Friday, August 17, 2012

Hello friends (and comrades)

I can't believe how long it's been since we were last feels like lifetimes, and yet also like it was yesterday.

A brief recap of my early summer.  I left Santa Barbara soon after handing in a final paper for my independent study on the role of the shari'a in the discourse of a group I am particularly interested in here in Morocco...loaded up my boy Vikas's Prius with a backpack and took off at reasonably high speeds towards  Vegas...picked up a friend from Colorado, played craps, lost five dollars, wandered into a tattoo convention,    got rejected from a nightclub, hopped a fence, ate breakfast...drove to zion, climbed a mountain...drove to the grand canyon, drank a beer while gazing into the chasm, talked about the edge of the solar system and extraterrestrial life with an astrophysicist, pitched camp on the side of the highway, looked at the stars...drove through navajo nation; drunk on the beauty of the american southwest, navajo nation was a sobering experience...arrived in durango colorado, tubed the animus river, went to a house party, did yoga on the lawn, visited some anasazi ruins, drove to the great sand dunes, saw colorado burning, burning, burning...there were wildfires everywhere this summer.  In Denver I visited friends, saw music, hiked...flew home to NH to see my parents, spent a weekend on Lake Winnipesaukee, kayaked, dove for treasure with my old man, tried to sail but there was no wind.  Went to a family wedding in New Rochelle NY, my family is proud Italian American, the wedding was something like a cross between jersey shore and the sopranos, delicious food and purple snakeskin theme. Flew to London for a night, visited an old friend, drank whiskey and played backgammon until the wee hours of the morning, missed my flight, got another flight.


So far, my time in Morocco has been amazing.  I arrived in Rabat and was able to find an amazing room in a riad within a couple of days.  I am living with a couple, a French girl and a British guy.  Our riad, which basically translates as a traditional guesthouse, is in the old medina of Rabat and is owned by Marilyn, my roommate's, family.  The riad itself is incredibly beautiful, ornately decorated in the Moroccan style, with three levels and two terraces, the highest of which overlooks the entire city.  The center of the home is open to the sky, so there is always a feeling of being both inside and outside.  From our terrace you can hear clearly the call to prayer from about five different muzzeins; it's haunting and beautiful, especially in the middle of the night.  This particular riad is called the "Maison Ballafrej;" many years ago, the first Prime Minister of Morocco, Ahmed Ballafrej, was born and raised here. Now the old Ballafrej home is split into three separate residences and my roommates and I share the old guest quarters.  For a while the house was filled with friends and short term renters, from Chile, Sweden, France, Spain and the US.  It was a bit of the Auberge Espagnole, with French, English, Spanish and Arabic spoken at any given time, and often all at once.  You can check out photos here, my room is the purple one :)

Living in the old medina is a trip.  Recently named a UNESCO heritage site, this part of the city is completely walled in, and traffic is all on foot or by motorbike, through a labyrinth of passageways.  Most of the people I've met here have lived here their entire lives, although the original families of the medina have now moved into large villas in a richer part of town; although there is a lot of diversity and plenty of foreigners in the medina, the large part of the population are from modest means.  Everyone in the medina seems to know each other, and there are some characters.  One of the pictures I've posted is of the famous "Singawi" who lives outside my door usually.  He's constantly followed by an entourage of dogs (right now he has three adults, and two puppies) and is a known miscreant, often in and out of jail for all sorts of misbehavior.  His presence is tolerated, but just barely.  From our place, within a five minute walk you can find whatever you need in the souk or the market.  There is one street mainly dedicated to groceries, one to clothes, one to electronics, one to pastries, a street for tailors...really everything.  Walk down the street, pick out a live hen, grab some veggies while it's butchered, some fresh bread and, voila, a meal for two days for five dollars.

My first day here I was, as usual, a bit lost looking for my house, and a young neighbor, Mourad, helped me find my way.  We have been fast friends since then; he is 26, plays football to support his family, and has been my unofficial tour guide in the city.  His family has adopted me and their home is my second home here.  In general I have been amazed at the generosity and warmth that is shown to me - of course, as I was warned, I get attention being a foreign woman, but overwhelmingly the attention is earnest and kind - so many people are eager to practice their french or english (some of the things people come up with are hilarious...the other night a neighbor said to me, you want smokin and I kept trying to say no thank you, and then he continued with I have twenty five dollars, and I was like why does this guy want to give me money and then he said Thank you very much and I realized he was just saying everything he could say in English) and every conversation ends with an invitation to f'toor dinner (called iftar in Egypt, the break fast meal is f'toor here).  I've shared the meal with my neighbors on many occasions; we eat in the parents bedroom usually with Mom and Dad, an 8 year old visiting cousin from Holland, 2 aunts who were visiting as well, Mourad and his brother, aunt and uncle and two cousins who also live in the house, and various other friends from the neighborhood.  The meal typically consists of some combination of harira soup, crepe like pancakes with butter, dates, sfoof (a mixture of sesame seeds, crushed almonds, flour and butter) cactus fruit, juice, banana milk, sardines, Moroccan pastries called chebekia, tagine, bread, cheese, coffee and tea.  I've also shared the meal with a Salafi at his home in a suburb (he is helping me with my research, teaching me about Islam and political perspectives) and with a group of lifeguards in a tent on the beach south of Rabat.

