Friday, December 17, 2010

Ashura


The last ten days have been marked by the arrival of the Islamic new year (Muharram) and the ever-progressing arrival of Ashura, which is the 10th day after Muharram (ahsura means ‘10’).

On the eve of Ashura, bands of children from every neighborhood gather together to play music. They beat drums and tambourines and blow into long horns that make a single, bleating note. Sometimes they sing. If you are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where some of the older boys lead the children in learning rhythms, you are treated to some great sounds. Of course the kids ‘practice’ all week long and parade up and down the derbs in raucous good humor.

My street has tons of children and their numbers steadily increased as they banded together the other night to symbolically mourn the end of a year and celebrate the beginning of a new year. They probably don’t know that is what they were doing, but the idea of drumming out the old and heralding in the new gave me the wherewithal to deal with their learning curve and a great appreciation for the steady progress they made in producing the traditional rhythms.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ashura this year … perhaps it’s because I took the time to learn what it’s all about.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Still Searching


A friend just sent me an email asking me why don’t I sell my house and come home to California. I’d like to, but the reality of life stops me. It would be difficult to sell right now and although I could conceivably get enough money to purchase a home in Northern California, what would I do for income after that? For truth be told, my skills and years of experience are highly valued here in Fes, but rather worthless back home.

I make a lot more money teaching English here than I would in the States. Believe it or not, the pay is a mere $12-15 per hour for a qualified ESL teacher in the Bay Area. How could I survive on that???? Here is Fes, I teach belly dance to tourists and people love my classes. But back in San Francisco, I am one of thousands and there are dancers there who highlight the fact that I am strictly an amateur at the game. To bill myself as a belly dance teacher in San Francisco would be laughable.

I also have some marketing skills that I’ve been able to put to good use here and even get paid for. But in the competitive, youth-oriented California market I am sadly out of touch with the search engine optimization approach of today’s marketing gurus. Alas, the sad truth is I am out of touch, out of date and just too old to make a living at home anymore. But here in Fes, I find myself wearing five different hats some weeks, collecting fees and earning income from the myriad of skills I’ve gathered throughout my life and I’ve made a comfortable situation for myself in a world where money seems to be increasingly hard to come by.

I do miss home though and some days I fervently wish to transport myself back to the green, open spaces of California and the orderly life I grew up in. Chaos, confusion and conflict often pepper my days here and sometimes I just get tired of the effort that is required to keep going. But I think I am here for a purpose … a purpose I haven’t fully grasped yet … and so I carry on. I dry the tears of frustration off my face, put on a smile, pull back my shoulders and try anew every day.

Next month it will be 4 years since I arrived in Fes. I originally wanted to come here because of a documentary I saw about the Sacred Music Festival. This film talked about Fes as the Spiritual Capital of Morocco and I thought to myself that living in a so-called spiritual city would be great for my personal growth. Indeed it has been. But looking back I realize I had the naïve impression that a spiritual journey would be much lighter than what I’ve experienced thus far. I somehow thought a calm, wise and peaceful energy would envelope me just because I put myself on this path. But this has definitely not been the case. For life in Morocco is real life with capital letters and I find I am constantly derailed by the unexpected, the unfamiliar and the unexplainable.

So here I am, with all the trappings of a successful life but still missing an essential element. It’s called ‘acceptance’. And even though I am much better at this than I used to be, it seems I still have a way to go. They say life presents you with the same lesson until you have fully learned it. I haven’t passed my exam just yet. So perhaps when I truly accept and appreciate all of what life has offered me, I will be able to return home with the wisdom and peace I have been searching for all these years.

And who knows? When I finally do find what I’ve been looking for, maybe I won’t want to leave.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Here Come the Sheep




It’s one week before the big annual feast of Eid and the sheep are starting to appear in and around the medina.

Truckloads of big, fat sheep are stopping along the roads into the medina where carousa owners wait to transport the sheep to their new owner’s homes. Those without the money to pay a carousa (or just wishing to save a few dirham to pay for some knife sharpening or some spices) find all kinds of creative ways to move the sheep along. Some pull them by the horns, others hoist them over their shoulders and then there is always the push and pull method.

Yesterday, a man was slowly walking a rather scrawny-looking cow up my street. Mud was caked on the hindquarters of the noble bovine as people young and old reached out to touch the cow as she was lead to her final resting place. I gathered it was some kind of good luck to honor the sacrificial cow in this manner.

I can’t say I share the enthusiasm this time of year brings but I do marvel at the activities and the religious meaning. I also am awed by the solidarity of activities and rituals which are a result of living in a culture where just about everyone shares the same religious beliefs and traditions are strongly upheld.

Every household will sacrifice their sheep or cow or goat at a prescribed time and every neighborhood will set up a place to roast the sheep’s heads on their street. The women will set to work after the sheep (or cow, or goat) has been sacrificed, skinned and the heavy-duty butchering has taken place. Women gut the animal and use absolutely every edible (and not-so-edible for my taste) part of the sheep. The skin will be dried, the fat will be carefully saved for later use and even the bones will be saved for soups at a later date. The liver will be cut into bite-size pieces for the first day and the meat will be allowed to cure for the following days. Small clay pots filled with charcoal and fanned with whatever is handy slowly cook the skewers of liver and protein is the mainstay of each meal for the next three days.

And of course the women will do all the nasty cleanup that is required after sacrificing the sheep and stringing it up from the halqa. But it only seems nasty to squeamish Westerners like me, Here, the blood is seen as purifying and no one turns their head at the moment the knife is drawn across the throat and the sheep struggles with the certain knowledge that life has come to an end. Indeed, many households keep the sacrificial animals on their terrace or in the house so the children can pet it and feed it and honor them before … well, before.

So here it is again. Eid Kbira. The time everyone looks forward to after Ramadan has passed. Once Eid is over, life will take on its expected rhythm with all the unexpected twists and turns until Ramadan is once again due to arrive. The wheel of life turns once again and thanks is given for being able to bear witness to all the marvels it offers.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On the Right Path


Lately I’ve noticed an unexpected and not so subtle change in my attitude. I’m pretty sure I know the reason for this change but I’m not going to give voice to it so I don’t jinx it. But there it is. And it’s resulted in a kind of an awakening.

I find I am a lot more accepting. I think I might even be starting to enjoy my experiences here. Now that’s going to sound pretty weird, I know. For why on earth would I have spent nearly 4 years here NOT enjoying myself? But things have been pretty difficult for me for a variety of reasons and I’ve slugged through my life believing I have to work hard to overcome these difficulties. So facing hard times is not new to me and I’ve always had the notion that life would always be this way. But I have come to realize we do experience periods of Grace and now one of my greatest difficulties here has seemingly vanished into thin air. POOF. It’s over. And quite unexpectedly, but probably just in the knick of time, I am feeling rather happy because I was ‘this close’ to running away for good.

But run away to where? For what they say is true … ‘wherever you go, there you are.”

So what it all really boils down to is changes in me. Sure, an obstacle in my life has been removed and I’m finding life a little easier these days. But when I reflect on my situation and think about all that I’ve experienced, I realize that I have put up a lot of resistance to my situation here. And this newfound acceptance and appreciation for all the situations life throws at you is one of the great results of the time I’ve spent here in Morocco.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Visit to the Doctor


For the first time in nearly 4 years I had to visit a doctor. I was rather nervous about the whole thing because most doctor's don't speak English and this was a visit of a very personal nature. I waited as long as I dared before making an appointment and yesterday I bit the bullet and had my husband call the doctor. We were told to rush in right away unless we wanted to wait another two weeks. I dashed out of the house in a very sorry state and we drove to the doctor's office straight away.

I waited nearly two hours before being seen. During that time my husband had to leave as he had an appointment that couldn't be missed. I paced back and forth in the waiting room, worrying about the appointment and wondering how I would get back to the house, wash my hair (it was wrapped in a scarf to disguise the terrible bed head) and gather my materials for my 3:00 class. Anxiety mounted with each passing moment. It occurred to me I could have done all that needed to be done before rushing off to the doctor's office and still have had time to see the physician. Oh well. Could have, should have, would have.

Finally, I was called into the inner chambers. I was directed to step onto a scale which I was loathe to do, especially with the extra weight of all my clothes. Thankfully, the number on the scale wasn't nearly as formidable as I thought it would be and I breathed my first sigh of relief.

