Friday, October 16, 2009

How to do the dishes ...

A few weeks before my return to the US, I paused the post-dinner clean-up and turned to Amina as she entered the closet of a kitchen in which we prepared the family’s meals (ok, fine. She did most of the preparing. I followed orders).
“Amina?” I asked, drawing her attention up from the soup of trash and rainwater that she had squeegeed in from the living room. “I have to do this presentation when I go home. And I don’t know how to talk about everything in just 10 minutes.”
I had been distracted by the dilemma for days and, since Amina was responsible for solving the problems that entered this house, I decided to offer her this one. She straightened her back, popped her hip out and rested her right hand on the generously-padded, protruding bone. Clearly she was preparing to lend her authoritative, problem-solving expertise.
“Here’s what you need to do,” she told me … authoritatively. “You need to figure out the thing that is the same in each place that you visited, and then talk about that one thing.”
Only half-listening to the elaborations that followed, I giggled to myself at the thought that there could be a single and tellable thing, besides the basics of existence, that was the same in Greenland, South Africa, the UK and Morocco.
Silence. “OK?” she asked, meaning “Did you understand everything and now you’ll do what I told you?”
“Yes, thank you, Amina,” I smiled, and turned back to the dishes, to think (because it’s much easier to think when your hands are wrinkly and dunking in tomato-y water). And then I realized: everywhere that I went, I learned to do the dishes.

I scoffed just a little at Silver when he called me to the sink on one of my first evenings in Greenland, telling me he wanted to teach me how to do the dishes. I was offended at his assumption that I, the American girl who had come to the Arctic with no home, no friends, and no realistic plans, would not know how to wash a glass. An absurd assumption, clearly. The technique was relatively complex, involving two sinks and an intricate balancing/piling/stacking of drying plates on the far counter. As it turned out, I actually didn't know how to do the dishes ... in Greenland.

Of course, I imported the Greenland technique to the UK, where a mechanical dishwasher rendered it useless and I was forced to relearn a new method ... whose tendency to delay washing the dishes between meals (in order to fill the washer) was absurdly inappropriate in a South African house full of young, single, alternately too-busy and too-lazy-to-do-the-dishes renters. And what was considered a "clean" dish by my South African housemates was abominable to my Moroccan family ... So I learned how to do the dishes four times. And by the end, learned not to scoff, because assuming that I already knew the technique - the only technique, the best technique - was more absurd than not knowing one at all.

Now one would think that at this point, I would have internalized the developing moral of this story (which is, in case you didn't see it coming that I am not omniscient). But alas, while fumbling with my iPod and thinking that in addition to outlawing text-messaging while driving, the state of Massachusetts should probably make mobile iPod searches illegal, I laughed when
Krista Tippett informed me that I had chosen to listen to an hour-long "Speaking of Faith" podcast about a Jewish theologian from the 1950’s ( Of course I assumed that a dead, Jewish theologian would not adequately distract me from the other angry, Boston drivers on the road. And of course, I was wrong. Because good theologians have something interesting and relevant to say to everyone…

Abraham Joshua Heschel lived, taught, led and thought in America in the mid-20th century, alongside good friends and fellow activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. A rabbi, a mystic, and a professor of Judaic thought, Heschel was also deply involved in ideas and actions of interreligious communication. In a 1965 speech entitled “No Religion is an Island”, Heschel theorized:
“I suggest that the most significant basis for meeting men of different religious traditions is the level of fear and trembling, of humility, of contrition, where our individual moments of faith are mere waves in the endless ocean of mankind’s reaching out for God. Where all formulations and articulations appear as understatements. Where our souls are swept away by the awareness of the urgency of answering God’s commandment, while stripped of pretention and conceit, we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith.” (Heschel, 1965)

The point, it seems, is that none of us is right. None of us knows the right way - the only way - to do the dishes and none of us knows the right, only way to enlightenment, to God. But we are all aiming for the same end – ultimate, perfect understanding and clean dishes (though my mom may dispute that because sometimes it seems that she’s actually going for VERY clean dishes). It's an obvious, simple, humbling and terrifying realization, because it necessitates a fall from the security of surity and knowing. It means constantly admitting that you don't know and then humbly submitting to the learning. Because if no single one of us knows what is ultimately right, each of us probably understands a piece of it. And only by genuinely engaging with one another, by humbling and graciously submitting to this learning, can we collect those pieces and get a little closer to a less-imperfect understanding.

I didn’t leave the United States a year ago to learn domesticity (though my mom was, admittedly, very excited to hear that it was a side effect). I intended, with a project on religion and environmentalism, to explore ideas of faith, nature and community. And not until the end, until that evening at the sink, did I realize that the dishes were teaching me the essential quality of these ideas. Because standing at a sink, scraping at the slobbered-on morsels that your dinner-mates left behind, and occasionally sloshing the dirty dishwater onto your jeans, is a very humbling experience. And to arrive in a new place, and be told that you don’t know how to do something so simple and essential as the dishes, something which you were always sure that you knew, is doubly humbling. And (here comes the connection that took 500 words of build-up!) what is an experience of nature without that awesome realization that there is something bigger than you, something that goes completely beyond the limits of human understanding. And what is religion besides trusting and humbling yourself to your faith and/or God. And is there community without sacrificing one’s individual needs and desires for the sake of the whole?

Would you believe that in the end, it turns out that Amina was right? That there is one thing that is the same in all these places and all these ideas? Would you believe that in the end, it turns out that I was studying humility? And that I learned it at the kitchen sink ...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

You Can Call Me Betty ...

