Thursday, December 19, 2013

Uncle Said

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Four Women

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Women in Bedclothes

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

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


Thursday, December 5, 2013

Weathering Winter

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reflections on a Rainy Day

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Fair Trading

It's really hard to know if you are paying the right price sometimes. And while I have never been one to note the price for individual grocery items, household cleansers and the like, I do know I will pay more in some stores and will find higher prices in some cities. Put me in a foreign country and I am in a real quandary when it comes to knowing what the small, every day necessities cost. Especially when bargaining is part of almost every transaction.

While living in Fes, I always relied on my Moroccan husband to shop and to this day I can't tell you what a kilo of bananas should cost nor do I know the fair price to pay for a broom so my inattention to the price of day-to-day necessities has continued. But now that I am living on my own in Oujda, where I know the prices are generally lower but still have no knowledge base upon which to gauge pricing, I must navigate the shopping myself. And so I am making a concerted effort to learn pricing. To that end, I have a long list of household items and food to buy and I will note the prices I am quoted to begin my education. I will ask the price of everything from two or three vendors before I buy so I have a better understanding of who is being fair and who is not. Mind you, this is a new behavior for me but one that I must adopt as the need to pay careful attention to my budget increases from year to year. Also, I have been overcharged for little items on so many occasions that were I to add the sums up, I know I would be appalled.

Just this morning I ran into Aziz on the street as I headed outside to run a few errands. Aziz was keen to tell me I had been overpaying for my coffee and croissants each morning and led me to a small bakery/cafe a couple of blocks away where I got the same breakfast and of a much higher quality for almost half the price. Lesson noted.

All that said, when it comes to buying handmade items, furnishings and clothing, I have a keen eye for bargains and yet sometimes I am more willing to throw caution to the winds because I appreciate nice things. I almost always buy second-hand because I can afford a better quality item this way and I like the hunt.  And because I am interested in decorating both my home and myself, I pay attention to what things cost and know a good value when I see one.

After saving 8 dirham on my breakfast (more if you count the tip I give to have someone bring it to my doorstep) I walked up Boulevard Mohammed V to a temporary street fair where vendors were selling handmade goods. I was especially interested in the basketry and approached the table where a variety of woven baskets were on display. In no time at all I bought two baskets made right here in Oujda for the equivalent of $20 (170 dirham) and was happy to do so. I could probably of paid less but I liked the quality of the workmanship and the usefulness of the items. I also liked the idea of supporting the women who made them. Plus I reasoned, if I buy my breakfast for the next three weeks from the cafe Aziz led me to this morning, the savings I will have realized will more than cover the cost of today's purchase.

As I walked home with my baskets in hand, I felt someone behind me walking a little too closely for a little too long. I watched his shadow. When he reached his hand into my basket I was ready for him and pulled it away. I turned on him shouting "shame, shame" in Arabic and 'thief, thief' in French. No one gave us a second glance. The young man simply looked back at me from a now safe distance and demanded a dirham. Huh. You fail to steal from me and now you want me to give you money? That's ballsy I thought. I spat out one more 'Voleur', gave him my dirtiest look and walked on, my heart beating fast and my mind filled with indignity. This was the first time in all my years in Morocco that someone was so blatant in their effort to steal from me. But the incident put things into perspective for me. Being overcharged is not the same as being stolen from. In one situation I may be a target but I am a willing participant. In the other situation I am simply a target. And there is a lesson to be learned from both situations; be mindful. It pays to be mindful.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Early One Morning

I woke up very early. By 6:45 I had caught up on my Words With Friends games, Skyped with my cousins back in California, finished a load of wash and showered. I didn't have any food in the house and my electric kettle had stopped working. I wanted a coffee, a cigarette and something to eat so I decided to venture outside.

The elevator in my building has been broken for several days now so I walked down 6 flights of stairs, being careful not to turn on the light on the ground floor because I didn't want to wake up the cranky guardian whose room is right next to the non-functioning elevator. If the elevator hadn't shown signs of petering out in the preceding days by stopping at the 2nd and 4th floors when I pushed the button for the 5th floor, I might have suspected the guardian of having simply turned it off. That's exactly what he had been doing whenever any of the residents used it after 10 pm because it interrupted his sleep. Because this is primarily a commercial building with only a handful of full-time residents, I guess he felt entitled to his rest, figured we should all be home at a decent hour, and could benefit from the exercise if we had the energy to stay out late. I decided to adopt the same position rather than fret over his selfishness or the ancient elevator that may have stopped functioning because of being turned on and off. No need to antagonize the watchman.

I stepped out into the early morning light with a bag of trash in hand. I was going to leave it on the street for the garbage men to collect but everything was spic and span so I squished the small plastic bag into one of the public trash bins. I looked to my right and saw a small gathering of men outside a lit cafe and headed in that direction. A seller of cigarettes was set up outside the cafe and I approached my fellow early risers and asked for a packet. I handed over 40 dirham and was given 5 dirham in change. "No," I said in Arabic, "the packet costs 32 dirham." He grumbled and begrudgingly produced the 3 dirham he had hoped to pocket for himself. I primly thanked him and retraced my steps on Boulevard Mohammed V to search for an open cafe that was to more to my liking.

As I turned a corner I felt someone was following me. I turned my head slightly and one of the young men who had been sitting with the seller of cigarettes picked up his pace to come alongside me and began speaking in Arabic. I guess he thought I understood more than I did because not only had I spoken Arabic during my transaction with his entrepreneurial friend, I had also exchanged pleasantries with him about the cold weather. I advised him that I only spoke a little Arabic and a little French. He switched to French in the blink of an eye and asked me to join him for a cup of coffee. I told him that would be a problem for my husband. He bowed his head, rather humbly apologized and turned on his heels.

