Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Knock, Knock

Yesterday there was a knock at the door. I pulled my weary body off the sofa, threw a scarf around my bare shoulders and went to see who was there. Opening the door I saw a man holding a rather large metal frame. I didn’t understand what he wanted. He gestured from the metal frame to me. I took a closer look and saw some leaf designs on what appeared to be a small bench of some kind. Only it had a peculiar truncated L-shape to it. Under his arm was what I imagined to be the cushion for the bench.

“Not me” I said in my limited Arabic.

“Said”, he replied and then made circles of with the thumbs and fingers of each hand and put them in front of his eyes.

Did he want me to look at the piece more closely? Was he selling it? What did he want????

“Meshi ana” I repeated and apologetically closed the door.

About 10 minutes later a loud conversation was taking place outside my door. I went to peer through the gap between the two doors and I saw a head about waist high. Someone was sitting right in front of my door. In fact, he was leaning on the door and having a lively conversation with some young boys.

Oh well. I thought. Leave them be. Perhaps it’s the only shade they can find on this hot afternoon.

I returned to the sofa only to be disturbed fifteen minutes later by another rap on the door. Once again I threw a scarf around my shoulders and went to see who it was this time.

The same guy stood there with the same bench. He repeated the mysterious gesture and once again said “Said”.

I said “Hassan”.

He said “Said”.

Just then, a young boy I hadn’t noticed emitted that sound everyone here makes when a light bulb goes off in their head

“AAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaa” (the ‘a’ is pronounced like the ‘a’ in attic)

All of a sudden, the man, the bench and the boy headed up the street without such much as a backward glance in my direction. I imagine it finally dawned on the man that he was at the wrong house and the boy knew where to lead him.

But what was so funny to me was that this man came to the wrong door, didn’t get the answer he wanted and then proceeded to plop himself on my doorstep and wait about 15 minutes to try the whole routine over again. Nothing changed from the first attempt to the next. But the crazy part is it worked. Because trying again resulted in someone standing nearby to overhear (well, actively listen) and send him off in the right direction, presumably to get the answer he wanted in the first place.

I hope Said -- who obviously wears glasses -- is happy with his new bench.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Conversation About Religion

HIM: So, which religion do you choose now that you know about Islam?

HER: Why do I have to choose?

HIM: Okay then, which religion do you think is the best?

HER: I think they all have their good points.

HIM: Do you believe in Allah?

HER: Yes, I most certainly do believe in a Higher Power!

HIM: Do you believe in Paradise?

HER: Not in the same way you believe in it.

HIM: What do you believe?

HER: I believe Paradise is an expansion of mind.

HIM: But there’s the problem …. If you knew about Paradise, how green it is, how beautiful it is and if you knew that when you enter Paradise you will see all the people you have loved who have died before you, and everything you ever wanted is there before you, you would run to be Muslim.

HER: (smiling) But I don’t really see Paradise so literally.

HIM: If only you knew.

HER: If only I did.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Leave-Taking

On the last night of my Conversation class, I told my students I was leaving The American Language Center. I wanted them to have some idea of how much they – and, indeed, all my students at the ALC – had touched my life. I thanked them for their willingness to share their thoughts with me and I told them I would always hold very fond memories of my years at the American Language Center.

The students gathered around me (there were about 8 of them). One student reached into her massive handbag (the young ladies always carry handbags with the capacity of carryon luggage) and pulled out a plastic bag. She dug her hand inside the bag, all the time muttering words to downplay what she was about to offer.

“Sorry it took so long to make this for you, teacher.”

And having said this, she handed me a scarf she had made. Months earlier, I had arranged to have her Aunt make me a tunic like the one this young lady had worn to class. I admired the tunic during a class and then turned that comment into a discussion about the artisans of Fes and how we should actively support their work. When she offered to have her Aunt make a similar tunic for me I simply couldn’t refuse … not after lecturing them about supporting local artists. The tunic was made after several delays trying to get measurements. Not having a tape measure in meters resulted in my grabbing something off the hanger that fit me and providing it as a pattern. In due time the tunic was made and it is an outstanding piece. The scarf which was now being presented to me had been fashioned from the leftover material, and it had always been maintained by my student that this was rightfully my material and should be returned to me. But this young lady wanted to return it to me as a scarf.

The scarf was – is – lovely. Beautiful turquoise fringe embellishes each end of the scarf, making it the perfect length and weight. The gesture was even lovelier.

Next, the only male student in the class came and shook my hand. I have a soft spot in my heart for this young man because one evening after class he approached me and said,

“Teacher, even though you were laughing in class I can see the sadness in your eyes tonight."

