Tuesday, March 30, 2010

pray for Love on other planets, we can't be the only ones who have it

I want to take a moment to wish my dear Papa a very Happy Birthday on this fine spring day of March 30, 2010. I am thinking about you Papa, and I will talk to you tonight. Thanks be to the wonders of the internet, for such a conversation between my Papa and his Papa during the Peace Corps in Chad in the '60s was not possible. (Are we in the future yet, with videochatting capabilities in some people's pockets? Maybe, but that doesnt mean Im going to buy a blueberry or an iPad.)

The importance of family cannot be understated, and I have gained a renewed perspective on this while living here. Isn't it unfortunate that we value things more (or sometimes for the first time) once they are gone. I wonder how many people picked up A People's History for the first time because they heard about Howard Zinn's death? I wonder about how living in Moroccan has fostered a strong desire to revisit my family's history, and that of my Parents and their parents and all the stories that I have heard at one time or another. Stories must be retold, that is for sure. I want to read (and reread) Mommy's essays about our year in Burkina Faso, and listen to her stories of college and life in Brazil and Japan. I want to hear Papa's stories about being a consultant in northern Nigeria in the '70s, riding Gunther in Chad, promoting literacy and publication of texts in mother tongues, and all the other amazing work he has done and the experiences he has had.

At the same time I have amassed an extensive list of books that I want to read, as well as a long list of ideas that have been prompted by my experiences and thoughts here, including reading amazing books like Brave New World, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Cunt. Also The English Patient. And others. I am extremely thirsty for thoughts and ideas, I want to gobble up everything. I want to read and read and debate and write and take all of the wonderful geography and envrionment classes at BU. But there is not enough time in the day to do all of this, especially when there is so much good food to eat! There are also preparations to be made for saying goodbye to Mommy on thursday, for my trip to climb Jebel Toubkal this weekend (inchallah, 2nd highest mountain in North Africa), and for the arrival of the sweet and dear Jillian in a week and a half!

There is so much to be thankful for in this great life and world of ours, so much to love and to learn, and also so much to be done. I guess my only problem is not getting overwhelmed by all the things I want to do. I feel blessed to have an excess of meaningful pursuits and interests at my disposal, I really do.

Happy Birthday Papa!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

the good times are thrilling me

Just under 6 weeks remain of my time in Morocco. It is hard to not look at it that way, but I am doing my best to avoid a glass half-empty mindset. In general I am an optimist. I try to see the good in every person and situation, and I can pretty much always find something to be happy about. There is a lot of misery in the world, but I think there is even more joy. I also see the reason in everything, or try to find it, though there are some things that don’t make any sense. Or maybe the things that don’t make sense are the ones I don’t agree with.

So there is not much time left…this is where I am supposed to pledge not to waste another Moroccan moment, right? I won’t do that, but I will say this: I am really starting to get comfortable here, as in I feel that I actually belong. No major change occurred, no big hill was crested; rather, it’s the gradual culmination of a long slow period of cultural and linguistic adjustment. I think it’s a process that every similarly immersed person goes through. Maybe this is the rollercoaster of studying abroad at work, the metaphor that we learned about in the pre-departure meeting for Niger? (I understand the ups and downs part, but it’s not the best comparison because rollercoasters are most fun when you are going down, not up. )

But things are just going well lately. Coming back from spring break last week was much more manageable than the post-excursion funk of late February, perhaps because I had 2 full buffer days before classes restarted. This break was also much more low-key and relaxing than our excursion. Alex and I had a great time in Essaouira, which is a smallish and beautiful seaside town about 8 hours by bus south of Rabat. The weather was warm, I would daresay hot at times, and the wind, which I’m told is usually ferocious and biting with sand, was meshi mushkeel (without problems). We got a great deal on a little apartment (the ‘annex’ of Hotel Smara, and the only thing missing was a kitchen) right off the main drag with hot shower and no curfew, and our schedule was very laidback. Late morning breakfast on the hotel’s terrace of oranges, bread, and amelou (15 dh for a half liter), which is an Amazight specialty of almonds, argan oil, honey, and cinnamon, a sweet nutty spread. However, upon returning to Rabat, Rachid informed me that what we bought is not authentic, for it has peanuts instead of almonds. Possibly no argan oil either, for he said it’s usually much more expensive. No matter, because it was still a delicious concoction that we enjoyed.

It was really a vacation of indulgence, especially eating. In the afternoons we enjoyed huge feasts, a combination lunch and dinner. Monday’s was a rest-stop gorge on a kilo of grilled lamb cutlets and the most amazing and simple salad, seasoned grilled tomatoes and onions. Mmm the salad of my dreams. Tuesday was a seafood feast of epic proportions, including some new foods, at the fresh fish grill stands that are located off of the main square in Essaouira. Sea urchin roe, then big scampi shrimps also with tasty roe running down their backs, then calamari, then a whole sea bars (how sea bass is listed on the menu) and a red snapper both butter-flied and dusted with salt and cumin, mmm…and don’t forget the big stone crab that Alex had purchased earlier at the wharf, served with salad and bread. Everything was expertly grilled and well-seasoned and oh so tasty. The urchin and the crab were newbies for me, thumbs up on both. It was so much food, yet we somehow managed to finish and walk away with smiles and expanded waistlines. Wednesday was a repeat of Tuesday, except only the 2 fish to share this time. Very good the second time, and more reasonable portions. I never knew you can find dark meat on fish, and I also know about the sweet cheek meat now too.

In the evenings we enjoyed liquid meals, hanging out on the terrace of the hotel and chatting with different fellow tourists from Ontario, England, and France. It’s always nice to talk to people with different perspectives, and of course we lended our knowledge of Morocco and Arabic too.

On Thursday we caught a bus, a little later than expected, north to El-Jadida. The departure was delayed by an hour, the ride was a bit hot and smelly, and we were dropped off some 40 kilometers from our destination and put in a grand taxi (paid for by the bus) with 2 other similarly ruffled passengers; in short, it was very reminiscent of my experiences in West Africa. That’s what we get for skimping on the fancy CTM bus line in favor of companies like S.T.P.G. and Yamama. We didn’t get to the very Spartan and creepily efficient and empty Hotel du Bordeaux until 11:30 pm, where we enjoyed (sort-of) Misbegotten. I think it’s a lifetime movie (Allan?), because it’s about a serial killer who murders and impersonates a sperm donor and then stalks the woman who is unknowingly carrying his child. Creepy, just like the hotel, except for the fact that it is a horrible movie.

Friday morning we explored the Portuguese fort that used to protect the harbor. All 4 walls of the ramparts can be perused, though the thick old walls these days protect more trash than people. Worth seeing, though I remember our breakfast of fried seafood more fondly. Sole fillets, sardines, a whole sea bars, and some shrimp, all very tasty, along with a chunky tomato soup sauce and bread. If I remembered the name of the restaurant I would tell you it, but it can be found in the Lonely Planet guidebook. After breakfast we made our way to the bus station and killed time in a café while waiting for our bus. It left a little closer to schedule, about 30 minutes late, and we were back in Rabat at around 5:30. Overall, a great vacation and exactly what I needed, though in hindsight, if not for the fish breakfast, I would have stayed in Essaouira for Thursday night as well.