In horrible and halting French, I tried to tell the doctor my problem. She nodded and proceeded with her examination. By U.S. standards, everything was rather, well, basic I guess you could say. Expedient is another word I would use. I'm not at all sure what the diagnosis was (is 'banana' a medical term????) but I do know I had to spend nearly $100 for the treatment. Yikes! My prescription pad had 6 separate items on it and of course I don't understand what's in any package nor do I know exactly what to do with any of it without the help of a translator. And of course the translation will only tell me what to do -- not why it's being done. Some medicine I am to take before eating, others after eating. There are creams, suppositories (how very French) and there's even some powder to add water to and use every night. Ten days of treatment and I think anything wrong with me (besides the original problem) should be vigorously attacked by all the medication.

But that's not all. The next hurdle is filling out the paperwork to get reimbursed for the fees and prescription charges. Every box of medicine is to be saved along with the instruction sheets within and attached to the form which need both the doctor's and the pharmacists signatures. Geez, and I thought it was tough in the United States. All I can do is blindly follow instructions and put my faith in the expertise of others. No answers to my queries of "why" or "what does it mean?" Just do what you're told to do and don't ask any questions because no one has the vocabulary to tell you. Or rather, I don't have the vocabulary to understand.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The House Knows All


All hell is about to break loose in the house.

Even though I was determined NOT to invest any more money in the house and dedicated to trying to sell it as soon as I returned from the states this summer, it seems DESTINY has something else in store.

A week ago a huge plumbing problem reared its ugly head and necessitated breaking through walls and installing new pipes. And now that repairs to the wall must be made, I figured the house was telling me I am not through with her yet and must give her what she wants.

So, tomorrow, tile work and plaster and painting will commence. The walls in the upstairs bathroom are going to be tiled and the same goes for the water closet on the in-between floor. A new sink has been purchased for the water closet and repairs are going to be made to all the necessary places on the ground floor. And, of course, the kitchen walls have to be re-plastered and painted where the new pipes were installed.

Every room in the house will be covered in dust and debris. This I am sure of. And of course, this is happening right after I cleaned everything this morning. Silly me. But at least I get to enjoy a clean house for one day. Then, when everything is finished, a thorough seasonal cleaning will commence and the house will be better than ever.

A sturdy plastic cover has been custom-made to cover the halqa in preparation for the winter rains. The drainage problem on the terrace has hopefully been addressed.

Next step: gather some money together (just how to do this is yet unknown) and apply for a permit to make this a guest house. That’s the only way to recoup the money I have been spending to repair and improve my voraciously hungry and greedy little house.

Are you paying attention house? I’m listening to you and giving you what you seem to want. You seem to be fighting me when I try to break loose so I surrender. Believe me, I truly am trying to find the proper attitude to assume about the whole thing. But I waver between feeling trapped and calm acceptance. I know you are watching my every move and reading my mind -- I only wish I could read you as clearly as you seem to read me.

Tell me, once you are fully restored and delighting tourists from all over the world, are you planning for me to resume my journey to Istanbul that you interrupted when I arrived here almost 4 years ago? Will you send me a buyer looking for a turnkey operation so I can take advantage of the depressed real estate market back in California? Or is there something else you are contemplating that will totally surprise and astound me?

Tell me soon, little Dar on the Derb … What door will you open for me? For I am chomping at the bit for some significant change in my life.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Godzilla Bride


I could see and smell the Juicy Fruit gum as she sat across from me in my house and talked about her trials and tribulations since arriving in Fes. I had been instructed to extol the virtues of Morocco and one Moroccan in particular as she was here to get married.

She met her intended on Facebook and they fell in love, even though he spoke no English and she no Darija. Even though he is at least 35 years her junior and they relied exclusively on the translation feature on their computers to communicate.

Left alone with her I learned she sells beds in the states but her real love is Zumba, the latest aerobic/salsa dance craze. She herself is an instructor and she told me she liked the definition of the muscles on her new love as photos were exchanged across the ocean and the continental U.S. She envisions teaching him to be a Zumba instructor in the States and she was here to arrange his visa. For a while the conversation was “Zumba-this” and “Zumba-that”.

Her entry into Morocco had not been without challenges as she was plucked in the middle of a lively Moroccan household and promptly got sick from drinking tap water. The lack of privacy and the excess of food didn’t sit well with her either. She seemed a bit unyielding to me but no one can be expected to show their best side after 30 hours of travel and such an immediate and strong dose of culture shock.

So I gave her the benefit of the doubt and tried to tell her to take her time. I wanted to impress upon her that she couldn’t possibly know how deep the differences are between our cultures nor find the clarity to assimilate them without the benefit of time and a healthy amount of patience. I cited a few examples from my own experience here. I asked her not to repeat my warning as I had been asked only to say positive things and this might not be received in the manner intended. She said she understood and was soon gathered up to return to her fiancé’s home.

The next day a phone call came. It was said I had told her Moroccans are ‘stealers’ and altogether bad.

What the hell!?

When pressed, she admitted I had said no such thing but that I had asked her not to repeat my words and this, she reported, didn’t sit well with her.

So much for trying to help.

And so, Miss Zumba, I think it best that you turn around and go back where you came from. I can’t begin to imagine what will transpire if you spend an entire month here. And while I am biting my tongue and refraining from issuing strong warnings to the Moroccan family that is increasingly bewildered by your behavior, I won't say another word as I have learned my lesson about dispensing advice to people I don't know. I only hope the next foreign bride-to-be that arrives full of hope and romantic notions doesn't come knocking at my door.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Back to Abnormal


After 17 days in Fes, I am finally able to take a breath and begin to consider my options. Believe me, the re-entry hasn’t been easy for a variety of reasons.

There’s the heat. It’s been a lot hotter than where I’ve been these past three months and the last few days have been really hot and muggy. But right now I’m waiting for it to rain and there have even been rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightening but no payoff with a downpour. Which is just as well because my little drain on the terrace can’t accommodate a massive amount of water in a short period of time. The water rushes under the gap at the terrace door and cascades down the steps. But I’ll address that sometime in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, profuse sweating is the order of the day (every day) and I’m taking a lot more showers than usual.

There was work. Practically the minute I set down my suitcases I had to pick up the school books and start teaching. But that’s all over now and I had a terrific group of students. The two weeks passed, exams were given today and the grades have been handed in. I now have nearly 3 weeks of unstructured time to look forward to.

There was my house which was in complete disarray and in desperate need of a thorough cleaning. This I’ve managed to accomplish but still have a mountain of bed linens and towels to launder. Nothing seems to have been washed in my absence but I did haul 4 sets of bed linens and 4 towels across the U.S, through Europe and down into Africa so I’m okay for the moment as far as clean beds and towels are concerned.

Ramadan completed its last week when I first arrived and the celebration after it ended were followed by 3 consecutive days off from work. That was welcomed! It was a bit tough to get into the swing of things when I first arrived, but soon the month-long fasting came to an end and things are pretty much back to normal. Except my husband got very ill that last week of Ramadan. He hasn’t had the vocabulary to let me know exactly what the doctors said was wrong with him (“So many things, Saida”) but he spent days on end in bed and lost a lot of weight. He’s better now (thank God) and quit smoking as a result of the illness. He was cared for by his family during the worst of his illness and seems to be taking a lot better care of himself now.

So life here is slowly returning to normal --- which feels rather abnormal to me after an entire summer in the U.S. But soon what’s abnormal will feel normal again as the summer quickly becomes a distant memory and life in Fes takes gets back the its own arhythmic beat.

Friday, September 10, 2010

One Week Later


I've been in Fes for a little over a week now and Ramadan has just ended. Today is the second day of the holiday that follows. People are no longer fasting and are dressing in their finery to visit friends and relatives in their homes. Everyone is making nice with everyone else, the shops are closed and there is a lot of congratulating going on. And well deserved congratulations I might add. From the little I saw of Ramadan this year, I could tell it took a lot of stamina to adhere to the fasting during the hot summer days. I am told it reached 125 degrees on the first day of Ramadan this year. And next year will be even more difficult. Many people are visibility thinner than the time I last saw them and are aglow with the triumph of adhering to their fast in a challenging situation and are basking in their successful practice of one of the five pilars of Islam.

How different this world is from the one I just came from. Not just the traditional month of fasting but from the very air itself. And by that I mean the mood, the energy level and the quality of the atmosphere in which people live. How interesting to witness a people pursuing a common goal and how they support one another spiritually and physically. In my own country, we are all such individuals with an endless variety of ways in which we approach life. Here, it's all for one and one for all when it comes to religious practices and family traditions. I like aspects of both views and that sometimes leaves me wondering where I fit into things.

