Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Still thinking

As usual, thought begets thought, and I keep gnawing on that idea of present-day Moroccans continuing to look out on their world from within a colonial frame. We went out yesterday to get ice cream and Pakistani food (two doors from one another, to be eaten in that order), Paul carrying Hazel through the chill of early evening, across the plaza where rainwater pools on the smooth stone tile and nine huge fountains lift up out of three rectangular basins toward the lavender sky—both of us ruminating on this notion of colonialism, and on gender, while Hazel alternately pressed her forehead into Paul’s nose or, now back down on the sidewalk, capered ahead to leap off the ledge beneath the next palm tree.

Paul had just finished reading a novel by a Moroccan woman who lives in Portland, Oregon—Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits—she writes about Moroccans who’ve gone elsewhere and either stay away or come back. One character, Paul reports, sits in a Moroccan café after time in Spain, and realizes suddenly why it feels so different now: he’s surrounded exclusively by men. Where are the women? They are at home, or maybe sitting together on a bench in Jardin El Harti, or walking arm in arm along Mohammed V. But they are not here enjoying a café au lait or a mint tea together at the next table. Our talk swirled around gender (“I don’t want Hazel to grow up here”) as it’s expressed or repressed. We watch as men look at women—veiled or unveiled, it doesn’t matter. The veil is supposed to hide all the attributes that make a woman irresistible—thus making her resist-able. But how is that possible? I remember back in the good weather watching a guy check out two young women, both veiled and wearing kaftans, their behinds visibly swaying beneath fabric that hugged their forms pretty snuggly. I hesitate to say that the sexual inconsistencies or hypocrisies are more exaggerated in Morocco than in the States—I can think of a thousand and one screaming juxtapositions that give the lie to our own thin shellac of Puritan mores painted unconvincingly over political sex scandal and Palin-style appeal. But I’m getting away from that initial post-colonial idea of lingering colonialism. Let me enlist Toni Morrison to help me back.

In Morrison’s most recent novel A Mercy she tells the overlapping stories of various characters from various extractions in the early days of what would become America, before even the Puritans held sway in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In one scene a free African man, a self-employed blacksmith, tells his sometime-lover, a once-enslaved woman (her father a Portuguese plantation owner, her mother from the Caribbean) that though she has been given her freedom, she has not taken it—in your mind, he tells her, you are still a slave.

Jumpcut to the several stories of white lies that filter in, the seemingly ridiculous ones: the person someone knows who lied about his birthday—“We’re the same age! Wow! That’s so cool!” when it turns out the non-Moroccan (the storyteller in this case) is a year younger. “My mom made it this morning—here, take some,” and he offers a croissant that’s in a brown wrapper, the kind the patisserie around the corner uses. Huh? Is this what Ghita means when she talks about Moroccans continuing to live inside a colonial mind-frame long after the Independence of 1956? That you are continually at work to impress or demonstrate prowess of one sort or another, that you are never completely yourself or completely à laise, at ease? That the white lie serves to fill in the perceived chinks in your armor or plump out your diminished sense of self? And Ghita was talking about Moroccan men in particular. It has to do with what you think people are thinking about you—seconding-guessing and adjusting accordingly. And I don’t for a moment pretend this kind of psycho-dynamic is anything but human, the world over—I’m guessing we all engage in this kind of posturing at some time, to one degree or another, for one reason or another.

Several times in the first couple months I had conversations with older Moroccans (men, of course, as that is who Hazel and I typically meet while out and about—women are just not out and about to interact with in this same way); in separate conversations each of the two older men, speaking in French, said that the French language itself is at odds with what is truly Moroccan, that there is something in the very structure of the language that runs counter to this culture. Each spoke of the colonial past as present in the spoken, taught French language. (One recalled how his French instructor would beat them when they hadn’t learned a lesson properly; I don’t know whether the instructor was French or Moroccan.) This is no surprise to any scholar of post-colonial studies, but how much more alive an idea when you hear it expressed in your own lived conversation, out in the world, rather than inside a classroom or a book. Each, interestingly, said that both Moroccan and Islamic cultures are closer to American than to French—that the Islamic world, like America, is wildly diverse.