The ongoing visit of Mommy (& Hugh), who arrived on Friday, was a welcome return and has contributed to my good spirits. Farida cooked up a great meal for us on Saturday, and then we all, including Rachid this time, enjoyed a big tea spread on Sunday afternoon. I also went with them to explore the Tour Hassan and Mohammed V’s mausoleum, Rabat’s biggest tourist attractions (that I had yet to visit), on Sunday before tea. They are enjoying Fez and Meknes this week and will be back in Rabat this weekend.

Hammam on Monday night was also great, my 4th time and the best one yet. I finally tried the black soap that I have heard so much about, and it was grand. It is applied before the snake phase and after the soak phase, and it really helps to loosen up those dead skin cells. For the first time I felt at ease in the stifling chamber, like a regular. Augustin, a 20-something Frenchman who is living with Rachid’s sisters and Mother and working on the Bouregreg development project, accompanied us, his first hamman experience, so perhaps his presence contributed to my comfort. Isn’t it funny how much we define our experiences in life based on those around us? Its an inherent human thought process I think, one that reinforces our nature as social creatures. Anyway, it was an enjoyable and thorough (and overdue) cleansing experience in good company.

I am feeling closer to Rachid lately, we have just been connecting more. Eating dinner in the kitchen at 9 or 10 lately, just the two of us, contributes to this. Discussions, in French and some Arabic, about all manner of subjects, mostly serious, like politics or what is important in life. I’ve also found out some pretty private stuff about his family, etc. that will remain as such. The content is not as important as the connection and the fact that he is able to share stuff with me, which I really like.

He also said that teachers, especially University teachers, in Morocco make a good living, comparable or greater than some business men. While this is possible in the States, I think it is safe to say that the average teacher at any level makes less than the average businessman, and much less than a successful one. It seems that we are doing things in reverse, that our priorities are not in order.

No, I take that back, because though I (and many others) do not agree with the way things are, the priorities are clearly in order. And the reality is that making money, the pursuit of profits, greed, free market capitalism, call it what you will, is a greater priority than something as fundamental and important as the education of children. For a microcosm of this, compare BU’s School of Education with the opulence of The School of Management that overshadows it from across the street. Even within academia, we see where the priorities lie.

But all is still well on the home front, and there is more good stuff in my life too. The lovely Ms. Jillian Ruddock has made plans to visit me for a week in April, which will be a treat that I greatly look forward to. I am just inundated with visitors, it is great! And Assia, Farida’s older sister, is expecting to give birth this week or the next. A new baby is always exciting, as will be the festivities that I am sure accompany such an occasion.

A note about today, March 24th, before I go. We took a field trip during Arabic class to the National Library (don’t tell BU!) one of our weekly field exercises. We were denied entry; however, because 8 tourists without an official guide is technically illegal in Morocco. But not matter, because a guide appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The day was saved, or so we thought. He was dressed in a slightly shabby, yet well-fitting and sharp looking, pinstriped suit complete with non-matching vest, watch fob and chain, gaudy (and most certainly fake) gold watch, 4 pins on his tie and lapel, flashy white leather shoes….need I continue? Yes, so I don’t forget his rose-tinted glasses. I would describe it as a zoot suit, on the wrong person, gone terribly wrong. I don’t usually hold regrets, but I wish I had gotten picture of this man! What was he doing guiding us around a library? He should have been chasing women that are out of his league or gambling in a sleazy casino.

He also told us that he is an Alawite, a member of the royal family. That is all fine and dandy, but judging from his dress, occupation, and the show he made of bossing people around, I would say he is a pretty unimportant member of the clan. I am being harsh on this man, I know. It was a somewhat informative tour, but there were also many things that made us all want to either burst into laughter or hit him over the head. He treated us like we were back in 1st grade, explaining things like the library’s equivalent of the Dewey decimal system and elaborating on the many important functions of an armchair. Our Arabic teachers felt bad for us, and it was hilarious seeing them, especially tall jovial Abdul-Aziz, interact with the guide and try to get him to speed up the excruciatingly slow tour. But it was overall very funny, and still better than being in class. I also plan on returning to the library to do some research about Morocco’s agricultural sector and the situation of the environment.

Time to get some sleep so I can do homework in the morning. Things are going really good I am happy to report, and the tea glass is half full.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Opting-Out

“don’t we know that our minds are just made out of strings to be pulled” –Modest Mouse

I don’t know exactly what Isaac Brock was writing about here in his song called ‘Lives,’ which meaning of the word ‘Lives’ he is referring to, whether we are intended to know, or whether he even knows. (Sometimes I think critic and commentator types read into art too much in order to find a message that the artist might never have intended to convey.) But Brock wrote the song, so he probably had something in mind.

I was thinking about that line and the idea of ‘opting out.’ In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan writes about people and movements (though movements are just people, right?) who have chosen, for one reason or another, to opt out of the conventional industrial food chain of the United States. These people have in common the conviction that the principles of industry, including specialization, assembly-line-style production, homogenization, speed and efficiency, and of course an insatiable thirst for petroleum products, should be separated from the way that we grow and eat our food.

Those who have opted out include proponents of organic agriculture, or at least the original proponents and those who still abide by its founding principles. In several key ways the organic industrial farm of today is very closely related to its ugly conventional industrial cousin. Monoculture, the treatment of a farm like a factory, and a reliance on fossil fuels (for everything but fertilizers and pesticides) are the most obvious similarities.

Other people who have opted out are the founder, Will Allen, and the workers that make up Growing Power, the 2-acre integrated urban farm ‘system’ in Milwaukee that produces 100,000 pounds of organic and sustainable produce annually. (Isn’t organic necessarily sustainable you say? Sorry, but no.) It is fascinating and very important stuff that they are doing, and I based my organic urban agriculture modeling project last semester partly on his work. Describing why he did not bother to seek the USDA’s certified organic label, Allen says “We would all much rather be in the fields than filling out lots of paper work for the government.” (Hmm, that quote was either from the Growing Power website or one of the articles I read, I’ll get back to you on that source.)

There are other opt-outers who, like Growing Power, are staying far away from federal organic certification.

Alternative farming, Beyond Organic, biodynamic, local, natural systems agriculture, Grass Farming, etc...there are probably more that exist. How about Permaculture? It’s a system of design principles with the goal of creating permanent and sustainable agriculture in harmony with human culture that incorporates natural processes in every way possible. They start with organic agriculture and its reliance on (and governance by) the cycle of life, move beyond that, and then turn those principles around on your occupation, your dwelling choice, every aspect of your life. Leave it to two ecologists from Australia to come up with something that makes so much sense. See here for more details http://permaculture.org.au/what-is-permaculture/

The point is there are lots of ways of opting out, some more extreme than others. But I think everyone who is opting out in some way or another, whether they realize it or not, is tired of feeling like a puppet, of having the strings of their mind pulled in so many different ways. How about we pull our own strings for a change?

As one small example, lets take someone who thinks they have no time to cook and no money to buy good food to cook with. So they live on a diet of frozen microwave meals and pizzas, ramen noodles, and all manner of other processed and packaged foods because it is convenient and relatively cheap.

But one day our model twiggy (or twig) pulls back the wool from her eyes and realizes several things: She is spending only a small fraction of her energy, measured in terms of money and time involved in preparation and consumption, on something as fundamental and potentially-delicious as her source of nourishment and life, her food. She also realizes that the small percentage of her income going towards food is spent on unhealthy and highly processed food that resembles a factory product (lots of packaging and ingredients, chemicals, claims about its purpose and merits, instructions, etc.) more than an item of food.