One of the first things that I noticed when I returned to the medina was the smells. In the heat of summer things are more pungent than usual and the chickens and butcheries are redolent with a powerful organic odor. I also noticed how dusty everything was from the months of months of heat and the lack of greenery and moisture to help clean the air. And then night turns into day and day turns into night during a summer Ramadan as breakfast doesn't begin until 7pm at night and life picks up the pace from sundown to sunup.

The presence of everyday life is so apparent here and so unlike the overly manicured gardens and housefronts I walked past in Pacific Heights in San Francisco. I feel like Goldilocks as I absorb the contrasts; "this one's too overpowering and this one's too sterile." Again I wonder what I want and where the middle ground can be found. Does it even exist?

Yet here I am, taking it all in and training myself not to judge anything. Just observe and note the differences. It's really difficult to hold back the voices that want to proclaim this one superior to that one. I have to remind myself again and again that my own peace of mind comes from keeping judgements at bay and staying open to experiences.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Return to Fes


Well, I am back in town and it feels like I've passed through a portal into another dimension. The life I experienced in the U.S. this summer was so incredibly different from what awaited me here in Morocco. I must say it's a bit of a shock to the system.

After a 2 hour drive from the beaches of Delaware where I spent the last week in America I traveled to the hustle and bustle of Washington D.C.'s airport. Once there, I had 3 hours to wait for my plane's departure. About 6 hours later I arrived in Frankfurt, feet and ankles so swollen I could hardly fit into my sandals. I found a lounge chair (the best thing about Frankfurt's terminal) and raised my fat feet up to relieve the swelling. I had a long, 10 hour layover in which to catnap, walk around, hydrate myself and eat. The flight from Frankfurt to Casablanca was a little over 4 hours. My feet swelled up to their previous elephantine size and I hobbled through customs to find Hassan waiting for me outside baggage claim. It was very good to see his smiling face. We stayed in Casablanca for the night and arrived in Fes around 6:00 the next day. I put my luggage down and hurried off to the school to get my assignment for the next day. Books in hand, I returned to the house and wept a little bit for all the work ahead of me to right the house again and to mourn a little bit the carefree summer that was now completely and utterly over. But that's the life of the working class. And these days, I count myself lucky to be working at all!

I have been warmly received by my co-workers, neighbors and friends now that I am back in town. This is the last week of Ramadan and schedules are topsy turvy. But this, too, will end soon and life will resume it's regular pace before long. Meanwhile, I am cleaning a little when I have the energy and motivation and preparing my lessons for the intensive course which is now in full swing. Slowly but surely the expats who left the heat are returning to Fes and everyday is a new opportunity to reacquaint myself with the people who have become such a large part of my life here.

This life is like a dream sometimes. One minute you are watching dolphins cavorting in the ocean while you sit in a rocking chair and enjoy the cool ocean breeze. The next minute you are hurtling through the air towards a different destination, enduring the torture of sitting in a small space for hours on end with bad food and recycled air. And then, before you know it, that, too is over and you are sitting in communion with a Muslim community patiently waiting for the call to prayer signifying the end of the long day's fasting. The swifts in the sky above are feeding on the insects and the sky is darkening and the busy area around Bab Boujloud falls strangely silent as everyone momentarily concentrates on eating and drinking.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Thus Far

I’ve now been in the U.S. for two months with one more left. It’s been a great summer thus far and a much needed rest from the hurly burly life in Fes. I’ve slept more, eaten more, traveled more, and shopped more during these past two months than I have in the past two years. Ahhhh, it’s been a delight.

I am staying in the equivalent of a riad in Fes. The house has everything (including a baby grand piano which I torture from time to time) and I want for nothing (well, perhaps more sunshine would be welcome in this foggy city by the bay). I’ve been chauffeured from California to Montana and back, seeing the natural beauty of this great country of mine … Crater Lake, the Sawtooth Mountains, Shasta Mountain, vast plains of wheat, verdant valleys and pristine ski resorts. It takes my breath away. I have been the recipient of generous hospitality staying in quirky, woodsy, country, newly renovated and comfortably lived-in homes. I’ve soaked in the mineral hot tubs of Calistoga, partied with the hoi polloi of Missoula, dined with artists, watched dance performances and shared time with family. I’ve even worked a day here and there so I could add to my little stash of vacation money.

Tonight I am going to the theater to see “Wicked” with two friends. Tomorrow I’m heading to the Russian River to stay with a long-time friend for a few days. And there is still the possibility of a drive to Portland (a small money-making business venture). After all that, one week remains to see all the people I’ve yet to see and then the grand finale … a week at a beach front property back east and the chance to see my brother who I haven’t seen for 4 years. Then the arduous journey back to Fes where it will be back to work almost as soon as I arrive {sigh}.

Summertime. This year my summer has been reminiscent of childhood summers where time seems to stretch endlessly before you in June, is punctuated by the rituals of the 4th of July, and then races to an end the minute August arrives. My family always planned two weeks ‘at the shore’ at the end of August and this year I am doing much the same.

The notion of unplanned time and the feeling of unnamed adventures always surrounded summer’s arrival as a kid. And this year I have been able to capture that same feeling as I have summered here in the good old U.S. of A.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Here and There


Without even noticing, I have reached the halfway point of my vacation in California. So far, the time has been spent rejuvenating and catching up with family and friends.

The contrast between here and Fes strikes me everyday. Life in Fes is full of colorful chaos and striking contrasts between interior and exterior life. Here in San Francisco, daily life is full of order and calm. In Fes I am ‘strange’, in San Francisco I am one of many and it’s easy to be anonymous. Fes is hot and dry, my city is walled-in, and I do all my own household chores. Life in my temporary dwelling here finds me chilled to the bone with daily fog yet filled with ease as the weekly housekeeping staff changes the linens on my bed, washes and irons anything I leave on the laundry room floor, cleans the bathroom (my favorite luxury) and empties the garbage which has been sorted into ‘recyclables, compost and non-recyclables’.

In Fes I work several jobs everyday. In San Francisco I have found some fill-in work that I do once in a while and at my discretion. In Fes I eat the same foods day in and day out. In San Francisco I have been enjoying foods long lost to my taste buds … salami and gruyere cheese, giant prawns, ahi tuna, smoked salmon, guacamole and fresh salsa with salty corn chips, and bacon, pork ribs and the occasional marguerita. Yummy, forbidden foods which are eaten with gratitude and relish. But here I must guard against myself and not succumb to eating processed foods or anything that isn’t organic (have you watched Food, Inc.? … if so you will appreciate what I am talking about).

Here in this lovely home in Pacific Heights I have a baby grand piano to torture and a television to watch horrifying reality shows such as ‘Jersey Housewives’ and the highly entertaining“America’s Got Talent’. Much to my surprise, I saw a belly dance duo I have shared the stage with win their way to a competition in Las Vegas. But I don’t own a TV in Fes … and I must say it is a decision that is validated every time I turn on the tube here.

I walk outside the door and stroll up one hill and down another into the Presidio where George Lucas has created a wonderful campus overlooking the Palace of Fine Arts and the San Francisco Bay. Back in Fes, the lovely gardens are all behind great walls and invitations are needed to enter the peaceful surrounds. Beautiful vistas await in Fes, too, but more often than not I must drive quite a distance to obtain the same spaciousness and often have to squint my eyes to overlook the plastic bags caught in the Agave bushes or the nooks and crannies of the terrain.

Life here vs. life there is a study in contrasts. And while I’m not saying one is better than the other I am enjoying the ability to move between the two and appreciate all the experiences on offer.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Fes to San Francisco


The last days in Morocco, before heading to the States for a 3-month stay, were filled with organization and anticipation. I packed all my clothes and personal belongings into one small room to make a 4th room available for sleeping. The house looked great and it was so gratifying to see every room in the house in use and cleaned. I actually felt very proud of myself as I looked at the totality of the house and recalled all the work it has taken to get it to this stage.

The heat was on and Hassan and I spent the last few days at Hotel Reda where they have a great, natural spring swimming pool and poolside food and drink service. Hardly anyone was at the pool as it was the first day of the season and the water was sparkling clean. In the evening, a group of musicians came with dancers and played until late in the night. It was so relaxing to be by the pool and have the ability to climb the stairs up to an air-conditioned room when the sun was at its highest. It was the one and only time Hassan and I agreed on hotel accommodations. Usually he thinks my choices are too posh and I think his choices are too, well, too 'limited' for my tastes and comfort. Finally, after 3 years, we agreed on something!

