient for themselves. It's the same thing at the little grocery store across the street. No patient lines, just assertion. So the woman behind me, in gentle tones but insistent, pushed me on ahead and we got seen.

By then it was dark outside the barred windows of the examination room and the florescent lights only added to the general nausea. We hadn’t brought our phone, couldn’t remember the number when the nurse asked us for it as she’s entering Hazel into her graph-paper logbook. The weird name, the awkward address (no one seems to have heard of our street—but then, why should they have?), the taking of all this information without a phone number seemed to be an exercise in futility. Anyway. The two triage nurses (tiny, slim, both scarved—they just seemed so young—does this mean I'm turning 37 this month?)—they both leave and we wait, and wait, and wait. Hazel throws up again. By this time we’ve had enough time to really begin to panic, to feel disconnected, maybe even to be lost in the system. And it’s happened to me before! In New York City once (late afternoon, busy, a community clinic off Union Square), I waited for what seemed like hours in the airless examination room before I finally poked my head outside the door—Oh! There’s someone in there! I got a startled look from a nurse, and then the doctor came. They had forgotten me. So I step out into the hallway with Hazel on my hip (now in her last clean outfit), and walk, gingerly at first—but dammit, my girl just threw up for the umpteenth time! down a ways and peek into the next open door—one of the two nurses talks on the phone. She looks up at me, puts down the phone, slightly annoyed—“She just threw up again,” I’m trying to convey a meaning and urgency that maybe my French alone cannot convey. “Le docteur n’est pas encore la? Soyez patiente, madame.” The doctor’s not here yet? Be patient, ma’am. And she turns unmoved back to her phone.

It all works out. Time exhales once the doctor arrives and Hazel, aside from the few tears shed when receiving the shot, was brave throughout—and seems fairly unimpressed by the whole episode. She takes sickness like Paul does, with a minimum of fuss and not much energy squandered on the drama. We pay (320 Dhs, about $40), go around the corner with our prescription to one of the dozens of pharmacies, one to a block almost—get our three different potions for about $10 and then we’re home. (I find it interesting that on their prescription pads, doctors here advertise where they received their degree. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that in the States.) Hazel throws up the several huge gulps of briney water she has rushed down, she eats a bit, she (slowly!) drinks some more, then she is—to our great relief—asleep.

It turns out that the doctor is an aunt of one of Paul’s students. “I heard you saw my aunt last night,” he says to Paul the next day at school. “Short hair,” the kids says, further identifying her. The doctor did have close-cropped hair. It must take a certain amount of strength here to wear yourself differently like that. It’s the same kid whose uncle owns the artisinat around the corner where I bought Hazel’s pouf, and whose other uncle famously kidnapped us to go buy rugs at his glorious emporium. Marrakech, it turns out, is a small town.

Another small-town moment. We ran into Abderrahman on our Saturday morning walk to get groceries (see photos, previous post). Paul had said let’s go a different way, off the exhaust-clogged Yacoub el-Mansour, and so we followed our noses and the map, and just as I was dashing across the street to check out this language institute we stumbled upon (courses on offer in Arabic and English), Paul runs into Abderrahman on his way to pick up two of his daughters from their English lessons at the very same place. He of course knows the gentleman who runs the institute, in fact knew his father thirty years before when he first came to Morocco. We talk and laugh in the morning sun and sheer lovely happenstance of it, and tell the tale of the rug and Hazel. He says to bring in the rug, that he’ll clean it using a combination of sulfur and water and shampoo, sulfur to keep the color true.

24 hours after Hazel felt it, I did too (I was really sick—something is going around), Paul felt horrible 24 hours after that, and then felt better and now, for the last 24 hours, again horrible. We went to a doctor this morning—a German woman who the same American friend had recommended—she’s been here for years and years, has quite a good reputation and speaks English, good for Paul. “She’s very German,” says Paul as we’re walking away from the appointment. Dr. Michaelis had called me in at the end of the visit as she wrote out Paul’s prescription. Her manner, just like the pediatrician, is efficient, a bit gruff, but clear and firm. She scolds Paul for sitting up before she has given him leave to do so, tut-tuts at Hazel as she reaches out and touches the speculum which sits on a cart at Hazel's waist-level (EEK! There will be time enough for those later)—“Good thing she didn’t touch the other end,” the doctor says, not altogether grimly—there is humor there, a little anyway. But Paul has been sick for longer now than ever before, or for as long as he can remember. It is unnerving in a foreign place to be at the mercy of the mystery of your own body and of the medical culture at large. I think this same situation is true at home as well—but the familiar elides some of the uncertainty and smoothes over, at least in part, that yawning chasm of the unknown.

