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.