As soon as our model twiggy realizes the error of her ways and decides to make some changes to the way that she procures, prepares, and eats her food, as soon as she decides to become more invested in her food and its inherent connections with her home, the earth, then she has opted out in her own little way. Not only is she benefitting herself, her personal health especially, but she is benefitting all of us in a roundabout yet very important way.

There are lots of ways to opt out, and the industrial food system is just one of many that people are opting out of. Consider for a moment music and the state of popular music today. There are literally factories for churning out attractive and vapid pop stars who will dominate the charts with their formulaic take on, well, besides how cute their boyfriend/girlfriend is/how much he/she has hurt her/how much he/she loves them… on nothing really. Micky mouse club is a waste of everyone’s time! (Though it pains me to say this, a certain L--- G--- might, might, just might be considered possibly an exception to this, because I think that there is a slight chance that she is consciously manipulating the general pop music audience for personal profit and relishing the ease at which she is able to do so, especially with songs whose words are half-gibberish. Either that or she is just as empty and worthless as the rest of them.)

Take the genre of alternative rock music as an example. The very name, which implies some kind of opting out from the mainstream, has become decidedly mainstream. For example, it would be inaccurate to lump two groups such as Bomb the Music Industry! and Nickleback (gasp) into the same genre of music, despite the fact that both are alternatives to mainstream rock n’ roll. I think to make such a generalization would also be highly offensive to the former (whereas the latter would have no idea who the former is). Or, the former would laugh at the irony of your generalization, twitch his glasses, sip his tall boy, stroke his moustache, etc.

Indie music is another such genre whose name has come to mean very little as a descriptor for the type of music it labels.

BTMI! is the best example I have of a group that has opted out from the music industry; it is clearly obvious from their name how they feel about the corporate influence that dominates music today. According to my brother Allan, they are classified as D.I.Y. punk rock music, do-it-yourselfers who record and distribute their own music (and encourage its dissemination free of charge; all their albums are available on their website), provide stencils and paint at shows for fans to make their own t-shirts, and in many other ways provide a true alternative to mainstream music. (Is this all accurate Allan?) I am listening to one of their albums, Get Warmer, as we speak; it is one of my favorites.

It seems that as an idea or movement expands in size and scope over time it inevitably loses something. In one sense this is an example of the law of entropy at work, which dictates that an organized system always tends towards disorder, like ice melting in your drink, without an input of more energy. There is energy embodied in any form of organization, a building, a government, a hot bowl of soup, and that energy will inevitably dissipate. The more complex a system is the more energy it represents; thus this system inevitably has higher costs to maintain that degree of order. But the next time your noodle soup is rapidly cooling do not fret, because that energy is going somewhere. I guarantee it and so do the laws of thermodynamics.

I was thinking about when a movement or vein of culture, often an ‘alternative’ to something, becomes so big that it loses sight of its original ideals or values. As ideas grow and disseminate they often seem to lose something, that spark that made them so special and appealing to begin with. Is this process inevitable, as entropy would tell us? This phenomenon accelerates with the loss of a founder, or a person whose ideals and energy are so important to something that it would not be the same thing without them.

Camp Rotary is imbued with the spirit and enthusiasm and commitment of Rich Cowdell, and it would not be the same place for me without him. He did not found the place, but I’m not sure I would recognize the camp before his time began there. Similarly the CCCL here in Rabat would not be the same without its director and co-founder Farah, for her friendliness and dedication, and the way she makes whoever she is talking to at that moment feel like the most important person, are visible in every one of its programs and staff members. But when Rich and Farah move on, and pass the torch to someone else as they inevitably will, is it the same camp or center?

Yes and no, for their energy will live on and continue to excite and inspire people who pass through these two places even though Rich’s handshake and smile, and Farah’s dedication and warm attentiveness, will not greet them.

-this is something ive been working on for a little while, and I apppreciate any comments.

Writing about vacation on vacation

Spring break is here, and I am enjoying myself exactly as I needed to and intended to. This weekend is reserved for relaxing and catching up on a few things that I have been meaning to do. Last week, while procrastinating a bit, I actually made a to do list for break. Now you may chuckle at that, which is fine by me. But most of these are personal things, not for school or the benefit of anyone really, except me of course. Well I guess catching up on my excursion blogs and uploading pictures to spacebook is something you all can enjoy too, but besides that its all me. This afternoon I watched Sicko, Michael Moore’s documentary that I have been meaning to see and that Fadoua graciously lended me. It is about the state of healthcare in America and also his argument for free universal health care.

Though it is a bit sensationalist at times, it is an excellent film that I highly recommend. I especially enjoyed the part when he went to Cuba with a handful of people who have lasting health problems from working at Ground Zero after 9/11, our “heroes” who have not been adequately compensated or cared for in exchange for the sacrifices they made. They tried unsuccessfully to receive care at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, for the detainees there receive top notch healthcare at the expense of the American taxpayer, so instead they seek care (successfully, for free) at Havana Hospital.

Of course as fellow humans, no matter what crimes they may or may not have committed, those imprisoned at Guantanamo deserve no less. But it is a travesty that the average American, paying an arm and a leg for insurance, is not even guaranteed access to an equal or greater quality of healthcare (not to mention the 50 million or so Americans who don’t have insurance) as their most notorious ‘enemies’ or their elected officials. But then again those elected officials, our representatives, who are supposed to be speaking for we the people, their boss, are too busy accepting money from corporations (including of course insurance and pharmaceutical companies) and defending the interests and profits of the elite and wealthy to recognize the irony that Moore is employing in Cuba to make his case for free universal health care. That would render health insurance companies useless; though, something that is not likely to happen anytime soon, maybe never, as we have seen in the past year or so and the efforts to reform the system.

There are some things that capitalism is great for, for example maybe the market for personal computers, clothing, construction, I don’t know. But there are some things that I think should be held securely out of reach of for-profit corporations, and one of those things, perhaps the most fundamental, is an individual’s health. The idea of health insurance companies, who we pay a sum each month in order to insure access to the necessary care that will ensure our health, turning away sick people or denying clients a necessary procedure or test, and doing this in the interests of increasing profit margins, makes me furious. There there is one of the stories in the movie where an uninsured man, who accidentally sawed off two of his fingertips, was forced to choose which finger he could afford to have reattached. Isn't there some extra money lying around, somewhere?

On a side note, see here about the wonderful educational reform that is happening in Texas. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/13/education/13texas.html

I guess these complaints represent more and more reasons to stay in Morocco. That and the olives, mmm. If only olives could grow in New England…Okay I am going to pick up from excursion where I left off on Tuesday morning when we left the desert. We stayed in the jeeps for a while, which was fine by me, for it was a safari I did not want to end. Taking a different way back to Zagora than we came included a few interesting stops...

First was a date palmerie, where the-ever graceful Hassan answered our questions about date production. He showed us the different female and male trees, which are differentiated by not being regularly pruned. He also talked about the irrigation ditches that form grids throughout the palmerie. They have a communal system where access to water, controlled by blocking ditches with dirt or alternatively opening them, is rotated between the different farmer’s or family’s plots in an area. I’m not exactly sure how it works, no matter, because the point is that it works. Oh and the palms take a while to get established, but once they do they can live for several hundreds of years, producing dates all along. I like dates, or date I should say, because I can’t eat more than one in a sitting. Too much date, and very sweet, really a complement to the salty tangy olive, for both are intense in their own way. I hope it is clear by now which one I prefer.