In the waiting room this morning a woman in full chador, clearly in some distress, had enough energy to smile warmly at Hazel, receive Hazel’s offering of several goldfish crackers, give her a kiss and a wave—many times over, while Paul lay on the couch. And then later a woman with a baby and an older girl and her husband came in—we talk, as you do over the heads of your children. She is an art teacher from Agadir (nearby), invited us to call her before we come to the city if we happen to be traveling there. And last night (before round-two of Marrakech Mischief descended on Paul) we happened into a really lovely conversation with a trio of men sitting outside a café. We’d gone out for pizza at a place we’d seen, again on the Saturday walk, and were tootling back through the dusk at Hazel’s pace. This means climbing up on café chairs one after the next, stopping to hide behind the telephone pole (“I’m hiding!” she shouts with glee), and generally taking an interest in her toes and the sand pile and the sky and the concrete wall all at once. This older guy, cane leaning on a nearby chair, calls out almost sharply, “Elle est mignonne, cette fille!” gesturing to Hazel, and moments later Paul is speaking in English to one of his neighbors, the man is maybe Paul’s age—they’re talking about the state of education in Morocco and the States, and I’m talking with a third guy about the tourist industry and travel in general (“There are tourists who travel with their eyes shut—these should stay home. Others travel with curiosity.”) I am generally terrible at recounting conversations verbatim and wish I had an NPR-issued tape recorder to catch even half of the remarkable conversations we’ve had with people. These moments bloom out of sheer proximity, eye contact, out of Hazel’s being the insouciant age she is. The man who spoke English (he teaches in an International Baccalaureate program outside of Marrakech) used one expression in particular that I’m now struggling to remember—how is it these gems slip by? It’ll come. Meanwhile, Marrakech Mischief still lives at our house. It’s about time for Hazel’s nap to be done, to look in on Paul. (And I have to credit my friend Martha for coining the term—her version is “intestinal mischief”—IM for short. The Marrakech version is a doozie.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Photos from our morning walk

Here Hazel has decided to plop down and take off her shoes, but Paul persuades her otherwise:

I'd seen this furniture gallery (called African Lodge) a couple weeks ago while Hazel and I were tootling about—and was struck by this take on Ingres' famed La Grande Odalisque (1814). A couple more versions of the same image in different shades also hang in the gallery's window—thanks, Mr. Warhol. I just thought it was pretty interesting to see a western painter's famous image from the "exotic east'" re-made and re-produced multiple times over (albeit through westerner Warhol's lens) right here in the "east." (Note that she's missing an eye—another play on seeing, or not.) Didn't stop in to ask about the artist, Moroccan or French or who exactly, but either way a cool reinterpretation. Hazel and Paul wait patiently across the street...also pictured, a bicycle wheel reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp and his "readymade" art, circa 1913:

Hazel finds another seat—she tries all four of them in fact, though I took a photo only of the first:

You see 4X4 vehicles of all sorts all over town, typically advertising tours of some sort. None quite so disturbing as this find:

One of the many homeless hounds of Marrakech. Paul just now tells me (when I ask what he would say above this photo) that it's been about two months since he's pet a dog, and that if we stay here he's going to open a dog shelter and spaying service. This is a typical sight:

Blooms and telephone lines, city shot:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Saturday trip to Asni

The road to Asni leaves Marrakech directly south via an explosion of tourist-construction—water-parks, hotels, golf courses—the sort of thing built with government money that the locals can’t afford. Abderrahman confirms this. He picks us up at 8:30 sharp, his smiling daughter Safia in the back seat; we pause briefly around the corner for patisseries and then we’re off, the mountains ahead of us. Once we’re safely past the stretches of billboard proclaiming the pleasures to come, grazing goats and sheep take over, (once two Holsteins), and around the next corner at rest in the shade near a large dark brown tent two saddled camels, their jaws working, long-lashed eyes slowly blinking. Tiny pockets of habitation here and there zip past in a flash—old walls which look like they’re made from a mixture of mud and straw and crushed limestone called pisé, all the building-materials the same shade of ochre that most of Marrakech wears. This is the plain between Marrakech and the Atlas.