During our brief conversation, a street sweeper had been eavesdropping as he slowly pushed his broom along the gutter but never moving an inch himself. When the conversation between the young man and I ended, the street sweeper gave a satisfactory nod of his head at the result of our encounter. I'm not sure if he was happy with me or the young man but clearly, he thought the right thing had happened. I walked on and entered Paradise, a modern cafe that was brightly lit and ready to serve.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Room Service

My doorbell rang at an astonishing volume. There was no way not to hear it. I unhooked the chain and slid the bolt back without bothering to ask who was there. The breakfast I ordered last night had arrived. Only this time it was not Mustapha, who has been bringing me the slightly wrong order since we began the morning ritual, it was Aziz. And lo and behold, the order was correct. It was also an hour late but hey, nobody's perfect.

Aziz is the street parking attendant for the block outside my apartment building and he is a friend of my husband, Hassan. As a parking attendant, he wears a bright orange safety vest and helps drivers identify parking spaces and then guides then in and out of the space. He uses hand gestures to show drivers which way to turn their steering wheel, raps on the hood or the trunk when it's time to apply the brakes and then reverses the procedure when it's time to for them drive away. He relies on the few dirhams in tips drivers offer up.

The night before Aziz had returned from a trip to Fes to attend his sister's marriage celebration. Aziz wasn't going to go but Hassan insisted, tempting Aziz with a free ride, and so the two of them drove to Fes about ten days ago.

Aziz speaks French and Arabic but no English but somehow we are able to communicate. The previous evening he ran towards me as I emerged from my building to catch a taxi to school. He asked me what time I would return home and we agreed to rendezvous at 9pm in front of the building. I wasn't sure why we were meeting but I was game. Then he hailed a taxi for me and gave the driver my destination.

I arrived back on Mohamed V a few minutes before 9:00. Soon, Aziz came around the corner and sent his fellow parking attendant into the night. We waited for about 15 minutes in the cold air and spoke about where we had each traveled in Morocco. It turned out Aziz had  journeyed to the Sahara to visit with his father after the wedding celebration. We stamped our feet and remarked on the cold until his friend returned with a plastic bag. I was presented with the bag and inside was a gift wrapped kleenex box filled with cookies from the wedding. I thanked Aziz and politely turned down his offer to buy me some dinner. But Aziz was insistent that he do more for me and I agreed to have him bring me coffee and a croissant the following morning. Behind all of Aziz's solicitation I could hear Hassan's voice telling Aziz to "take care of my wife" so I felt obliged to accept the offerings. I can only wonder what Mustapha was thinking when he saw Aziz carry the tray with my breakfast order into the building. Poor Mustapha ... if only I had the words to explain. I think the best thing for me to do from here on out is to forego the room service and get my own coffee.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


I like to write profiles of the archetypical characters I meet. Here is an excerpt from a profile I have written on a young man who, like so many of us, is devout in Spirit, but not always in his actions.

Youssef awoke to the amplified sound of the muezzin clearing his throat in preparation for Adhan, the call to prayer. Youssef focused his mind and heart on the incantation that followed; Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. Yes, thought Youssef, God is Great and awaking to these words confirmed Youssef’s belief that God held Youssef in special esteem. Youssef hoped it was the second praying and not the third. Usually, he slept until well into the afternoon but today Youssef wanted to get to Bab Boujloud a little earlier than usual and clearly this was a sign that Allah was especially near today had something extraordinary in store for him.

Daylight never entered the room Youssef slept in so he could only guess at the time. He would find out soon enough, though. Youssef contemplated saying his prayers. Later, he thought. Allah would forgive him. He felt hungry and needed to begin his walk to the medina so he could meet with the owner of the Garden Hotel. Youssef had been patiently waiting for several years for the hotel to complete its restorations so he could begin work there. A job had been promised to him and he had a strong feeling today would be lucky for him. In fact, Allah had practically insured it by awakening him with His name and so Youssef felt compelled to answer His call.

Sitting up in his bed, Youssef cracked his back with a sharp twist, first to his left and then to his right. ‘Allahu Akbar’ he said in deep reverence and gratitude. Youssef jumped from his bed and was out the door of his miniscule room in two strides. “Meema!” he called. “Meema!”

Youssef found his mother in the kitchen and he walked up to her. Bending down he kissed his mother’s hand before rising up and kissing the crown of her head. “Salaam aleikum Meema. Bring me tea and bisarah. I am in a hurry.”

Youssef loved his mother almost as much as he loved Allah. And both Allah and his mother loved Youssef very much. Allah loved him because he was poor but more importantly Allah loved Youssef because he never, ever forgot about Allah. Youssef had no doubt that his mother loved her youngest son because he was special. Youssef was happy to live his simple life in the house of his mother and his unshakable faith in Allah. But there was no question that a job would help. More than anything, Youssef wanted to be able to hand a little money over to his mother every day. The Holy Koran told of a son’s obligation to help his family and if, God willing, Youssef earned a little money for his family, that would, indeed, please Allah.

