Monday, February 24, 2014

Cafes

                                                                       Cafe Opheon, Oujda
The men huddled around the small cafe tables all have a sameness about them. Without exception, they hold either a cell phone or a cigarette in their hands; sometimes both. Their clothes are mostly dark, their haircuts could have come from the same barber. They either hunch over the table in conspiratorial conversation or slouch in their seats with a studied insouciance. Everyone who walks into the cafe is given the once-over; especially the women.

Most of the women head upstairs to the non-smoking section and none of them enter alone. I often find myself the only woman on the ground floor and even though the ground floor is often quite smoky, I resist going up to 'the women's section' because I never have cared for the idea of women in one room, men in another. I care little for the speculative glances from the men throughout the cafe as I take my seat, pull out my computer, and mind my own business. I have been in Morocco too long to care what these men might be postulating.

The waiters are kind and solicitous. I have bought this attentiveness with my frequent visits and generous tips. I work just a few blocks away and this cafe has become my go-to place for late lunches, a sweet with coffee before work and planning time for my lessons. In Fes, it was Cafe Jawhara, here it is Cafe Opheon. To me they are interchangeable yet necessary to my sense of well-being. Everyone who lives in Morocco needs a cafe in which to hang out because that's how most of one's leisure time is spent ... hanging out in a cafe.

                                                                       Jawhara Cafe, Fes
An incredible number of cafes populate the city and new establishments as well as renovated cafes seem to spring up every week. Like the patrons, the new cafes have a sameness about them. This year white is in vogue; white tables, chairs, walls, awnings and dish ware. I wonder what that is all about. The menus are invariably the same so every cafe becomes a choice between location, staff and -- to some extent -- the customer base. Otherwise there is no difference. Prices are the same, too -- 11 dirham for a coffee and small bottle of Sidi Ali (which the label on the plastic bottle tells you is safe for babies). That's comforting.

Cafe Opheon is frequented by college students so more women than usual visit. You can find most of them sitting upstairs with the exception of the bolder young women who arrive in pairs and smoke while they play games on their cell phones with the volume turned all the way up. Electronic noises emanate from their tables as they hold their cigarettes in their manicured hands and flip their hair every 30 seconds or so. It is rare for women who sit downstairs to wear a head scarf; most wear very fashionable clothes, are expertly made up and sport great-looking boots. They are really very stylish and highly visible. I take comfort in their presence as I sip my coffee and play Words With Friends on my tablet.

                                      

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Yet Another Detour


I just got back from the annual teacher's conference for the organization I work for.  I had more fun than in past years, perhaps because I mingled with a number of other schools as well as my own. Whatever it was, the food I was treated to was fabulous and the entertainment one night at a cabaret was great. I roomed with a peer from Fes and we got along splendidly. It was great to share stories and gossip and keep each other company as we attended workshops, roamed through the medina of Marrakech and slipped away from the crowds to provide one another with a running commentary on all the people.

On the sleeper train from Oujda to Casablanca I managed to get off the train too soon based on some bad intelligence (or lack thereof) I received. I found myself standing alone on the station platform at 6:30 am with no familiar face in sight. What to do? I had neglected to get my ticket from the porter when I got off (and why he didn't tell me I was at the wrong stop is still a mystery although in retrospect, he did look rather sad as I handed him his tip for lugging my suitcase off the train). After a few frantic phone calls to my fellow Oujidians still on the correct train, I bought another ticket to Casa Port because the trains at that particular station did not go where I wanted to be and then took a taxi to Casa Voyageur in time for my connecting train to Marrakech. A minor detour.  The upshot of all this was that my peers were constantly keeping an eye out for me whenever we traveled in a pack to make sure I didn't go astray again. They don't know me well enough yet to realize I never take the normal path to anything but I rather like having someone care about me. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Uncle Said


Said hoisted himself off the sofa to greet the customers one of the local guides had just led up the steep stairway. His sudden movements triggered a coughing fit. One of his employees quickly flicked on the lights and ushered the tourists over to some built-in seats. The tourists settled themselves in and accepted the tea that was offered and then ordered from yet another employee of the shop. The guide helped make the visitors comfortable and then  positioned himself away from the group so Said could take over. This gave Said time to recover from his chronic hacking so he could play the role of welcoming proprietor. Said didn't get up for everyone that came into his carpet shop. He had an eye for those who would spend and those who just wanted to look. He could see the hopeful gleam in the eyes of the guide. These tourists would be well-worth his time and efforts.