When I was a child, it was the watchful and omniscient eyes of God and Santa Claus that kept me on my best behavior. Now, living in my own apartment for the first time in my life, I have my neighbors who know when I am sleeping, who know when I’m awake, who know (it seems) when I’ve been bad or good … but there are no extra presents under the tree if I’m good – for goodness sake! There is, however, less yelling in the staircase and less worry that I’ll get kicked out before my rent is up or beaten by a Moroccan woman twice my size, with a family, a reputation and a “nice, quiet neighborhood” (as the savvy salesman of a landlord put it) to protect.
Due to this rather delicate living situation that I have advance-rented my way into, I have turned into something between a conscientious but sneaky 15-year-old and a scandalous but ashamed housewife from 1950’s suburban America. If I come in late, I lift the door a little when I close it, to ease pressure on its squeaky hinges and increase my chances of “not waking Mom and Dad”. If friends stay over late, I whisper “Skoooot!” (shut up) when they laugh too loudly at the paranoia that you are supposed to entertain as 16-year-old, drinking in the basement while your parents slept upstairs, and not as a 24-year-old, quietly reading in the apartment on which you are paying rent.
I bet that when you were 16, you didn’t do housework – especially not at 8 AM, when the neighbors would be sure to hear the clinking of dishes in the sink or the squeak of a squeegee (I can’t believe spell-check just approved that word) on the bathroom floor – just to prove that I am a good, upstanding woman. Sometimes I even squeegee out of contempt, because I know they’re still sleeping – and if they awake to the creak of the front door at midnight, certainly vigorous squeegeeing should have a similar effect (f.y.i. spell-check doesn’t approve of ‘squeegee’ as a verb). But I’m not that vengeful, really, so mostly I play “Betty”, the tactful 1950’s housewife. I close the windows when Si Mohammed or Mohsin wants to smoke, so as to prevent any smoke from wafting into upstairs apartments and the astute noses of nosey neighbors. And the bottle of wine that I’ve been “saving for the right occasion”? Hidden among the recyclables next to the trashcan, just in case a neighbor knocks and I have to invite them in. And last week, after hanging most of my clothes to dry in the sun on the roof, I hung a laundry line in the living room. For black underwear.
But I’m not living in Pleasantville. I am in Fes, a 1,200-year-old, Muslim city, in the 21st century. And to be honest, I don’t really blame my neighbors for being upset (though I don’t pity them enough to come home every evening at 9). Here they are, single women with children, getting up at 7:30 (yes I know when they get up because remember how 3-years-olds actually start running and screaming as soon as their eyes open?) to take kids to school and go to work themselves. And they have to deal with a first floor apartment that hosts a nearly constant flow of foreigners – I’m here until July, someone else will move in for the summer, people will rent by the week or even by the night at peak tourist season in August … My landlord gets all the profit, while these women get insomnia (allegedly) and suspicion about the questionable activities of their cute little American neighbor.
This is a Muslim country and alcohol is Haram, forbidden in Islam. Smoking is certainly not acceptable, nor are most things that one could be doing outside of her house after 9 PM. But I am not hanging out with sketchy people on the street, doing drugs or selling my body. I am usually eating dinner with friends. But how would they know that unless they got really crazy and started following me around, which I would really prefer not to happen. So you can’t blame them. But this is Arabia, baby – so you also can’t let them win …
“You know,” Si Mohammed leans over his coffee to tell me, “If I were you, I would go to the police. I would go and say, ‘You know, I am an American and I am renting this place and these people they are harassing me and blah blah blah.’” He looks at me, sipping my cup of more-milk-than-coffee with more-sugar-than-milk. He laughs, ruffles my hair like I’m his kid sister, “But you won’t do that.”
Instead, I strategically avoid all contact with the residents of the two other apartments with whom I share a front door. I listen to the stairwell before leaving the house and then scurry between out my door when the hall is quiet. I told Aziz the story, and he asked an old friend, who lives next door, to look out for me and talk to the neighbors. The friend said that house is full of jealous women and he tries to avoid them too. So I remind myself, between spats of paranoia, of the Arabic saying that Mohsin repeats to me whenever I complain: “Leave those who will look to look and leave those who will talk to talk”. It’s just not that easy to leave who will think you are a hooker to think …
“But, Shemia, you can’t be nice to everyone,” Julia warns me, “When they knock on the door to yell at you, open it, tell them to go away, and shut it again. Don’t apologize or explain yourself or smile.” I look to the floor, embarrassed, “ms keena, Dryffa. Poor thing. She’s too nice.” Passive aggressively loud cleaning just doesn’t cut it, I guess.
Move to the Ville Nouvelle, everyone urges me, you won’t have any problems there. But I don’t want to live in the Ville Nouvelle, I tell them. I like the medina. If I wanted to live in a high rise on the busroute between the suburbs and the grocery store, I would move back to the US. Instead, I will stay in the medina, because I like the “foreignness” of it. And of course, I’ll try to have my cake and eat it too, by living in the foreignness without living by the foreign rules (completely). Plus, if I moved to the Ville Nouvelle, when would I wear my djellabas and learn things like how to fight with neighbors and not be nice to everyone?
“But we want you to have a good experience in Morocco,” Khedija tells me, “We don’t want you to learn all these negative things.” I like learning them, I tell her, glancing to the window and wondering if Fatima can see us playing cards on the floor.