Having drunk his tea and eaten his bisarah, Youssef put on his coat and set out for Bab Boujloud. It was a few kilometers from his area and the exercise was good for him. Everyone called Youssef the Bruce Lee of Morocco and it was important to Youssef to uphold his reputation by staying lean and quick. Besides, he had no car of his own and no money for a taxi. In fact, he had no money at all -- but Allah would provide. He hoped for a black coffee and a cigarette when he reached his destination; if Allah was willing. Maybe he would even score a little hash to mix with his cigarette. Youssef knew he shouldn’t smoke hash and hoped every day to quit. But he also knew Allah would forgive him because Youssef, at his core, was a good and true Muslim.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving Blues

It's now been a month since I arrived in Oujda and began teaching again. Time passes so quickly. It's turned cold, inside and out and my days have settled into a routine of sorts. But this week I feel a little bit sorry for myself. Thanksgiving is coming and very few foreigners find their way to Oujda, so I'm fairly certain there will be no recognition of the holiday.

When I lived in Fes Thanksgiving Day didn't expose such a large hole in my life because there were quite a few foreigners running restaurants that paid tribute to the holiday. The Director of the ALC there always took the expats out for a Thanksgiving lunch and invariably he was able to get the chefs at the restaurant he selected to approximate a turkey dinner. I'm sure the Director here would do the same but alas, he will be traveling on The Day. And so that's that. I did find a small place around the corner that makes a turkey tagine but the thought of going there alone doesn't appeal to me. In fact, I think it might make me feel worse. Plus there is the reality that I have to work that evening; something I share with employees of WalMart. It looks like I am having a small pity party today.

Last year I was also alone even though I was in the United States. I was in a very small beach town in Delaware that pretty much shut down during the winter months.But the brother of my high-school boyfriend very graciously invited me to join his family for Thanksgiving dinner that somewhat miraculously was being held in a nearby town. I hadn't seen the other members of his family for forty years so it was also a reunion of sorts. The most interesting part of the gathering was to notice how some of the same aspects of their personalities as children and teenagers still held true. The dinner took place in a restaurant and it was the first time I was not in someone's home for Turkey Day. But the restaurant's meal with very traditional and satisfying on a variety of levels.

So I am thinking this year the best I can do to acknowledge the day is to focus on gratitude. Tears come to my eyes as I write this, I guess because the first things that come to mind are those people and traditions I am missing. Hardly the way to begin a mental list of things to be grateful for. I take a deep breath and tell myself to change my thinking. Be grateful that you have good friends and loving family to miss I remind myself. Be grateful that you don't have to work at WalMart. But my throat is still tight with emotion and the tears run down my face. It's a tough time of year to be alone. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mint Coffee Anyone?

I like to begin my day with a cup of coffee and a pastry. The cafe next door is very convenient and obliging. I take my coffee mug down to them and they give me a double order of coffee with steamed milk and I choose the pastry I want them to heat up. I pay them and then I carry my breakfast up to my apartment for a relaxing start to my day. Simple. But lately, things haven't been going too smoothly.

Invariably, Mustapha is standing outside when I emerge from the building and insists that he get my breakfast for me. Now Mustapha has told me time and again that I can simply call him and he will come up for the money and then do the schlepping for me. Sometimes I take him up on his offer but invariably I don't get the pastry I want. I really like the warm almond croissants and no matter how I try to pronounce almond, I get a plain or a chocolate croissant instead. Unheated. No big deal but I want what I want and rather than risk embarrassing Mustapha I do what I always do --- take matters into my own hands. But with stoic regularity, Mustapha stands outside the entrance to my apartment, waiting to help and make a few dirham in the process. I can't seem to refuse him and I guilt myself into offering him some small change for his service. Oh he declines the first time I offer a tip but the second offering is accepted with a winning smile. It's all a problem of my own making, I know. But the extra money is adding up and I'm just not getting through to him that I want a hot almond croissant.

Yesterday the routine continued. This time I was pretty sure I conveyed I wanted a 'croissant amande' in my best French accent. Mustapha speaks French. But when Mustapha returned to my doorstep with the beautifully arranged tray with my coffee mug covered in aluminum to preserve the heat and paper napkins arranged just so and plain, unheated croissants, there was something extra on the tray. A small pitcher that Mustapha was keen to point out was being offered at no extra charge. Inside the pitcher was a bright green liquid that I later discovered to be mint syrup. I reasoned my head cold made my pronunciation of almond come out to sound more like mint. Maybe. Peut-etre. I poured the mint down the drain and resolved to go out and purchase a jar of instant coffee for the next morning. I guess I can do without the pastry.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Second Hand Market

A friend called me the other day and said I sounded like I was talking to her from an empty swimming pool. That's because my apartment, with it's bare, tiled floors and sparse furnishings makes my voice reverberate against the surfaces. I am in need of some furniture and softening textiles and now that the worst of the offending dirt left behind by the previous tenants has been removed I am ready to begin decorating the space.  And so with Hassan's arrival and eagerness to help make this place more homey, we set out for the second-hand market on Sunday.

Hassan befriends people wherever he goes and yesterday was no exception. A middle-aged man who works in the cafe next to my building named Mustapha told Hassan he wanted to help guide us to the marketplace. So the three of us piled into the trusty Hyundai that looks like a junkyard heap but is actually an amazingly steadfast performer and headed towards the vast open-aired market.