It was cold in the shop and Said was glad he had worn his galaba. Not only did it serve to keep him warm, it also contributed to the atmosphere of a place frozen in time. It was all theater, just like the old wooden loom with the equally old operator passing the yarn to and fro and rhythmically working the foot peddles. Everything and everyone in the shop served a purpose. Tourists liked the antiquated look of his carpet shop and happy tourists spent money. Said began his show.

After a few welcoming words and polite inquiries about the tourists' experience thus far in Fes, Said unobtrusively signaled his helpers to begin pulling carpets from the stacks that lined the walls. The tourists demurred, stating they weren't really in the market for buying today but that did nothing to deter Said. He knew better. He knew they would walk out of his shop with something; maybe some carpets or bedspreads. At the very least they would purchase some woolen blankets. He could smell the money coming.

Before long, the floors were covered in thick layers of carpets. Each successive carpet was more expensive than the one that preceded it. Said watched the women's eyes to see when they flickered or returned to rest again on a carpet before them. Now it was just a matter of asking them which carpets they preferred. No was not an option. All Said had to do was get them to start saying yes to something. Carpets that didn't pass muster were quickly taken away until the tourists were now ruminating over colors and patterns; making choices rather than offering polite refusals. The fun part, the negotiating, was yet to come.

After Said got the tourists to designate their favorites among all the carpets before them he sat back and simply waited. The tourists whispered amongst themselves and discussed the merits of each rug. Finally, the question Said was waiting for came up. "How much?" Calculators came into play and the inevitable question about the acceptance of credit cards followed. Of course Said told them he could accept their plastic but he almost never had to. Rather, he had one of his helpers escort one of the husbands or boyfriends to an ATM to withdraw the much preferred cash. While the cash was being collected, the carpets were rolled up into tight cylinders and wrapped in pink paper so no one on the street would see the purchase or ask what price had been paid. No reason to have a jealous competitor or anyone else tell the tourists they had paid too much (which they would not hesitate to say no matter what price was paid). That would never do.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Four Women

Zakia looked at the old man in front of her in amazement. "What do you mean nail polish is forbidden? Where does it say that?" The man merely shook his head at her ignorance and insisted, once again, that she should not be wearing nail polish. "I am not married and I am trying to look nice to catch a husband, " she responded in as gentle a manner as she could muster. "Is lipstick forbidden too?" The man gave her a pitying look and walked away from the counter where Zakia was working to pay for his medication.

Zakia couldn't understand such thinking. Even her classmate, Hanae, had supported this ridiculous notion when she relayed her story about the nail polish statement that night in class. "I believe you are not supposed to wear nail polish when you pray" Hanae mused. "It does say something in the Koran about the need for your hands to be clean." Zakia shook her head in frustration. "Clean, yes, but nail polish does not make your hands dirty," she retorted. It was one thing to hear such nonsense from an old man in the small town where she worked as a pharmacist. It was quite astonishing to hear the same thinking from a young woman in a city of 2 million people! Zakia felt a little depressed as her mind drifted to her desire to find a husband. She was sure the her future husband man would be more open-minded but she was certainly having a hard time locating him.

Meanwhile, Hanae turned to the classmate to her right, a very nice older man with a gentle manner. Rafik knew that Hanae and their teacher shared a taxi after class and he mentioned to her that he had a car and could drive them both home. Hanae demurred because although they had been in class together for a couple of months now, she really didn't know Rafik. Getting in a car with him would be unacceptable, even if their teacher was there as well. She had no absolutely no doubt about this.