On Saturday afternoon, at 5:00 we headed up to Casablanca to the airport. A friend of Hassan's accompanied us so he would have some conversation and driving help on the return trip to Fes. We arrived at the airport in good time (3 hours before the flight) and only one near-death driving experience only to find the flight was delayed an hour. Oh well, nothing to do but wait so I urged Hassan to return to Fes and the comfort of Hotel Reda where he and his friend would spend Sunday at poolside.

No problems at all with the long travel to San Francisco. Just the reality of the fact that my connections were far between and I spent as much time waiting in airports as I did actually flying to my destination. That, plus the fact that the seats are far too small and a little bit like torture and I had 30+ hours of transit time. I finally arrived in San Francisco where my friend, Mary, was waiting for me with "WELCOME HOME EVELYN" sign in hand. I cried a few brief tears of gratitude and relief that I had arrived back in my favorite place in all the world.


Bacon and toast the next morning. What a lovely smell and even more heavenly taste. Champagne at dinner. Mixed green salad. Conversation. Phone calls where I can talk as long as I like. Well wishes from friends who know I have arrived, sitting in front of the television with a box of Wheat Thins on my lap. All so comforting and familiar.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Making the Morning Rounds


I opened my door this morning to go to a few local shops for breakfast items. As usual, the first thing I did was sweep the debris the street cleaners left in front of my door. This is the only place I know of where street cleaners deposit dirt at your doorstep rather than take it away. Oh well. I must say, great care seems to have been taken to ensure it is evenly distributed.

After tidying up a bit, I took the short walk to the end of my street. I greeted the egg man. Once again, he is fostering a young chicken. She struts around his shop, pecking at anything and everything on the ground. Once she’s grown and fattened up, she will inevitably become part of a tagine or couscous.

Hakima was lolling around on the ground, as she does every morning. Sometimes she is sitting upright but I gather the heat is depleting her considerable strength. Hairy legs sticking straight out, plastic bags of food and ‘God-only-knows-what’ surrounding her and eyes keeping tabs on everyone who passes, Hakima is a fixture on Derb Ben Salem. I, however, keep my distance from her ever since she tried to poke my eyes out one day when I tried to retrieve the 50 dirham note that fell out of my pocket and which she deftly snatched into her hands. We keep the peace by ignoring one another now.

I turned left onto Talaa Kbira. A lot of the shops won’t open as it is Friday. Those manning the stores were dressed in white to honor this holy day of the week. Wares were being displayed, tea was being poured, and the sounds of Koran recitations filled the air.

I continued down the road to Malika’s shop where I bought some coffee and water. We exchanged our standard greetings and money changed hands. When her father is there, it is necessary to speak very loudly as he is partially deaf and you must be very patient as he peers at each coin handed over to him and makes change. His sight is rather dim and making change takes a little bit of time.

Next, there was a stop for pastries around the corner on Derb Tariana. An old man dressed in a galabah was leaning against the counter and greeted me. I returned the greeting in Arabic. A long, one-sided conversation ensued -- in Arabic. I nodded at what I thought were the appropriate pauses in the ‘conversation’ and took my leave after buying 5 petite pain au chocolate.

I passed a friendly young Moroccan man who always says hello and tells me it’s nice to see him (he could use a little help with his pronouns). He offered me some of his deep fried donuts which he carried on a circle made from a strip of bamboo stalk. I wanted one (they are delicious) but graciously declined his generous offer.

The man who sells light bulbs greeted me, as did the simsar who lives on my street. The simsar was walking with some tourists and greeting a foreigner like me gives him extra credibility. I know this but take the friendly ‘hello’ at face value.

Back to my house. I open the door and close out the world on the streets. I have my coffee, pastries and computer to occupy me until it’s time to prepare for school. Inside, my world is clean, organized, un-peopled and calm. I look at the calendar on my refrigerator …

… in two weeks I will leave for Casablanca and from there, after a 2-day visit of the city, will board a plan to the U.S. for the summer.

I wonder … will I miss the color and the chaos? Or will I revel in the familiarity of the world I grew up in?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Colorful or Contemptible?


Seems to me that the answer to this question is the key to my own peace of mind. – or lack thereof. If I can answer ‘colorful’ I am much happier and accepting. If I answer ‘contemptible’ I am in for a lot of suffering. It’s my choice. As is everything in life I suppose.

So I practice finding the color in situations that give me a start. Here are a few examples of finding the color (sometimes a light tint) in everyday occurrences.


#1 The Man With the Slashed Face

The other day I opened my door to see a man walking past with blood streaming down his face. As I unabashedly followed his progress down the street, I noticed his right ear lobe was flapping and barely hanging on to rest of his ear. Apparently, a neighbor had ‘punished him’ for some insult (or worse) to his wife.

Color it “Expedient Justice”.

The two men had a problem with each other. The aggrieved party could have pressed charges with the police and sent the aggressor to jail. But a quick knife slashing settled the score and the slashed party now has a ‘badge of courage’ in the form of new scars which some young men here seem to covet.

#2 Litter, Litter Everywhere

There is a lot of foot traffic on my street and children come and go many times a day … either for school, to run errands or play in the street. These youngsters are the major contributors to the trash that accumulates everyday. They unwrap their candy, cakes and cookies and just throw the trash on the ground. Of course there isn’t any receptacle for them to use so the wrappers end up being discarded ‘in the moment’.

Color it “Opportunity”.

Because there is trash (and more) on the streets every single day, it creates jobs which must be performed every single day. This keeps people employed and feeling useful. Also, if someday, someone wishes to educate the children about the joys of environmental friendly practices, there is a big need to be fulfilled here offering yet another job opportunity which will serve generations to come.

#3 Donkeys, Carossas, Motorcyles & Other Impediments

Walking through the medina is an exercise in navigating an obstacle course. One needs to keep an eye on the ground for open holes, animal dung and uneven pavement so as to avoid a twisted ankle or redolent footwear. And there are also the obstacles created by machinery, handmade conveyances, trains of donkeys, mules with oversized loads on their backs walking downhill, and masses of people.

Pedestrians come barreling out of a side street without looking, stop unexpectedly with you right on their heels, and aimlessly veer right and left making it impossible to pass. And then there are the herds of tourists following a guide through their tour of the medina. They take up all the space, stop without warning to take photos and generally behave with blithe ignorance of the fact that most of the people traversing the medina are trying to get some where or accomplish some task. And my all-time favorite is two women, each holding one handle of an overstuffed bag, walking side-by-side. They unerringly expand the space they occupy at the very moment when an opportunity to pass them arises, thereby making it impossible to go around them.

Color it “Developing Dexterity”

In order to get from here to there in the medina, it’s necessary to keep good “eye/foot” coordination and be ready to stop and adjust in an instant. This is excellent practice for cultivating quick thinking and even quicker action when responding to an endless array of obstacles. It also helps cultivate mental dexterity for it helps immensely to tint the situation with tolerance and patience for the flow of life before you. I like to look at the traffic in the medina like a river. The obstacles are the boulders in the river and I am the water that must meander or rush around it in order to keep flowing in the direction I want to go.

#4 Give Me …

… a dirham, a pen, a cigarette, 200 dirham. Everyday I get asked to give something. Or lend something. But I’ve learned I must be prepared to part with the requested item forever when someone asks me for a loan. It’s not that the person doesn’t intend to pay me back when they make the request. I believe they do. But often they just can’t … otherwise they wouldn’t be asking for it in the first place.

People knock on my door, grab my arm when I am passing in the street, and follow me for a short while as I am traverse the street of the medina and the new town and beg my favor for something.

Color it “Count Your Blessings”

I come from one of the wealthiest areas in my country. When I am there, I am the one without. Most people where I come from have more money and more holdings than I could ever dream of possessing. Here in Fes, I am the one who has more than most. And even though I barely have enough money to cover my own modest expenses, I do try to remember each day that I have what I need and I remind myself to be grateful.

#5 Being “Strange”

I am a stranger here. People stare and comment because I am different in look, attitude, clothing and experience. I am ‘other’ and that calls forth a host of responses; curiosity, contempt, envy, pity, interest, indifference, delight and more. It runs the gamut.

Color it “Compassion and Understanding”.

I now know what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land. So many people in my own country have been in this position and I’ve never really understood what they deal with day in and day out. I have a newfound compassion for foreigners and expats. Also, I am now deeply aware of my own thoughts when they head in a negative direction and with this awareness I am able to work on turning those thoughts around to something beneficial to me and to my fellow human beings.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

More than Homesick


I miss my friends.