The market was huge but well-organized and Mustapha played his role of helpful guide to perfection, pointing the way to the most convenient parking, asking prices of each vendor who caught our eye, and grabbing the arm of the young boys selling 'mica' (plastic bags) and handing over a dirham to purchase the carryall for the potatoes, tomatoes and peppers we bought. This section sold vegetables, over there were the housewares, plants, and colorful rows of rolled up carpets made from plastic and within the vegetable market there was even a small cafe with a thatched roof and plastic tables and chairs. Plastic is plentiful in Morocco although I do everything I can to avoid purchasing something in plastic when a natural alternative (difficult to find but highly preferred) is available. There were tables with soft goods like the patterned polyester blankets so favored by Moroccans piled high. Each blanket was emblazoned with creative signatures meant to sound like a designer or evoke images of prestige. My favorites were Pierre Donna (perhaps a distant relative of Pierre Cardin and Donna Karan?) and Californa ... the second letter 'i' mysteriously omitted.

We plied our way through rows of rusted car bodies piled in tiers, an acre of motorcycles, scooters and bicycles neatly lined up and plastic tarps set out on the ground with extensions cords, aluminum cookware and used clothing. Foam cushions for sofas so hard you could bounce a coin off them were stacked here and there. Clusters of sheep wandered by and everywhere throngs of people and conveyances of all manner surged through the marketplace.

We found little of interest beyond the vegetables and fresh sardines so we made our way through the dusty, rock-strewn trails to our car and headed back into town to see if another market might offer something I was willing to exchange for my money. In the end I purchased a full-length mirror for less than $20. I asked for a receipt and was told I would have to pay extra for that. After some back and forth the receipt was provided, free of charge. I also bought a replacement light bulb for the bathroom and a very small carpet that seemed more like those you use inside a car than a plusher version I would have preferred for my bathroom but I needed something to keep me from slipping and sliding when my wet feet hit the tile outside the shower. Against my better judgement I resigned myself to purchasing a polyester blanket. I reasoned with myself that the offending synthetic fabric was to be ignored because it is getting pretty cold at night now and the fact that material doesn't breathe would act in my favor by keeping my body heat trapped against me. Also, the blanket was a rare solid color in a rich shade of jade green. Now, If only I could do something to hide the brand name, stamped in an oval of white at the corner of the blanket. But then again, perhaps reading the message "Shital" will serve to keep my sense of humor firmly in place.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Malika the Shopkeeper

Day in and day out, Malika positions herself on a battered plastic stool inside her cramped shop in the old medina. She places her plump arms across the tiny counter and gazes out at the street. Praise God her shop fronts on a well travelled street, otherwise it would be impossible to stay in business. Like hundreds of other shops in the medina, Malika sells Coca Cola, jars of instant coffee, processed snacks, yogurt and small household necessities.

Every shop owner amongst the thousands of streets that twist throughout the ancient walled city offers the same basic merchandise but thanks to God, Moroccans love to eat and shop close to home and so they provide a steady market for necessities that can be had for just a handful of dirham. Tourists aren’t as plentiful as they used to be but there are always some and no one thinks twice about charging them a little bit more for their goods. Most transactions are very small -- a single cigarette, a round of fresh bread, one disposable diaper or a packet of candles -- but ninety percent of the time people who stop make a purchase. Allah be Praised, there is usually enough of a profit at the end of the day to meet the modest needs of Malika's family. If only ninety percent of her customers had the money to pay! It was impossible not to extend credit to the neighbors but doing so put a strain on Malika’s own budget. Ah well, Thanks be to God, somehow she managed.

Everyday Malika opens the shop around 8:00 and closes by 10:00 at night -- except on religious holidays and Friday afternoons, of course. Her elderly father used to open the shop for her in the mornings so she could get her daughters off the school, but he is a bit deaf now and his eyesight isn’t very good. He can no longer be counted upon to make correct change so Malika keeps her father away from the money and has him run errands for her. Sometimes she wished she could trade places with him, though. She barely had room to move in the cubbyhole she worked in and there were times when she imagined pulling the metal shutter over the opening to her stall, locking it out of habit as well as necessity, and never coming back. But Malika is a steadfast Moroccan woman who has learned to accept what Allah, Peace be upon Him, has provided.

Malika turns on the old tv in the front corner of her tiny domain. Of course watching locals and tourists walk up and down the cobblestoned street often surpasses watching tv, except for the fact that she can’t turn that channel off. Sometimes variety is called for even in her limited world. She turns on the station that provides still images of Mecca and a montage of nature shots while teachings from the Koran melodically filled the space she occupies.

Malika's movements are limited; she can sit down or stand up. From the middle of her shop she can take two steps in all four directions provided the floor isn’t stacked with cartons, which it always is. The only other position available to her is to stand and lean on the counter which is actually her preferred posture when neighbors and friends  to gossip or make speculations about mutual acquaintances that invariably turn into gossip. Since her house is nearby her daughter almost always comes by to do her homework or just sit on her mother’s lap and receive some loving. Her older daughter has grown too big to come inside now but she prefers to run around on the streets with her friends and cousins. Malika’s days have comforting rhythm and a mind-numbing predictability.

The busiest time of the day is after the fourth praying when the women come out of their houses for a fresh perspective and to pick up a few items for tea and dinner. People crowd in front of her shop and compete for her attention for the rule of first come, first served is not practiced here. Orders are shouted, coins are tapped on the counter and Malika pulls what her customers have come to buy from a shelf. She then makes change or puts the purchase on account. She grabs bits from the right, the left and from the small refrigerator in the rear of the shop which is rarely turned on.

All the shelves in Malika’s shop are within arms reach but they go up pretty high so sometimes she has to stand on her stool and stretch precariously to reach the items on the upper shelves. She likes to think this provides her with some much needed exercise. But most items such as fresh bread, cigarettes, rolling papers, sundries, sweets and packaged snacks don’t require her to get up so most of the time she simply twists around on her cracked plastic stool.

