Saturday, July 5, 2014

Ramadan Challenges

I really wanted to be out of Morocco by this time but here I am. Looks like I will be here until the end of the year although my time here in Oujda is drawing to a close. I am finding Ramadan particularly challenging here because there is no place to eat, even after the fasting has ended. It is not a tourist town so no restaurants are serving food, even after the fasting ends around 7:30 in the evening. Well, that's not 100% true, McDonald's is open but I never patronize McDonald's -- no matter how hungry I get.

In Fes, there are always a smattering of places one can go to to eat during Ramadan and there are plenty of shops open for purchasing food, even during the daylight hours. I spent the first 4 days of Ramadan in Fes and although I curtailed my intake of food and water out of respect for those fasting --  and frankly because it was just inconvenient to do otherwise --  I managed to privately satisfy my hunger and thirst with little effort or planning. I wasn't eating at the times I wanted to eat, but I adjusted. Back in Oujda, I have been making my own food at home and eating a lot of fruit but one week into Ramadan and I am craving a pizza. And french fries. You see, I don't have an oven at home and my cookware is very basic so my fare is limited to salads, eggs every way you can think of making them, cheese and tuna fish. I had hoped the cafe near the school where I teach would serve off their menu but I just found out that is not the case. No problem. I could stand to lose a few kilos.

I began teaching my last term at the American Language Center today and the schedule is strange, to say the least. I teach from 11:00 am until 1:00 pm and then return at 9:30 pm to teach until 11:30. I will do this 6 days a week for 2 and a half weeks. The split schedule will take some getting used to but I am happy for the chance to make more than a month's worth of salary in such a short time. Getting a taxi is not easy on the return trip from school in the morning or the trip to school at night. I assume taxis will be plentiful when I am finished tonight, though. I am considering walking to and fro.

Based on what's happened the previous two nights, there will be music across the street from my apartment when I get home. Last night, it carried on until after 1:00 am, making it difficult to get to sleep. But there was a joy about it that I tried to inhale on each intake of my breath and to surrender to the rhythms of Ramadan. So adjustments are called for at just about every level and my sleep pattern will be divided into two parts now; six hours at night and a couple of hours each afternoon.

Ramadan is a time for reflection and I am trying to do just that as I reconfigure my schedule for just about everything. When faced with a situation that is not to one's liking, it is natural to resist and complain. But I don't want to fall into that trap. I am trying to adapt, demonstrate my respect for the holy month, and cultivate patience. Sometimes I actually achieve my goals.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Travel Deep

For over two years now my friend, Jess, has been conducting artisanal tours of the medina. I have heard her talk about the artisans and seen stunning photos of the craftsmen at work. Today, however, was the first time I accompanied her on a tour and the experience was a real treat, even for someone like me who has lived in the medina for over seven years. As Jess said, her tours allow the participants to travel deeply as opposed to travel widely. With the exception of the tannery, each artisanal workplace was little more than a cubbyhole packed with personalities the average tourist rarely gets to meet let alone commune with, observe in action, and learn from. I felt like I was on scene at the making of a documentary film. 

Our day began at 9:30 when we wound our way down Talaa Sghira to a lovely restored riad to collect a mother and daughter from South Africa who had booked a tour. After acquainting the pair with the itinerary, we set out on foot to our first stop of the day; a shop where wool, cotton and silk thread, clothing and fabric are hand dyed. The artisan explained what flowers, vegetables and plants were used to achieve each vibrant color. Our questions were translated by an official guide who patiently interpreted the English questions into Arabic and the Arabic answers into English. Questions about environmental and health issues, the process itself, how long the artisan had been practicing his trade and so on volleyed back and forth so seamlessly we felt like we were speaking one-on-one to the artisans. When a donkey arrived to cart off skeins of thread we took our leave and headed off to the next stop.

Around the corner from the dyers was a shop filled with aluminum trays. Here the artisan etched designs of his own creation into the large tabletops, platters and trays found in every Moroccan home. Using a compass and a ruler, he told us he meticulously lays out each design in the comfort of his home and then brings the aluminum back to his shop to begin the etching and polishing that makes each hand-crafted item a unique yet utilitarian piece of art. His workspace gleamed with the results of his labor. My particular favorite was a tabletop with camels marching around the circular surface. When asked which design was his personal favorite, he showed us a very intricately designed platter that contained the symbols seen on many doors and inside palaces throughout Morocco. 

Moving on we headed to the last remaining wood shop of its kind in the medina. The floor was softly padded with layers and layers of wood chips. Rounds cut from bark-covered trees were stacked here and there, smaller pieces that had been stripped of their bark and planed into a smooth surface challenged us to imagine what they were destined to become. Our artisan sat in a corner with a large mallet in his hand. Various pieces, all within arm's reach, were pulled into his lap to show a stringed instrument in the making, a form for making shoes, a farmer's tool. This father of six sons told us a little bit about each one, including pointing out the flat rock, half-buried among the wood chips, that marked the workplace of the one son who was following in this footsteps. 

The coziness of the wood carver's cubbyhole was then replaced by the cacophony of Place Seffarine where metal workers pound copper into kitchenware and meditatively hammer dimpled embellishments onto pots and pans. The work is loud and rhythmic and to me the worker's seemed to embody their craft as they were both boisterous and focused. 

Our next artisan had an inner glow that seemed to be a reflection of the horns he cut and polished to make animal-shaped combs, key rings and buttons. Using his foot to rest a piece of horn on, he stroked the horn with a tool that not only polished the horn but shaved the calloused skin off his feet as well. Unable to fit worktable or bench into his shop as his workspace was so small, he sat against one wall and offered up his story with humor and generosity.

