Archive for the ‘On the Road’ Category

Ramallah revisited, courtesy NYTimes

May 22, 2010

On our very first evening in Jerusalem (April 19th) a last-minute opportunity presented itself, and so a cab took us across one of the checkpoints to the Ramallah Cultural Palace for an evening of dance like one seldom has a chance to see–a collaborative project between the DC-based City Dance Company and young West Bank dancers (and the concluding evening of the Ramallah International Dance Festival). In today’s  NYTimes, Paul Emerson, the company’s director  (and, full disclosure, a collaborator with the IWP writers during their 2009 visit to DC, for an evening of City Dance Company’s choreography ‘writing’ their short texts) makes a case for the cultural and political usefulness of such a project.  For my part, I mainly remember sitting in the packed auditorium and hoping the forms, shapes, colors and patters of those perfect bodies would go on for hours, encore, ecore.

Eddin, preparing to take off

May 10, 2010

Eddin Khoo promises

 

I Will Write of Airports…

 Inventories broken in this

Age of the ash apocalypse.

Line upon line of assembled sadness,

A herd homogeneity;

How to survive this?

Imagine a time, as

Eternal as the time before The Fall,

Of unyielding skies, of sterns

Striking at the horizon. Summon

The scent of the sea!

                                    Kuala Lumpur-Doha-Casablanca

Ognjen writes:

May 7, 2010

I

H1N1

 
I missed two days of my stay in Jerusalem, along with a visit to Ramallah and a barbeque with Palestinian artist colleagues. Volcanic ash from Iceland is to blame. I believe that volcanic ash from Iceland contain traces of swine flu as well as the hair from Yeti’s fur. Something called Eyjafjallajokull cannot simply pour out plain dull ash and particles of volcanic glass. As if it weren’t enough, Eyjafjallajokull is exactly 1.666 meters high. The Number of the Beast! Do not try to stop planes with something exactly 1.666 meters high and named Eyjafjallajokull ! All traffic on land should be stopped as well, visits to Jim Morrison’s grave should be prohibited and three or four nuclear bombs dropped on Eyjafjallajokull as a measure of precaution. Alternative solution: Chuck Norris should be invited to piss into the crater. I cannot be the only one to have a solid opinion on this matter. Is there a man on this planet who has suffered H1N1, whose flights have been delayed due to the eruption of an Eyjafjallajokull and who has seen the Yeti? If so, I would love to meet him.  (21st April 2010.)

II

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN!

The taxi driver who took me from the Ben Gurion airport to the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem knew everything about the world and the cosmos we belong to. He had the stance of a street erudite, and didn’t hesitate to talk every step of the way about genesis, molecular biology, climate change and the art of seduction. He talked incessantly and a lot, burying the small car under piles of words. “Where are you from, my friend?” he asked. “Montenegro” I answered. “Well, of course! Hasta siempre comandante! Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela, Montenegro!” he said . “I’ve been there!”, he said “You live in the most beautiful country in the world! And your women…! You are a lucky man!” he continued. “Thank you! You are right!” I said, deciding this time to not be proclaiming my Mediterranean pride. When I asked when he visited Montenegro he explained that he toured “the most beautiful country in the world” in 1979, while sailing on a British merchant ship named Aurora. I asked him what specifically he was he doing on the ship and he spoke proudly, self-confidently and quietly: “I was the captain”.  (21st April 2010)