These ideas of gender and culture fit into a larger conversation about how Morocco is so different from the home I know, and so the same. The gender issues we perceive here are universal (how do you be yourself but also exist amidst others and within your own society’s dictates?)—but negotiating them, the problems here, is not so easy—the culture isn’t ours, and for no other reason we aren’t able to fully appreciate or perceive the subtleties. And yet, it’s not a subtle observation that a café is full of men, that there are no women, is it? Paul asks if we’ve come to terms with the role of women here. Have I? Paul says he hasn’t. Their objectification, he says, seems even more exaggerated than at home. You see a woman you wouldn’t look twice at in the States, tight this and low-cut that (well, some would look twice, but you get my meaning), she’s alone—and in our building, with its prostitutes to-ing and fro-ing at all hours, you wonder if that’s in fact what she is. It was explained to one of the female teachers (now departed) that if you are a Western woman and you are out alone at night, in this culture you are taken for a prostitute. I don’t want to believe it—nor have I read the same in any guidebook—how is it, then? How do you trust your own perception, or how far do you trust it?

The food was delicious—cardamom-studded rice, aloo ghosht swimming in savory oil—preceded by Hazel’s pistachio ice cream which she declined to finish. She likes the vibrant green, but not enough to lick the dish. We got the food to take away (the second time in five months, same Pakistani restaurant)—and came home in the semi-dark, again crossing the multiple-fountain’d square—Hazel in Paul’s arms the entire way home, snuggled down from what felt like on-coming rain, but then cleared in a march of clouds, west to east. We passed again the spot on Mohammed V where a double-amputee had just been sitting, his two legs ending in stumps at the ankle, one bandaged, the other naked. He was gone now. There was another man across the street in front of the McDonald’s—the first time, he’d been lying beneath a huge billboard advertising Agadir real estate and McDonald’s latest sandwich, eyes closed, fly open. This time when we walked by he was sprawled beside the curb in the street, eyes still closed, head resting awkwardly on the tailpipe of a parked car. Earlier, on our way out the door, we’d crossed our own street and watched an expensively-dressed woman close the door of her late-model white BMW sportscar with a sharp swivel-bang of her hip. Then she stepped into the hanut where we buy milk—her car worth many times over the sum total of all his wares. This place makes your head spin. Home, too, if you’re able to pair such disparities in equal extremes, and perhaps within the span of an hour’s walk. Talk of gender and culture fall away when you don’t have enough to eat and you don’t have a place to sleep.

Hazel and I go to Paris tomorrow morning with my friend Céline and her daughter. We’ll stay with Céline’s mother and grandmother in their apartment in the middle of the city. What will it feel like to leave Morocco (and get to Paris in time for lunch) and come back—to travel with someone who’s chosen to leave France, marry a Moroccan, and make her home here? It sets me thinking, among other things, about the way I can’t keep pace with global travel, that the days of overland routes, boat-crossings and such must have fit more naturally with a body’s rhythms and perceptions of space and time. Hazel, for her part, wants to buy a pair of boots in Paris: “Red,” she says.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

God willing? Maybe. We’ll see? Perhaps.

Hazel and I went out to the Jardin El Harti on Sunday morning, our object to find Paul and distract him from his schoolwork. The day was warm—beautifully, unseasonably—the park crawling with kids, mothers in conversation with each other, lone bench-sitters, families of all sorts. I’d registered this phenomenon at some level before, but was knocked over the head with it Sunday: there’s a guy with an official blue workman’s coat and a whistle whose job it is to tweet miscreants off the bordered lawns and other restricted areas, shame whomever out of whatever behavior is considered bad for the park. It’s disconcerting. And it reminds me of a glorious picture of my friend Margaret. We’re in high school, vacationing in Paris by ourselves, giddy with our own sense of freedom and self-possession. She’s standing on a square of fabulously manicured jewel-like green grass in the Jardin du Luxembourg—smiling gleefully, posed right in front of a little white and black sign that reads Pelouse InterditeStay off the grass. Ha!

We spent a good part of our year in France thumbing our noses at the French way of carefully drawing between the lines, howling at the ridiculousness of public attempts at control, glorying in the wide American sweep of Central Park—or we would, later, compare this un-manicured and “natural” Frederick Law Olmsted design with the confining squares and rectangles of perfectly planted French color and proportion. We liked to believe that it was très French to try and control people in public spaces. Being in Morocco, a formerly French-controlled country, you see the vestiges of colonial rule still in evidence—thus the whistle-blower, or at least the idea of him. And it was Ghita, my friend Céline’s friend, who theorized that Moroccans operate as if they are still under that Protectorate, in the ways in which they think about themselves in the world. Her argument is that many Moroccans live still inside a colonial state of mind, that colonized modes of being and thinking still dominate the Moroccan psyche.