Because I’m in the backseat, I only see later why we’re pulled over. Two blue-capped policemen now stand beside the car with a speed-gun. Abderrahman leans over to the glovebox, pulls out his papers, gets out and then talks amicably with the two men for what seems like quite a while—long enough that we can hear the radar beeping and discreetly keening as one of the policemen continues to zap the oncoming traffic. Safia takes down the back windshield’s sunscreen so she can get a good look at her dad in his negotiations. When he finally gets back in, Abderrahman reports how he pleaded his case. “I have friends on the plainclothes force who have specifically told me that you can travel at 10% over the speed limit without a problem—66kph, for example. These guys were telling me, Oh, no—not true, only 63, 64.” However the moment resolves itself, no ticket (as far as I could tell).

The morning is hazy and so the mountains are only indistinctly south—we’re in them before you can tell exactly what’s happened. Always impossible to both see where you are and claim any perspective on the bigger picture. The road narrows as we climb—we pass really close to a serious cyclist on a real road bike, not serious enough to wear a helmet, just the little old-school cap favored by the spindly 1940s Tour de France riders. Sheer pinkish walls of vegetation-less rock climb to our right while down to our left the river meanders across its wide rocky bed. Drivers are not shy about hugging bumpers here, and one does—Paul (who was in the front seat) reminds me that it was a tiny Coke truck (“tiny” by American standards) who rode right on our backside a good ways up into the mountains before the guy swung perilously out into oncoming traffic, around us and back into our lane. We stop once at a bend in the river to get out and stretch—a small town (I think it must have been Moulay Brahim) snuggling up to the cliff-face on one side, looking out at the river on the other. Saddled horses, mules and several camels drink below in the shallows. Another thirty minutes of climbing, valleys every now and again offering up views of far-away minarets lifting out of the rock and green, and we’re into the 10AM bustle of Asni on its only market day of the week.

As we pull into town a guy with a huge freshly butchered haunch resting easily on his shoulder (goat? sheep? something bigger I’m sure) crosses in front of us. We pull into a narrow spot right off the road, avoiding people to left and right, and we’re into the dusty day. First stop, across the way and through the arched opening in the wall for tea and talk with a long-time friend of Abderrahman’s. He greets two men who are sitting behind a table and ground-cloth laden with teapots and trays and necklaces for sale—these things look old, but I haven’t been in Morocco long enough to know without asking the probable provenance of such items, or their age. We take off our shoes and take seats on several rugs spread out on a tarp beyond the table. We cozy into the shade of more rugs hung on a line to one side. “The same place I took our friends!” Abderrahman smiles and gestures. He’s shown us pictures of our friends from back home sitting in this very spot, in the very same bright light. Hazel right away asks for tea, is giddy at the prospect, delighted when it arrives. She promptly spills some onto the tarp and it runs downhill toward the seated gentleman who’s poured it—I find myself awkwardly not mopping up almost under his ankles and toward his seat. These miniscule moments of gendered awareness. The talk is all in Arabic—Abderrahman and his friend of twenty-five years are catching up, and again, though Paul catches more and more of it, it’s like our trips to Germany where language is my precluding factor. Hazel finishes her tea and sets about putting on Safia’s shoes. Safia, for her part, gamely entertains, though they share no common language. Tea over, Hazel wandering further and further off the tarp and rugs, it’s time for a tour of the market.