III

LET’S FORGET

On my return from Casablanca I spent three hours at Istanbul’s airport, drinking the good and expensive Efes beer. A boy in the national costume was selling ice cream. A lady from England was explaining how she should have gotten more ice cream for her 4 Euros. Waving her hands, she kept pointing her finger at the white cream, folded in abundantly decorated circles. As she was passionately explaining how much she appreciates her money, the boy persisted in pointing at the notice board, repeating one sentence: ‘Your last call madam!” Four Euros and an ice cream were enough for the lady in Adidas sneakers to forget reality. I thought that I wouldn’t be sorry if she missed her flight, and moved on. A group of yellow hats overwhelmed the airport hall, holding British flags in their hands smiling dissent enough of any stupidity. The guide’s hat was the biggest and the yellowest. The ugliest. The writing on their hats said: Let’s forget. Oblivion as an assignment and a desirable state. I wondered what it was they wanted to forget, and I wondered where they are going to forget what it is they were wanting to forget. “Where are you traveling to, madame?” and beneath a brink of her yellow hat the mouth spoke: “Jerusalem, Palestine, Ramallah”. I imagined an ad in the Sunday Times: Come visit where blood shedding conflict happens! Forget the stress of your work place, the subway jams, your pet’s indigestion! I wished the ice cream would be 400 Euros.  (24 th April 2010)

IV

AZDI AND ICE

Azdi works for 250 Euros a month. Azdi is the guardian angel of my four room/five star/beautiful roof terrace hotel. Azdi’s three-year old daughter’s name is Mersiha, Azdie’s young wife is Farah. The hotel is located in the heart of the Fes medina, and is their only home as well as their job. Three hundred sixty five days, twenty four hours a day. While beautiful black-eyed Mersiha sits at the door step, Azdi and Farah manage the jobs necessary to make guests feel at home. Toilet cleaners, handymen, breakfast makers, polishers of beautiful ceramics, bag carriers, stealthy walkers-along of the half-business smile. They sleep in a small room in the attic. Azdi says that the French owner comes once in three months, looks around, yells a bit, signs some papers and disappears.

At the Istanbul airport I bought a bottle of my favorite whiskey Cutty Shark. Somebody had misinformed me that alcohol is unavailable in Morocco and I believed him. Some time later, the fine local reds convinced me I was wrong. As I sat on the roof terrace with my Slovenian friend and photographer Jaka, I decided to ask for some ice. Azdi was happy he could please me. He took a nicely decorated metal bowl and led me to a dark room at the first floor. A neon-lit bowl saw his pleased smile. He slipped on a rubber glove and slowly pushed his hand into bowels of a Sharp refrigerator. He acted like surgeon, carefully and with passion. I was expecting a handful of diamonds. However he pulled out ice and then, while it was smoking under the neon light, he said passionately, kissing the tips of his fingers: c’est bon! c’est du bon glace! He said it as it was the finest wine, the loveliest treat, some rare spice. Little Mersiha and Farah stood at the door. I asked them to come closer. Mersiha walked over, reached for the ice cube from her father’s hand and put it delightedly in her mouth. She mingled that coldness, smiling, with her parents. I thought: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father brought him along to discover ice.” I also couldn’t help but think how wrong our dear Tolstoy was. He should have said, „All unhappy families are alike; every happy family is happy in its own way”.  (25th April 2010)

V

APOLO 11

It always feels good to think that there is a person on the other side of planet reading, for example,  Hugo von Hofmannsthal, at the same time as I do.  On my way to Casablanca, after I mentioned that brilliant Austrian, my Malaysian friend Eddin placed Hugo’s photograph in the New York Times Book Review in front of my face. I believe we were the first people ever, on the planet Earth, to stare at Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s photo on the road between Fes and Casablanca.  (26th April 2010)

some moments in Jerusalem . . .

May 7, 2010

From James Fenton’s poem “Jerusalem”

Who packed your bag?

I packed my bag.

Where was your uncle’s mother’s sister born?

Have you ever met an Arab?

Yes I am a scarab.

I am a worm. I am a thing of scorn.

I cry Impure from street to street

And see my degradation in the eyes I meet . . . .

You are in error.

This is terror.

This is your banishment. This land is mine.

This is what you earn.

This is the Law of No Return.

This is the sour dough, this the sweet wine.

This is my history, this my race

And this unhappy man threw acid in my face.

Stone cries to stone

Heart to heart, heart to stone.

These are the warrior archaeologists.