Two of the four friends expected last month made it to Fes, despite the air traffic mayhem following the volcanic eruption (the first one, that is). I was so lucky half the party made it and their visit was a needed tonic.

But then again, their visit highlighted something missing in my life ... good friends with whom I share some history. Ever since they left I have been full of wishes to return home to California. I struggle every day with my dissatisfaction about my life here and have to work hard to acknowledge the good things about my life in Morocco.

But there are, indeed, lots of pleasures that fill my day. Many of them are very small moments, but that doesn't mean they aren't full of meaning and good medicine.

The sticky kisses bestowed upon me by the neighborhood children and the ritual of greetings from each and every person I encounter as I walk through the streets let me know I am alive and acknowledged. And the offerings of a prayer on my behalf, the small treats from the shops that I frequent, and the invitations to tea remind me that Fes won't leave me alone. And for me, a person who can be rather reclusive and introspective, that's often a good thing for it forces me to interact and cross a cultural divide that is all too easy judge.

And then there are the big things that jar my sensibilities and continually knock me off balance. Like the recent debacle with the tourist police (who, by the way, refused to let my husband take my friend's niece through the medina the following week even though we registered her presence in our home with the police upon her arrival). And petty thievery from people I know, the unending absence of job opportunities for my husband, and, and, and.

And while I miss the comraderie of my longtime friends and I miss my country, I am willing to acknowledge that it's the new and the challenging experiences in life that afford me with the best opportunities for personal and spiritual growth.

But I can't help but wonder ... have I grown enough? Can I go home now?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Being Philosophical


Before the eruption of the volcano in Iceland (I’m not even trying to remember its name, yet alone how to pronounce it) there was a plan in place for four lovely friends from San Francisco to converge at my home for a weeklong visit in Fes. We haven’t seen each other for two years. They were coming from points in America and Europe and were expected to have been happily ensconced in my house by mid-afternoon. After I arrived home from school (around 6:30) I had planned to take them to an art exhibit in a Batha riad.

But, disappointedly, it’s nearly 8:00 and I am sitting at home without any visitors. And I can forget about the art exhibit because I am on standby mode and must let time metamorphasize.

One friend never made it out of San Francisco. Another is stuck in Italy until Tuesday (that leaves 3 or 4 days to visit). The last I heard (via a Blackberry email this morning) the remaining 2 were on their way from Barcelona, even though 75% of the flights had been cancelled. I had sent a driver to pick them up at their scheduled arrival time at midday, but received a call at 1:30 that the first flight was cancelled (I already knew this) and the second flight was in reportedly in Marrakech; its arrival time was unannounced. I haven’t heard anything since and am wondering where my friends are.

As much as I wanted to see all my friends, it’s surprisingly difficult to get too worked up about the situation. After all, as disappointing and frustrating as it is, there are so many bigger problems caused by this volcanic eruption. I just can’t help but see the irony that it’s all happening around Earth Day and I can’t help feeling that I am bearing witness to something so much bigger than me and my little life here on this planet.

Yes, I dearly want to see my friends. And yes, I am saddened that they aren’t here right now -- and some cannot come at all. And yet, I am in awe of the force of nature and know I will find more peace if I just submit to her power and accept what comes.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cafe Clock


I often say that if it weren’t for Café Clock, I wouldn’t still be here in Fes. It’s no secret that I’ve had a great deal of difficulty here and yesterday was one of those days when I would have given anything to just pack up and leave. I was fed up. Again!

As so often happens when I have a meltdown, I still had to pull myself together and go out into the world to work. I guess that’s because I work everyday … either teaching, or giving dance lessons, or doing writing assignments or working on some project related to the house.

I did my best to put on a composed face and went to The Clock for an appointment to interview someone for their blog (I write most of the articles on www.cafeclock.com). I sat down at a table, plugged in my computer and ordered a coffee. But I wasn’t able to hold my composure and I felt the tears coming on. Luckily, this was before my appointment arrived and in an unobserved moment with Max, Café Clock’s head domo. Max was full of warmth and compassion and gave me the strength to carry on.

Support comes in such a variety of forms from the people who work there and from my fellow expats who frequent the café. The café owner, Mike Richardson, is always giving me interesting projects to do or distracting me with his endless energy and head full of plans for a new project. Often, we work out a trade for food. This is wonderful for me because I don’t cook. I know how to cook; I just don’t do it. It’s not one of my talents nor is it one of my interests. So this plan works out great for me. Especially since the café is only a block from my house.

When I’m feeling lonely on a Sunday evening, there is always a concert to attend. The same goes for Wednesday evenings where a jam session is always underway. Inevitably I go alone to these events but also sooner or later someone I know comes in and keeps me company or greets me with warmth that fills a hole in my heart.

When I need a ladder or extra seating for guests or glasses for a gathering, Café Clock is there to help. They send me belly dance students and introduce me to interesting people who I get to interview for the blog. I get free wifi and effusive greetings upon my arrival and all manner of love and support every time I go there. Souad, who works in the kitchen, calls me “the flower of Café Clock”. A great photographer willingly photographs my house for nothing; people ask for my advice and offer some in return. Contacts are made, friendships are formed and English is widely spoken. And all this is just a few steps from my doorway and away from the curious eyes and the wagging tongues that are always present in Fes. Café Clock is truly an oasis for me and a tonic that never fails to soothe me.

Living in a culture that’s so different from the one I grew up in is an endless lesson for me. I must confess I sometimes feel like I am punishing myself with the hardships that I naively arranged for myself and with my inability to find balance when the cultural differences are so extreme. But in my more lucid moments I realize I am becoming a better person for unearthing the differences, looking them straight in the eye and being willing to bear witness to my own prejudices (which I previously thought were nonexistent) and I always make a conscious attempt to dispel the negative thoughts. And Hamduliallah I have a place to go where I feel welcome and supported and appreciated as I struggle with myself to broaden my perspectives and self-correct.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Monthly Marjane Shopping Trip


Once a month I go to a superstore here called Marjane where I load up on cleaning supplies, paper products, beauty products and some foodstuff. Occasionally I purchase something I’ve been wanting for a while … like a vacuum cleaner or a chauffage to heat the house. I also routinely buy myself a treat like any cheese that isn’t “La Vache Qui Rit” and crackers, or a medium-sized bag of peanut M&M’s (which never seem to remain unopened during the taxi ride home).

I always try to go when the store isn’t crowded because I don’t really like to shop at superstores and I prefer to get in and out as quickly as I can.

But that’s not always possible.

One deterrent to my swift shopping is the products themselves. I rarely recognize a brand name and rarely purchase brands I know because they cost a lot more. So I find myself peering at labels in French and Arabic trying to sort out if it’s the product I need. I look at the pictures and try to recognize some words. Cleaning products pose the biggest challenge.

Another deterrent is the store is constantly changing the layout. Paper napkins used to be in the front isles but now all paper products are in the back along with other household goods. Summer patio furniture now occupies the space previously devoted to kitchen utensils.

The merchandise is haphazardly priced and even then you can’t trust that the price on the product is what you will be charged at the register. And woe to the shopper who picks up a product without a bar code. Try to purchase it at the register and you’re in for a lengthy wait while someone ambles over to the register, looks quizzically at the product, then saunters off to search for its location. If you are extremely lucky, they will find another with the required sticker. More often than not you are told the product can't be located and it’s impossible for you to purchase it today. Then the cashier sets it aside.

I don't like hypermarches.

Some people like to ‘shop’ at Marjane and fill their cart to the brim with anything and everything that catches their fancy. Then they just walk away, leaving the full cart in the middle of an aisle, creating a kind of obstacle course for those actually intending to purchase the contents of their shopping cart. This seems to be a kind of leisure activity.

And while there are plenty of employees wandering around stocking shelves and arranging displays, and putting things back from overfilled and abandoned shopping carts, they aren’t very useful if I have a question about a product. To begin with, I can’t communicate with them as I can only speak a few words and phrases in Arabic -- and my French is not much better. When I do manage to get my point across, the employee generally tells me to buy what I am asking about -- or not.

After getting through all this and filling my plastic bags with my purchases, there is still the challenge of finding a taxi and schlepping the twenty-some-odd bags to my door. Of course I could always hire a carossa to wheel my purchases home when I emerge from the taxi at Bab Boujloud, but there never seems to be one handy. So I distribute the weight of the bags as evenly as possible and race down the derb before the circulation to my hands is cut off.

Once home, I survey my purchases. Invariably I have spent 1,000 DH. I see before me a relatively small display of products for the cash outlay … mostly over-packaged, brand name knock-offs and some cheaply made products from China.