But the best was yet to come. The slipper maker of the rich and powerful sat in his tiny shop and regaled us with stories of his life and his work. Eighty-four years old and clearly intent on performing his craft until he takes his last breath, this artisan has a twinkle in his eye that makes you smile and an immense pride in his work that you want to emulate in your own life.

No trip, artisanal in nature or not, would be complete without a stop at the tannery. And while I have been on many a tour of the tanneries found in the medina, I learned a lot on this particular tour. Our host told the story of the artisan tanners as we stood on the platform of a leather shop, high above row upon row of vats. The tanning process is quite amazing as is the system under which tanners operate. This information had never before been revealed to me. It's really quite impressive. If you have the desire to do so, you can descend down to the level of the many vats to get a first-hand look at the aromatic workplace. Once there, you cannot help but wonder how anyone can actually perform this work day after day, but most especially during the long hours of fasting that were being observed on this hot, mid-summer day.

We were now hours into our tour and still had two stops to make; the weavers where we were educated on the intricacies of setting up the looms, and the neighborhood oven where hundreds and hundreds of rounds of bread were being shunted in and out of a cavernous oven. At both stops we were treated to something; at the weaver distinctly different styles of wrapping a turban were demonstrated. Soon bedouin and berber turbans were wrapped 'round our heads and somehow the styles managed to capture our personalities. At the bakery, hot, fresh bread was proffered to those who were not partaking in the fast. 

All-in-all, this artisanal tour was not your typical view of what the medina has to offer and left me feeling privileged to have been a participant. 

I encourage you to learn more about The Original Fes Artisanal Tours and other Culture Vulture projects by visiting Once there you can start your journey by clicking on 'artisanal inspirations'. Travel deep. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014


Ahmed is about as tall as he is wide. He's balding, sports a scruffy mustache and looks smarmy -- and he probably is smarmy as rumor has it he was once in jail for murder but had the resources to pay his way out and set himself up as a card-toting official guide. Rumors are the lifeblood of Bab Boujloud so who knows if it's actually true. But looking at him and watching him operate, you can imagine how such a story got started.

I've never actually seen Ahmed nab any tourists for a guided tour of the medina but Lord knows he tries. He gives off an air of someone entirely untrustworthy and no tourist ever seems to fall for his patter. And yet, it must work from time to time because every morning he is outside the Blue Gate, scurrying to and fro as fresh tourists emerge from taxis and vans, holding doors open for them as they emerge and displaying the oversized, laminated badge he wears around his neck to proclaim his status as an official guide.

Watching Ahmed from the vantage point provided by one of the numerous cafes near the mosque is rather like watching a comedy routine unfold. His short legs seem motorized when he spots a prospective client and rushes from one end of the wide road to another to be the first to encounter the newly arriving tourists. He has lots of competitors about but he often seems to get to the tourists first. I watch him start his spiel as tourists try to get their bearings and either ignore him entirely or politely try to extricate themselves from his attention. They look over his head, which is not hard to do, confer with one another, pull out their maps and shake their heads as they attempt to walk on. Ahmed follows them for a bit, continuing to talk the entire time until the tourists can gain enough distance from him to make it clear they are not going to employ him for the proffered tour. Within two minutes, max, the tourists separate from him and enter through the gates unattended. Ahmed, never deterred, invariably turns on his heels looking for fresh prospects. Like a windup toy set on a flat surface after the key has been turned to its full capacity, Ahmed propels himself towards the next petit taxi turning the corner to open the door -- maybe even grabbing hold of the tourists' luggage to make sure they have to stop and talk to him.

Say what you want about Ahmed, he's a spunky bulldog and an integral part of the colorful cast of characters that populate Bab Boujloud. I never get tired of watching him.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Ranting Woman

To me, she looks like a quintessential someone from New York. I would say she is in her fifties. Every time I see her she is purposeful but not at all hurried. She is well-preserved and attractive, and there are elements of her style that make me think of the 1960's. She wears a scarf and hides her eyes behind black retro sunglasses. She has a pale, noble profile which I study as discreetly as possible because she also perpetually carries a scowl on her face. And sooner or later, I have learned, she will break into a rant. The rants don't seem to be directed at anyone in particular and you never know what's going to set her off. I've never witnessed anyone taunting her into her verbal outbursts which surprises me because she puts on quite a performance once she really gets going. But something gets her going every time so I try not to draw her attention. And because I don't know where she is looking with those large, black sunglasses on, I take care to study her from a distance. But I can't resist keeping her in my peripheral vision as she passes in front of me.

Today I saw her twice. The first time was in the late afternoon as I sat in a cafe enjoying a visit with a friend. I pointed her out to my friend and made a comment on her likeness to a New Yorker. My friend laughed as the woman passed on by. I didn't mention the rants.

About an hour later I was on my own and headed home when the ranting woman emerged from a doorway and stepped right in front of me. I was so close to her and she had her back to me so I could really study her. I hung back for a little while, curiousity mixed with caution and a healthy respect for the energy of anger she exudes. As soon as I decided to make my move to pass her, she started to talk to herself. Or was she addressing me? I murmured a peaceful greeting as I overtook her and she returned the greeting, barely breaking stride as her monologue continued to get underway. I passed on by without incident.

I can't understand a word she says but I understand the admonitory tone and I feel the anger behind it all. I secretly applaud her as she speaks up and presumably speaks her mind. The ranting woman could be mistaken for any number of nationalities (for me it's a woman of Italian descent living in the Bronx) but she happens to be Moroccan. That's why I admire her public expressions of her anger at something -- made up or real, it doesn't change my opinion. I like her free and consistent expression of her anger and indignation. It's rather rare here in the old medina of Fes.    

Monday, February 24, 2014


                                                                       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.