This is us and that is them.

This is Jerusalem.

These are the dying men with tattooed wrists.

Do this and I’ll destroy your home.

I have destroyed your home. You have destroyed my home

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Another way of thinking about Jerusalem; Uri Dromi, and us, at the Mishkenot writers and culture centre . . .

katerina horevei . . . exo ap teen Ellada

Our Ognen and Israeli poet Shai Dotan being thoughtful and literary in the accepted/recognizable/cross border gesture . . .


sarah saffian and the poet ariel zinder in jerusalem: tortured artists.

LET’S PRETEND THAT THE WAR

by Shai Dotan (seen above w/ Ognen)

“Love I sing, I say love”

Meir Wieseltier

Let’s pretend that the war here was made of love

An oppressed enemy swept away by love

A mutual, one-sided occupation of love

Bustling settlements swarming with love

The eyes of preachers in mosques bellowing love

In refugee camps, walls stained with slogans of love

The news every hour, sugared announcements dripping love

Roadblocks with barbed wires in the name of love

Terrorists infiltrating shopping malls buckled with love

Coexistence, a hollow word, an abandoned tank made of love.

THE SENSE OF THINGS (Part 2)

May 5, 2010

Nukila’s post:

The Man Behind The Spectacles

Third meeting with Ibrahim Tijani. We drove off to the sufi village. A simple lunch. My most memorable meal (which deserves another posting for the event itself). We were sitting down on the rugs spread under an olive tree, Ibrahim Tijani sat leaning upon the tree and took off his glasses. Some remarks followed this gesture. He was looking very relaxed and happy to be there. Then Jaka asked Ibrahim for a photograph, he said sure, and Jaka moved the glasses a little further in front of Ibrahim. I suppose he didn’t see this coming. He sat there rather awkwardly in this pose, his glasses on the foreground, as Jaka took the pictures.
This mini-event I found particularly interesting, highly relevant, yet would easily pass unnoticed except from its winning a few remarks that the guy is weird –Jaka, that is, not Ibrahim. I watched Jaka at work in those brief seconds: perhaps there was a parallel feeling towards things, another variation on the same theme, in his way of seeing the ‘thinginess’ of a thing. Glasses are not glasses are not glasses. The glasses just laid there upon the rug. No longer an attribute of the ultimate identity of its owner –the public personage, ultra-person, of this sufi leader. (It was the black robe and the glasses that I first noticed on my first encounter with him at the festival.) And now without the glasses, the man was just being himself, there and then. A regular man, a private self. Telling us personal stories, smelling the red and yellow flowers his daughter picked on the hill.

The man behind the spectacles. Literal and symbolic at the same time in Jaka’s eyes. But again, perhaps… Jaka may have an entirely different take on this. I don’t know.
And let us hope that he will post the photograph.

Unidentified Lying Object

A Berber Market at a village in Essaouira. One of the first stalls near the entrance. I looked at its front part; there was something lying at the counter. Something square-ish, dark red, bits of white, moist, helpless, alone. In a naturalness that was so unassuming. Nearby there were two old men exchanging kisses, and another man, half-hidden behind the counter. This configuration didn’t quite come to me as a common sight in relation to the x thing. That something is hmm something, is… ah, meat. It was only when I saw a huge chunk of leg/shank hanging down near the men’s heads, that the meat-concept came to mind and I finally made sense of the thing. Of course, it’s meat! Zooming out, there were other things: buyers, sellers, bills, transactions, things in their utilized-to-be destiny. Perhaps, in those few seconds there were momentary lapses in a neural circuit somewhere in my brain; some electrochemical signals crossed and got lost –and this created that particular appearance of the meat. Present in its strangeness, a thing-in-itself, bare, unsymbolized, an it. A jamais vu, perhaps. When awareness hangs suspended, untampered by knowledge. A rare moment for me. Too bad, I wouldn’t mind experiencing it on a daily basis.
Afterwards, there came other lying/hanging objects in strange forms. But they came easily identified: animal innards I can’t name, as if created from sweet memories of towels, cylinders, spiral shells etc. Did I feel a relief that my brain was again in its normal modes of operations? Concepts, interpretations, associations –all kinds of references, constructs of thinking, were again there. And with the screams of a goat being slaughtered filling the air, drops and little pools of blood on the ground, I could no longer look at things in their suchness. The rest was a faint familiar feeling of walking around the traditional market at home, yet unfamiliar at the same time.