Doesn’t Michel Foucault write about this very same phenomenon? He does. I won’t attempt anything but a flash—as I understand it, in talking about power and knowledge, Foucault compares modern society to a group of prisoners perpetually under the watchful eye of guards who, in reality, are either there or not there. He uses 18th-century philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Benthem’s prison design, called the Panopticon, as metaphor. In Benthem’s design (never realized), prisoners can be seen at all times by the guards but the guards themselves can never be seen—thus the feeling of always being watched—though you’re never sure. You live in a state of perpetual fear. I sat on a bench last Sunday looking at these two boys stepping over an eight-inch prickly and weed-laced hedge, gingerly treading on the spiky grass beyond—only to be tweeted and shooed by the striding man in blue. The whistle periodically cut through our playing ball with Hazel. I think Foucault would argue that even though you can’t hear it this instant, you know the whistle might blow if you step over the hedge. So you knuckle under, you’re cowed, and you don’t step over the hedge—or if you do, you’re prickled by an internal fear in addition to the hedge. Power is achieved by someone else (elsewhere) through an idea you can’t get out of your head—even when you’re all by yourself.

A long time ago Paul came across a website called edge.org which pulls together recent thinking on questions of modern life (and claims to "promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society"). One of the very cool questions they’ve posed in the last couple months: In what ways have computers changed the ways we think? A German thinker responds. Take for example the Google search. You type in Virginia Woolf; it’s Google’s internal calculus that decides for you which sites pop up and in what order. You’ve ceded control and in fact have no way of knowing how exactly they’ve ordered what they’ve found on your behalf. Would you have made the same choice? How much do we like to think of this kind of pre-determination? Or do we? My example is fairly benign, and yet…

So here’s another way of looking at it: Inshallah—that ubiquitous and ever-useful Arabic phrase, in service in so many contexts. No real brother that we use as often in English—God willing? Maybe. We’ll see? Perhaps. Hazel and I went to see if we could get into this photographic gallery on Mohammed V, Galerie 127, advertised as the only designated photographic gallery in all of the Maghreb (which—maybe?—I haven’t defined yet in this blog-space: the Maghreb by modern definition includes Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and in earlier days meant only the area in these three countries between the high ranges of the Atlas Mountains and the Mediterranean, the word maghreb translating from the Arabic so: place of sunset or western. Thanks, wikipedia). At any rate, we’d gone once before without any luck—but found two arresting images posted outside, each note-card size, each with a single figure: two different boys, two different pastel-colored track suits, each in a pose of yogic near-impossibility (for most of us), feet dangling over shoulders, slim pelvis to the sky, forearms braced in dust and gravel, color washed out except for the bodies—brown hands and black hair, track suits against white walls and white dust. The perspective is tourist snap-shot style: camera held slightly above the subjects, looking both down and into them.

This second time, I decided to ask the young attendant sitting on the sidewalk outside the entrance (that leads to a set of stairs that winds up three flights to the gallery, passing along the way eye surgeons and ob/gyn offices, each opening onto the steep stone and tile stairwell) if the gallery was open (why did I do this?)—he said yes. We got up there, of course closed again, this time a sign posting the hours—either I noticed or it was new. When we got back down the winding way (examining again several huge cheap oil paintings showing a trio of Saharan horsemen riding full tilt toward us), I told the attendant the gallery was closed and gave him the hours (why did I do this?). And then he said, nodding slightly, “Inshallah.” Huh? No! Those are the hours! There’s no “Hope so” about it! In retrospect, maybe he didn’t understand me and inshallah is just the go-to response? Or he did, and inshallah is the go-to response. Hard to know. And countless other instances: we visit Abderraman and say good-bye, see you next week maybe? Inshallah. A couple months ago, Céline says maybe we could go to Paris together sometime with the girls? And answers her own question—“Inshallah, comme on dit ici”—Inshallah, as we say here. (We go this Wednesday for a week with them, Hazel and I.)

The circuitous route back from inshallah: this phrase that acknowledges the forces beyond our human realm, or the forces at work outside of what an individual can control. Paul just now said: Moroccan Google. Google as secular techno-version of inshallah? Maybe so.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Up to the mountains, out of the blue

It’s hard, I guess, January anywhere—right? (Previous sentence laced with qualifiers.) The folks left almost three weeks ago and with them Hazel’s primary source of in-put. She’s still grooving on some of the rhymes and songs she and Grammy did together—that one about the King in his counting house absorbed in all his money, the Queen in her parlor sopping up all the honey, the maid in the garden hanging up the clothes when along came a blackbird and snipped off her noseand threw it on the ground! Hazel finishes triumphantly. As seems to happen after any family gathering—with, from Hazel’s point of view, its feast of abundant new sentences and inflections, multiple moments of explanation from new sources, other voices to devour—she has turned a developmental corner. Talks and sings and shouts to bring the house down: she stands on the brown leather poof the apartment came with (its bottom perversely and perpetually damp on these ice-cold tile floors), waves her arms, jumps up and down and cries out, “This is my song about how I love to sing songs!”