I am relieved that my monthly shopping foray is over as I put everything in its proper place and sit down to finish the bag of M&M’s.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Work, Work, Work


When I was living in San Francisco, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find work. During my last couple of years there, I came to grips with the fact that I was just getting too old to be hired by others. So, I planned and started my own business. But it was tough going and I didn’t have enough capital to maintain it after a year. Of course, locating my shop in a flood zone and getting hit with 4 feet of flood water the very first week I moved in didn’t help matters.

But here in Fes, employment opportunities are a different matter and my age seems to be a plus rather than a detriment.

At any given time I seem to have 4 jobs going. There is my full-time ESL teaching job and there is the job of restoring my house. Of course the latter doesn’t pay yet, but one day, Insha’Allah, I will be in a position to rent it out to visitors. Then there are my belly dance classes. These are sporadic but fun to do. I have the idea to teach some young Moroccan women some Egyptian dance technique along with a choreography or two which they can then perform for hire at riads. I have two young ladies who have expressed interest and I hope to put a show together with them. The idea is to act as their ‘booking agent’ and reimburse myself for the investment of time and energy as the jobs come in. I have also taken on the job of editor for Café Clock Online. I write 1-2 articles a day about the personalities that come and go through this popular eatery.

Occasionally, I coach Moroccans who are seeking a visa to the U.S. and are about to have their interview at the American Consulate. I help them to formulate and articulate their answers to the questions they will be asked. I’ve only done this twice but I’m batting 1,000. Both applicants got their visas! I’ve done marketing communication projects, written an operations manual for a new business and, like most women, I am the unpaid housekeeper who makes the beds, washes the dishes and cleans the house from top to bottom.

I find it very odd to have so much work available to me while most Moroccans I know are struggling to find one job. But then again, I have a great deal of work experience and life experience that I bring with me and it’s gratifying to find a market for my skills. I work very hard and get up early each day to support myself, my husband, my house and the car. Sometimes I get weary, but I always remind myself I’d rather be tired from working then bored and listless from having no sense of purpose.

I feel valued for my experience and skills. Something I was losing in the U.S. And while I barely make ends meet --- even with all the work I do, I am not in debt and I live within my means. I am wearing the same clothes I’ve worn for years and washing those clothes by hand but I do know where my next paycheck is coming from and I never go hungry.

Little by little, I am creating a fantastic home and preserving the traditional style that makes it so impressive. I am teaching the next generation of Moroccans to speak English and improve their chances of finding gainful employment. I’m teaching others how to express themselves through Arabic dance. And, I am finding a wider audience to speak about the draw of Fes as I write for yet another blog.

I never imagined I would find such a venue for the potpourri of skills I have gathered throughout my lifetime. I’ve walked through the looking glass and found another world.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pretty Woman


There is a fine-boned, delicate woman who lives and works in the Medina. She was born here and seems to float through the streets with a calm that I rarely see in the chaos of old Fes. She always addresses me as ‘madame’ and formally greets me each time we meet.

I was sitting atop the Cascade hotel the other night, enjoying the temperate air and the sounds of people coming and going below, when she materialized. She slowly made her way to the far corner where I was sitting with two others and sat down beside us. Her voice was high and clear as she greeted everyone. Her ‘r’s’ rolled endlessly off her tongue, making me smile inside at the sheer musicality of her words. After some time had passed, the two men sitting with us left on an errand and we found ourselves alone. With no one to interpret for us, we resorted to the little bit of French we both knew to continue our conversation.

I found out she is 45 years old and lost her parents at a young age. As beautiful as she is, I was shocked to learn she was much younger than I had thought she was -- for her bearing is that of someone in her 60’s. She moves slowly and has a weariness about her that belies her age. I think to myself that she must be ill.

Ever so deliberately, this elegant woman opened her handbag and sorted through several layers to extract a cigarette. This surprised me, too, as few Moroccan women her age smoke. She asked me why I had come to Fes. Through gestures, some French and a little bit of Arabic I explained that Fes offered me work, a home and a husband … things I wasn’t able to have back home. I told her Fes kept offering me things and I just kept saying ‘yes’ until I found myself settled in. “Marhabah, Saida,” she said. “Welcome”. She seemed to like my explanation.

Another cigarette was taken in hand and she offered one to me. More of her story came out and I learned she lived with her sister and her nephews in a house that was far from calm. She has no husband or children. She counted all the places she had travelled in Morocco on her fingers and ended by saying Fes was where she preferred to be. “Fes?” I asked. “Fes is far from tranquil … why Fes?” Her answer was lost on me but I gathered it’s because this is the place that is most familiar to her.

Taking my leave I later learned a little bit more about her story. She was quite a beauty in her youth and many a young Moroccan man sought her favor. She lived the high life and it seems now she is paying the price for her youthful follies. In any event, that’s how the story was relayed to me. To me, she is unearthly and I now have this fixed image of her in my mind, floating through the dark recesses of the medina, wistfully carrying her past around with her.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A British Author, A Ukrainian Belly Dancer, and an Aspiring Accordian Player


I had a much needed day off yesterday after 6 straight days of teaching, reviewing the semester’s teachings, invigilating exams and then marking exams into the wee hours of the night. It was tough to get up that morning, but by noon I succeeded in feeling semi-human.

Off to Café Clock where I was scheduled to interview an author passing through Fes who was collecting ‘stories’ for a book he is writing. I don’t know if it was my foggy mind or the effect of the warm sun on the terrace that prevented me from fully comprehending the nature of his book, but I never did quite grasp the concept. Oh well. It was a pleasant enough start to the day as the gears of my mind started mesh and we shared a convivial cup of café crème. I figured I would be able to fashion some words later that would catch the essence of what he is doing here.

Later that day I was scheduled to conduct another interview (I am now writing for Café Clock’s blog). This time it was going to be much easier because the subject was an international belly dancer who is here in Fes for a month. I am no stranger to belly dance and I was looking forward to meeting Nadia. I arrived at the house where she was staying in Batha. I had Omar in tow to take some photographs. Little did we know what awaited us.

After knocking at the wrong door, we finally gained entrance into the proper place. Behind the kitchen doors sat a visitor from Zimbabwe, our Ukrainian dancer, a Jordanian chef and our Irish host and her daughter. The atmosphere was charged with laughter and the conversation was filled with the melody of English spoken in a variety of accents. It’s always interesting to me that people think I have an indefinable accent and so I wasn’t surprised when they asked me “What is your accent?” After being asked this question so many times I’ve finally pinpointed the answer and was able to readily reply. “It’s articulated English.”

Omar and I sat down at the table and greeted everyone. We wanted to photograph Nadia straight away as the light was quickly fading. Alas, she had not brought any costumes with her but that was okay. Nadia was quickly taken to an appropriate backdrop for her photo session and returned to the kitchen where our new-found Jordanian friend was preparing crevettes in a garlic and curry sauce for dinner. The smell was divine and the taste was sublime.

Before long, stories were being exchanged and several enactments followed. There was a brief rendition of Irish song, followed by some high-stepping Irish dance. We were also treated to an example of traditional Ukrainian dance and a tantalizing glimpse of Arabic dance from Nadia. Ali, the Jordanian, extolled the virtues of his country and Philomena revealed the fact that she would soon be reunited with her accordion which she fully intended to finally learn how to play it. Believe it or not I was able to tell her an accomplished accordion player is currently teaching with me --- someone who also plays Irish tunes. Omar gave insights into Moroccan culture and mentality to those recounting stories of encounters that left them puzzled while the visitor from Zimbabwe played host, replenishing glasses and serving second helpings from the crevette stew.

Later, as Omar escorted me across the Medina to my own home, we shook our heads in wonder at the gathering we had just left behind. Fes certainly is a magnet for unique personalities and our evening of ‘work’ had served to underscore the phenomenon. Of course we both realized that we, too, are unique personalities, and consensually agreed to keep accepting projects like the one that led us to Batha that evening.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Good Luck People


I’m told certain people are ‘good luck’. These people are said to possess a special ability to attract good fortune to others. In order to avail yourself of some of their luck, it’s vital that you be in their presence and in their good graces.

One such good luck person is also the laziest person I’ve ever met. I don’t know which started first; the laziness or the good luck. But he’s universally regarded as good luck, so he only has to sit in the cafes, day after day, waiting for someone to buy his coffee, give him something to smoke, or take him along on an errand or an adventure which someone inevitably does. His lack of interest in work is entirely excusable because just to have him in your presence means something good will happen to you. Therefore, it’s good to have him available, 24/7.