Amidst the canopied fruit and vegetable stands and in the shade of the (non-native) eucalyptus trees, the mounds of onion and potato, carrot, tomato, eggplant, the mountains of yellow melons and piles of grapes, olives, socks are for sale and car radios, plastic toys (what exactly?), shoes and shoes, school notebooks lined in the French graph-paper style, kaftans and djellabas—everything people need for the week, Abderrahman says. A donkey goes trotting by and Abderrahman lifts Safia onto its back for several paces through the crowd, then Hazel. Though in the moment she looks uncertainly back at me after only a couple trots and says, “I want mama!” her little brow deeply furrowed, that night when she’s in her crib and we are talking in the semi-darkness about the day, she scrunches up her nose, eyes smiling, kicks her feet, draws her hands to her mouth and says as best she can through all that movement, “Donkey!” and laughs. Then with a nod at Paul, Abderrahman says to me, “Tell him I’m going to show him the Mercedes parking lot!”

Before we get there, we’re waylaid by our own inability to say no—that and the persuasive salesmanship of the practiced. I think initially we thought that Abderrahman knew the guys selling djellabahs and scarves, babouches (leather slippers) jewelry and silver boxes. Not so. We pay too much (“I didn’t think you wanted to buy anything!” Abderrahman says later—“We didn’t, but we just always get…”) and my explanation is swept away in the general momentum, the heat, the desire for more tea—and probably my not finding le mot juste in French.

“Look at all these restaurants!” Abderrahman says with a smile—his manner both wry and affectionate all at once. He’s pointing down a long row of low buildings that borders the market on one side, each one with a single window and door, all of them selling food out the front, all of them offering seating beyond, dimly, inside. He chooses one and gives the cook at the front the mint and sugar he’s just bought. (See the sugar in my hand somewhere to the right—sold in white blocks—the seller breaks off however much you want; Paul reminds me that he used a bicycle crank to do so. Hazel was happy to taste. Another side note: diabetes is rampant here, sugar intake pretty fierce. It’s not only the tiny Coca-Cola truck’s cargo that’s to blame.)

The two light sources inside the low-ceilinged room are the open shop-front and the single barred window at the back. The space is maybe 13 feet wide and 30 feet deep. We take off our shoes at the edge of a checkerboard of woven mats at the back, and sit near an older man already seated at a low table with his back to the window. “There’s the Mercedes parking lot!” Abderrahman says with a wide grin. “Look out the window.” Below the barred window standing on the river’s flat shoulders, dozens of donkeys with feedbags munch in the sun, tethered and waiting. Moments later an insistent braying floats up from outside (isn’t it ridiculous that my point of reference for this sound is the actor playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?! “Oh, how lifelike those actors have been!” I’m thinking to myself. Wow. OK. Culture-girl has day at country market and is beset by reality.)—so there’s the braying and Paul turns to Abderrahman, gesturing out the window, “The cars are warming up right now!”

Lentils arrive and bread, and we all share across the low table. Then tea (Hazel squeals with delight as it’s delivered: see picture above, sugar-fiend in full pleasure) then we’re back outside, headed down the lane with open-air food stalls on one side and the restaurant-fronts on the other. Fish sizzles in hot oil at several of the stalls, while at one window Abderrahman asks permission to lift the lid off one of a row of tagines set atop braziers on the window-ledge—so Paul can see and smell what’s inside. We had only snacked—next time, lunch. Around the corner of the long low-slung length of eateries, we’re walking downhill along a narrow mud-filled alley to the parking lot—to see what turns out to be not just dozens but maybe hundreds of burrows, all talking and laughing with one another. It’s their only day of rest, says Abderrahman, the only day they’re not at work in the fields. From this vantage point we can see the piles of apples that have been dumped in the river. Orchards hug the riverbanks—apple and pomegranate, apricot, peach. And looking back now, we can see the restaurants from behind—see that we ate on the second story. Abderrahman had said the river crests in flood time at a wall where some of the burrows munch—the wall, though a good twenty yards off the back end of the buildings, looks to me (worrier) like it may not always do the job.