A fave cousin in the end canceled a last-minute January trip from Moscow via Milan (there’s a nursery rhyme somewhere in the trajectory of that trip: Moscow, Milan, Marrakech), and there’s no one visiting in February as far as I know. We wait for visitors to come in early March, just learned of another canceled visit for late March, April is Paul’s spring break, and then the flying leap to the end of the school year in mid-June. We’ve decided to go back to the States in June (or late June: what Moroccan trip will we have time and funds enough to take before we go?), so right now I think I’m in a low place of purgatory, caught between the urge to be present here and the push of how to plan for seven months from now: jobs? home? where for either? The hiring calendar for schools inevitably exaggerates this lengthy stretch of months (though I’m sure there must be other fields where a new hire waits a good half-year for the first day of work to roll around). If I let them, vague fears of my own obsolescence as a teacher begin to gather—who would hire me after three years out? Blah blah blah. Another teacher’s visiting friend spent some time hanging out with Hazel and me, all of us (at the very worst moments) waiting for everyone to come home from school—anyway, he played a clip or two off youtube of his cousin’s Spanish blues band. Now Hazel knows that when you’re feeling sad, you’ve got the blues. Whatever its origins, this malaise hangs around, is nudged away by lengthening days, the warm sun, trips out of town.

We went to the mountains last Monday—as always, fantastic to leave the city and the routine of every-day, drink in something new, now especially in the wake of the folks’ departure. The Atlas always make me catch my breath—hulking in staggering mass and rumpled snow-capped implacability, presiding over traffic and the inevitably ever-present haze of exhaust.

(This shot taken late afternoon from beneath La Koutoubia on Mohammed V, looking east out of town)

(This looking across Place 16 Novembre at dusk, the McDonald's on Mohammed V behind me.)When you grow up in Northeast Ohio on the eastern edge of the Cuyahoga Valley, most mountains of any stature take your breath away.

We left Marrakech and drove south-southeast, passing through the part of town that’s under swanky development—more clubs, hotels, resorts, advertisements shouting glossily from curbside various restorative benefits (Profitez de l’air pur, for example—which is true as soon as you can get out from under that Marrakech microclimate, the pollution worse on some days than on others). Right now you see signs around Marrakech announcing a car race in early May, and the road to Oukaïmeden is no exception.
(Scooters at every turn—this friend of another teacher's, the one with the blues cousin, was hit broadside by a scooter going the wrong way down a one-way street. He's a rock to begin with, but lucky the scooter was on the small side and not freighted with another rider, extra baggage like a couch, a million stacked and cushioned eggs, or a sheep—all configurations we've seen in the last five months.)

The mountains ride the horizon—

they seem at once impossibly far and close—

—then all of sudden we’re in them, into the snow,

and looking back down from this far-away height to the plateau that stretches west for 200 kilometers to the Atlantic.

It was a driving tour for the most part, but we made a first stop near a river as we circled back toward Marrakech via Tahanaoute, Asni and Imlil. Hazel was happy to be out and about in the world—

There was evidence all around of the recent rains—muddied stones now dry, a torn and mud-caked fleece jacket entwined in some brush,
the swirl of waters and stones all rushing downhill.

Coming down from the river-stop we passed soccer fields—

and a door right off the narrow mountain road painted in a way I'd never seen until now—

We passed through Asni (larger town where we went to Saturday market back in October), took the sharp left outside of town and headed toward Imlil and back up into the snow—

At Imlil we stopped a second time, this time for lunch. The terrain takes a steep hike here, and the tiny town is the usual starting point for treks to the top of Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa (it's a five-hour hike to its base from Imlil). We found a café with a terrace and a view across the valley—

and up into the snows—

We ate lunch, mint tea and tagine—(Friends Kylie and Jeff came with us—Hazel, for some reason, calls Jeff Grandpa Jeff, maybe because he and his parents joined us for Christmas dinner, one more potential grandpa in a room full of them?—huh?)

Before Hazel was spent and we'd maxed out the post-lunch rush of energy, we checked out some serious hikers' stuff getting ready to go up, mules patiently subdued beneath the gear—

then we hiked out of Imlil along the trail toward Jebel Toubkal—

and along the way passed one mule at rest—

The tangle of bare-branched trees partially hid views back down through the valley and across toward snow-dusted peaks still touched by afternoon sun. We were already in deep shadow. The air was sharp, cool—breath off the snows and the moving waters.

(Aqueduct carrying clear water—not the red silt-heavy river water we'd seen earlier in the day, further down out of the mountains).