Tomorrow, thank God, is Friday and she will close up shop after the second praying to have couscous with her family and then head off to the hammam with the women and children. Once there, she can rid herself of her clothes and scarf and douse herself with the hottest water she can withstand. Maybe she will be lucky enough to talk her sister into massaging her neck and back after she scrubs off a week’s worth of grime and dead skin. Malika can't wait to relinquish herself to the weekly ritual and set aside the realities of her daily life for a few precious hours.

Another Reset

After15 months in the U.S. and countless packings and un-packings of my luggage as I moved from one coast to another, from this home to that home, I have returned to Morocco. Perhaps this time will be different. Of course it will be different. It has to be different for not only am I in a different city, I am confining myself to working only one job rather than the five jobs I juggled while living in Fes from 2007 until the summer of 2012. 

My time was well-spent in the U.S. I rested my weary body and my bruised mind, first on the east coast in self-imposed but splendid isolation, then on the west coast amongst very supportive family and friends. Now I am back to make another go of things and change my experience from challenging to rewarding; from rash to considered.

I think I've weathered my fair share of challenges, hopefully I have learned from my mistakes and now I feel I am due for some "Baraka", some blessings.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Crossing the Border

After two days in Melilla, it was time to head back across the border into Morocco. Around mid-afternoon, Ricky and I followed the signs until we came across two long lines of cars. "Three hours to cross" said a wily Moroccan who was trying to wave us ahead of the line for 200 Euros. Cars blared their horns in protest and indignation. I had images of a riot were we to take advantage of the offer, for even though Moroccans are often immune to the concept of first come, first served, there did seem to be some protocol at work here. Ricky turned the car around and we headed back to town for some lunch. We had high hopes that the wait time would be shorter after 3:00. We found a pizzeria where we ate a leisurely lunch and took advantage of the wifi on offer.

By mid-afternoon we were ready to brave the lines again. This time we headed for the end of the line and let the engine idle. It took an hour and a half to inch our way to the immigration booths but the time passed quickly enough for there was a great deal to watch and comment on. Many of the cars had turned off their engines, presumably to save gas. Whenever the line moved, the driver would push the car a few car lengths ahead and then set the brake for the next period of waiting. Looking at the condition of many of the cars, I wondered if they were actually able to be driven under their own power once it was time to start the engine. Mufflers and exhaust pipes hung by wires, seats had been taken out of the back to accommodate scrap metal, merchandise purchased at duty-free prices, and huge bags stuffed with used clothing.

Now and then, an intrepid soul pushed a bicycle or small scooter laden with all kinds of seemingly worthless stuff. A rusted out refrigerator was precariously balanced on one bike and threatened to crash to the ground as the gusty winds shook the load against the shoulder of the owner. A man in a wheelchair with a huge pack on his back pushed his way forward in line as people courteously made way for him. Rebar and plastic extended three times the length of a scooter and bobbed to and fro in the stiff breeze. A steady stream of people crossing on foot passed by and we wondered which side of the border they called home.

Vendors and hawkers carried baskets held together with plastic tape selling churros, almonds and sodas. The strong winds blew debris and plastic in swirling eddies which caught on antennas and danced chaotically before heading toward the empty, rubbish strewn plain that could easily have been mistaken for a landfill if one didn't know otherwise. We inched our way forward, cognizant of our comparatively luxurious transportation, and patiently awaited our turn to cross back into Morocco.

We finally reached the immigration booths and had to pull over the car and park. Some paperwork had to be filled out and our passports needed to be stamped before we would be waved through. One man tried to guide us to the toilets. We were not in need of the facilities. Others proffered the small form we had to complete, hoping we would give them some change in return or even relinquish our passports to them so they could fill out the paperwork for us. I plucked the form out of one man's hand without so much as a how do you do and scrounged around in my bag to find a pen. I completed the form while standing in line and passed my pen on to Ricky so he could do the same. My passport was stamped after a quick search on the officials computer revealed I was not a criminal or illegal immigrant and a few questions were posed and answered. "What is your address in Fes?" "Are you driving?" Once satisfied he had done his due diligence, the official thumped his stamp onto his ink pad and transferred the image onto my form and passport in quick succession. Thawk. Thwak. I was cleared to go.

The eBox Washing Machine

I just bought the smallest washing machine you've ever seen (it fit nicely in the back seat of the car). Unfortunately, I can't figure out how to use it yet. The Operating Instruction Manual shows the main parts of the machine which don't exactly correspond with the machine sitting on my terrace. Reading through the manual has left me more confused than enlightened but it is a great source of entertainment. Here are a few of my favorite warnings and instructions.

The manufacturer of the eBox begins by extolling the virtues of 'one of the newest types of our company'. That sounds good. It has a better design and the instruction manual says when the wavy wheel is running (I guess they mean the agitator), 'the current issorbed [sic] into the special setup (again, that sounds positive) which is watercourse (????) and raised immediately, then it will spray out with strongly, in the same direction, in the same time it also shapes the strong current and washes the clothes from different directions.' Really? It does that?

Being a responsible organization, the manufacturer of the eBox goes on to warn the user with a list of things to avoid. My favorite is as follows:

The instrument is not planned to be used by the person who has disfigurement in body, sensory organ, intelligence, or the person who is short of experience and general knowledge (including kids), unless they are taken enough care, and are instructed how to use the instrument by the person who takes care of their safe.