The next stop was a small library of Arabic texts, all hand-written and ancient, with some of them displayed open in glass cases and the others lining shelves all around the room. Our charismatic djellabah-clad host there, who in appearance seemed older than some of the books he extorted us to examine, was entertaining. Part of this came from his rather high-pitched voice spouting a wonderful mix of Darija, French, and heavily-accented English, and part came from the way he attached himself to one of our group, Ciara, at times pushing others of us out of the way in order to give her a better view of the gold-accented script of a Koran or the “dictionary Turkish-Arabic.” The conviction of his desire for us, but especially Ciara, to see these books was hilarious and heart-warming. The 4,000 book collection included one that he was especially proud of, a Koran written on “skeen, skeen gazelle.” There was no photography allowed in the library, which was attached to a school or some other institution, but I have mental images a-plenty.

Our morning tour, and our time in the jeeps, concluded with a stop at a pottery cooperative. I forget where it is located, somewhere not far from Zagora, and it can be found in the Lonely Planet guide I remember. This region is famous for its green pottery, and we got a little tour to see the process from start to finish. There were men mixing and partly-drying the clay in the sun, which is then formed into various size products on pottery wheels by other men. Our guide hopped down into a hole, his legs disappearing to work whatever hidden mechanism, probably pedals, turns the wheel. It was a funny sight, but our laughter quickly turned to oohs and awws as he formed a perfectly conical miniature tajine, and its base, in seconds. We saw various bowls, shingles, and other pieces waiting their turn to enter the “keeln;” there were several of these mud-brick wood-and-sawdust-fired structures around one end of the yard. The guide explained how different paints, made from natural pigments, applied before kiln-firing yield various colors in the final products. I think he said the green color comes from magnesium, but I might have made that up.

The tour ended in the pottery shop, for where else would you take American tourists after making them appreciate the labor that goes into a product but the place to buy said product. (It was a recurrent theme, touring an artisanal place of production, sometimes of questionable authenticity, and always finishing in the gift shop. I can’t blame them for desiring the tourist buck, its just an observation.) There were all sorts of really beautiful platters, tajines, bowls, you name it, and I felt like I had to buy something (their tactics work). I probably would have made a bigger purchase except for concerns about fragility during the rest of the trip.

Being back in the van had its pros and cons, but either way it was a definitive signal that it was time to move on, jellah, on y va. We headed north and slightly west, passing through Zagora again and going part of the way back through the Draa Valley (palms in the middle, Grand Canyon walls on one side and l’autre cote rounded rolling) before taking a right to go northeast towards our scheduled stop for the night, Rissani. After leaving the valley the scenery got decidedly drier in a fairly short amount of time.

We stopped for lunch in N’Koub, a quiet town in arid terrain that has gained notoriety, and a place in Lonely Planet, partly because of the 40-50 kasbahs that are located there. From our view on the hotel’s terrace we got to take in the view, and it was pretty astounding. They looked like little castles, fortified houses of sorts, mostly square buildings with little towers at each corner. I don’t know the story of these constructions but I certainly would like to. It was a good lunch and an intriguing hotel with all manner of things growing in the courtyard, some of which probably were in our lunch, including various herbs, collard greens, oranges, wheat, and more. Seems like a good idea to have a functional and producing courtyard garden that is also beautiful.

Back on the road, the final leg to Rissani. A few rounds of spades, a card game similar to hearts with 2 person teams, other games, good conversation about everything, and also nothing, all helped to pass the hours in the van on this day and others. Taking semi-decent pictures out the window was another past time of mine, as well as writing in my journal and taking not-very-satisfying naps. I can usually sleep anywhere if I am tired, but it was a constant struggle for comfort in this van. We stopped to pee and take in the sunset, sort of the official goodbye to the desert-portion of our trip. It was good.

The hotel at Rissani was nice, big, and empty. We had the place to ourselves, which felt weird. That, plus the fact that we did not see any of the actual town because we were a couple of kilometers outside it, made it feel sort of like the shining, Moroccan-style. Highlights were a quick dip in the chilly pool (the staff laughed as they gladly turned on the lights) and when Anthony, Alex, Jessica, and I stayed up late talking after dinner.

Wednesday was the dreaded day of lots of driving and not much else. It was not as bad as I expected, mostly because of all the natural eye candy available outside every window. We headed north from Rissani through the Ziz Valley, which was similar to the Draa with a thick swath of date palms guarded on both sides by impressive walls and rocky outcrops. The scenery changed a lot that day. We went from Arizona, to Switzerland, to Ireland, and finally ended up in Fez, definitively back in Morocco.

After the valley the land opened up a bit, and we saw the High Atlas Mountains (I think) again, this time from a different angle. The snow-capped peaks were on our left, generally to the west, but soon they came to us. Or rather we came to them, to be precise the Middle Atlas, and stopped for lunch at a hotel in Midelt. The guidebook said this town is known as a lunch stop for tour buses heading north to Fez, and soon after our arrival our lunch stop became overrun with 2 buses full of German package tourists. Of course, as someone who stepped out of a (smaller) tour bus just minutes before, I was in no place to pass judgments.

Yet as a student living with a host family in the country I was touring, I somehow felt more entitled to be there, I could not help it. How different was I from these German tourists after all? I would say very different, though at that moment we were pretty similar. I was very aware, then and throughout the week, of how much this was a trip, prepaid and preplanned (package is the word I hesitate to use) in nature, of pure unadulterated tourism, and I had no choice but to revel in the glory and simplicity if provided. The hardest part was waking up at 7 or 8 every morning to find my way around strange and fantastic cities and places, one after another. This was a kind of traveling that I am not accustomed to. I prefer vacations that involve visiting with family who live far away, spending time at Windwhistle, and exploring Canon Beach. I have never been on a cruise, or seen Disneyworld, or snorkeled and suntanned on a Caribbean beach. The 8 days I spent with Mommy, Allan, and Hugh in Costa Rica in January, 2008, a wonderful and amazing time in a such a rich and incredible country, was the last time I had such an experience. I think this excursion was more memorable (perhaps because it is fresh), but not by much.

The mountainous scenery continued after lunch, and when I woke up from a short nap we were driving by patches of snow at the base of pine trees. We stopped in Ifrane to use bathrooms and stretch our legs. This is the town where rich locals and foreigners come to ski, and with its Swiss-chalet-style buildings and quaint green square, plus of course location in the mountains, I can see why it is known as Morocco’s Switzerland. Unfortunately there was not enough time to go snowboarding, something that I was only able to do once this winter in the US before my departure. No worries, there will always be other chances to snowboard, whereas I will (most likely) never be studying in Morocco again. We never know what the future will bring, right?

The rocky hilly land that slowly came into view, with its sheep herds and small houses, as we descended from the mountains reminded me of Scotland. Or maybe Ireland. Something like that. Of course I have never been to these places; I was generalizing based on stereotypical images I have in my mind of what I think they look like. Have someone give you a random place name and the mind will immediately conjure up your personal mental image of that place which, depending on your experience or knowledge, could be correct, very misdirected, or most likely somewhere in between.