I Wonder If

travel is one the paths that could provide us with a ‘suchness moment’, to see things as they are. A fresh gaze, like those of saints or children. Traveling would be a shortcut, perhaps, compared to years and years of unlearning and emptying process and disciplines that masters do. Is that why the Monk Kengei, Ibn Arabi, Basho, wandered endlessly from place to place? Perhaps they weren’t looking for answers but questions, and more questions, from within and without, being surrounded by wonders of an unfamiliar world. Perhaps, to wander is to wonder, really.
What Sense Could There Be in Things? …and still, maybe even they didn’t know the sense of things when they saw it.

THE SENSE OF THINGS (Part 1)

May 5, 2010

Nukila AMAL’s post:

Variations on a theme. A few different takes on a few things from Essaouira and Fes, in random order –if not chaotic.

A Repertoire of Moroccan Bestiary

Dead, alive, or halfdead-halfalive animals. At the Berber market. Goats, chicken, donkeys. A limp snake – possibly on strike to demand better work conditions, perhaps down with a nasty cold, or simply charmed no more by the young snake charmer. Sardines, pink eels(?), baby shark at the fish market in Essaouira. A postcard of goats on the Argan tree. A little tiny white worm wriggling near a yellow cheese chunk on the table (and the great kingdom of Bacteria at the cheese cottage-factory). A roasted crab looking pretty on my dinner plate at a French-Moroccan restaurant. Head of a dead camel sprouting mint leaves from its mouth, grinning and hanging in front of a meat stall in the Medina, Fes –one could literally brush shoulder with it. More below on the poetics of juxtaposition of things.

Goats on the Argan Tree

I’ve seen real goats (and ate them), I’ve seen real Argan Trees (and bought a few products at the Cooperative Feminine). I had heard story from Zeyba about goats climbing up the Argan tree to eat the fruits. But to see the combination of both things visually, was something else.
At the herbalist shop in Fes. Hundreds of jars and bottles containing candy-colored liquids. We sat in this asymmetrical circle listening to the owner explaining some of the bottles. At times he would pass around small bottles when explaining a certain kind of herb, followed by a dab of scent on our wrists, or a whiff from small bottles… and then came the “>postcard. I looked at it for a few seconds. There they were, eight or nine goats, standing (or perching?) four-legged on the branches of a big Argan tree. A clear blue sky on the background. A couple of the goats stared straight at the camera in such perfect poise, almost like posing. It was beautiful, yet mind-boggling (to my poor mind only, sadly), so surreal it seemed. I blurted out in a wow moment, ‘Are those real goats on the Argan tree?’ (Yes, Chris and Eddin, Argan tree might as well bear goats as its fruit, goats could naturally come with a tree –in a parallel universe). And being a postcard, the photo had all the graphic qualities par excellence; symmetry, colors, expressions (some of the goats were photogenic and quite cool). Perhaps it was this too-beautiful image that led me to the ontological problem of goats. For some weird moments, those goats did look like a bigger version of Christmas tree decorations that come with little strings –bells, socks, candles, angels, etc. Fake goats with little strings strewn on the branches. Or better, one-dimensional, like paper-cut tinsel.
I imagine it would have been entirely different if I saw the goats up a tree directly in front of me. A ‘second-hand’ image of a thing versus direct experience of the thing with the five senses. The smell, the bleatings, movements, the rustles of Argan leaves, the wind on my face, etc… Now, this would be real.