Last views before turning back—(As we turned back, two local boys, maybe ten and twelve, were chasing each other down. They careened and leapt and skipped and hurtled down the mountainside through underbrush and across slick rock faces, yelling at each other and only stopping their chase to throw snowballs at a girl much younger than they. She was stopped on an outcrop higher up and turned her small body but not her face away from the incoming. I wanted her to throw some back! To defend herself! Who knows what the dynamic felt like to her, or what the relationship among them, but I was anxious on her behalf, a tug of curiosity and sadness. Do you know that book of black and white photographs from around the world pulled together in a 1950s exhibit of the same name called The Family of Man? In it there's a quote from someone to accompany an image of a child, something like, "Deep inside where a child's fears crouch." This tiny drama, because my sympathies were allied with the girl, made me think of this line. Where will her life take her? Where will she take her life?)

Hazel was ready for a ride by the time we headed back down.

A shot from the car looking back up the valley toward Imlil—the river bed is wide and flat and green with new grass. We saw women washing clothes here, cows in tiny postage-stamp sized pastures—

About to pass again through Asni, leaving the white peaks—
Hazel almost down, and happily entertained till she got there—then out for the hour ride back home. And a footnote—Paul was indeed driving—first time behind the wheel in Morocco. Not as bad an experience as everyone says, not as kooky as you'd think given the mad traffic all around. Hoping now to take a road-trip over spring break.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Contemplating the rabbit-hole of Sex in the City (sex in the city): addendum to January 3

A couple months ago the news spread like wild fire among the American teachers (well, some of them) that Sex in the City was in town filming at one of the new hotels outside Marrakech, one of the luxury hotels—marble and Moroccan tile, boutique specially-appointed authentically-but-sparely decorated rooms, high-end hammams, bars with names like "Fandango" and "Le Churchill"—that sprout like mushrooms on a damp forest floor. Last night somebody at dinner said one of the teachers had even finagled her way onto the set. (She’s not here—neither to confirm nor to divulge.) That burns me up because I wish it had been I with my anthropologist’s notebook and fiercely critical eye poking around, demystifying for myself an industry that tries so hard to keep itself sacred—that, and unpack the fantasy we too work so hard to collude in spinning. Or at least that’s how it feels on this end of the media-whipped world, hard to avoid. Ouarzazate, 175 kilometers southeast of Marrakech, is the center of Morocco’s film industry (any guidebook will tell you—Alexander, etc.); one of Morocco’s top producers, apparently, is right here, and was responsible for the shoot. (Marrakech, someone said, was a stand-in for Dubai, where filming of such material is not allowed). That week in October, one of the teachers reported, the bus-ride to school was lined with pink signs that read “SITC this way,” acronymed so as to avoid offending the hundreds of extras arriving on-set. Another teacher’s 20-something daughter managed to get a temporary translation job on-set. Everyone all a-flutter. Pictures on the internet, on HuffPost, of the stars doing this on camera, or walking that way in that outfit, or news of their appearance at that bar, you know, the one we almost went to. Do I sound kind of snipey? Here is a slice of message I sent at the time to a friend back home:

soooooooooooo sorry it's taken me this long to confirm!! like, we totally had mint-tea-manhattans at this très chic bar right after shooting (hazel was playing with james wilkie and the twins) -- soooooooooooo super-fun and, like, the event of my nyc dreams!! sjp was, like, sooooooooooooo skinny -- she is, like, two-dimensional and, like, soooooooooo my idol. i have, like, stopped eating totally because she, like, gave me a couple outfits from the shoot, and like, it's amaaaaaaaaazing! maybe hazel can wear the size -1 sequined mini skirt if i can't stop eating, like, completely. i liked kim better, honestly, she asked about the, like, blog. cynthia was not as funny in person and kristin davis, turns out, went to reserve and played field hockey for mf! like, who knew?!! like, gotta run. hazel has a skype-date with james wilkie.

It’s an adolescent-style snark coupled with an adult apprehension of the idolatry, the collaborative myth-making, the ways in which the overwhelming barrage of images generated by this sparkly machine arrive from every corner to mold our conception of our own bodies, what’s precious and personal, what ought to be only our own.

Then there’s the paean to all things Morocco on Ivanka Trump’s diamond blog (I fell down this rabbit hole too)—where she celebrates the smells of the Marrakech marketplaces and extols the unspeakable loveliness of a sunset from the Djemaa El Fna. Does she know that people in the medina, a couple hundred yards from her vantage point, sell the crusts of other people’s already-partially-eaten bread? (Granted, it's for animal consumption, and yet...) Does she know school-age children at all hours are selling trinkets and tissue-packs in that same place? Does she know Morocco’s unemployment rate hovers around 50%? That its literacy rate (54.7%) is lower than Algeria’s (74.6), Tunisia’s (76.9), Libya’s (86.2)? I’m quoting literacy rates for “adults aged 15 and above,” my numbers from the DATABLOG at http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2009/mar/09/literacy where data comes from Unesco and the Human Development Index on literacy. Compare this to India’s (65.2), Iran’s (84), China’s (93)—or that of the US (99). Question, of course, any generated numbers anyone ever throws at you to convince you of anything.

