Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Downward Bound

Sidi Ifni is a little city, a good piece down the Moroccan Atlantic coast. It's a tranquil town, hemmed in by rolling desert hills. There is a town beach and a board walk- thick with strollers and flirters by night. Stunning beaches stretch out north of town.

Last year, Sidi Ifni was the site of major uprisings by protesters who were angry about the lack of work. Al-Jizera reported that the army killed several protesters. Moroccan newspapers didn't report any deaths. Later, al-Jizera was band from broadcasting from Morocco. When I was in Sidi Ifni a couple of weeks ago I didn't feel much of the angst that lead to these riots. These are some things I did see.

Beach Talk
AlGizera is a beach 10 km north of Sidi Ifni. Red cliffs turn out into the ocean in big calligraphic swoops. There are abrupt and powerful cliffs that push nearly into the water. But there is constant change in that strength: The packed sand and rock of the desert hills fall off into the water. The cliffs are always shape shifting. If you sit on the small strip of sand you can hear the waves breaking in front of you and off the cliffs behind you. [See pictures below.]

Something about this interaction cracked me up:

I was waiting my turn to climb up and over one of the dinosaur tails that sticks out into the water and down onto the next little strip of sand when a young girl, standing above me, asked if I wanted some help onto the rocks. I said no and hopped up with her. She was laughing and talking to her friends:

girl 1: I asked that foreigner if he wanted some help and he said 'no'.
girls 2 and 3: [laugh]
me: What makes you think I'm a foreigner?
girl 1: [surprised that I was speaking Arabic] Your face
me: really?
girl 1: [hesitates]
girl 2: You're super white
me: Maybe I'm from the Rif Mountains. [some people from the Rif are notably lighter skinned than most Moroccans, some are even redheaded and freckly. Besides, I'm not necessarily lighter skinned than most people in the rest of Morocco- the girls knew I wasn't Moroccan but they couldn't say exactly why they new it.]
girl 1: You're from the Rif?
me: Yep
girl 2: No way
girl 3: Say God ['Allah']
me: God
girls 1, 2, 3: Nope, you're a foreigner, a Christan.
Me: Really?
Girl 1: Are you Muslim?
Me: No
Girl 1: You should become a Muslim then you would be zween*
Me: I'm already zween
Girl 1: Maybe, but you'd be really zween if you were Muslim
me: Ok
Girls 1, 2, 3: byebye
me: bye

I guess I need to work on my pronunciation of the word "Allah."

*[I'm not sure of the best English translation of this word. I have heard: splendid, beautiful, magnificent, good, and, my personal favorite, sweet, as in "dude that's sweet." My friend Jennifer points out that it comes from the Arabic root for decorated.]

Women's Attire

Many of the women in Sidi Ifni wear a style of clothes that are different from the standard cloths (be they jeans and a tee-shirt or jalabas) worn by Moroccan women. They are made from what looks to be a single piece of natural fabric. They flow up from the toes, around the body, over the head and under the chin. They are almost always brightly colored, with loud patterns that sometimes look batiked. They remind me of sea-tube worms with a 90 degree turn at the top.

I didn't realize that my (borrowed) camera was low on battery so the picture below isn't that descriptive. But here are some styles I saw:

-big dark blue dots on a light blue background with little dotted blue squiggles lines connecting them
-Brown blocks with big orange shimmering sunsets surrounding them
-Yellow and orange dotted lines stacked in a wavy pattern: looking like the sand on a sunset beach after the tide has gone out
-light blue/dark blue zebra stripes with black cheetah spots overlaid
-pink and yellow flowers with huge peddles

As I said, I didn't realize that my camera didn't take a charge until I got down to Sidi Ifni. I immediately began trying to conserve battery- knowing I'd want to take pictures on my last day at alGizera. Of course, as soon as I showed up at the beach the camera went dead. I tried to console myself by soaking up the atmosphere and committing impressions to memory and to my journal. But then I noticed that a French woman on the beach had the same camera. I asked her if I could borrow her battery and she obliged. These pictures are from my 10 minutes with a working battery at alGizera- thank you random French lady.

Something I've learned about (and from) travel

If I show up someplace new and feel ambivalent about it, my first impulse has always been to pick up my bags and move onward.