We loop back into the market via the humming donkey-shoe stalls (“Changing the tires!” jokes Abderrahman) and then he asks us if we want to see the meat market. I don’t think I expected anything else, but still, we are so protected in the States from the realities of butchering, the industry by design so cloistered. Here, I’m sure a US Health Inspector would have had a field day, or been properly schooled. Goat heads all looking in the same direction (necks bloody) cover a ground-cloth, lined up one after the other, perhaps three rows of ten each, eyes fixed but with a live look. I’m embarrassed to recall that I asked Abderrahman, “What do people use the goat heads for?” Eating! silly Shakespeare girl. Odd to think how vibrantly aware he would have been of life in this way, the son of a glove-maker—animal life in his time of course used in all of its multitudinous indispensable ways, the reality of which you’d be hard-pressed to escape. Several nearby stalls had already sold part of their stock, only a few goat heads left on the ground looking less ordered and more like scattered carnage. Huge pale haunches are slung over tables or hang from stalls, dark red and white ribbed slabs wait to be sectioned, piles of stomachs (sheep? goat?) turned inside out lie in pale crenellated stacks on the central tables, the entire market arranged in a horseshoe-shaped path of choices to left and right. It will all be sold by the end of the day, says Abderrahman.

The obligatory bag of olives is bought to quiet a tired Hazel while Abderrahman buys fruit and vegetables. (Why didn’t we do the same? I guess because we buy all of our green groceries from the stand across the street from our apartment—even so, thinking about it now, we were apart.) And then we’re back into the car for the quicker trip home. Safia falls asleep curled on the backseat, Hazel naps wakefully on my shoulder. (She’s inherited my sleep-gene, not Paul’s.) Abderrahman invites us back for tea at his shop later in the afternoon and we happily accept—lovely post-script.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Three-towel world

I’ve been stuck on that phrase—“living in a three-towel world.” Hardly. We live a really comfortable life here. We eat well, we don’t worry about money or rent or how to clothe Hazel, we have many more things, and a lot more security than so many in this city—and elsewhere. Luxury abounds. I have time to write. “A full stomach and the head can sing,” Abdellah reminded me a little over a week ago when Hazel and I went to visit him in his shop. He had first said this when we went back that evening during Ramadan to break the fast—sitting on the floor of his shop drawing comfortably on his cigarette after the meal, his long thin hands gesturing to fit his words. And as Hazel and I sat again in his small shop-front, it came back to me that I didn’t remember exactly what he’d said: “Encore une fois, quelle est la connection entre l’estomac et la tête?” I asked. “L’estomac plein fait chanter la tête,” he replied, his own, I thought then, no longer empty during daylight. Paul was saying the other day that there is nothing comparable in our own culture, nothing so totally daily-life-altering built into the arc of a year, whether religious or secular. What social imperative in the States demands that we remind ourselves that so many others survive on so much less? That there are other things to contemplate besides the crush of the immediate and the incessant of the every-day? I found myself wondering what the homeless do during Ramadan (they are everywhere here, and I see the same people on the same streets again and again, day after day, night after night)—what structures are in place to attend to people in need? The Koran requires that all good Muslims give to charity (and mandates too that all people must have access to clean water), and Ramadan specifically demands that people give to the poor, the hungry, those who otherwise could not afford to buy new clothes for their children on the occasion of Eid el-Fitr. In another trip to the souks this week, Hazel and I had stopped to talk to a rug dealer (he sat in a comfortable chair in the shade in front of a large shop overlooking the tiny plaza that is the spice souk)—during the course of our ten-minute conversation, several people came up, not saying much, and from a sack beside him he would take out a round loaf of bread and hand it out. “I give to the poor,” he said.

We met a friend of our friends back in the States last Sunday, and we spoke together in his tiny rug shop amidst the smell of wool and the tea things on the floor—round tray, well-used tea pot (filled with both mint and rosemary—a new combination for us), several clear glasses. This time we found him. Though the self-professed “sons of Marrakech” from a month ago (Take a Chance on Me, September 4) couldn’t tell us where to find this particular address and claimed never to have heard of it, all we needed to do was go to the rug souk and ask someone. Which we finally did. The guy we asked (the same one Hazel and I spoke to again this week, with the sack of bread) took me alone first to make sure it was the right man he was thinking of. “Beard, right?” air-stroking his chin with one hand. “Glasses? OK. Follow me.” He lead me through a narrow opening between several rugs hanging in the sun into the deep shade of a covered street, went this way and then that. And the friend's shop was empty. “Wait just a minute—I’ll be back.” How did he know where to look if he didn’t even know the man in the first place? Here is where (again, the refrain), if I spoke Arabic I am certain there would be delightful clarity instead of general mystification, or at least I could ask in a way that’s different from the French. (He was watching a football game—soccer, that is.) The guy who’d escorted me now returned with the very friend our friends back home had urged us to find; introductions all around  (“I’ll come back with my husband and daughter—two minutes!”). Back I came with Paul and Hazel—almost didn’t make that last dog-leg jog to the left to find the shop tucked away along a narrow side-street off the main covered rug souk. We spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening in Abderrahman Bidda's shop, La Petite Boutique du Tapis.