I think I fall into the category of the person who is short of eBox experience so it would probably be wise for me to find someone to take care of my safe.

Under the heading of "Washing Orders", which sounds very absolute and serious to me, a list of do's and don'ts follow. I pay special attention to #5 which says "Hairy balls, collars should be turned inside." I know how to turn a collar inside (as well as inside out) but I am dumbfounded as to how to turn a hairy ball inside. Can anyone advise me because this seems important and potentially painful.

There is a section detailing the prescribed method for washing woolen 'blandets', which was obviously meant to read blankets. The boldface heading, Method for Woolen Blandets begins with an admonition; "Washing pure woolen blanket and electric blanket are absolutely forbidden." Then a series of 4 steps are listed on how to wash a woolen blanket. Curious.

Under the Maintenance section reference is made to a 'de-hair device'. I've yet to locate this de-hair device but when I do, I now know that if I want to clean it, I must dismantle it with a finger pressing the inside bottom. I wonder if this de-hair device is necessary because people often fail to turn their hairy balls inside. I make a mental note to be sure to investigate this hairy ball situation further.

My eBox can't really be that complicated to operate and I am confident I can figure it out; especially armed with a handy brochure to help me avoid electric strokes and strikes, plastic parts def-forms, advice on proper water lebels and those situations where a washing agent without ferment is called for. Oh, and I should not place my eBox in the bathroom, the place where rain comes in easily.

Let the laundering begin!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Real Price

A visit to the tanneries is a must when visiting the old medina of Fes. Workers crawl in and out of the vats of dye to color the skins that ultimately become wallets, shoes, belts and poufs. The scene is picturesque but the smell arising from the vats can be overwhelming, especially on a hot summer day. But as a tourist, you can view the pits of dye from a distance on a designated viewing platform before being ushered into the showroom to hopefully make a purchase before moving on to another colorful site.

Those who work at the tannery showroom offer visitors sprigs of mint to hold under their noses as they gaze down at the honeycombed vats. One can only imagine what it is like to work in a tannery. Surely the odor must take some getting used to before it permeates a worker's very being and follows them home at the end of each workday. It's a demanding, odorous and low-paying job that is only one step in multi-step process which is funded by those who purchase the colorful leather products decorating the shops and showrooms throughout the city.

Consider all the people behind those handmade leather shoes next time you bargain for a pair to take home and perhaps you will be willing to accept a price that's a little bit higher. Think of the men who gather up the still bloodied sheep skins left in ever growing piles at Eid Kbir, the annual sacrifice following Ramadan. Picture these men piling the skins into an open truck and carting them off somewhere to dry, clean and scrape. Recall the image of the men working in the vats of dye who color the skins which are later carted to some sunny hillside and laid out to dry. See the cobblers who fashion the leather into all the various sizes of feet into the soft, traditional slippers known as babouche. And finally, consider the sellers themselves; those sitting in a small storefront, little more than a cubbyhole and an exact replica of hundreds of other shops, or those in the large tannery showrooms reliant on commission-hungry tour guides to usher in tourists. Realize each seller must fiercely compete for your dirham and consider everyone behind that leather product and maybe, just maybe, you will re-think what price you are willing to pay.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Food, Glorious Food

I've always been a picky eater ... there are so many foods I don't like ... and that has kept me from being adventurous in my exploration of new foods. I just can't help it that my taste buds are so finicky and I marvel at those who try anything and like almost everything. My self-imposed dietary limitations sometimes caused me to go hungry in Morocco which is practically a crime in a culture that prides itself on having great food and puts such a hearty emphasis on eating. But little by little I ventured into previously unknown food territories and am proud to say my food experiences have expanded ... somewhat.

In Morocco, food is plentiful, fresh and joyfully prepared and consumed. Every edible bit of an animal is diced, sliced, and pounded into submission before being boiled, barbecued or roasted. While I don't look at fruits and vegetables with the wary resistance I hold for meats (especially organ meats) I have tried some foods I never saw before or ventured to eat while living in the states. I count those occurrences as small personal victories.

Moroccans love to eat, often eating 4 meals a day, and sometimes partaking in a full meal before going to bed. And Moroccans are such generous hosts and hostesses, imploring you to eat, eat, that not to do so seems rude. With so much emphasis on eating I tried many foods I would not even consider putting into my mouth under other circumstances. As a result I feel unreasonably proud of myself for discovering and heartily enjoying camel burgers (from Cafe Clock, of course), for taking a tentative bite of the eye of a sheep (only because I didn't know what it was), for sipping a broth made from the knee joints of a cow (I didn't like it) and for learning to accept avocados perched in my fruit salad as opposed to a leafy green salad. To most people this must seem unimpressive but to me trying these previously untouched foods was anything but.

One summer I practically lived on sardines as I camped throughout the north of Morocco and I now have a new-found respect for the satisfaction they yield because it's so disproportionate to their size. I still won't eat sardines from a tin but put a pile of fresh sardines in front of me with a side of fries and I will dig in with relish. I also grew to love the juice made from carrots and oranges that refreshes like nothing else and I always enjoyed a side dish of Zalouk, made from roasted eggplant and unfailingly delicious.

I realize most people have a much more expanded and enjoyable food experience in Morocco and I understand my food preferences are limiting. But I take pleasure in knowing that my mother, rest her soul, who struggled to get me to eat something new throughout my childhood, would be so proud had she lived to see me venture outside my culinary comfort zone.