I think it’s a great gig if you can get it.

And I, too, have been told I bring good luck. My house has been dubbed ‘good luck’ as well. I certainly prefer to be the harbinger of good luck rather than bad, but I am not clear on one’s responsibility as the bearer of good fortune or what demeanor should be adopted. In fact, I’d love to receive the message that I should quit my job, stop doing the housework and make myself available to dispense good luck to those who need a little boost from the unseen realms. But alas, I have yet to embrace the idea that I bring good luck and am more interesting in receiving it than bestowing it. Perhaps that’s the problem.

Maybe tomorrow I will hand in my resignation and begin embrace the role of good luck provider. It’s a tempting thought.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ups and Downs


Some days are a roller coaster ride of emotions.

Take yesterday. So many heartwarming things happened ... mostly small little things but together they seem to sustain me when homesickness visits once again or culture shock sets in. You'd think, after three years here, culture shock wouldn't pay a visit anymore, but it does. Surprisingly, I'm sometimes shocked by the behavior of visiting Westerners more than Moroccans.

Among the positive experiences yesterday were the enthusiastic greetings and kisses from the neighborhood children I encountered on the street. There was the timely offer of a ride to the taxi stand as a colleague saw me walking down a dark street after school, closely followed by an unsavory looking character. At my favorite cafe, the chef inquired if I'd like some french fries added to my dinner order, as a little extra sustenance after a long day. And kind words and supportive strokes from other foreigners who told me I am beautiful and a look at my face always brightened their day. And my students who always respond so warmly to a single word of encouragement or a simple acknowledgement of their efforts.

On the flip side there were arguments. An argument with my husband and an argument with a guest. This is how I ended my day. In point of fact, I hate contentious confrontations but they seem to be totally acceptable here. Anger flares up and quickly subsides. I've got the flare up part down pat. It's the subsiding of the anger that I need to work on. I often feel like a tea kettle that's with boiling water inside that simply must be released to avoid an explosion of the kettle. I am the kettle and the anger is the boiling water. Like vaporized water my tears inevitably appear when things heat up and I am later filled with remorse for my inability to hold my temper.

But displays of temper are everywhere and I seem to have assimilated this behavior. Couldn't I have picked something else to emulate?

Ah well. Today is another day. Either I must learn to ride the rails with all the ensuing emotions or get out of the car altogether.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Annual Paper Chase

It's that time of year again. Time to fill all the paperwork needed for my new work contract. Every year the documents I am required to provide change. One year I need the papers for my house and a copy of my marriage act. The next year, those documents are not required but I must provide a copy of my college diploma and teaching certifications along with translations in Arabic. Now I'm sure I provided these papers the first year but this year they are now requested again. There are forms which must be filled out in triplicate -- I can't copy the original but must laboriously complete the same form with the same information --three times for one set of papers and five times for another. Oh yeah, and it's all in French which I barely comprehend.

These documents are next sent to Rabat and Casablanca for review and approval. Approval that comes in the form of a stamp and a scribbled signature. This can take up to 2 months if the authorizing individual happens to have scheduled a vacation that coincides with the arrival of my paperwork for it seems there is only 1 person who can approve the contract. Once this is done, I have one of the precious documents necessary to renew my work visa.

Now the fun really begins because a completely different set of forms, along with this new work contract, need to be provided to the police in order to renew my visa. Nine passport photos must be provided and money must be paid for a stamp which will ultimately find it's way onto the visa/identity card.

But before I can present these forms to the police, a trip to the Beledia is necessary to notorize a copy of appropriate pages in my passport and some other official papers -- exactly what they are escapes me now. I seem to block out the memory each year because it ends up taking a month or more to chase down the paper (this is after the two months needed to get the work contract) and fulfill all the requirements for copies, stamps, notarizations, etc.

But that's not the best part. The best part is the trip to the police station where I must present all these papers which took months and months to gather to officials who don't exactly find their work fulfilling. Perhaps its because they are forced to work with ancient manual typewriters with carbon paper behind desks piled precariously high with folders and paperwork from seemingly thousands of others just like me. Every day the line of visa applicants stretches around the corner and these officers are behind schedule before their workday even begins. Day after day after day.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate if, by some miracle, I'm not sent away to gather some other obscure document or trade the stamp I purchased for one in a different color or make additional photocopies. Any business with these officials must be conducted in Arabic or French and woe to the foreigner who tries to speak English. But once all the hoops have been jumped through, I only have to wait another two months to get my new visa. Once my new visa arrives 5 months have passed since the whole process began which means that by the time I get my new annual visa I only have 7 months left before it expires again and need at least 2 of those 7 months to collect the paperwork all over again.

Thank God I am eligible to apply for a 10 year visa this year.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Case of the Missing Underwear

While enjoying a relaxing cup of coffee at Café Clock the other day, a recent posting on Trip Advisor was pointed out to me by an acquaintance. A local riad was panned for what seemed like an unbelievable situation. The guest reported that someone got access to his room, rummaged through the suitcases, and stole his girlfriend’s used underwear.

We were shaking our heads at the ludicrous situation when a Moroccan friend volunteered that the underwear was probably used for magic. We were further told that used underwear was one of the ingredients (if you will) used in a spell in which someone wishes to separate a man and a woman. The other ingredients include her maiden name and some of her hair.

Really?

Yes, we were assured. These items and information would be then taken to a woman who performs black magic and the woman and the man would then be separated.

“Then it must have been a woman who entered their room and took the underwear. She wanted the man for herself,” I said.

“Or it could have been a man who wanted the woman”, pointed out my friend.

Either way, I felt sorry for the owner of the riad and sorrier still for the person who took the underwear.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Deflection


Among my Moroccan acquaintances, I have observed masters at the art of deflection …especially when it comes to arguing. And if the person doing the deflecting happens to feel he or she is wrong, their artful ways increase to a truly awesome level.

For example, recently, the children of a neighbor were caught red-handed taking things off my terrace. When the mother came to apologize, she asked to speak to my husband. Eventually he went to her house and an argument ensued. Despite being 100% in the wrong, she turned the ‘discussion’ into my husband having said a bad word. And while I can only imagine the exchange, for I wasn’t there, it’s typical of how arguments go here. Accuse someone of doing wrong and if you are correct in your accusations, expect to be accused of something yourself. Or, failing that, the conversation is going to go ‘round and ‘round in circles in the hope that the original point will soon be forgotten or a different grievance will take its place. A grievance in which your adversary becomes the wronged party. It’s quite an art. One must be diligent in holding on to the original point and must resist the temptation to engage in an all together different argument to make any headway.

The keynote here is the best defense is a good offense, although often the offense argument is completely off the subject. But that doesn’t matter. The point is to get the wronged party tangled and twisted up in a different scenario as quickly as possible. If you are not aware of this tactic, you can naively start to defend yourself or begin to argue an altogether different point and find yourself in a shouting match about something completely off the original subject. And eventually, you might find yourself doing or saying something that justifies their feigned indignation. Then you are wrong. Masterful!

Indeed, arguing or creating a scene seems to be a kind of entertainment here. Life in the Medina can take on a sultry routine and to shake things up a bit there is nothing like a good, public rant or argument to spice up the day. You can choose to be an impartial observer, or you can rush to the aid of one party and thereby put yourself in the thick of things, or you can wait and see how things proceed, then choose sides and create a whole new fracas if you wish.

Returning home last night I was walking down Talaa Kbira when shouting suddenly began. I looked back up the street to see a very large man take off his shirt, start swinging it around and shouting at the top of his lungs and flailing his arms wildly. It took about 2 seconds for a very large crowd to gather. Some ran to either calm down the perpetrator or egg him on. Probably the latter as things had been pretty quiet. In true Moroccan fashion I stopped to gawk at the fray. A tide of people continued to rush past me to get a ringside view of the proceedings. Of course nothing came of it. It stopped almost as quickly as it began. It was just a fleeting moment of homespun diversion from everyday life.

What makes it all so tolerable is that one minute you witness tempers rising and you think a lifelong enemy has been made. Then, in a very short time, everything is forgotten and the person you were arguing with is your best friend again.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

First Runner Up!