But regardless of what I labeled it, the landscape was beautiful. We descended from the hills into the valley, finally and thankfully arriving at Fez. We were all going a little stir crazy by this point, and we knew we would be rewarded with a whole day in the city and (in some ways more importantly) 2 nights in the same hotel. We arrived as it was getting dark and checked into our hotel, which had a very beautiful lobby, nice dining areas, and very unremarkable rooms. They certainly lacked the charm and decoration we had become used to in Zagora and Rissani, and the character could not compare to our desert tents, but otherwise it was a fine hotel. It is unfortunately located more than 30 minutes walk from the huge ancient medina, and the neighborhood did not have much to offer. We caught up on internet access with 45 minutes in a cyber before dinner, an experience I would liken to a dose of some weird medicine that is simultaneously desired for its effects and detested for its side effects. Typing furiously, trying to read and send as many emails as possible and sound sincere and interesting in all of them, while also briefly checking for world news and glancing at facebook, and…realizing that was the quickest that 45 minutes have evaporated in a while. Oh the wondrous monster that is the internet, keeping you connected, keeping you hooked, keeping you ‘in the know.’

That’s all for now, the mysterious beauty and intensity of the Fez medina, and the rest of the trip after that, will have to wait for another time. It is important to get a lot of sleep while one is on vacation, especially when they will be traveling on Monday. Alex and I will be taking a bus down to Essaoueira, a beach town about 8 hours away that I have only heard good things about. The laid back atmosphere, amazing seafood, friendly people, beautiful and not-overcrowded beaches, I could go on. So 3 nights there, with two full days, then north for one night in El-Jedida after a stop in Oualidia for oysters. Friday will be for heading back to Rabat, at a leisurely pace, and then meeting up with my dear Mommy and of course Hugh too. Or that is the plan, of course, plans can change, this I am very aware of. But it will be good no matter what happens, and receiving such honored visitors is a great way to cap off what will be, inchallah, a fun and relaxing ocean-themed spring break.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Site of Memory Essay

One midterm down, two to go. Friday at noon I am officially on spring break, woohoo. I have to go study my Arabic plurals and possessives now, but, at the risk of self-aggrandizing, I would like to share with you an essay I wrote for my history class. We were supposed to include our personal interactions about a site of memory, of our choosing, and also incorporate some outside research. So without further ado, here's your bedtime reading for the next couple of days.

I felt intimidated to meet a man of authority, feelings similar to those I might feel before meeting an elected official in the United States. In fact, the closest I have come to such a meeting would be the time that I, as part of a group of students, met with a staff member representing a representative to the U.S. House of Representatives. We were part of a national coalition of youth lobbying Congress to support clean energy and take action against climate change; however, standing at the back of the group, I did not directly contribute to the lobbying effort.

For whatever reason, the uneasiness that accompanies the making of acquaintances is multiplied when that new person is famous, or deemed important in some way by society. The Chief’s warm, two-handed shake helped to assuage my initial nervousness, and he immediately ushered my fellow students and I into his home. We took places on cushions around two tables which had been waiting with place settings for our arrival and took stock of the place. I began to let my guard down when I saw how similar his house was to others I had seen in Morocco (minus the chairs). Perhaps I had expected something more grand and ornate for a Chief, or alternatively maybe a semi-permanent dwelling, as I was told we were meeting the leader of a nomadic tribe. But instead, at the risk of generalizing, I think it is permissible to describe his house, in the context of Morocco or maybe rural North Africa, as normal.

As is normal for guests in Morocco (in my limited experience thus far), we were immediately served food. But I then saw the Chief carrying out baskets of bread, dishes of salad, plates of steaming lentils and beans, and fruit for dessert. There was one younger man helping him at times, but the Chief was doing an equal or perhaps greater share of the serving work. Two more of my expectations were thus deflated. I had expected such a respected old man, as chief of the tribe, to sit with us and be served upon. I had also expected that it would be women serving the meal. This expectation was founded in my Moroccan cultural experience thus far rather than any misogynistic beliefs about the role of women.

In fact we did not see one woman during the entire duration of our visit (about two hours); we were later informed that there were no women there at that time, and that it was the men who had cooked the food. I was not alone in my surprise at this knowledge, though in hindsight I realize now that my initial expectations reflect blanket generalizations I had formed about people from vastly different cultural, social, and geographical backgrounds. The most concrete link between this man, and his tribe and their way of life, to that of my young urban host family is a constructed and porous national identity that has only officially existed for 54 years. Rather than thinking about how this experience would fit into my limited knowledge of Morocco, I should have been thinking about its many differences and contrasts to life in Rabat’s medina.

The Chief then served us very strong and very sweet tea that was flavored with a somewhat bitter powdered sap. As we drank and relaxed after the meal, we began to ask him questions about his life. Fadoua acted as translator, though parts of his answers were probably (and inevitably) lost in the process. From my recollections, and those of my fellow students, I am able to piece together the following impression of this life.

Ba Saleh is the Chief of this village, which is located in the region of Mhamid. He has authority over three distinct nomadic tribes, the Bono, a Tuareg tribe, and one other one whose name escapes me. He estimated there are 70 to 80 houses in the village and surrounding area, which is sometimes known as Bono. Each house represents one extended family whose precise numbers are unknown. Each tribe chooses a representative to the government, and Ba Saleh is a step above them in terms of ‘political’ (for lack of a better word) authority. He was chosen by his people, and, being a fourth generation Chief, part of his legitimacy as the leader comes from his family lineage. It is important to note that he is not a man of religious authority. The importance of Islam to these tribes is unknown, though it did not play a major role in our discussion.

His people are primarily nomadic camel herders, though they also keep some goats and sheep. The camels are owned by each family rather than the tribe as a whole. He estimated that one family, depending on their situation, has anywhere between 60 to 500 or maybe more camels at one time. In addition to their animals, they also grow crops for subsistence needs. These crops include beans, wheat, lentils, and other vegetables; in addition most families own a certain number of date palms.

The importance of family in this way of life was clear throughout our discussion. It is the only other obvious link (besides national identity) to life in Rabat that I observed, though this importance manifests itself in different ways. Identity is found as a member of the larger tribal community, but the organization of the family seems to dominate the pragmatic everyday concerns of the people of Bono. Though they may be herded in a communal fashion, animals are owned by individual families. Agricultural plots are farmed by families, and the date palms especially are individually owned and passed down from generation to generation.

The Chief has two wives, though I learned nothing about them or their daughters. Of his seven children, two are female and five are male. Two of those males are away at school, and the other three are out living with the animals. Because of his age, and presumably also his respected position, the Chief now lives a more sedentary life in the village. But he does leave the village from time to time, and he said he spends a month or more of each year travelling.

As I understand, it is the younger to middle aged members of the tribe who lead nomadic lifestyles with the animals. Women were fairly absent from our discussion, and his answers to our questions about them seemed shorter than other answers. I gathered that if a man is nomadic then his wife (or wives) is too, and the other way around, depending on the individual case.

Despite the ambiguities resulting from our discussion concerning the role of women, the role of the national government in the Chief’s life is clear. From his perspective, the government’s role as a beneficial force is nonexistent. Rather, it seems that the government is much more eager to play a bothersome role in the Chief’s life. To my knowledge, a social contract, in the theoretical and practical sense, between these people and the government that ostensibly holds authority over them is largely nonexistent. By social contract I mean the provision of basic rights to the people by the government in exchange for some sort of allegiance or support. The Chief made it clear that as a tribe they do not pay taxes. There was no mention of services rendered for them by the government, and I would not expect to see (nor did I observe) a gaudily framed picture of the King in the Chief’s house.