Outside stood a squat middle-aged woman asking all the passersby for a handout. She spied a stranger walking on the other side of the street and hurried after her. 'Madame! Madame!" she shouted as she caught up with the foreigner. She held out her hand and offered her best smile. The stranger continued to walk but the woman grabbed her arm and pleaded for some change. The stranger tried to get away but the woman did not relent. Her tattooed chin quivered as she insisted that some money be handed over.

A little bit further down the boulevard, during an off hour in a popular cafe, sat an older man and a very young woman. They spoke French to one another rather than Arabic as they sat at a corner table. He drank coffee and smoked Marlboros. She drank a milkshake and sat on her hands. Over and over he asked her how she was. She giggled and cast her eyes downward. "Ca va," she replied in a high sweet voice, "ca va." The man looked her up and down as he tapped his cell phone that sat between them on the table. The young woman watched his every move with a nervous anticipation.



Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Women in Bedclothes

I can't help but notice the sleepwear certain women wear for their everyday attire here in Morocco. Of course there are as many elegantly and fashionably dressed women here as anywhere. And yet there quite a few who wear pajamas all day long, throwing a galabah on top of their pajamas when they want to go out out the house. Even with the galabah and headscarf on, they still look like they just never fully got dressed for the pajama bottoms peek out from under their galabah. Now I have no idea if these ladies wear these same clothes when they retire at night but I do know they wear the pajamas while working in the house and on those occasions when they venture outside the house. Invariably, those pj's are pretty girlish with patterned hearts, skating polar bears or childish kittens. These women are almost always wearing some kind of slipper as well, adding to the impression that they just never managed to get dressed that day. Sometimes they don't put a galabah on, they actually tie a bathrobe around their waist and wear it outside like a coat. The bathrobes are always a plush synthetic fleece and tend to be just as girly as the pajamas underneath; sky blue material with fluffy white clouds or a solid color in some pastel hue.

I have always known Moroccans to be eminently practical and at first this choice in clothing seemed to me to be just that; a sensible, economical and comfortable choice not unlike the tracksuits everyone wore everywhere in the '80's or the yoga wear of today. And yet something about it increasingly bothers me and it has nothing to do with aesthetics. Is it because the choice of sleepwear is so connected to being tied down at home whereas tracksuits and yoga wear are associated with activity outside the home? Is it the choice of patterns in the bedclothes that typically appeal to young girls yet end up being an unintentional parody of femininity and innocence? I'm not sure but it all seems kind of bothersome to me because even though no one is forcing these women to put on the pajamas and robes in the first place, I personally would like to be reassured these women see themselves as more than domestics. But that's just me and I could easily be guilty of reading too much into what seems to be an enduring fashion phenomenon here.

  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Weathering Winter


Central heating is non-existent here so winters require a different solution if you want to keep semi-warm. During the daytime, it's routinely warmer outside than inside. Electric space heaters and propane gas heaters are the go-to heat sources for most people and in offices, shops and homes you can usually find the inhabitants huddled around their preferred heat source throughout the long winter months. I have one electric heater but electricity can be expensive so I don't use it all the time. I usually shut the door to the kitchen (which is the smallest room and easiest to heat) and stay at the table to read, prepare my lessons, check out the internet and sometimes I actually eat there. Essentially, I am living in one room these days. But the best solution to deal with the cold is to wear as many warm clothes as possible and wear thick-soled shoes or boots over two pairs of socks.

My apartment is like an icebox with all the tile and no carpets to provide protection from the flooring that collects and retains a rather frosty temperature. I don't have any curtains to keep the drafts from coming through the doors and windows because my budget doesn't allow me to purchase the hardware and material to make insulating drapes just yet. I have three blankets (one is on loan, another was a gift and I purchased the third) and I often go to bed early just to keep warm. I also sleep in my clothes more often than not and even wear a hat on particularly cold nights. Last night I contemplated getting out of bed to find my gloves because my hands were cold holding the book I was reading, but I didn't want to get out from under the covers. What makes winter more bearable is the knowledge that everyone is going through the same experience and everyone looks about 10 pounds heavier with all the clothing they have piled on.