I’m going to follow this arc of snark all the way through: a friend from home forwarded to me the content of a newsletter from Gwyneth Paltrow who had recently come to Marrakech to help fête the reopening of the fabulously expensive La Mamounia, a hotel I’ve mentioned before—where Hazel and I went (naively) to try and cross paths with Hillary Clinton, and missed by 24 hours. But here is the point—her avalanche of oohs and ahhs at the lovely things to buy (something along the lines of I could have bought the whole store) and lovely places to recover from your exertions rubs elbows uncomfortably with the reality, only partially glimpsed by me and not mentioned by her, that surrounds. For instance, the kids with brown teeth at play in the dirt alley not 30 yards from one of the chic hotels she recommends, Le Bab (across the street from our apartment). Though it has a beautifully finished first floor with a spare 70s-esque black and white aesthetic and a disco bar on display to pedestrians through floor-to-ceiling windows, its top floors are unfinished; piles of stone, sand, concrete bags and trash block the sidewalk and choke the mouth of its underground garage.

Just last night someone at dinner, a Moroccan who has spent the last 19 years away from Marrakech, said that people in these tourist-cities (Marrakech, Fès, Ouarzazate, Essaouira), those who come to make easy money off tourism, have lost their principles. He said that Marrakech has changed, just as Ghita had said in the bar that night, the four of us enacting, as I choose to define it now, an unfilmed scene from Sex in the City. (Or perhaps, rather, an unfilmed scene from an alternate-universe Sex in the City, where it's less about that, less fantasy-escapist, closer to the lived world.) There's an agreement at some level, or maybe an agreement where only one party has the leverage to set its terms—you sell, I buy. I arrive, I go. You stay. Where is the commerce between us?

So the Western stars come, sing the praises of the storied city in the shadow of the dwarfing Atlas, beam back images and narratives of themselves amidst the splendor. Mine is another slice of another narrative.

And as for the sex in the city—it turns out that prostitutes work in our building. Work? Sex-workers. On our new hall. From the beginning we’ve seen the johns hanging around outside the front gate, cell phones busy, the various women coming and going. Once, in the early days of living in the new place, I left our apartment mid-afternoon and passed an older white guy looking around wonderingly as he moved along the hallway a couple paces behind a young skinny Moroccan woman in tight clothes leading the way. We said goodbye to a departing teacher a few weeks back—she left at 3:30AM to catch her 6:00AM flight. While we stood waiting outside for the petit taxi in the hush of early morning and a slight drizzle, three women came out of the building behind us, slim this and tight that, cleavage which you never see, high heels fit for a red carpet. This you do not see ever, anywhere. Anyway. The various details sift in from other teachers and from my friend Céline. Of course, the realities of city life, of life. But this world is at odds with our own. Hazel’s warm little exhale on my cheek after her nap, the fresh fennel sliced thin and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil, laundry piled on the couch, the sound of Paul’s footstep in the hall at the end of the day—Hazel grabs a peanut and races to the opening door.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Holiday bauble, beach, bar

Now it’s the New Year, and I wrote most of what follows a couple days ago. The ribbon of the blog is much longer, more intricately worked, and certainly more timely as it happens in my head.

On this last day of the old year, the skies are clear, the air is fresh, and the king is said to be in town—along with the president of France (my friend Céline’s husband, a Moroccan, said that Sarkozy loves Morocco—and Paul, cynically, wondered if it’s because he wants to be royalty, with all that pomp and privilege). The hundreds of Moroccan flags that the city flies when the king is in town—single green pentagram sailing on a red field—are flapping all along the boulevards, while police in buttoned navy blue and military men in fiercely-creased khakis, white spats and jaunty berets line the sunny streets. This morning we went out to buy New Year’s Eve champagne at a wine shop Céline had shown me—Nicolas, it turns out, is just one of a gargantuan chain, thirty stores in Paris alone. Sure enough, it’s stocked with all sorts of bubbly from the plebian to the sublime, ingredients for French aperitifs, real Port, all manner of wines both French and non, a single bottle of Kahlua, real Scotch in great profusion, myriad other spirits I associate only with stores at home (Johnnie Walker, for example) and a lone type of California red: Eagle Creek, which looked to my untrained eye like a Safeway sale-bin special.