These days, I'm learning to stick around. Oftentimes something magical happens...

but sometimes someone steals your shoes.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Gillian Welch Plays Morocco

I first heard Gillian Welch two years ago. It was the spring and a new friend put Gillian's "Winter's Come and Gone" as the last track on a mix CD for me. I stepped through a door and into a room as big as the world. I fell in love twice that Spring.

I listened to Gillian when I woke up in the morning, before I fell asleep, and in the shower. I put her on when guests came around and when I was all alone: she was an old standby and a special treat.

The best I can do to describe Gillian's music is to say that it comes from an old well somewhere wayout in the country. There is tall grass, weeds and flowers growing up through a tire, there are train tracks. Sometimes high banjo licks skip along over a driving baseline; sometimes stark guitar chords drift slowly around her voice, and sometimes she rocks.

Since I was given Gillian, I moved away from Portland. I've lived in Vietnam and Morocco and I've been privileged to travel to a lot of places in between. But always there is Gillian. On my ipod, coming out of my little portable speakers, being sung by Emily. Something about her is deeply American. The d
irt, mountains, mines, whisky and strong, pained men and women of her songs are solid objects- not symbols- standing out on that big knucklly North American continent. But in that Americanism there is, of course, a sense of rootlessness, of passing-through, of lonely desolation. She squares my homesickness with my wanderlust.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

On being a fool (i.e. foreigner, westerner, farang, ex-pat, Christian, walking wallet)

I recently had a meeting with an odd collection of folks: a matronly madam with a broad, happily wrinkled face, a bright young woman who works, when she can, as a house cleaner, and one of the many young partially-employed men that populate Rabat's busy old-city streets. The others used various terms to describe me: one that translates as foreigner and the other means Christian. I have never considered myself to be a Christan. Foreigner makes more sense: I've lived in Morocco for a number of months now but I am not, nor will I ever be, an insider.

The meeting took place in the the old woman's house. I wanted to rent the house- the reason that brought us all together. We addressed her as Hajja (to acknowledge her status as one fortunate enough to be able to fulfill the Muslim duty of pilgrimage to Mecca). She sat in the place of honor. The younger woman, Farida, was the sister of a woman who's home I was staying at and, in addition to being a friend, was my resident sceptic- brought along to examine the house and discuss the price. The other man-Muqtar- had shown me the place the day before. He was one of a few simsars in Rabat's casaba. Simsar translates from Arabic as 'real estate agent' but, more realistically, it means 'guy who hangs on the street corner and has a rough idea about house and apartment vacancies.' He sat silently, stroked his facial hair and anticipated his commission. I sat on the edge of the couch, sipped my tea, and strained to follow the conversation that would or would not land me in the house. I was the tyro, fumbling along at the periphery of my own deal: the fool.

Before I leave home to settle in some far-off place, I try to imagine it. A brick wall of chatter in a different tongue, rows of apartment buildings that seem as unreachable as the world's most elite hotels, and animals that I don't recognize hanging from hooks in the butcher's shop. In places that are part of what is sometimes called "3rd world," or "developing" but in this blog referred to as the 2/3s world,* I also add an air of degradation to those apartments, a pervasive penury amid the throng of people. For many of us (who are fortunate to be able to go to places on the other side of the globe) these pictures are scary, for some they are thrilling. But setting up a place in a far-off country turns out to be not too difficult. If you don't have the money or desire to use an international forwarding firms and/or real estate agent you can find your way into the circles of information that turn throughout cities across the world: bars abuzz with the chatter of expats, cafes with leafy bulletin boards and locals who know the scene, who speak a little (or a lot of) English, French, and who, above all, are willing to help. You just have to be prepared to learn as you go.

Before I go on, I should qualify by saying that my experience is limited: I have only lived in places that- by the outdated nomenclature- have been called 'developing' but that many would hesitate to term '3rd world' and, so far, I've only lived in cities. There is no doubt in my mind that places (maybe even cities) still exist where you would be the first outsider to try to find a place to stay and set up a life. But it's interesting to note that several journalists didn't find it at all difficult to rent a house in Baghdad- outside of the Green Zone- in the early part of the American War.

As a kid I used to daydream about landing smack dab in the middle of a city so foreign that I didn't recognize a single marking on any of the street signs. Today, I find myself firmly in the category of adults who are thrilled by the idea of seeing something different. Even so, it's hard to pass on the solid advice of friends who have gone before you. So when I recently moved from Fes to Rabat, Morocco I took my friend Chris up on his offer to give me the number of a decent simsar. I was told that with a little wheel greasing I could be in a new place within days. Foregoing my childhood dream of total start-from-scratch otherness (and immense frustration), I asked for the number, called the simsar , spoke a stumbling but workable mixture of Arabic and French and three days later I was sitting in a Moroccan salon, fooling my way through the above mentioned meeting.