Eat, everyone, eat. Morocco's food table is laden with freshly prepared offerings you won't find anywhere else.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shaving Omar

This story is a revision of an earlier post, entitled The Man With the Gravelly Voice and was reworked as part of a writing class I attended this winter. I hope you enjoy both versions.

At first glance the ancient walled city of Fes, teeming with insistent hucksters, littered byways and gauntlets of beggars, seems anything but spiritual. But Fes, the Spiritual Capital of Morocco, offers a path to unveiling the imponderable mysteries of life through the unforgettable characters who reside there. Finding room in your heart for these unique individuals offers a profound spiritual practice. But take heed for the path offered is strewn with endless opportunities for judgement which demand suspension before Fes will allow a glimpse into its raison d'etre.

Opportunities for value judgments  as plentiful as cafes and Coca Cola, abound in Fes. There, on a busy street, sits Hakima the bearded lady. She lolls her truly filthy self where she cannot be missed and constantly picks at the ever present scabs on her hairy outstretched legs. The mean beggar lady stations herself around a well traveled corner with her extended hand and obsequious manner. Deposit a coin into her insistent hand or she will maliciously berate you with her raging sense of entitlement. Watch out for Naima, the once beautiful femme fatale with cartoonishly rouged cheeks and smeared red lips. Her propensity to wield the sharp knife tucked inside the sleeve of her galabah gives rise to your impulse to immediately distance yourself from her.

A testosterne fueled cadre of men add their own special element to the mix of bizarre characters in Fes. Omar, an outlandishly wretched man, led me to see beyond his never-ending drunken stupor and oily rags to glimpse the elusive and filtered light Fes offers.

The young men of the medina made sport of Omar and took perverse pleasure imitating his lurching gait and his gravelly voice. These locals pushed him and baited him as he shuffled up the road in search of handouts and his next fix of mind-altering substances. I invariably gave Omar a wide berth when I saw him approaching. But Omar would always surprise me whenever our paths crossed for no matter how far I attempted to veer away from him he unfailingly spotted me and offered up a compliment -- in English.

"You have beautiful eyes" he would growl through the thronging crowd.

Who knew there was a chivalrous side to this foul smelling town drunk? I wondered, did he offer up kind words to his blind girlfriend? Yes, Omar had a woman in his life who served to imbue him with humility and a brief dignity whenever they made an appearance in public. I would see them walking arm in arm up Talaa Kbir and Omar always walked a little bit taller and straighter when he and his lady friend were together. No one dared to mock him or provoke him during these promenades. Some unspoken rule applied during these moments of pretend sobriety with everyone willingly participating in the charade that here was a typical couple out for an evening stroll. Omar's girlfriend couldn't actually see the wreck her man had become and during these special occasions everyone else organically agreed to suspend their own ability to see as well.

One day the rumor mill about Omar's death reached me. This was no surprise because lately his increasingly gaunt face had begun to look like carved, charred wood. Whatever it was that Omar ingested or drank to get through each day had finally done him in. And then I recalled a scene I had witnessed about a week prior to his demise that now seemed particularly poignant and helped me to see things differently.

Opposite my house sat a much used public fountain. Omar perched on the wide tiled curvature surrounding the fountain while a fellow drunkard hovered over him. The perpetually cold water ran out of the spigot as Omar's bristly face was audibly scraped clean by his pal. Here and there, rivulets of watery blood ran down Omar's face from the unsteady hand of his volunteer barber and the certain dullness of the razor. Once again I was taken by the way Omar submitted to the ministrations of someone who took time to tend to him and the aura of dignity such attention created. This was the last time I laid eyes on this man with the gravelly voice.

When I learned about Omar's death I wondered what was to become of his blind girlfriend and his companion who shaved him with such attention. I wondered who would miss Omar and mourn his passing. And suddenly I realized I would mourn him because Omar had given me something that had been eluding me for so long. My heart ached as I realized that on that day at the fountain all outward manifestations of Omar's miserable choices fell away. All I saw was a flawed but vulnerable man with a desire for a clean shaven face.

I miss Omar, may he rest in peace, because I think he saw me before I saw him. I like to think his comment about my eyes was more about what my eyes are capable of seeing rather than an attractive physical attribute. I now recall Omar's humiliations, pain, and suffering as if they were my own. I experience Omar's brave attempts to rally and his repeated failures to correct his mistakes on a visceral level. I view Omar's struggles with a tenderness that penetrated some of the hardened places in my heart for his journey was just a gritty version of my own.

Monday, May 20, 2013


I wake up each morning and carry my coffee mug a few meters down the street to get coffee with milk from Haj. He puts far too many sugar cubes in my coffee but somehow, over the years, he has gotten it into his head that this is the way I like it. I don't do anything to dissuade him of this notion. I like that he thinks he is in possession of the perfect coffee recipe for me.

If Hassan's little shop is open for business, I might buy a piece of cake for 1 dirham. Sometimes I buy a petite pain au chocolate from a nearby shop or a greasy, sinfully delicious beignet if the line isn't too long. Needless to say, I am hepped up on sugar after such a decidedly unhealthy breakfast and ready to tackle the long to-do list for the day.

Sweets abound in Morocco and I don't hesitate to partake. Between all the walking and stair climbing and housework I manage to accommodate the extra calories and always burn off the sugar before it can attach itself to my frame. I grew up on sugar laden products and I guess I find some comfort in making it part of my day again. There is an old song, sung by the McGuire Sisters called "Sugar in the Morning" that I can't help but recall as I take my breakfast back to the house. It goes like this:

Sugar in the morning

Sugar in the evening
Sugar at suppertime
Be my little sugar
And love me all the time

Now Sugar time 
Is anytime
That you're near 
'Cause you're so dear
So don't you roam 
Just be my honeycomb 
And live in a heaven of love.