Monday, June 1, 2009

World of Many Worlds

This morning I woke up from a dream about America only to find myself wrapped in a blanket and cuddling the wood siding of the Moroccan couches that line my living room (it was too hot to sleep in the bed). The phone was ringing, and I answered, “Aaa-loh?” (“Hello” with a French/Moroccan accent because if you say ‘Hello’, it actually means ‘open it’ in Arabic).
“Nam, nam yes, yes … la, faqt mn qbl no, I woke up before … wakha, akhatee, nshoofk daba Ok, my sister, see you soon.”
Getting my brain to do anything before 9:00 AM is a feat (just ask my college roommates), so speaking Arabic whilst recovering from dreams of America is pretty much earth-shattering. And calls for a cup of tea. I wander into the kitchen and crouch down to light my stove - a burner precariously perched atop a 10 kilo bottle of gas that sits on the tile floor next to my counter. I balance the kettle on the basically unadjustable flame and step one door over to my bedroom, where the too-dirty-to-wear-but-as-yet-unwashed pile of clothes is actually all of my clothes. So I opt for a djellaba – the traditional Moroccan wear that is a loose fitting, floor-length, hooded and long-sleeved dress/overcoat. It’s about the most convenient and wonderful thing ever, because you just throw it over your sweats when you want to leave the house and suddenly you are presentable – at least, presentable enough to run out for bread and milk. I throw my non-form-fitting, complete-body-covering djellaba over the tight pj pants I bought in South Africa and the tank top I brought from America, transforming from private life to public life in Morocco.
I let the tea brew while I run out, smiling to my neighbor and kissing her kids, who have been playing some kind of raucous ballgame in our staircase all morning. Of course, the screams and yelling cut off completely when they see me and Miriam, the 3-year-old, greets me with a kiss on the lips and “SbaH l kheer, Shemia, good morning, Little Candle” (yes, the Moroccan interpretation of my name has taken its diminutive form and even 3-year-olds use it). I smile broadly at their mom, recite the standard greeting (how are you? Is everything good? You’re fine? Everything is good? Your family is fine? Good? Good? Thanks be to God.), and walk out the main door of the house we share.
I bite my lip in an effort to erase the smile from my face, as smiling to the neighbor you know is very different from smiling to the neighbor you don’t know and smiling to yourself in the street is just asking for it. In fact, I bite my lip for most of the 3 minute walk to the closest little shop, trying not to betray any amusement at the men who mispronounce good morning in at least three different languages when they see me, or observe ‘ooooo, Moroccan djellaba,” to which I often want to respond “ooooo, American blue jeans”. But I resist. Usually.
I’m familiar enough with the shop owner now that I can smile at him, and joke when he tries to charge me 2 dirhams (25 cents) for a 1.5 dirham (20 cents) yogurt, or slips me the poor quality toilet paper instead of the nicer one imported from France. As Fatima repeated to me again and again as I was moving all my stuff out of her house a few weeks ago, you have to be careful, Shemia, and watch your own back R’dd baalk, Shemia, in this country.
Triumphant in my return to the house, I pour some milk into the Twinings tea that I bought at the Moroccan equivalent of Sam’s Club. I retrieve some French brie (also Sam’s Club) and strawberry jam from the fridge, remove my djellaba and sit down in my South African/American clothes to eat a French breakfast with British tea over a copy of the biography of the prophet Muhammed. I may not be getting my daily fill of all the essential vitamins in this breakfast, but I am certainly working the cultural diversity thing.
This is basically how the rest of my day goes – walking in and out and through different cultures and realities that seem unreconcileable (there’s no way Muhammed was into strawberry jam) or at the very least, oddly juxtaposed.
I spend a good part of the morning in my apartment, the part of my world over which I have the most control and in which I spend most of my time reading, writing and reciting Arabic vocabulary. Sometimes I don’t brave the threshold into Moroccan reality until noon or even 2 pm, since everyone is going home for lunch at 1 anyways.
I go to a friend’s family house for lunch, and help the 17-year-old sister with the dishes. We stand in the kitchen and I explain that no, in America women don’t always have to do all the housework and cooking by themselves while the men sleep (slight exaggeration of her role in the family, mostly justifiable for a bitter 17-year-old with four older brothers). Then we sit down to watch Lebanese music videos, of half-dressed women dancing erotically, before we put on our djellabas to ‘go for a turn’ in the medina. She wears the hijab head covering, and the sauciness that had her bashing Moroccan men from her family kitchen is subsumed into a quiet, seemingly shy but actually simply strategic and respectable humility on the street. We walk down the clothes-shopping street, pausing to ask the prices of thin-strapped dresses under which she would wear a long-sleeved shirt. Music is playing, the street is packed, she laughs when a man suggests that since I am speaking Arabic with her, she should be taking me to pray. She whispers that he probably doesn’t pray anyway. The music stops and the streets begin to drain, as the muezzin calls the men to the mosque for the evening prayer. Some shops shut, some men stop checking us out, the raucousness of evening in the medina disappears at the advent of religion and we decide to escape to the ville nouvelle.
We jump in a taxi that speeds through one of the doors in the huge wall that surrounds the medina and into the modern, sleek, European-ish ville nouvelle. We stroll down the main boulevard, which is about 10 times as wide as the medina’s “TlA kbeera, big way up” and populated by more girls in tight jeans, more couples holding hands, fewer djellabas and fewer tourists. We buy ice creams, admire the fountains and the lights, stroll in both directions, and take a cab back home.


I drop her back at her house, where conversation turns from giggling about boys and fashion to sharing tea with her mom, not mentioning that we went to the ville novelle and promising that yes, I am learning about Islam and no, I do not pray yet and yes, I do love djellabas. I smile to Nadia as I politely and repeatedly refuse the insistence that I stay for dinner, then continue on to the apartment of an American friend, who has promised to make some non-Moroccan food tonight.
I greet Julia with three kisses on the cheek, she shows me some of her paintings, I tell her about the story I’ve been working on, we complain about impossible-to-clean kitchens, impossible-to-accomplish daily tasks and the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy that sometimes airs on the Moroccan station. Then we go out to do the shopping for dinner.

At least we don't have to cook our bread in this oven! Zeineb in the countryside, on the farm where she lives with her husband and 8 children.