I was delighted by Farida's offer to come with me to the meeting. Not only is she good company but she has a practiced eye. It is her hard bitten experience as a homemaker that keeps her young family afloat. Scepticism and hard bargaining at every transaction may sometimes be the only tools that keep food in her young daughter and husband's stomachs. To my dismay, all that scepticism flooded the way as soon as we entered the house. We ambled through the salon, the bathroom, the master bedroom, and the upstairs bedroom. She gave me the thumbs up when she saw the house's terrace view and she guffawed over the stove top coffee maker and blender in the kitchen. Few houses in Morocco come furnished. Farida was impressed.

With my cover of feigned disinterest blown by Farida, we sat down to hammer out the specifics of the deal. Mint tea was needed to make things move forward and Hajja set to work preparing it. She pulled a tinfoil-rapped lump of sugar out of her purse (no Moroccan grandmother leaves home without a brick or two of sugar) and made tea in what was to be my rental tea pot. After tea came negotiations.

Muqtar had told me that Hajja was asking 4000 dirhams. In my best Modern Standard Arabic (which is not very good) I explained to Hajja that I was a student, here to research the history of Islam in Morocco, that I am a responsible tenant and that I'd stay in the house, problem free, for the better part of a year. At the end of my soliloquy, I offered her 3,000 dirams a month. She stared at me blankly. She turned to Ferida, "what?" Firdia repeated, to my ears, more or less the same speech but this time with a much higher number as the monthly rent. I thought my ringer had defected completely. But I quickly learned: Hajja doesn't speak dirhams. She thinks in terms of the old currency, riyal, of which there are 20 in a dirham. Negotiating moved forward like this: Farida translated my Arabic into Arabic and Hajja's riyal into dirhams. Eventually we agreed on 3,500 dirhams and some 5 figured number in riyal.

Prices settled, the others sat back to imagine my new life in Hajja's house. Hajja played the role of me. She folded hands on her stomach, put her feet up on the coffee table, and closed her eyes. I thought this life would suit me fine.

After our short nap,
Hajja gave me another tour of the house. She showed me the percolating coffee maker again and explained how it works and then coffee tray and how it works. I was getting the idea that my limited linguistic abilities had translated, in Hajja's mind, to limited brain function.

Finally it was time to pay the "real estate agent." I loudly brought up his asking price- 2,500- which I had accepted before I learned it was way too large a sum. Farida gasped. Hajja gasped (after the number was converted to riyals). All attention was on Muqtar who froze, mid goatee grooming. Apparently, Muqtar was an unwelcome entity anyway. As was the old custom, Hajja had given the local corner store owner the key to her house and it was his job to hand it off to interested parties. He'd outsourced the gig to Muqtar who asked far and above a reasonable sum. Slowly, I was learning.

Farida went to work. She skillfully employed the Moroccan tool of shame to muscle Muqtar into dropping his rate. At this point, the Arabic was moving far too fast for me to get all the details but the shaming went something like this, "How could you scam the poor fool? For shame!" The price dropped.

Piece by piece, I'll dismantle some of Hajja's fine grandmotherly decor (I've already covered up her shiny-green shag couches) and settle into the place. Getting here wasn't all that hard. An American friend, a Moroccan friend, and even Muqtar were keen to help. Maybe it's just Morocco or maybe it's symptomatic of the entire 2/3s world but people work to help you out. Of course, capital and massive global economic inequalities are a large motivating factor. That's of course another suitable label for me, I'm not just an outsider- I'm not here to work and send remittances home- I am, for the others at the meeting, a 'wealthy' outsider. Muqtar got his cut, the shopkeeper probably got his, and Farida would like it if I gave her a little housecleaning work (a fact which, in my mind, doesn't devalue our friendship- a subject for a later post) but it's also that the systems for finding a home are in place and they work, in Morocco at least, not by classified ads and contracts but by human relationships. Some tea, Farida praising Hajja's fine taste and here I sit. And, I hope, I'm a little less foolish for having gone through the experience.

*(to point out that hegemonic Euro-American discourses on the subject often otherize, infantilize, and marginalize the experience of most of the world's population)