No prize or coveted badge to display on my blog announcing that Evelyn in Morocco is Morocco's Best Blog of 2010. No, that honor goes to others. Best Overall Blog deservedly went to The View From Fes. To tell the truth, I was just thrilled to be in the running. I never thought I could come close to their votes but did, at one point, take the lead with less than 12 hours to go in the contest. I only missed winning the Best Personal Blog category by one vote! That's due to lots and lots of soliciting for votes in the eleventh hour and incredible response from family, friends, colleagues, local Moroccans and my students. Everyone put out the word for me and I picked up quite a few new readers.

Special thanks goes to Vago for organizing the contest on Morocco Blogs. What a great service he did for the blogging community here in terms of raising awarenss about the blogs and generating interest. Well done Vago! And I can't forget all the sponsors who put up great prizes to sweeten the pie.

I gotta tell you, it was great fun to give the other contestants a run for their money. Sorry I didn't win the prizes or the badge to display on my blog, but I did win in a big way ... great support, new found interest in my blog and an exciting evening of watching the numbers go crazy as voting heated up.

Congratulations to all the winners. It was a great contest.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Trespassers


Came home yesterday afternoon to the sound of voices up on my terrace. I quietly climbed the stairs to the rooftop and opened the door. The sound of the door opening announced my arrival and in the far corner of the terrace perched a young girl, straddling the corner of the wall between my terrace and two other houses. Her face registered complete alarm when our eyes met. Poof! She fell backwards – not onto her own terrace, but our mutual neighbor’s terrace. I gather she got a good thump as she fell because an indignant wail followed her abrupt descent.

I rushed to the corner to check on her only to discover another girl cowering in the corner that was outside my view when I emerged from the stairwell. She made a dash for the corner to hop over the wall. “LA!” I shouted -- for I could see what was coming. She used an antique olive oil jar to propel her over the wall and it crashed and broke under her weight. I unleashed the full power of my fury on her. My terrace had been stripped of all personal belongings … a table, a tea kettle, ashtrays, clothes pins … and now a prized belonging had been shattered. Big problem. Thank goodness I didn’t have laundry hanging out to dry for no doubt that, too, would have made its way off the terrace.

Who knows where the first girl went. She probably ran to save herself while her friend or sister was trapped with the angry “foreigner” on the terrace where they had no doubt been trespassing all day long. A glance to my right let me see where they had transferred my things onto their own terrace.

I made a grab for the girl. She cowered and cringed as if I were going to strike her. She cried and simpered as her eyes looked wildly around for an escape.

I let her go with a torrent of angry words. What could I do? I was suddenly filled with memories of bad decisions I made when I was a young girl. Fortunately for me, I always got caught and therefore learned some lessons the hard way about what's right and what's wrong.

Eventually, some adults emerged onto the rooftop to find out what all the commotion was about. My belongings were handed over to me, one by one.

Later that evening, the mother of the two young girls came to my door to apologize. “No problem” I told her. “Just teach your girls a lesson and don’t let it happen again.” I had no desire to make trouble but I was hoping the girls would learn not to repeat their mistake.

Nevertheless, today I am making plans to build a higher wall.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Best Blog????

Last night, my friend Jess and I got together for some food and a long visit. She spent the night at my house. After midnight, we logged on to Morocco Blogs to see how we were both doing in the voting for Best Blog in Morocco. One by one we checked the results. BEST PERSONAL blog was first. I was in the lead! Then we checked her blog status under BEST CULTURE blog. She had taken the lead, too. We whopped and hollared and gave each other the high five. Finally, BEST OVERALL. I never thought I had a chance in this category as The View from Fes was always way ahead of me. But there I was -- Evelyn in Morocco was in the lead for the first time. We jumped up and down and laughed and laughed and laughed some more.

Alas, this morning we'd both lost our leads. In all three categories!

What a horse race ladies and gentlemen. Now there is only one half hour left.

But you know what? I feel like I've won because my colleagues, my friends, my regular readers of this post and especially my students have been so supportive of me and my blog. Because of this contest, more and more people who I live and work with have taken the time to read my blog and have encouraged me to continue to write. Now that's a prize. In fact, it's a priceless prize and I am grateful.

Thanks, too, to Vago ... the brainchild behind Morocco Blogs and the contest.

This morning I am a happy camper.

May the best blogs win!!!

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Blustery Night


WOW! What winds we had last night! Things were bumping and thumping in the night and there was a pelting rain. I’ve never before experienced such high winds here. The plastic covering the halka rattled and flapped itself into tatters. Pottery blew over and crashed onto the terrace. Eventually it stopped and sleep was possible. I’ve yet to go up and look at the damage on the terrace but I’m sure a big sack will be needed to collect the debris. This I must do or it will plug up the drain and water will come cascading down the stairs again with no where else to go.

The drain on the terrace was not operating earlier this week due to a cat. Yes, a cat. They roam the rooftops here and use the terrace floors as a litter box. When I came home one evening I saw water had come down the stairs and was even dripping through the underneath of the stairs. When I opened the terrace door I saw the floor was covered in 2 inches of water because the drain was plugged up. I reached into the drain (in the dark) and came up with a handful of cat droppings. UGH! I flung the offending droppings into the night and eventually the water drained off the rooftop. Ah the joys of home ownership.

Today, it’s cold and rainy but the wind has died down. It’s Friday (again) and the sounds on the street confirm what day it is. More children are running around because they only have a half day of school and the promise of a couscous lunch is wafting through the air. Pressure cookers are whistling and rattling the lids on the pots. A glance outside my kitchen window reveals men in their Friday galabahs and crocheted caps. Young men I know to be real rascals look so pious and innocent on Fridays. Perhaps today is the day they will turn over a new leaf. Friday is the perfect day to re-dedicate oneself to goodness and healthy discipline. I should try it.

As I make myself a second cup of coffee, I glance out the window and see a couple rays of sunshine. It’s my busy day at school and I have papers to grade and worksheets and activities to prepare. I’ll get to work soon, but not before I stare at the walls for a bit and listen to the birds chirp their greetings to this new day. Maybe I’ll wear my galabah to school today.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Same Old Same Old


Time and time again, I am struck by the ‘sameness’ of everyday life here in the Medina. I think it might be the reason the culture has been so well preserved in this microcosm.

Everyday, I observe people following their routines. Shopkeepers display their wares in the same place everyday… patiently putting everything out in the morning and taking it back inside every evening. Restaurant menus do not alter. Fridays are for couscous. Bisarah is for breakfast. Every Ramadan, you’ll find dozens of shops springing up with mounds of the same honey pastries. One’s best kaftans and galabahs are brought out for fests. There is quite a variety of music but one hears the same songs over and over so everyone knows the words and can sing along. Even I know some of the refrains now. Religious holidays are celebrated in exactly the same way each time they come ‘round. Taxis go on strike twice a year. People pour into the Medina at 5:30 every evening for their daily constitutional. The routines are endlessly repeated and passed on to the next generation.

I recall watching a documentary on the Dalai Lama. He has been trying to preserve the Tibetan culture after the Chinese have done their best to eradicate it. His solution is to encourage the celebration of festivals where the people can sing and dance and prepare traditional food. This, he says, is the way to help preserve their culture and keep it from being absorbed until it’s no longer recognizable or distinctive.

Well, here in the Medina, the Moroccans are doing just that – every day, every ritual, every routine is an act of cultural preservation.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Return to Fes


I just returned from a 4-day trip to Agadir. I went as part of an annual ESL teacher’s conference which was organized by my employer, The American Language Association. So, it was 3 full-days’ worth of workshops and lectures with a sprinkling of brain-storming sessions. All-in-all, it was a great experience.

My teaching today was inspired. I used a lot of approaches and activities that I learned at the conference and even created an activity of my own which was a big success in the classroom.

I have some great memories of funny and unexpected moments with my colleagues, too. I’ll refrain from recounting any of them here!

And last to mention -- but certainly not the least of the experience -- was some great food with flavors I hadn’t had for a long, long time.

The whole trip was perfect.

But I much prefer Fes. For me, Fes is a difficult place to live. And I will choose open, airy, water-filled, ‘green’ spaces over the closed-in, dry, brown Medina I currently live in any time. But just because living here is hard for me and seemingly such an unlikely place for me to have chosen to live, I increasingly realize that striving to meet its challenges has been good for me. It seems I enjoy meeting challenges.

Agadir had more of the physical components I like in a place to live. But my experience as a tourist in the tourist section (surrounded by Europeans) made me miss my oh-so Moroccan life in Fes.

So it was with great to get away and breathe some fresh air. It was gratifying to have the chance to learn ways to improve my teaching, and oh-so satisfying to eat and drink like a gourmand.

And in the end, it’s been surprising as well as gratifying to learn just how at home I feel in Fes.