Life can always benefit from some extra sweetness, don't you agree?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Blind Ambition

I close my eyes and gently brush my fingers over the pinholes in the gray scrap of cardboard, unable to decipher the braille. The sentence trails crookedly across the dense paper. Each pinhole is precise on one side, a ragged burst on the underside. I want the mysterious words to penetrate me just as the characters pierce the makeshift tablet. I want the words to remind me that there are many ways to look at a situation.

During the years I lived in Morocco the world I operated in routinely caused me to take a new look at situations. Notions about what is right and wrong, what's polite and rude, and especially procedure were constantly challenged. In the beginning I felt duty-bound to show everyone how procedural disintegrations should be handled, especially on the job. I would generously offer good old American problem-solving techniques to help establish best business practices. I believed my analytical approach would help create order out of chaos and everyone would benefit from the lessons I offered. But in Morocco my approach proved to be an exercise in futility because in this ancient kingdom, operating procedures exist but merely as a suggestion.  Detours, officials and maladroit navigators inevitably make you veer off course. Ultimately, arrival at the final destination by any means possible defines success, and the methods for getting there too numerous to count.

One semester at The American Language Center where I taught English I found myself taken aback. I walked into the first day of my Wednesday afternoon class as a blind student was led into the classroom. Really? I thought. I have no training to teach the visually impaired. This must be some mistake and I knew who to hold responsible. During the afternoon break I hurriedly sought out our Director of Curriculum and the man in charge of class assignments.

"Si Omar," I opined as I burst into his office, "One of my students is blind!" Si Omar raised his head from the task before him and met my indignant gaze. His eyes softened and his forehead creased in sympathy. "I know," he acknowledged with a empathetic sigh, "Poor girl." His eyes met mine for a brief second before turning his attention back to his paperwork. Clearly there was nothing more to say.

The Director's refusal to acknowledge my awkward position vexed me. But in the final analysis my vexation gave way to a rush of shame when I saw the arrogance behind my thinking. My unbridled exasperation at being caught unawares by this situation would eventually be rendered immaterial the day I finally realized The Director clearly and correctly indicated the bigger challenge was the student's, not mine. But initially I considered myself the wounded party.

Certainly I felt ill-prepared to teach the blind but there sat Nejmah, bravely presenting herself to an unfamiliar world she needed to grope through, ready to exert extraordinary effort. How selfish, how utterly audacious of me to whine about what boiled down to my own lack of confidence. But that day in Si Omar's office I snapped my mouth shut as the fruitlessness of my complaint seeped in. I acquiescently backed out of Si Omar's office, quietly closed the door and headed back to work through my predicament.

Throughout the following months I tried my best to match Nejmah's efforts. I researched ideas for teaching the visually-impaired online. I assigned partners for Nejmah so they could read exercise questions and reading comprehension passages to her. I photocopied homework pages so Nejmah could take them home and have someone read the exercises to her and record her answers in her workbook. I tried to think of activities that didn't rely on sight. I made a conscious effort to expunge the words "see" and "look" from my instructions and I hoped against hope that somehow the lessons were imparted to all of my students.

When the day for the final exam arrived, someone from the administrative staff escorted Nejmah to the library to patiently and laboriously read all the questions aloud and record her answers. Ultimately, it took several hour long sessions to complete. When all the questions had been asked, answered and recorded, the exam was handed to me for grading and my own moment of truth. Had I actually taught anything?

I placed Nejma's exam in a pile of papers to mark from my other classes and took everything home. That evening I picked up Nejma's exam, red pen in hand, and held my breath as I marked her paper and tallied up the score: 69! Nejmah had squeeked by. I dutifully recorded her grade in three places when it hit me; Nejmah had been given an exam for the wrong level. All those hours of sitting for the final wasted. This was unacceptable.

The following day I marched into the office of the Curriculum Director, exam in hand and bristling with righteous indignation. "Si Omar, do you remember the blind student in my Beginning 3 class?" He searched his memory for a few seconds. "Oh yes, what about her?" I paused for my dramatic reveal. "Si Omar, the student was given the exam for Beginning 4!" The Director didn't miss a beat and volleyed back, "Well did she pass?" Completely perplexed by his response I could only nod my head. He cocked his head, lifted his shoulders to his ears and held the palms of his hands out. "Well then," he said, "no problem." I was dumbfounded. That's it? Were no corrective measures called for? No investigation into how this had happened in the first place? What kind of institution was I working for?

Unable to leave the situation alone I sought out the person who had administered the exam to make him aware of his mistake but his reaction only added to my consternation. "Eywah," he chuckled. "That explains why she kept saying she never studied that in class. Now it all makes sense."

Huh, I thought. Imagine that. The final outcome was the only thing of interest here. Never mind how we had arrived. Forget that this student had been tested on something she hadn't studied and practically said as much. Forget that I was untrained in meeting the special needs of my student. Nejmah had successfully passed and no further action or discussion was warranted.

Once again I trace my fingertips across the well-defined pinholes on one side of the cut of cardboard. My hand reads the message from left to right. I slowly turn the card over to feel the irregular holes on the flip side and trace the mysterious words as an Arabic reader would; from right to left. Two approaches to deciphering the code but the passage itself remains unchanged.

It just depends on how you choose to look at it.