He was right and his compassion melted my heart. I had to shoo him away as the tears welled up in my eyes.

Several girls kissed me and one lingered behind to sing me a song. This wasn’t the first time this 17 year-old student sang to me after class but this time, I sang a song for her as well. I hoped it would also be a final lesson for her. I sang of a solider from the Civil War who tricked a love-stick young maiden into giving him many valuable items from her grandfather’s chest of goods. When the maiden beseeched the soldier one more time to marry her, he callously revealed he was already married.

The singer and I exited the classroom and headed for the stairs. At the top of the stairs another of my students rounded the corner and asked if she could speak with me. She put her arm through mine and led me back to Room 4. The door was gently closed and then she turned to me. Before I knew it she threw her arms around me and began sobbing on my shoulder.

“Teacher, I’m going to miss you. Please, don’t go!”

I held her in my arms, just as I had done about a year ago when I saw her walking up my street in the Medina. She looked desolate and responding to my expressions of concern about her, she fell into my arms and cried her heart out. Her beloved grandmother had just passed away. I held her tight and let her cry. While her friends beseeched her to stop, I encouraged her to let her emotions out. I was remembering my own experience at the same age with the death of my mother. I believed I knew what she was feeling.

This time, as I found myself once again holding her and witnessing her sadness, I knew this strong but gentle young lady was remembering that day her grandmother died. I imagine she was thinking here was another loss (though I don’t believe for a second that I am held in the same esteem as her grandmother). But nevertheless, for a young woman the finality of painful losses is a new life experience and I believe painful emotions need to be honored. But it’s my experience that such pain also needs to eventually be held at arms’ length in order to continue to face the world with an open heart. So I softly told her that I would always remember her and that sad partings inevitably play a role in everyone’s life. She kissed the top of my head the back of my hands before I could pull her upright and hold her by her shoulders. Then I spoke to her.

“You know, I will never forget the first time you were my student … “

Then I proceeded to recount a story about her and enumerated some of her qualities. We walked out of the class together and descended the stairs. All the while I told her little stories about her that I have had held in my memory. When we arrived outside the main door and approached the garden, there stood the majority of my students.
We said goodbye one more time and I walked out the gate to find a taxi.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Thoughts About Summer

During the month of May temperatures soared into the 100’s where they remained for over a week. The knowledge that this was going to seem cool when August arrived helped me to practice some patience with the unseasonably high temperatures. Because the heat had just begun, I could still hang out on the upper floors of the house, although the ground floor offers some very comfortable, fresh feeling air up until August.

All too soon, I will move to one of the bedrooms on the ground floor and stay there until the fall. The only drawback to this is it reduces the number of rooms to rent to tourists, or drives me up into the heat when I want the revenue for a night or two. But I’ve done it before and I can do it again. And there is always the terrace to sleep on at night and a cold water shower available -- provided I move the washing machine out from under it.

This year will be the first year in a while that I will spend the summer in Morocco. With Ramadan starting around the 20th of July and continuing through most of the dog days of summer, this year promises to be particularly memorable. The challenge of 30 days of fasting, 18 hours a day in temperatures that often hit 120+ degrees Fahrenheit looms around the corner. I, personally, will not be fasting, but everyone around me will be and I will adapt to the rhythm of night turning into the time for activity and day being a time for suspended animation. I will try not to eat during the hours of fasting but I will continue to hydrate myself… but only when no one who is fasting can observe me. In this very small way, I become part of the month-long fast.

Some Moroccans here appreciate my effort to join the collective fast, however imperfect it is. Others dismiss the effort because of the drinking and I understand their position. But for me, I know I am doing my best to show my respect for the holy month of Ramadan while I am living in a Muslim society. And even if I can’t demonstrate 100% solidarity, I do recognize the meaning behind it all and I have great respect for everyone who will be fasting this summer.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


There are a lot of children living and playing on my street. Mostly, the boys drive me to distraction with their rough play, loud voices and destructive behavior. They are kind and friendly one-on-one, but get them in a group and a kind of pack mentality takes over. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep a civil tongue in my head. I don’t always succeed. But the girls are a different story. And one girl in particular has captured my heart. Her name is Doha.

Doha is just learning French in school so it helps us to communicate. But even without this common language, we seem to be able to communicate rather well. The combination of gestures, facial expressions and the desire to communicate make us get along rather well.