It’s after nine, which means the streets that were teaming 30 minutes ago are nearly empty and the smells that were luring shoppers toward the food stalls are now luring them into their family houses, where dinner is served anytime between 9 and 12. We are always late when we cook together.
The man who sells us our vegetables charges us the Moroccan price, probably because he knows us and most probably because he is somehow distantly related to Julia’s boyfriend, Aziz. The fruit man charges us a dirham more than he charges Julia’s boyfriend, probably because we are not ACTUALLY Moroccan and are not related to him and are therefore not granted the Moroccan price. Oh well.
Back home, Aziz is watching the BBC and playing rummy with his friend and some Italian tourists for whom he is planning a trip to the desert. I shake the hand of each guest and lean down to give Aziz a hug, happy that he’ll let me. Last week, he told Julia that he would never talk to me again and when she questioned him, he guaranteed her that my mistake was unforgiveable (I had off-handedly remarked that the price of the desert trip he planned for us was a bit expensive). For a week he wouldn’t talk to me and I thought my world here was falling apart (Julia and Aziz are pretty central), but played the Moroccan fight game, refusing to speed the process and beg him to forgive me. We simply coexisted, with only the coldest of interactions, until one morning he said everything, I apologized, he forgave and saafi, finished. We’re friends again and I can kiss him on the cheek and accuse him of cheating at rummy (he is as good at cheating at rummy as he is at planning amazing trips to the desert).
Julia and I retreat to the kitchen, drag plastic foot-stools up to her gas tank/ stove and chat while we wait for the nachos to cook, quickly realizing that nachos really do require an oven and that the Moroccan tagine, a thick clay frying pan with cover, is not actually the same as an oven. So instead of waiting for them to cook, we wait for the nachos to reach the perfect balance between entirely burnt on the bottom and warm enough on top. Then we serve it to our guests who, lHemdulillah thanks be to God, don’t know what nachos are supposed to taste like anyway. We tell them they are smoked, Aziz translates, and dinner conversation about Italy food and Moroccan culture is carried on alternately in the English, Italian and Arabic that each of us can understand.
Julia and I become authorities on adjusting to and understanding Moroccan culture, dispensing suggestions on everything from what to wear to how much to pay for fruit. The Italians complain about getting cheated at the Herbalist that day, paying twice as much as the next woman for a bottle of Argan oil despite the fact that they had befriended the salesman and exchanged email addresses. You have to be careful, R’dd baalk, not to fully trust everyone you meet here, we all agree, because everyone is working and everyone is looking out for himself; you’re bound to get hustled if you don’t work for yourself too. But also, Aziz’s friend inserts, Moroccans are the most generous people in the world. During Ramadan, if you are far from your family house and you need something to eat, you can knock on any door and they will feed you until you are full. In fact, I note, they will probably feed you until you’re so full that you think you will never have to ask another person for food ever again.
I leave the apartment long after any good Moroccan girl who is learning about Islam and likes djellabas should be in the street. I walk my I’m-way-tough-don’t-mess-with-me walk, that probably actually looks more like an I’m-just-trying-to-get-home-as-quickly-as-possible-and-without-making-any-eye-contact walk. Either way, it has worked so far and entering the sanctuary of my apartment, full on too many nachos, too many languages and too many realities, is a chance to breathe again.

An oasis ... where i would like to live.

I put on the kettle and Sufjan Stevens, lie down to think for a bit, and finally reach for my journal in an effort to pull apart the details of the different worlds that are still swirling through my mind. I DON’T understand how Moroccans do this every day! Speeding in taxis between the ville nouvelle and the medina, stepping out from their shops to speak Spanish or Italian or English or Japanese to passing tourists, wearing short sleeves inside the house and hijabs outside… it’s like walking into that post-movie, Sunday evening twilight ALL THE TIME.
For a girl who loves Buddhism partly because of its attention to single-pointed concentration, juggling multiple worlds and the different personalities I have to present in each of them is not only unnatural but it drives me crazy. At first, though I knew that my reality of Morocco was completely subjective, I at least thought that I could trust the friends I made and act like myself in any given situation. But I began to realize that no one was representing themselves fully and honestly to me, despite the fact that I was opening myself up completely and generously, to everyone from my best friends to the man at the shop on the corner – basically the OPPOSITE of R’dd baalk. When I realized all this, I cried, because I thought I couldn’t trust anyone or anything, that everyone was taking advantage of me and the “ms keena, Driyyefa, poor thing, you are so nice!” was actually more pitying than complimentary. I felt like I would be lying if I started guarding myself, watching my own back by not being completely open with everyone and by being suspect of others’ intentions.
But shweeya b shweeya, slowly slowly (this is a favorite phrase, because you learn Arabic slowly slowly, you cook dinner slowly slowly, you lower the price slowly slowly…) I am beginning to appreciate this multi-dimensional world of infinite worlds in which one is required to be dynamic and constantly aware not only of oneself, but of everyone else and all the other possible worlds and realities in which they are participating. It is actually a very powerful act of compassion, not to blindly trust everyone and everything, to try to mold your personality to what is appropriate in this situation and try to understand where the people you are interacting with are coming from and where their intentions lie. It seems sneaky, it is sneaky, but it is also smart because the reality is that all of it is real (this paragraph feels like a Mad Hatter riddle no?) – Sunday morning laziness is as real as the moral of an afternoon film and the discomfort of reentering a new world on a windy evening. Not one of these worlds is more ‘real’ or more right than another. And it is not a dishonest betrayal to participate, differently, in many of them. All of us do it all the time, transitioning between home and work, friends and family, Friday nights and Sunday nights ☺. Except I think that before, I tended to compartmentalize these worlds, treating them as separate realities and therefore dealing with them separately. But in Fez, you sleep in your shop or sell pottery out of your family house, you work for your brother and buy your vegetables from your third cousin, and discos are as packed on Sundays as they are on Fridays. You simply can’t separate your worlds.
Before bed, I brush my teeth with Flash-Up, Toothpaste that contains gargle elements, and pull out my book to put me to sleep. Karen Armstrong, the author of Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, keeps pointing out that monotheism, required its 7th century converts to go through intense personal integrations, as the occurrences and responsibilities that they had attributed to many different gods were suddenly subsumed into the one supreme al-Lah. I can’t help thinking (and poetically proposing in this absurdly long blog entry) that this sense of personal integration has remained a part of Arabic culture and that I have got to move on from my language books and start figuring out how the hell to actually live in this place of many places, once you have learned how to say hello.

... like dreaming

Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh

The other day a friend asked what makes Morocco different from every other place to which I’ve traveled. That’s a hard question, I told him, especially because Morocco has everything. We both laughed because I sounded like a guides trying to sell a trip to tourists who probably wouldn’t believe that line anyways. But it’s true. Morocco has EVERYTHING. Not only can I buy peanut butter and chocolate at the grocery, but I can spend a weekend on a farm outside the city, picking peas and making yogurt and gazing more than 5 feet into the distance, which is a normal horizon line in this maze of a medina. Or if I’m too lazy for farmwork and too crazy for city life, I can take a trip to the mountains, the beach, the desert, and swim or hike or compare sand dunes to icebergs in my imagination. Everything my tummy and my heart craves (besides all of you, of course) is here. And that, I tried to explain, is what is different about morocco. Sometimes it is just like dreaming, I try to explain, because you glide so seamlessly from one landscape and one reality into another.