Incidentally, the entrance to the carpet souk is off a small plaza where even into the twentieth century slaves were auctioned. It’s a revelation to pass out of the maze and press and crush of covered streets, shop after crowded shop, and find yourself looking out across an open space that feels human in scale, not nearly the overwhelming and grand sweep that is Jemaa El Fna, and up at the refreshing bowl of sky. This place feels intimate. In the middle of the plaza the sellers of baskets and woven hats sit facing the foot traffic; they’re surrounded by a café, spice-shops lined up one after the other (turtles and other reptiles stacked in cages out front), the odd spill-over rug shop.

I keep thinking about the slip of sky that you see from Abderrahman's shop, sitting with your back against the southwest wall and looking out through the wide gap between the roof-line of the jewelry shop opposite and the covering that reaches back across the narrow street, how that space is like a stretch of carpet itself, shifting in color as the light changes. Twice now we’ve gone in in the full heat and brass-bright of the afternoon and come out into the dusk, into the dark—having watched (sporadically) that slice of sky shift from blue or cloud-drifted, to lavender, to mauve, to no-more-discernable-sun. The color-quality reminds me of certain flavors of Necco wafers (those confectioners’ sugar-dusted discs of chalk-like sweet that come in a wax-paper roll)—the lavender, the chocolate, the black licorice.

For the moment, I’m going to skip the most interesting part of the weekend (a trip with Abderrahman and his daughter to Asni, almost due-south of Marrakech, to the Saturday Berber market there), and briefly recount the acquisition of a rug. Saturday had been a long day (so many rows of severed goat heads arranged on the ground, their eyes open, dozens of undersea-looking sponge-like flaccid structures lying limp in piles on the edges of tables—just now Paul tells me they were stomachs, turned inside out, the people and people and people doing what they do every week)—and after the trip we'd been invited back to the rug shop for tea, a relaxing end to the adventure. So despite the day and the waning light it seemed like a good moment to buy a rug for our echoing home (“Our apartment is like a cave,” Paul said). In a moment the shop  filled up with unfolded rugs, one kilim after the next. Riotous profusion—red and darker red, saffron, orange, threads of green, the geometry of each one different from the last.  An ecstasy of rugs: Hazel was leaping and rolling in the color like a girl possessed—we tossed her at one point like you see people do, each of us holding a corner of the carpet. The colors exploded off the shelves—the same synesthete thing as the taste of Hazel’s strawberry gelato later that evening as we strolled home, leaping at me in a full-on assault of pink tang-zap sweet. Impossible to choose, but we do, head home.

There’s part of me that can’t stop thinking about the tetrus-like arrangement of all our things back in the Oakland attic: books and books and books, Christmas decorations, napkins and tablecloths and backpacks flattened to fit into huge plastic tubs, clothes and more clothes, crates of Ikea organizers and wooden hangers, Hazel’s heavy box of toys, the two shallow plastic tubs—heavier than you’d think—full of sheets, and those last half-dozen boxes of crap that marry the glom of fridge magnets with the Guatemalan basket of desk-detritus with the masking tape and the dust bin and the final tangle of extension cords and the last three sharpie markers that marked all the endless boxes including the one they’re now inside. So I’m thinking of our own abundance in contrast to the self-professed lifestyle curates in Marrakech—there are plenty of people here who advertise that they’ll be your personal shopper, people who amass beautiful things and help you do the same. Are we so different?