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 café 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.