An oasis city, near the desert

(not) Easy Like Sunday Morning

It’s Sunday. You wake up at 11 and laze around your bed, your room, the pile of not-dirty-enough-to be-washed-but-too-dirty-to-go-back-in-the-dresser laundry that turns out to be useless because you didn’t get dressed anyway. You wander into the kitchen and, for lack of ability to make a decision, put the kettle on, figuring that by the time it boils, you’ll know if you want coffee or tea or nothing at all. The fridge has eggs, the cupboard has cereal and you debate from your seat at the small, round table in the middle of the small, square kitchen. Halfway through the bowl of cereal, you realize an omelet would have tasted really good. And you realize you forgot about the hot water – in fact, you forgot the passage of time altogether and look up to find, with a heavy guilt that sinks to your unsatisfied stomach, that it took 2 ½ hours to eat a bowl of cereal that you didn’t even really want. You think about reading a book, going for a run, or washing that laundry, but instead flick through television stations until your own lethargy overwhelms you. You call a friend and suggest an afternoon showing at the local movie theatre. You’ve been meaning to see the movie and it would almost be like eliminating something from that mental checklist (good thing your mom isn’t there to argue that one should start at the top of the checklist, with things like filling out job applications, writing your blog post, cleaning your room (only mom would put that at the top) … ☺).
The movie starts at 5:00 and, as the reviews suggested, ‘draws you into a never-ending matrix of whimsical fantasy and unsettling conspiracy that leaves you gasping’. At the end of the film, in a half-dream, half-other-worldly state, you wobble out of your own imagination and into the real world, where the wind is blowing with a fierceness and coldness that wasn’t there in the slowness of afternoon. It’s nearly 7:00 and nearly dark – that post-sunset, pre-twilight time of the evening that is unsettling even when you haven’t spent the last two hours engulfed in an intense other-reality. The world seems completely different from how you thought about it 10 minutes ago, when the hero of the film was taking his last, tragically beautiful breaths. And completely different from when you walked into the theatre, in full daylight, with a feeling that the world had nothing to offer you besides responsibilities you simply didn’t want to meet. You must have crossed some time warp or geographical boundary when you walked out of the theatre, you think, as you pause to balance your legs and your consciousness at the threshold of the box office, because the whole world around you feels completely different, like there is a completely new set of rules, like maybe gravity doesn’t even apply anymore.
Now do that a dozen times a day.
Welcome to life in Morocco.
This place, I am discovering, is not just one place. It is a crazy, incomprehensible, infinitely layered and infinitely sneaky black hole of worlds colliding, interconnecting, fighting and simply living side-by-side. When I first arrived, I didn’t notice. I stayed in the world that had welcomed me: Fatima’s house, people who smiled when I spoke Arabic, trust for the shopowners I befriended and coming home by 9, because people said it was dangerous after that. I stayed in school, concentrated on school, lived in Fatima’s grotto and ate her food, loving the Morocco that I was beginning to know. That was comfortable but as it turns out, Fatima, and the world she helped build around me, was an incredible protector and managed to shield me from a lot of other realities in this country. But shweeya b shweeya, slowly slowly, they are being revealed to me.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I did fall off the face of the earth