Initially when I had planned my trip, I was unaware that I would be arriving for the beginning of Ramadan; essentially the whole time I have been here so far has been during this month long holiday.  This means that during the day, until around 7:40 pm, everyone fasts - no food or water at all.  Although its actually illegal for Moroccans, eating and drinking during the day is tolerated for foreigners, but still taboo in public.  There is no beer or wine being sold except in one single bar, and only to foreigners; you need to show your passport to enter.  Other prohibitions include smoking (cigarettes are fine after dark, but no hash) and sex, unless you're married, and even then only after dark.  Of course, as with any religious practice, everyone has their own ways of observing the holiday; most people won't swim for fear of swallowing water, but many continue to swim and surf.  And everyone I've talked to has a different reason for practicing Ramadan.  Some claim a fear of god, not wanting to anger Allah; some fear social or familial repercussions, even if they don't buy into Ramadan, they don't want to rock the boat; some view this as a time for spiritual cleansing and a turn away from worldly pleasure, as I believe is the religious intention of the practice; and still others view this as a personal challenge to build character and strength.  And yet there are still others who eschew observation - last year a group of people got together to eat lunch in public to protest the imposed restrictions on Moroccans who may not be strictly Muslim.  It is assumed, even legally, if you are Moroccan, and don't belong to the Jewish population (who have been present here even longer than the arab population) then you must be a Muslim - Atheism in general here is a confusing subject.

Aside from life in the medina, Rabat is a beautiful city.  I am minutes from the beach, which may not be as clean and pristine as the beaches in Santa Barbara, but I love it nonetheless.  There are always people out surfing, fishing and swimming.  Also, because it is Ramadan, the nights here are insane.  After f'toor, around 10 pm everyone and their mother - literally - is out and about walking around, shopping, talking, canoodling, rollerblading, playing music.  There is a little fair/carnival set up on the coast and there have been concerts and shows throughout the month.  Even the littlest kids are out until the wee hours of the morning.

Wednesday was a festival for the 27th day of Ramadan, called the festival of youth - I went to a friends place in the medina and around midnight all the women got together to prepare the young girls (probably 5 and 8) for the night.  This consisted of a lot of shouting (of course, none of which I could understand,) doing hair, putting on make up, taking off make up, pillow fighting, redoing hair, more shouting, a turtle walking around, climbing on shelves, getting dressed, putting on jewelry, taking off jewelry, more 1:00 am the girls were ready to go out, we walked around and they had their pictures taken. When I said I was tired and would head home, this was expressly forbidden and I was instructed that we would be eating dinner and then I could go.  Dinner was served to the family of twelve at 2 am and after tea, I was escorted home by all the women and girls - eight of us - at 4 am.

My own work is coming along, slowly but surely.  Next week my darija instruction will recommence (there was a break for the holiday) and this I am greatly looking forward to.  I've been attending demonstrations put on by the - now apparently illegal - February 20th movement, the most active group calling for an end to corruption, abuse of civil liberties, and pushing for democracy.  I've been talking with some activists involved with this movement and have been working on developing contacts with a religious group that is affiliated.  Right now, I'm interested in developing my thesis around how these two groups are challenging political hegemony, without actually participating in institutional politics.  Talking to people about this has been precarious; there is a constant sense of surveillance, and despite vast improvements in my French, from time to time I still encounter a language barrier.  Otherwise, I've been doing a lot of reading and beginning to write a piece (hopefully which I will be able to publish somewhere and also which will be useful for my thesis) on the economic crisis here.  The poor state of the economy has been the focus of a lot of the protests...more to come on that.

Anyway, if anyone is still reading, I love you all, hope to hear from more of you on the blog, and will try to post less and more regularly :)

1 comment:

  1. i had a great time reading your resumee, sounds like you're having a great time :) a favor: could you send me some literature / your paper on the economic crisis? I've been struggling to getting some information on that ;) I'm doing some similar stuff about Tunisia / Egypt; I'm also always happy to exchange knowledge in general...

    wish you all the best for your further travels,