Not long ago, the utility company replaced all the water lines in our street. This took place over an extended period of time and plastic hoses (our new, bright blue water lines) protruded from the walls of every building. Gaping holes where the workmen had hacked away at the boxes housing the water lines marred the walls and debris filled the empty spaces … empty yogurt cups, stale bits of bread and the occasional broken bits of Styrofoam made each compartment look like an abandoned icebox in a tenement building. But finally, one day the workers arrived to connect the hoses and switch on the meters once again. It would eventually take another few weeks for the holes in the walls to be closed up with cement and sand but everything was eventually put back in working order.

One day I answered a loud knock at the door. The RADEEF man wanted to know where my water meter was. It was sitting next to the front door because after the workers had ripped off the door to our water line, the meter had seemed too tempting to just stay there and wait for the next step in the process to be undertaken. So, in the interest of protecting our meter, we had stored it safely in the house. Proud of myself for understanding him, I produced the meter. I noticed Doha lingering in the background and we greeted one another. The RADEEF man had more questions but this time they were beyond my comprehension. Noticing that Doha and I seemed to be on a first-name basis, he asked her to pose his questions to me. She tucked in her chin, gave him an incredulous look and then a light bulb went off in her head. Turning to me, she proceeded to communicate that he wanted to know if I had two water lines. I told her that indeed I did have two water lines. The RADEEF man grunted and mumbled something as he returned to overseeing his minions and the matter seemed to be settled.

With Doha, communication seems to come easy simply because we want to communicate and we keep things on a very basic level. When she greets me on the street, we inquire about one another’s plans for the day … she asks if I’m going to school and I ask her the same. She loves to take my keys from me when I return home and open my front door for me. Occasionally I give her a dirham or a piece of a candy bar I bought for myself. She never asks me for these treats, which makes our relationship seem more equitable.

Whenever I pass through the medina and hear her young but strong voice calling my name I always stop to look around for her so that we can exchange kisses. When we part, she inevitably says “yallah, bye-bye” and merrily skips away.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Effort to Stay Positive

Walking through the medina in the morning, I try not to focus on the piles of rubbish, or the construction debris that is ever present. I skirt past the long trail of donkey dung and avert my eyes from the graffiti some misguided youths have sprawled on the lovely walls of this medieval city.

Instead, I must be of two minds. Part of my attention must be on the obstacles I meet along the way. Otherwise, I would never make it to my destination in one piece. Up ahead, a child erratically wheels a baby stroller and a blind man slowly shuffles along with his hand extended. Around the corner a mule laden with crates of Coca Cola and a motorcycle converted into a delivery van have stopped in the same place making it nearly impossible to pass. But with patience, all the passersby are able to squeeze past the oblivious operators of these conveyances and continue on their respective journeys. You must be ever watchful if you want to arrive at your destination without a twisted ankle, torn garment or something attached to your shoe that is better left unmentioned.

The other half of my attention is directed towards anything and everything I can find that is pleasing to my senses and sensibilities … a bird song, the light playing on a particularly interesting door, someone singing in the distance or the shy smile of a child. If I didn’t consciously make myself see and hear and appreciate what is pleasing, I fear I would go mad. It’s a great exercise in positive thinking and for me it’s become necessary for my survival here. I’m okay when I remember to practice gratitude and banish the thoughts from my chattering mind that cause me such grief. It's really such a simple thing to do but so hard to remember to practice. Ah well, such is life.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Petit Taxi #2261

I went to Batha today, as I do five times a week, to catch a taxi to school. I was in luck as several taxis were waiting for fares. I approached the one nearest me, but was motioned to another taxi that was apparently the first in the cue … although they were in a sort of circle and it was hard to tell who was first.

“Salaam alekum” I said. “Centre Americain?”

“Trente dirham” was his curt reply.

“Thirty dirham?!!” I said, with no small amount of indignation in my voice.

He lowered the price to 20. The expression on my face was enough for him to realize I wasn’t about to pay so much.

“How much then?” he asked.

“The price that will be on the meter” I replied. “It’s an 8 dirham fare. Maximum 9 if there is a lot of traffic … are you crazy?” I started to hail another taxi and I turned make a show of writing down the number of his taxi in order to report him. Believe it or not there are rules and regulations for taxi drivers.

Now he got conciliatory and tried to motion me back towards his cab.

“You are a thief” I shouted so everyone could hear. “A thief!”

He motioned for me to come to his taxi …

I shook my head and shouted “thief” one more time just because it felt good.

Another taxi arrived and I hopped in. I paid 7 ½ dirham for the ride. The real price.