And into a medieval Moroccan city where silk hangs from walls and roofs are meant for sky-gazing, gossiping with neighbors while hanging the laundry, and making a quick escape from chores or to a girlfriend’s roof. That said, I can’t imagine the escape would be very quick at all, given that you would have to weave through laundry lines, satellites dishes, and the quick tongues of everyone who saw you jump their roof. I go to the roof just to feel the sky and the mountains, whose meditative immensity (which I crave) is illusive from the winding medina streets that are just wide enough for the donkey and cart that will run you right over if you start gazing up into the narrow strip of sky.
If I stand on a laundry basket, I can peek over the walls of our roof and see the whole ‘medina l’qdeema’, or old city of Fes. I have been living here for 9 weeks, in the cozy Cinderella grotto of a castle. Or at least, I thought it was a castle when I first moved in, as the walls and windows are all carved in beautifully-patterned relief and the sitting room is 3 stories high with an indoor balcony and a half-dozen indoor windows. Elegant, no? My room is on the bottom floor of the house, with just one window that opens directly onto the home of a very sprightly rooster who wakes me up at early-morning, Cinderella hours. Luckily, if there is a princess in this castle, it is me. I don’t get up at the first call of the rooster, I am served breakfast on a silver platter, and I have never yet been left behind while my stepmother and stepsisters go to a royal ball. I’m not even allowed to do my own laundry, which, by the way, has never been so clean. Seriously – I had some socks that I thought were beige. Turns out that Fatima decided they were white and scrubbed them until she was right. That’s pretty much how she works – she’s always right and she will scrub you with her words and her workwoman’s hands until you agree. This is often hysterical, only sometimes problematic, and the reason why I gained 5 pounds my first week in her house – how do you say no when a woman twice your size yells ‘EAT! More! Take bread! EAT! ’ from across the table with a look that makes you believe she will either kill you or die in shame if you don’t take another serving of soup?
I live here, as implied by now, with Fatima, a saucy and hysterical widow of 40 years, her 17-year-old daughter Khedija, and a 31-year-old Scottish ex-pat who loves telling me about his accomplishments in rug-selling and pursuing Moroccan women. I only sometimes listen to him but have to admit that I am now much more educated in the strategies of salesmen and suitors. So beware if you ever try to lift my money or my heart – I know what you’re all about now.
Fatima also contributes, keeping me at the table after dinner to lecture me on love, usually with some pretty graphic body language to illustrate the Arabic slang that I can’t understand but that seems to mean ‘think with your head not your heart or hormones.’ And I censored that to put it up here, so you can just imagine what our post dinner conversations look like. Basically, I burn off most of my dinner with uncontrollable laughter that has me rolling in giggles on our Moroccan couches and clutching Fatima’s arm to try to make her stop. These scenes usually include Khedija, sitting across from us and trying to divide her concentration between the Turkish soap opera on TV, the music blasting from her laptop, and the homework waiting for her on the gold lace tablecloth. She shoots us those classic pissed-off-teenage-girl looks when our shenanigans add an unwanted distraction. We sometimes appease her but usually try to drag her in with us – yelling, laughing and dancing to whatever music she is playing. If Paul is around, he just laughs at us, partly in amusement and mostly in complete discomfort.
Complete discomfort is, as far as I can remember, exactly what I expected from this place. I expected everything to be foreign and exciting and, well, uncomfortable in its unfamiliarity. I guess I forgot that there are some universal things, like friendliness and love and delicious food, that are pretty much all you need. Of course, in the beginning, the whole inability to communicate verbally made for challenges, awkward moments and some great miscommunications. For example, when I asked for cornmeal for polenta, I got wheat flour, which meant we ate gruel for dinner the first time I cooked and they must have thought I was seriously crazy. Luckily, my mom redeemed me by helping to make pizza and chicken soup when she visited. The only problem now is that I have to make pizza once a week, because Khedija, like every other teenager in the world, loves pizza and pasta and very few things that her mom makes.
Luckily, I am slowly but vigorously destroying the language barrier. In my imagination, it is this big wall and I get to run up to it with a big stone bat or something. And in my imagination I actually succeed in knocking it down. But let’s be realistic: How much damage do you really think I could do to a big cement wall? I mean, the bat would probably weigh more than me and the last time I even swung a bat was in high school gym class, when I thanked God that I was spared after 3 strikes. And the last time I ran up to something with the desire to swing at and destroy it was probably that time that Tyler and I were using Macall as a Karate target and ended up locked in our rooms for hours when Mom found out.
OK, so the point is that I do have a big stone bat and it’s called intensive Arabic language classes. I have now been studying Moroccan Arabic for 8 weeks and can pretty much get around on it. This week I learned the alphabet, which is thrilling because now I can read all the signs on the street. Except that it takes like 2 minutes of sounding things out to finally pronounce a word, which is a little bit awkward and attracts a lot of attention, if I am just standing outside there whispering ‘FARmmmAAAAAsi? FaaaaaaarmAciiiiiii? Farmaaaaacie? Ohhhh! Pharmacy!’.
At first, when I still thought I was Cinderella living in a magical medieval city, I was really excited to be in school and learning a new language again. I would walk the 45 minutes between home and school 4 times a day, eavesdropping on people’s conversations and creating little challenges for myself, like buying ice cream on the way home (VERY challenging, obviously) or trying to name everything I saw or have an internal monologue (ok, we all do that anyway) in Arabic. This always made for interesting class conversations, as I would have to ask our teacher for the words that I couldn’t translate in the conversations I pretended to have with the people I passed on the road. The best was when an older male classmate returned to school on a Monday morning and asked for the words for secret, trust, girlfriend and affair. And then we knew that he had had a good, if scandalous, weekend.
While learning how to say ‘And what were YOU doing this weekend?!’ in Arabic takes up half my time, navigating the streets and life in ‘lmedina lq’deema’ takes up more than the other half. Built at the end of the 8th century AD, this old, walled city rose to prominence as the Arab world’s capital of scholarship, religion and culture. Today, the old city of 6-foot wide, stone streets and desert-colored cement houses that lean in their old age is just a 40 cent taxi ride from the new city, ‘ville nouvelle’. The ville nouvelle is a modern, European-esque city, with big boulevards, apartment buildings, cars, taxies, Christmas lights, a lot of rotaries (maybe because they like fountains and when you have a rotary, you can put a fountain in the middle, which you can’t do with just a regular intersection) and European cafes where Moroccan men pass days at a time, drinking THE SAME cup of coffee and watching people pass. I think they mostly watch women pass, but I’ve been told that people also do business at the cafes – if you need car insurance, need to speed up a process at the court, need a TV or a visa for France, you just go to the right guy at the cafĂ© and he’ll hook you up. But really, I am starting to believe Fatima when she says you can find everything you’re looking for in the medina.
“Fatima, kheSSni shi shshoklaat baash nSowb haad gato lli bgheetee. Kayn f lmedina?” Translation: Fatima, I need some chocolate to make those cookies that you like. Can I get it in the medina?
She looks at me, eyebrows raised and nose flared in a ‘what do you think this place is, you crazy girl?’ type of way. ‘MaAlom, MaAlom, Habiba. F haad Hwaanet qriib l gezzar. Zeed w shoof. Zeed Zeed. Seer, Habibti, Seer.’ Translation: ‘Of course of course, lovie. In those shops near the butchers. Go ahead and see. Come on, go. Go my love, go.’
But that’s just what she says, in her head she calls me ‘hammka and mskhota’ which mean crazy and black sheep. And to be honest, most of the time she says that too.
Anyways, off I go, with all her encouragement, to the street with the butchers to try to find the guys who also sell chocolate. Yes, I am skeptical of buying chocolate from a stall that shares counter space with camel heads and goat thighs and the very occasional peacock, but what can I do? From our house to the butchers section is about 10 minutes going straight up one of the two main streets in the medina (literally called ‘little way up’, as opposed to ‘big way up’, which is the other main street). The streets of the medina, especially at peak shopping hours, are some combination of the halls of your high school, an American shopping mall, and a football game. Basically it’s everything you loved when you were 16 (except cars, which do not fit between the buildings here. Donkeys are ‘medina taxis’). Let me explain.
Everyone in the medina, it seems, knows each other and if they don’t, they probably know each other’s families or about what happened to your second cousin Ahmed when he traveled to Casablanca last weekend. Gossip here travels faster than a Moroccan kid late for Koranic school – except that it is NOT usually Halaal gossip. Basically, the gossip culture turns TlA sgheera on Saturday afternoon, into a high school hallway during lunch hour, with women looking you up and down the way the popular girls did if you broke down and wore those sneakers that Aunt Mary gave you for Christmas and they were kinda cute, but … As you dodge critical eyes and gossiping huddles of all types, all the while trying to pick up a little piece of what people are saying so that you can bring it home and spread the rumor further, you also have to dodge the actual physical obstacles. This is where the football metaphor comes in (work with me here). Sometimes I really think I should be wearing a helmet or shoulder pads to get up to the market on a busy afternoon, as it involves squishing through people, yelling, trying not to knock over the tray of cookies that guy is carrying on his head or get run over by the man and his donkey and their enormous carriage of live snails (snail soup). What is that football move? A buttonhook? I seem to remember Dad calling that play during family football games and I bet it would confuse medina traffic about as much as it confused five-year-old Brady who always ran the wrong direction anyway.
Finally, as you bob and weave through 10-foot wide streets, you’re inevitably drawn into the sounds and sights of the medina shopping mall. Like every mall, there are tens of hundreds of shops, each blasting its own club music (or Bob Marley, as it so happens), each with half-dressed maniquins and well-dressed shop owners ready to sell you everything you don’t want. The perfume shops spray samples at you, just like the makeup counters at Bloomingdales, and there is always a line at the donut stand and snack stops, the equivalent of Auntie Anne’s or Mrs. Fields. I pass this one shop every day and it’s always blasting crazy techno music from its linoleum lined, 6ft by 4ft floor space that is only made smaller by its racks of hot pink, Western-style tops. But that’s normal. What is slightly abnormal and completely fantastic is that on multiple occasions, I have caught the shopkeeper using this space to its maximum potential and dancing from one end to the other, arms, legs, head and hips usually unsynchronized but completely into it. Which, of course, makes me laugh like a 16-year-old girl. And all this just for a bar of chocolate, which, if you remember, is also a very important part of a high-school girl’s life.
I am currently trying to get a little independence, grow up from these 2 months of being 16 again with 20 hours of school each week, a curfew, and the insistence that I finish all the food on my plate (well, on my part of the big communal dish that we eat out of). I’ll be done with school in a few days and hopefully by the end of the week, will be moving into an apartment of my own where I will be able to read and write and sit in my room alone and even skip meals if I feel like it. That said, I’m going to be REALLY sad to leave Fatima and Khedija and Paul. Fatima has already informed me that I will have to take at least one meal a day here and bring my laundry when its dirty. Just like home, right?
The good news is that a week from now, I will not be spending 7 hours a day in school or in transit to school, and the other 5 or 10 hours answering ‘yes, Fatima?’ when she yells ‘shemAaaaaaaa!’ (‘Candle’, which is my name, obviously) from the kitchen. So I will have much more time to do my research and to write allllllll about it here! Wheeee! And I’ll be as surprised as you about whatever I end up writing because I have yet to figure out PRECISELY what it is I will be doing now that I can’t go to school anymore (sound familiar? Anyone?). For now, though, Fatima wants me to get the laundry off the roof and fetch pizza ingredients from the shop on the corner – it’s back to the timewarp of a 9th century city and 16-year-old dreams.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