The folks left yesterday and with them the buoyant feeling of the holidays. We’d switched apartments on the second day of their three-week visit and so only had known this new place with them in it. On the morning of the 29th we came back from the airport to empty silence, and in the last two days Hazel has struggled to regain some sort of equilibrium. She got very used to Grammy and Grampy as the new normal—and so did I. Both Paul and I were sick as dogs the first ten days of their visit—deep rattling cough, medieval-style phlegm, days of fever and general malaise. Welcome to Morocco, folks! Mom was up in the mornings with Hazel while I lounged in bed like a lady of leisure—this is what it must be to have live-in help! I am a Hollywood star! Albeit one on rest-cure with strict orders from her doctor to stay a-bed.

Their visit was a rainy one and Marrakech in the wet is stinky, splashy, mud-lucious. The sidewalk tiles, some of them, are loose in their beds, so even once the rain has dried you’re liable to get squirted with hidden murk if you judge wrong. (Those of you in your 20s will recall a video game called DanceDanceRevolution which came with a checkerboard-style mat that you danced on in concert with whatever was happening on the screen—these booby-trapped sidewalk tiles remind me, sort of). On Christmas Eve Day Paul and I, alone together (a rarity in the last four months), went out in the downpour to the Marjane, that Target-style superstore, to find the red tricycle from Santa. Hazel was sure that’s what “Santa Closet” was bringing her and we could hardly refuse, especially given our newly acquired first-floor access to the courtyard. The place was packed with Europeans on holiday (I don’t have a sense of how many ex-pats make Marrakech their home and we’re into the high season for tourism here)—buying bouches de Noel, lots of alcohol—and then there were plenty of people like us just kind of gaping at all the hoopla. The Islamic new year fell right around Christmas and the Gregorian calendar's new year, so drums and noisemakers and specially dedicated tables of nuts and dried fruits and candies joined the western-style decorations to make a jubilantly confusing array. The store was bedecked and bedazzled—an enormous glittering silver “tree” shellacked in baubles and festooned with sparkly garlands stood front and center amidst hundreds of hand-made drums and piles of fake wreaths, apparently without price tags—we watched as an irate customer was made to wait, her back a wall of silent fury as she sat at the end of the register while a stock-boy on rollerblades skated away to find the price, blithely immune to her torrent of feeling. Scrolls of tiny lights jostled for space with boxes and boxes of gold-wrapped Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and in a toy store across the parking lot a row of pint-sized red Santa suits (complete with detachable beards) waited at this late hour, forlorn. You can still find decorated trees here and there around town—at the Acima (western-style grocery store), in the flower-shop around the corner, and in the two enormous shop windows of the German-owned leather goods store down the street, catering almost exclusively to tourists. (The tour buses pull up and they all pile out.) Here, a couple weeks ago, Hazel and I stopped to watch the guy with the plumber’s smile in the process of decorating. (For those of you who do not know, a plumber’s smile is the butt-crack visible above someone’s pants as they’re squatting on the floor or bent over a job.) The process was well underway as we stood watching—piles of cotton wool massed all around several polar bears, globes lit from within glowed on their axes, lava-lamps burbled colorfully in slow motion, and what appeared to be cast-off wedding decorations in the form of dozens of tiny paired white doves (their twin beaks clamped onto two gold rings soldered together) fluttered down from above to land on the snow drifts. Hazel, in stage-whispered awe: “It’s gorgeous.” Then she wanted to climb up onto the narrow window ledge over the row of spikes meant to keep the birds away, and press her nose against the glittery sparkle-dom. What will we do if we ever find ourselves wading along 5th Avenue in December?

We went back to Essaouira for a few days in lieu of a trip to Fès—plans for a week’s apartment rental had fallen through and so we opted for a quick trip out to the ocean, in time to return for Christmas at home, abroad. So the folks got a chance to meet Sharon and Steve, the lovely owners of La Cantina, and we stayed in a really comfortable riad whose live-in owners we’d met the last time we were there. (They’re English too, and have a one-year old.) Rain gave way to one brilliant sun-filled and windy day, but otherwise the weather was thoroughly wet. The riad, with its singular design feature compromising any hope for dry, struggled to stave off the unrelenting rain. They’d rigged a series of plastic tarps over the central opening—the patchwork thwacked and flapped in the winds most of the three nights of our stay but did the job, not a drop down into the tile and wood interior. We did venture out in the rain, which kept most others inside, threading our way between puddles and along streets empty (mostly) of tourists. Hazel got to take a bath in the kitchen sink, kindness of Grammy (after having tearfully freaked out at the prospect of taking a shower, the only option the bathroom offered); she was read to night and day (Grammy’s countless trips through Dancing Granny and Dr. Seuss’s ABC). And the night we ate at La Petite Perle Hazel happily chomped her way through the biggest portion of chicken tagine (incredibly delicious) I’ve ever seen her manage. The surf churned with run-off from the storms (on our second night, lightning and thunder boomed and flashed down into the riad where we watched from the couch, iced glasses of white Russians in hand); waves the color of red chocolate heaved branches and plastic detritus up onto the storm-strewn beach. One afternoon while we all napped Paul went out to take a closer look—he said there were dozens of people combing through the junk, picking through what the storm had coughed up, carting away huge stumps.