Winter also presents a challenge when it comes to doing laundry. Washing clothes is no problem. Getting them to dry is -- especially if you don't have access to a rooftop terrace to take advantage of the all too brief period of sunlight and any breezes that might be in play. Dryers are a luxury and most people do without them, opting to hang the laundry on a line or drape the clothes on a drying rack. As I am no where close to being able to afford a dryer I, too, use the economies of a clothes line and drying rack. However, it takes three days to dry jeans, towels and sweaters. I do everything possible to expedite the drying time including wringing as much water out as I possibly can when the clothes come out of the washer (my wrists ache in protest), hanging the clothes in different positions throughout the day, and placing some clothes in front of the heater when it's in use. But not matter what I do, it takes three days to get the bulkier items to lose their dampness.

This situation considerably limits my wardrobe choices, which are small to begin with. I have made the mistake of letting too many bulky items pile up before laundering them and had to wear a ridiculous number of layers of shirts, tops vests and jackets for several days because my warmest sweaters were still too damp to wear. It's kind of hard to move your arms with so many layers. And so my solution has been to wear the same outfit several days in a row, sometimes keeping most of the items on when I retire for the night, while trying to disguise the fact that I haven't changed my clothes in a couple of days through the judicious use of a variety of scarves and the application of different colored lipstick. Looking on the bright side, I take comfort in the knowledge that I am reducing my carbon footprint for a good portion of the year. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reflections on a Rainy Day


There is a piece of advice I give myself that I think is pretty sound; try not to compare yourself to others. I followed this advice when I began to learn belly dance at the age of 45 and it served me well. In the dance studio where I took lessons, there were women who could learn choreography after seeing it one time. Not so for me. And then there were those whose bodies were far more agile than mine and could isolate movements at will. It took me a rather long time and a lot of effort to achieve a similar result. There were more experienced dancers, dancers with more flair, younger bodies and greater beauty. But early on in my dance life I decided that these comparisons would only hold me back and so I positioned myself in the front row of the class and put blinders on to those around me. I only focused on what I could do and what I hoped to be able to do. After a relatively short time, I became an entertaining, if not an accomplished, performer.

I am frustrated that I continue to struggle to apply this same approach to my life in general. I look around at my peers and see friends and acquaintances with families, homes in places they love, serviceable cars to drive, cultural activities to attend and a wardrobe full of nice clothes. They are retired or nearing retirement, have a comforting social network, participate in hobbies or clubs, attend workshops, and host dinner parties. Then I look at my life and see a stark contrast; no children, an incredibly small family spread far and wide, no car, a home I am stuck with in a country I have yet to fall in love with, a sparse wardrobe made up of mostly second-hand clothes, an apartment with a bare minimum of furnishings and no end in sight vis-a-vis my need to produce income. Where is the front of the classroom and where are the blinders I made such good use of in the past?

I try to find a way to replicate my past success as a dancer and apply it to my life right now. If I focus on what I can do my attention goes immediately to teaching. I know I can do this well and I know I get a great deal of satisfaction from it. Just last night someone was telling me how well I am being received at the center where I teach. The students in both classes I taught yesterday asked it I could be their teacher in the next session. So I mentally go to the head of the class. I am in the front row concentrating on the job at hand. That feels better.

I keep going with this train of thought. I know I am adaptable. I stare at myself in the mirror and appreciate that quality. I have the ability to put myself in unfamiliar situations and learn something valuable from the experience. The comparisons begin to fade a little bit. I carry on. I tell myself I am skilled at creating appealing living spaces and I have the opportunity to recreate a nice environment once again. I am beginning to see myself with greater clarity now and I am putting less emphasis on those around me. My lack of possessions and responsibilities enable me to move at will and experience life in unexpected ways.

For a moment I am increasingly centered and begin to think about what I hope to do with my life. And here is where I go off course for my mind snaps back to the frame of reference the lives of my friends and family offer and I see myself outside of the picture. And part of me wants to be inside with them. Part of me wants to sit back, rest and simply witness the adventures of others in an environment that is familiar and alongside people I have known for a long time.