I didn’t fall of the face of the earth

I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. I did, however, fall into a place with more than 10 miles of road, more than 1 hour of daylight and more than 5,000 people (Ilulissat, Greenland), which is backhanded way of saying that there have been many reasons not to sit at this desk J. I am in Cape Town, South Africa. I am living in a ‘suburb’ called Observatory. It is considered a bit alternative, young and hip (you know, just like me). It’s only 3 train stops or 10 minutes in a mini-bus from the city centre and is really more like a residential extension of the city than a separate suburb.

A view of the city from Table Mountain.

Cape Town is full of stunning natural beauty, perfect beaches, amazing people, a certain amount of tension and unbelievable examples of contrast. Incidentally, it is also full of avid holiday-ers, who take three weeks off when Christmas and summer collide and explode into one, big, barbecueing, firecracker-lighting, late-night drumming and dancing, beach-going vacation. My lifestyle here laughs at my Greenland lifestyle (coming home from work at five and knitting until midnight). I also laugh. I hope you do as well :) I no longer feel like I’m 80, but I do feel like I should occasionally refuse a social invite, cultivate a bit more self-discipline and at least do some reading during this dead period, when everyone I want to interview for my research is at the beach. Formal research happens occasionally, but spontaneity has led me to new ideas, new friends, new research and a new confidence in the value of spontaneous decision-making …

Last weekend, a friend with a car (one of the best kinds of friends :) took us to the beach. Francois, the driver, is from Mauritius. He is white, with long, dirty-blond hair and thick, black-framed glasses. He studies film, if that gives some insight. He is eccentric and truly happy, which makes him (and his car) the best partners for a seaside adventure. Across the reggae-blasting radio from Francois sits Valerie, munching on potato chips, swaying with the music and yell-talking in Creole and French with Francois. Valerie is from Reunion Island, which is a country. I didn’t know that before I met her. Maybe you didn’t know it before you read that sentence. It’s near Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Madagascar ( It’s French and volcanic and beautiful and yes, I think we should all meet up there. I have no plans in March (kind of)… Anyways, I am accompanied in the backseat by 2 broken windows and Jafar, a 29-year-old, self-proclaimed nomad from Cameroon and the Fulani tribe – “the cowboys of Africa”, he says. According to Jafar, Fulanis are the second most populous tribe in Africa AND they don’t dance, which is lame, I say. He asks what “lame” means and after a stumbling and giggling explanation, he returns to the French, car conversation and I stare out the window, choosing the speed and beauty and smoothness of the landscape over the beauty of the language I have always wanted to learn. I crane my neck to look straight up at the trees as we wind through Eucalyptus groves that remind of Hawaii and of how much I like trees (and missed them when I was in Greenland!). Soon enough, we wind down the mountain and into a small beachside town. My window-view is now interrupted by visions of wire and spikes mounted on 15-foot stone and plaster walls - turning beautiful, Dutch cottages into fortresses that spoke more of fear than of the quaintness and comfort usually evoked by cottage architecture. These walls are standard architectural elements in and around Cape Town – my house in the city has an iron gate and fence, as well as metal bars barricading every door and window (I need 3 keys just to get in the front door). That’s already absurd, but I could not understand why, in this little town of white-sand beaches and white stucco cottages, people felt the need to erect the same protections that we had in the city. And then I looked left. Literally across the road, the same metal that, in spike form, kept people out of the houses on the right, housed people on the left, in sheet-metal form, constructed to create small shacks that dot the dusty hillside. Tarps, plywood, sheet metal, old doors, old windows and shipping platforms were creatively combined to form one- or two-room shacks for 3 or 5 or 8 family members. Women sat outside on overturned buckets, laughing and talking and not worrying so much about the kids, who played together at whatever game they could create. “ajaaaaaa’ (Greenlandic for ‘ooooooo’ or ‘whoa’ or what in South Africa would be ‘shit, man’) was all I could say.