You’d think with the folks here we’d manage to get out to take in Marrakech by night, but our untimely consumption by the plague kept us down—that and being happy to hang together at home. Even so, I did get out one time at Céline’s invitation to join her and two of her friends for a drink. We went to a place called Café Extra Blatt (I do not know why this is so or what it could mean) in Hivérnage, the swanky part of town where big hotels and watering holes for the moneyed cluster together with lavishly landscaped walled villas. Out front people braving the chill sat about on black wicker chairs beneath flickering torches, and inside you could see a back-lit bar, crowded, full tables and a sweep of blond wood floor. We hung around outside waiting for her two friends—a Belgian woman, psychologist, married to a Moroccan and a Moroccan woman, pharmacist, also married, with a girl Hazel’s age. (Can you believe I was wearing my mother’s black clogs?!! This must change. Céline was dressed in a little black blazer, jeans and black pointy-toed high-heel shoes, and each of her friends were stylish in their ways—tan suede trench and cashmere, a tangle of long ribbony necklaces with black bolero sweater. Meanwhile, I have one un-hip foot planted firmly back in Berkeley.) We eventually found the place Ghita had in mind—around the corner from the café proper, through a bouncer-blocked arched entryway, along a red carpet flanked by traditional-style Moroccan lanterns, over the wooden lip of an elaborately carved double doorway, up a grand sweep of bare-wood stairs flickering with an ascension of votive candles—and finally, at the top, we were ushered through a pair of gracefully rumpled deep red curtains by a woman with a tousled up-do and long legs wearing not very much. Down the rabbit hole of Sex in the City.

The room was dimly lit, high-ceilinged, throbbing with music cranked way up, arranged with high-backed leather couches that curved in toward low tables, clusters of bar stools at high glossy tables for four, votive candles in red glass on every surface, an elaborate mirror-backed bar lit by bands of vibrant purple light, a tiny unoccupied stage with drum kit, and dark little nooks with couches and tables in the far reaches of the room. We were the only group of women. At the end, after settling the bill, one of the black-clad slick-haired waiters swooped in to offer us another round of drinks (with appetizer) on the house, if only we’d stay. Are we that prized a clientele? But here’s what interests me most (aside from that passing moment of sexy nighttime bar scene)—we ended up talking about how gender is configured in Morocco, the ways in which anger rides close beneath the surface of the Moroccan psyche, the effects of colonialism.

Most of this declension of Moroccan society came from Ghita, raised in Marrakech—“I remember when you could get from one end of town to the other and pass through a single stoplight” (the city has changed in the 35 years she’s lived here). The conversation was all in French—so with the loud music, my sinuses stuffed like a Christmas turkey, the kir, and the speed with which Ghita and Hélène and Céline raced along through their sentences, I was hard pressed to catch all of it. Ghita said she and her brother were raised by parents who treated them both equally—each given the same education, the same freedoms, the same responsibilities—and that this kind of parity between genders is not typical. She said that her male colleagues in the pharmacy over-prescribe, prescribe beyond the limits of their own knowledge (at their patients’ peril) in order to hide ignorance, unwilling to admit fallibility. She said that Moroccans have “des complexes.” They worry about what their neighbors will think, what their family will think, and consequently are stuck—quick to be defensive, quick to anger, insecure. Céline, Hélène and Ghita all agreed that men here are macho and that the machismo comes from insecurity—a sometimes violent stance that compensates for genuine self-confidence. Later Céline talked about the need for better public education in Morocco—and she talked about the woman who helps her at home with cooking and cleaning and caring for her daughter. Khadija is lovely—warm, kind, intelligent, full of humor, an amazing cook (best couscous I’ve eaten, ever)—and at 28 she’s still illiterate. Céline said that a while back she employed another young woman, 22, again illiterate—it was her mother, Céline said incredulously, who’d forbade her going to school. Of course these stories are far more complicated than my casual slash of facts, but their slim outlines give shape to a wider constellation of issues that encompass many more lives than these two women’s and cannot be unique to Morocco.