There is a multitude of ways to explain how this situation evolved, and it is one that has been playing out in different ways throughout the history of North Africa. Perhaps one factor that contributed was the nationalist movement, its selective memory, and its assertion of a dominant Arab national identity. As Abdellah Hammoudi writes, the growing nationalist movement between 1930 and 1950 pushed earlier, more ‘traditional,’ structures to the background as it waged an ideological and historiographical battle with the colonialists. Ironically, “While the colonial party became increasingly archaic, the national party became more modern—hence its denunciation of native chiefs (quwwad), of contrôle civil, marabouts…” (Hammoudi p. 166). The traditional authority of tribes did not mesh with the Nationalists’ efforts to glorify the ‘Moroccan’ history of central authority, hence it was often discarded or marginalized.

If their exclusion from the Nationalist movement of the 20th century helped to cement the current separation of Ba Saleh’s people from the government, then the foundations of that gap were laid long ago. It might sound farfetched, but in one sense those foundations date back to the Arab invasion of the 7th century AD, or even before that, to the Romans in the 1st century AD. The ambitious foreign or local power is concerned with one primary goal: a centralized monopoly of power in a geographic region. The discussion of local jihad in Mohamed Kably’s essay on the methods that central powers in medieval Morocco achieved legitimacy is pertinent here. Kably distinguishes between the local and foreign forms of jihad used by states to legitimize their authority. Foreign jihad was directed towards outside threats, whereas local jihad was waged against settled agricultural populations, more restless (and often more resistant) nomadic populations, and everyone in between. This violence asserted the ruling state’s dominance and extended its sphere of influence and authority. Even though geographically isolated groups of people often did not benefit from inclusion in this sphere, they were still faced with the choice to pay taxes, suffer through the state’s jihad, or fight for the right to retain or win their independence of both. In one form or another, these kinds of interactions between marginal local groups and ambitious central powers, foreign or local, have been occurring in North Africa and around the world for many centuries.

I am not saying that the situation of Chief Ba Saleh’s tribe can be explained using such a generalized view of history, nor am I trying to idealize their situation as a passionate struggle of david versus goliath. However, I do think it is fair to extend some kind of line from the long tradition of tribal struggles with and against the authority of central states to the relationship that exists between the Chief’s people and the national government today. Hammoudi’s discussion of the nature of pre-colonial central power in Morocco summarizes the situation more aptly than I am able to. He writes that “If a group remains on the margins, it means either that it lacks political influence or that it is in a state of rebellion. It could also imply a mutual reduction to insignificance of the dar al-mulk and the marginal group” (p. 135). (Hammoudi’s term dar al-mulk describes a Moroccan-specific ‘house of power’ with authority based on religion and claiming a communal purpose.) The tribes in and around Bono are not interested in rebellion or asserting political influence; rather, it seems their marginal status comes from this ‘mutual reduction to insignificance of the tribe and the government. I do not know why Ba Saleh’s tribe does not pay taxes, how long this has been so, or whether it is a situation common among many Moroccan tribes. It is clear that his tribe has no need for the government, and it seems that the government is not interested in forcing a social contract upon his tribe (and probably not on others too). Perhaps the government is not willing to exert the energy required for such an endeavor, or perhaps since independence they have tried and failed to do so. The geographic isolation of the village of Bono from the central authority is probably one factor among many others. Regardless of how it evolved, one of Ba Saleh’s anecdotes is very telling of his and his tribe’s relationship with the government.

He said he and his tribe get stressed about things in life from time to time (as we all do), and the government seems to be the biggest source of this stress. As a way to escape, they (presumably the men) go camp out in the desert to drink camel’s milk, to sing and dance, and to just get away from life. It made me smile to imagine this escape, and it is a thought-provoking story I will never forget. There we were, a group of American tourists (and also students) on vacation, turban-clad, with plans to ride camels and sleep that very night in tents in the desert. No less than an ‘authentic’ Saharan experience (minus most of the authenticity), right? But as I was feeling more conscious about my turban, I was also enjoying the fact that we would be employing and enjoying the very same means of escape that the Chief and his tribe do.

But if the desire for a vacation is universal, the desire for a national identity is not. I do not know if the Chief is a self-described Moroccan; I did not ask. I do know that his tribe has been living in the same general region that they currently inhabit for at least a couple of hundred years or more, and I do believe they intend to stay there. That is longer than the modern state of Morocco has existed; before the Nationalist period helped to cement the identity of North Africans into that of one state or another, a tribe like the Chief’s knew nothing of national borders.

Works Cited

Hammoudi, Abdellah (1999). “The Reinvention of Dar al-mulk: The Moroccan Political System and its Legitimation.” In Rahma Bourqia & S. G. Miller’s (ed.s) In the Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, Power, and Politics in Morocco. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Kably, Mohamed (1999). “Legitimacy of state power and Socioreligious variations in Medieval Morocco.” In the Shadow of the Sultan: Culture, Power, and Politics in Morocco.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

lazy sunday

coming off of a rough week I needed a good weekend. thankfully that is exactly what I got! the post excursion funk week is followed by midterms week, which is a pretty daunting schedule. but luckily this weekend broke things up very nicely. I would liken it to a white bread sandwich, very undesirable and dry, but saved by the tasty filling, dijon mustard with some nice prosciutto and high-quality provologne cheese maybe.

friday included arabic club, where we practice our skills on the center's terrace in a fun and low-key environment. Then came street sandwiches: ground beef spiced and flavorful with minced onion and tons of other flavors fried up with eggs, served in a little round of bread with optional american cheese slice. I would liken the beef and eggs to a Moroccan fried rice of sorts without the rice. the price: 5.50 dh, 6.50 with cheese. the funny/interesting part is that Rachid says that is expensive...hmm so much of life is about context and perspective.

next on the agenda was an excursion to Sale to find Cafe Artisana. it was our first trip across the river since our orientation bus tour (kinda sad right?) so it was much needed. Artisana is a hookah bar recommended to me by one of the SIT students, Will. We 8 took a pair of grand taxis there (40 dh each taxi=1 $/person) and settled in to a corner table. it was exactly what I wanted and exactly what I had pictured in my mind. the first floor of a large building full of tables, chairs, people, hookahs, and their smoke. oh also drinks (non-alcoholic of course). there was low lighting, and a stage in another corner with one man on a keyboard and another crooning parlor/piano bar music into a mic (in arabic of course) providing entertainment. no energy wasted on attempts at ornamentaion or sprucing up the place (besides the singer's). bare bones hookah and beverages, a good time practicing smoke rings and relaxing. not something I do every week, or want to for that matter, but certainly fun.

and the way home was fun too. As Will's host brother Hassan informed us when he found us in Artisana, you need to get the cell numbers of individual grand taxi drivers in order to ensure a ride home. we were stranded without even knowing it. we could have walked back, but that would have been probably 40 minutes or more at 9 pm, not the best idea. Hassan tried unsuccessfully to call a taxi for us, so then he helped us flag one down and negotiate a price. this all in the rain by the way. our ride home? a fire engine red benz taxi (all grand taxis are big old merecedes, usually white though), in the rain, with 8 americans crammed inside steaming up the windows and gettinig to know each other a bit better. we were a sight to see! and it was 80 dh, which means we each paid 20 dh round trip. not bad overall, I'd say.