In my very limited experience of Cape Town, I have noticed this element of extreme contrast everywhere. Mountains tower over city buildings, exposing nature and urbanity, then dive into the sea, in a vertical/horizontal, immense/sublime contrast. People say that in Cape Town, you can experience four seasons in a day. I’m pretty sure I’ve been whipped through the city streets by four seasons in a matter of minutes: kissed by the sun, chilled by the rain, batted by the wind and pissed off at the clouds :) The brightness of day often brings warmth and the dark of night is cold enough to merit the fleece I wore in Greenland.

Of course, just 15 years after the end of apartheid, the light/dark contrast draws lines between more than just night and day. I spend most of my time here with a few African guys who live just ten minutes from my house, in a one-story cottage that has 7 bedrooms and 7 nationalities: Congo, Italy, Angola, Cameroon, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mauritius. At any given time, one of these guys is not working, which means that I have an adventure partner for a trip to the beach, a museum, a penguin sanctuary… Usually we take the third-class train, which almost inevitably makes me the only white person around. And if we go to a nice beach or tourist site, the guy I’m with is almost inevitably the only black man we see. EVERYONE sees us – or so it seems. At first, I didn’t notice, wasn’t bothered and was honestly surprised at my own ‘color-blindness’. But in a few weeks time, I have learned to see color. It’s a little disturbing, but it also begins to explain why this society works the way it does - trying not to trip as it stumbles over the remnants of apartheid that have become a (sometimes) subtle part of public consciousness. I expected to come to South Africa and feel as aware of my whiteness as I did of my American-ness in Greenland. I guess I do feel white, but more than that, I am oddly aware of my friends’ blackness: uncomfortable for them when I am given the bill at lunch, when people on the hiking trail mumble and don’t make eye contact, when they get asked things like “so do people live in houses in your country?”. At the same time, though, our mixed pairings get us into places we otherwise might not go: I have escorts to the African market and the local fish and chips shack, while they have a reason to sit on the nice beach or stroll through the botanical gardens. And meanwhile, we can just laugh at everyone else’s discomfort and curiosity.

Victor, a friend from Angola, with South African penguins!!!

It was my own curiosity, in fact, that delivered me to one of the best places on earth, right here in Cape Town. Well, it’s about 30 minutes outside of Cape Town – pretty distant from affordable public transportation, jobs, the mountains, the beach, etc. It is called Symphony Way and it is a shack community in one of Cape Town’s largest and most distant townships. On my second day in the city, my only friend here (at the time. Now i have lots of friends. Tons. I'm probably the most popular person in this city) was going out there to do some interviews for his research. I still hadn’t changed or showered since arriving in the city, but spontaneity beat out my sense of hygiene and I asked to tag along. We drove out of the city, through the township, over the sidewalk at the corner where the old man sells fruit, onto the bicycle path to avoid the road block and then back again onto Symphony Way. The road is officially closed here and the roadblocks are unofficially erected and enforced by Symphony Way residents, who nonetheless cannot stop the police from driving through regularly.

Symphony Way ladies, strolling the road with me. I'm pretty sure I was teasing the girl on the end about having a crush on my friend, Emilio.

This is the edge of the township and the edge of a sandy bush area that boasted a healthy, green ecosystem before this township was built in the early 1990's. Now, the unstable sand whips down the street and through the tarps and plywood that residents have nailed and wrapped and leaned and constructed into houses that line this border between town and desert. On this border, this edge, this battleground of contrast and conflict between people and their government, live 120 families. These families, many of whom have been on the public housing waiting list for 20 or 30 years, illegally occupied government houses in December of 2007. They were evicted in February and rather than move into the government-provided shacks, they collected what they could of their belongings in the scramble of the eviction and set up across the street, on Symphony Way (check out their website at They have lived here for 11 months, through winter and summer, an hour’s walk from school and jobs, without electricity and with one communal hose for water. And despite these incredible hardships, Symphony Way is one of the healthiest, most amazing communities that I have ever encountered - I would like to live in a place just like this. There’s no TV and no electric light, so most people draw amusement from strolling the road, visiting neighbors, sitting on makeshift porches and shooting the shit, talking politics, or organizing for the next demonstration. “It’s really a wonderful place to live,” one man told me, “because we all come from different places and have different stories, so we have so much to learn from one another.” Amazing. Almost as amazing as the children of Symphony Way, who, given their life situations and my own prejudices, I expected to be like those poor children in the Christian Relief Fund commercials (you know, give a penny a day and relieve the guilt of spending 100 times that on your morning muffin…). Not even a little bit like that.

Jafar (a friend from Cameroon) is holding Beyonce, the happiest child in the world who only occasionally likes looking at the camera...

On my first day in Symphony Way, I met the happiest child in the world. She came and crouched next to me on the curb and just looked into my face until I broke into a smile. She broke into a giggle and for the rest of the day, I carried this three-year-old on my hip, making eye contact and giggling with her every 30 seconds. We played jumprope, rugby (girls vs. boys, obviously), hopscotch and three sticks (line up three sticks and jump over them – you get creative when resources are limited) with the other kids until dark. Girls showed me their dance moves, sang the latest Rihanna hit and told me about their favorite colors, favorite school subjects, and dreams for the future. As the sun set and people rolled their makeshift, open-flame, gas canister/stoves outside to make dinner, we started a bonfire and drumming dance party. We left at 2 AM, promising to return for Christmas (a huge contrast to my other Christmas invite – of a 6 course dinner with some friends from work, which I just realized has been completely omitted from this post. Oops). I didn’t stop smiling for days and have spent many of those days trying to figure out how to incorporate this place into my formal research – something about religion and social movements, perhaps …

Making dinner. The little boy is Frankie. The last time I was in Symphony Way, he fell asleep on my shoulder when I was carrying him around.

In all of this contrast – of economic positions, of landscape and weather, of color and my own expectations – I am realizing that in every example, there are two distinct sides, with a bold line that divides and defines their borders. Maybe there is some way to twist this metaphor into a lesson about living peacefully with difference or appreciating the difference in contrast. I’ll work on that. But for now, I am simply trying to walk across those lines, boldly and smiling.