I know this happens frequently to foreigners because the assumption is we all have a lot of money and the person trying to overcharge us hopes we have no knowledge of what the real price is. Or sometimes, they hope we will take pity on them because they were in need and they will tell you they are sorry but your money has been spent trying to solve their problem and they can’t provide the service you hired them for unless you are willing to pay for it again.

“Forgive me” they say with impressive humility.

And my favorite retort to non-repayment of a loan is "you only care for money!"


But do they really think this behavior is okay?

No, of course it’s not okay. And in the end, you do have to forgive -- because it feels better. But, here I go again, owning up to my own foibles -- shouting “thief” in the middle of Batha did feel pretty good today.

I guess we all behave badly at times.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Baby It's Cold Inside!

Funny thing about winter here. When the sun shines in winter, it’s often warmer outside the house than inside the house. No central heating will do that. And the days are so short. Seems to me that by the time I’ve rallied myself to go outdoors, peeling the layers of clothes for sleeping off and replacing them with an equal or greater number of clothes for outdoors, it’s time to reverse the process all over again. But I take heart in the knowledge that the days are getting longer now and being cold will become a distant memory; replaced by the effort to stay cool in summer.

I think it’s a good thing to live with the elements (within reason, of course). I like the fact that here in Morocco, the fresh fruits and vegetables are still seasonal. First come the tangerines, then the oranges; it always surprises me that strawberries arrive in the dead of winter but I completely welcome their arrival. And they actually taste like strawberries. Not the beautiful, large specimens I used to buy in the U.S., with absolutely no taste. As spring approaches, I love to see the arrival of the orange blossoms, baskets filled to the brim with the fragrant flowers which you can buy by the handful. In summer, the prickly pears arrive on carts. The vendors stand with paring knife in hand, ready to peel as much fruit as the customer wants to eat. Personally, I’m not crazy about the prickly pears but they are revered for their ability to settle the stomach.

Everyone is waiting for rain as it hasn’t rained a drop in about 2 months. Normally, we are in the midst of regular downpours this time of year. But yesterday, the evening was quite a bit warmer, announcing the impending arrival of rain. The medina could use a good dousing right now. It’s dusty and filled with the debris of passersby who think nothing of unwrapping their cookies or cakes and dropping the paper on the street for someone else to clean up. I hate this; the litter and the garbage so thoughtlessly thrown on the street. But I know the rain will soon drive everyone indoors and the streets will occasionally look clean and debris-free; if only for a brief moment in time. In my mind, the medina of Fes is a precious gem that deserves to be well-cared for.

I guess it’s time for me to step outside my front door and give the area a good sweeping. I do this almost daily. It amuses me when some pedestrians get upset with me for not using water to keep the dust down when I sweep. I try to do this when no one is about and I am conscious of using my broom in a manner that minimizes the dust. And often I wet the bristles of the broom from the fountain opposite my house to help stop the dust from being disturbed. But there are times when I am in a hurry and inevitably I am admonished for not using water. Orange peels, wet mint leaves, donkey dung and foil wrappers are not a disturbance. Dust is. But I have to admit, sometimes I take a perverse pleasure in kicking up some dust.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Back to Belly Dancing!

I used to dance all the time. I belonged to a troupe and then danced duets with a fabulous partner. Since I came to Morocco, I have been teaching belly dance to tourists and residents. But there has been a hiatus in my dancing since summer. But this week, a great dancer from Sweden is coming to stay at my B&B for 10 days and another belly dancer just arrived from the U.K. Then, just last night I got a text message from one of the residents here in the medina who wants to continue the series of lessons we started last spring. I consider all these incidents as clear signs that it is time to dance! I am really looking forward to bringing dance back into my life.

There are lots of occasions when live music just starts up and with the music, there are opportunities to dance. But I hold myself back all the time, merely 'chair dancing' when my heart and body really want to shake it up. But that would not be a wise thing to do as Oriental dance is still seen as a bit unseemly, even though everyone loves to watch it and seems to want to learn it. A stange paradox. I guess it's because belly dancing is so sensual. A woman's power comes through when she moves to the rhythms of Oriental music and it's my belief that it's just one more occasion for men to curtail a woman's innate power by associating it with something shameful. And believe me, this attitude isn't limited to the Arab cultures as I found the same attitude in progressive California. It certainly wasn't as pervasive, but it did exist. But that doesn't really bother me because I dance for myself and I am content to dance in the company of women. For me, belly dancing is a celebration of womanhood and an opportunity to see each woman's nature expressed through her movements. It's a joy to dance alone, dance with other women and encourage one another to embrace our femininity.

Yalla ladies! Let's dance all year long.