Saturday I had a lazy morning reading and watching movies like Rocky and Collateral Damage (with da Governator!). oh the wonder's of mediocre American cinema. no I'm sorry, Rocky is a classic, the other one not so much. Sorry California. rain threatened beach plans at 2, but it let up enough for some much-needed frisbee tossing with Anthony, Aura, and Ciara, plus the entourage of 7 locals that accumulated around us. I like to think it was the white frisbee and not our white skin that attracted them, but who knows.

My friends went home to do homework (on a Saturday afternoon, I know, it is an outrage!), so I decided to explore the coast, something I've been meaning to do. I was definitely not heading home, that was for sure. it was a good time, just me, my rain coat, my camera, my frisbee, a light drizzle at times, and thoughts at work. It was not a beach that I was walking along, coast line is more appropriate. It was fun to explore some tide pools and climb rocks and observe coastal life at its best and worst. I observed all manner of beach activities over the course of 2 and a half hours: soccer matches, couples cuddling and kissing in semi-seclusion, one couple doing less wholesome things than kissing (I did not stop to investigate), men fishing, men drinking, men smoking, young men doing breakdance sort of moves (Alex thinks it might have been Capoeira, the Brazilian martial-arts dance), and a small settlement that I am forced to describe as a shanty town. lots to see on the coast line.

On my way back I got a doughnut for .70 dh and a glass of OJ for 3 dh. What an incredible snack it was! The doughnut guys laughed when I thought he said 7 dh for one doughnut (by now I know that would be way too much, even to charge a white person). I laughed in my head because that is about what you pay at Dunkin Donuts for a donut, 80 cents or so. Note the spelling difference. Because the donut you buy at Dunks, the highly processed morsel of ‘food’ made in a factory somewhere else, not where you are buying it, is a far cry from the nut of dough that I enjoyed, fresh and still hot from the oil, purchased from the man who made it, served without sugar (usually an option, though not at this stand; I didn’t need it though) to me on a loop of grass. Oh and I could have bought ten of them for the same price. Of course a donut tastes great; it is chock full of sugar, fat, and chemicals used to create any taste under the sun. but my doughnut on Saturday proved to me the merits of supporting local economies in favor of corporate profits. Too bad there are no doughnut guys like him in West Newbury. Maybe in Allston?

After lounging at home, enjoying The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a shower, and dinner, the evening’s plans fell into place nicely. Alex had done her own exploring that day, and she met a Congolese guy named Yannick who invited her and her friends to a club for dancing. He brought us to Yaqout, which was a name recommended to me over email by a Rabat program alum. According to Keith: “go to Yaqout, it's the coolest place in the city. Live music, cool atmosphere. It's on rue al-jazaa'ir (Algeria Street), behind a hotel (forget the name). If you find rhasta guys walking around the city, ask them.”

Well going there fulfilled all of his descriptions. It is by far the coolest place I have been to yet, and I think it will probably retain that status. A tastefully decorated night club in a pretty quite neighborhood, Yaqout costs 100dh entry on the weekends. That $10.50 gets one drink too, which is pretty good considering Fadoua says some clubs are 150 or 200 dh for entry+drink. The dance floor is pretty small, taking up the space in front of the band, which consisted of a reggae-style set of 4 or 5 men and one woman. They played in 30 or so minute sets, which were interspersed by music DJ’ed by one of the members. Great dancing, not just the stereotypical bumpin’ and grindin’ but all sorts of moves. Drinks were pricey after the freebie, but the atmosphere was worth every penny. I am even sore today, ha. Bed at 3:15 am, which is late for Boston and practically scandalous in Rabat.

Today has been less productive than I was planning, but it was worth it in light of the great time I had this weekend. Now its time to buckle down, study, and prepare for my 3 exams this week. The rest of the excursion updates will have to wait, sadly, but I will not forget. Peace and love and all that jazz.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

late night shuffling thoughts

Something I forgot from last time: Our sharply dressed desert guide, Hassan, is also endowed with an incredible presence on the dance floor (or at least the packed sand we were dancing on). Picture the man I described previously, cigarette clamped firmly between his lips, floating around in circles with a serene expression on his face, his turban bobbing slightly and the desert wind giving life to his flowing grand boubou. He was a sight to see, with arms outstretched, feet shuffling, and fabric coming alive. (I also forgot the long and tight black curls of hair that would sometimes peek out from under his turban.) We had happy discussions in the van about this man whose style, dress, and presence more than made up for his weaknesses as a not-very-informative guide. He has earned the designation of B.A.M.F. in my opinion. (I do not include the meaning of that acronym for fear of hurting sensitive ears, though I think most of you know or can figure out what it means.)

Okay a couple more additions to the list of universal things:
-The desire for vacation. By that I mean everyone needs a means of escape, a break from reality. Some find it traveling their country or the world, others find it in exercise or hiking or climbing a mountain, still others find it with mind-altering drugs (you can read here television). I thought about this when the Sheikh, that we shared lunch with on our excursion, told us he and his people go out in the desert to drink camel’s milk, sing and dance and get away from the stresses of life and the government. And there we were listening to this story while we were on our own vacation (within a vacation, I would label studying abroad an extended form of vacation) to the desert. Pick your poison, “man it don’t bother me ‘cuz we’re all on something” –John Butler Trio.

When I reread “the desire for vacation” it made me think about soma from Brave New World, the ‘perfect’ euphoric drug with no side effects that has been developed by the controllers to keep the masses happily sedated when they are not at work. They go on ‘soma holidays’ by the ½ gramme tablet, but make sure you don’t take too much or you won’t wake up for work the next day. A good (albeit literary) example of a manipulation of our desire for vacation meant to prove a point about a lot of things, including how we can be deceived into being content. Gah that book makes me think about so much, it really makes you question your motivations and your emotional state and what this world is coming to. I probably sound dramatic sometimes, or naïve or idealistic, but its how I feel. Lots of things that we accept as normal, that go on every day, seem just plain wrong to me.

For example, why are there American soldiers in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or any other country besides our own? Couldn’t our massively inflated military budget be used for a million other more positive things than killing people to secure our interests in a polluting and nonrenewable resource? And oftentimes its things that are so imbedded in society that we don’t see them going on. We wonder why 1 in 3 Americans (2 in 5 African Americans) born after the year 2000 will develop type II diabetes, or why we have a national epidemic because 1 in 5 Americans is obese? Its not because we don’t get enough exercise, though more of that would help everyone. However, it might have something to do with the fact that we let greedy mega-corporations soak their fat fingers in every honey pot of every facet of our daily existence, including something as fundamental as the way we eat.

I am ranting and I am generalizing, I know. But while reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma (another must-read for you all, I don’t know how or why I waited this long) and having read other books like The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein, and A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, by Howard Zinn (may he rest in peace), and hearing lectures by Howard Zinn, John Perkins, the author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman (which I have not read but intend to), and others, well it all seems to make sense. And what makes sense to me is that the root of most, perhaps all, of our problems today comes from the fact that, not nominally but in practice, corporations rule the world. When you let the greedy interests of big businesses and the minority of people who control and profit from them become more important in the eyes of the law (businessmen and politicians being often interchangeable) than everyday common people and the natural environment, with its laws and finite limits, that supports the existence of us all, well I guess that brings you to the situation we have today. I’ll let you decide if you think they are doing a good job.

-That brings me to my second point, concerns about money. This one I am ambivalent about, but I feel that it belongs on the list. Some value it more than others, but you can’t escape it in this day and age. Sometimes I wish I could live on a farm and barter for everything I need. Or that I could be a nomadic camel herder in Morocco. But all in all I am happy being me.

Time to finish up my site of memory paper on the Sheikh and his tribe and get to bed before the sun rises. I will post it sometime soon for your reading pleasure.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

a case of the wednesdays

sometimes one of those situations comes along that gives your mental state a big shake, like if a curious brobdingangian baby were to flick gulliver and unintentionally send him flying. its not like someone is trying to throw me off intentionally, but nonetheless I am feeling the effects of a situation that is playing out thousands of miles away. this is just an off week in a lot of ways, but I am doing my best not to let it get me down. I know everything will work out in the end, as it always does.

in other news, Arabic class is going well. today we had a discussion (in arabic of course) about life and what we consider the most important things are. Fatiha said that, in her experience from teaching, lots of students from different parts of Europe and the US don't usually describe family as being the most important thing to them, whereas she said in the Arabic world that family is the number one most important thing.

It's something I have noticed for myself in my time here. It makes me think about my own life and the things that are considered important in my country. During the first week in my family Assia, Farida's older sister, who also teaches Arabic at the center, was over for lunch. We were talking about differences between Morocco and the USA, and Assia said something that I think very aptly sums up pretty much everything. She said that the most important thing for a Moroccan is to be able to feed her family and give them a place to sleep. Basically as long as one's family eats well and has a roof over their head, then there is reason to be happy.

In her view of America, she thinks people exert too much energy trying to get a bigger house or buy another car or whatever else they think will make them happy. I have to admit that I agree with her. If we're talking about necessities, all that you really need in life is food, water, and a place to rest your head at night. Why do we constantly need more? More land, more square footage, more wheels, manifest destiny, take it! Because...well, because you can.

I was reading an elementary schoolmate's blog today (someone I have not seen in many years), and her words were very thoughtful and appealing to me. She writes that recently she has "grasped how Western philosophy of humans being separate from and dominant over nature is perhaps false." Its this disconnect, of our society and the way we do business, from the natural laws and limits of our world that I think is the root of most of our problems today. http://saritastravels.blogspot.com/2010_03_01_archive.html

Maybe if we could just be happy with a small house, with one car, with wearing more sweaters in the winter and turning the heat down (if you live in new england dont act like your house should be 75 and sunny!), maybe if we did more of these things and oriented our lives at least a little bit more with the governing laws of nature (rather than our government), well maybe we would not be in the situation we are in today. Maybe we wouldn't have, as Sara writes, a "lack of resources in some places and excess of resources in other places of the globe."

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Saharan experience

Today Arabic class was difficult, probably due to the fact that we spoke a lot of English over the course of the trip. It came back of course, and the 5 of us together wrote a short (as in 2 or 3 sentences each) story about the excursion on big sheets of paper. Then Fatiha labeled and dated it, had us all sign it, and posted it on the wall. It was very cute of her, and it will be a good visual reminder of our steadily increasing Arabic prowess.

Before I get back to the desert, I have a few additions to the list of universal-ish things.

-People putting grains of rice in salt to combat humidity

-When a person yawns, it means they are always tired (or bored)

-Trash always smells bad, and people waving their hands under their nose always signifies a strong (and usually bad) smell. “Ca pue!”

Okay, resume travel log. Around 5pm the moment we had all been waiting for finally arrived. It was time for the camel ride. With almost as much stress as picking teams in elementary school gym, or getting paired up for partner presentations in class, we were assigned to our noble steeds. My camel and I were meant for each other from the start. We all picked names, and I felt compelled, in honor of my dear Papa, to bestow the name Gunther on my ride. For those who don’t know the story, Gunther was the name my father gave to the camel he kept during his time in the peace corps in Chad.

The scariest, but also most fun, part about riding a camel is the ascent to standing position and the descent to sitting position. Camels have one more leg joint than pretty much every other animal, as in their legs bend in three places (if you count the hip as one and knee as the other). So the when these legs unfold under you, you had better be holding on tight. Actually Aura’s camel, Hortina, stood up before Aura was fully straddling her back. But she held on with no incident, and a good laugh was had.

There were three strands of camels linked together with ropes, three mini caravans that day, each with a turban-clad guide walking in front. The cargo was not salt, gold, water, or other goods though; instead, it was us, the BU8 + Fadoua, and we were turban clad too. We rode, or rather were led, around for half an hour or so, enjoying the back and forth sway of these marvelous animals. If you sort of swing your body with the motion of the camel it becomes a smoother, and more fun, ride. It’s all in the hips, as they say.

Then we stopped for a while and enjoyed a Saharan sunset on the top of a dune. While the camels enjoyed a rest, we sat for a while, or frolicked about, using our turbans as protection from the whipping winds and biting sand. There is a reason people wear turbans in the desert, for they protect your head from the heat and also offer a way to cover your face from the wind and sand.
Really an accessory that is both fashionable and functional (something that you don’t always see these days).

It was a very pleasant way to spend an hour or two, and a time I will never forget. I did get the chance to ride a camel once before in Niger, but this felt like a more complete experience. And the evening had just begun! Dinner was waiting for us when we returned to camp. It was delicious harera, the national tomato-based soup with lentils and chickpeas. Then lamb and prune tajine, with dates on the side, followed by the fruit dessert course. Mmm. Except it was hard to concentrate on the food because after we were served soup the musicians trouped in and started their performance.

This group consisted of 8 men and 2 women. The women were dressed in beautiful yet slightly gaudy sparkly robes with similar head ornaments, whereas the men wore white robes, a white head wrap, and a knife looped around one shoulder. Two large skin drums were played by two of the men during part of each song. Each song was in Arabic; they began with a wailing, mournful, and repetitive cry from two of the men at a time. Each pair would sign a few lines (perhaps they were repeating the same few words, I am not sure), then another pair would take over. One of the women would jump in from time to time and let loose with the high pitched “ululu” cry that can be heard at any Moroccan event that involves music. Then after a minute or two of this the drums would come to life, and the song began. The men’s singing sounded similar throughout, but now they would clap out different beats to go along with the drum. Then after a bit of clapping they would grasp hands and do a bit of synchronized stomping and shuffling of their feet. The clapping and shuffling would alternate usually until the end of the each song. It was amazing music, but the singing was very compelling and sad.

So they sang a couple of songs during dinner, and then we were allowed to finish eating in peace. After dinner we assembled around a fire in the middle of the camp. There was a tasty treat too, bread baked in the embers. It cooked in maybe 15 minutes, and it came out very crusty and tasty (the dirt was brushed off, but the crust was a bit gritty). The music commenced again, and the fun began. We all got up to dance, forming big circles around the musicians or in front of them with the rest of the people in camp (the guides, cooks, our drivers, and the French family). It was great to let loose and stomp my feet and hold hands with everybody and try to emulate the sounds they were singing and channel the passion of their words. Good times in the desert.

After the fire some people drifted off to bed. Some of us stayed up talking with some of the guys from the camp, sharing songs and getting to know each other a bit in Arabic and English. Then we went off for some dune-top stargazing and talking about this and that. It was beautiful there, and so many stars visible! The best way to say goodnight and goodbye to the desert.

After breakfast we got back in the jeeps and headed back to town. It was a bittersweet departure; as much as we left behind, there was so much more in store for us in the next few days.

That’s all for now, more later. Love you all.