 

God in Orange Juice

Second meeting with Ibrahim Tijani. We sat at the terrace restaurant at the hotel and talked until midday. The topics roamed from Islam, Sufism, the Tijaniyya tariqa, to the geometry of tiles, the number zero, Darwinian Evolution Theory, etc. Answering our questions patiently in a soft-spoken way, at one point he explained one of the basic tenets of the tariqa, the concept of Immanence. I understood it as an Islamic Neo-platonism concept which traced back from Ibn Arabi’s wahd al-wujud (Unity of Being). Ibrahim Tijani was telling us about the mindset of seeing God in everything everywhere, and after gesturing to our surrounding he pointed towards the white cup in front of him and said, “Even in this. I see God in this orange juice.” I glanced at his cup of orange juice. Earlier at breakfast I’d had the same orange juice, of course in a more secular mood –and guiltily, with an almost Fourierian pleasure. I took a better look at the thing: a white regular cup, regular orange juice (see Jaka Babnik’s photograph series below and check out the cup!). Then I glanced up to the man. I looked at his spectacled eyes, and thought, I would gladly trade those eyes with mine for say, an hour or two, to see things as he saw them. I listened to him speaking, and faintly recalled a verse from a sura in the Quran, ‘Whichever way you turn, there is the face of God’ and uttered it to him afterwards. He nodded and smiled. A beautiful verse. A beautiful concept of seeing things, of looking right through the ‘sense’ of things. You wouldn’t destroy or hurt a thing, and go about humbly.

Profile: Aziz Bousfiha, Desert Mystic or Global Pragmatic?

May 5, 2010

Gary Nabhan’s post:

            He looked so unassuming, dressing so casually—Western suburban and very cosmopolitan— as we entered his family’s mansion on the outskirts of the New City of Fez.  If you happened to sit next to Aziz Bousfiha on a bus or plane, you might not remember what he looked like even a few hours later, for he was rather non-descript…except for a certain unmistakable intensity in his eyes…

            His garden was on the way to the airport, someone had told us, but he had a larger farm that he is restoring on the semi-arid ridges beyond the city’s edge. As we looked at his family’s stunning house and the mix of ornamental succulents and cacti edging the paved walkway between the highway and the front door, I felt as though I could be in San Diego, California, Todos Santos, Baja California, Las Vegas, Nevada, or Granada, Andalusia— this was the aggregate of Mediterranean scrub and Mexican desert plants now used in “xeriscaping” all around the world.

            Of course, we were between the Mediterranean and the Sahara, so they were not merely surviving but they were thriving. And next to them, a small, slightly-graying modest man on crutches welcomed us:

            “Malhaba! Ahlan wa-sahlan!” Greetings, he offered. Welcome, he added as he bowed slightly, grinning from ear to ear. Despite a terrible fall the week before that left him with a herniated disk, this Aziz appeared to be a happy, gracious man.

            Six of us followed him inside, where his sister had selected tiles and mosaics to decorate their parents’ home with the utmost of elegance and simplicity. Aziz bade us sit down so that his family could offer us mint tea, coffee and cookies. One of us began to ask about the house and the gardens that surrounded it, but Aziz deflected the questions.

            “This is my father’s garden, much of it for beauty, what do you say? For show. I mean, I like it, I have some of my lavender plants here as well as a garden of many fruits and vegetables, but my mind and heart reside in a secret place on the edges of this valley, where ridges conceal it until you are nearly there. I have lived here many years, but even myself, I did not know of the existence of this place until someone took me there….it is a true oasis, one that I have begun to care for, one that needs some repair, but it has hundreds of ancient olives trees that are calling me….”

             One of asked if we had time to go there with him, and Aziz shook his head, but appeared not to be frustrated that we had so little time that we could not make it to the secret spot where his querencia– his longing to fuse his very identity with a singular place, resides. And so we tried to learn more about his family, the fashion of their lives, the architecture of their villa, the history of its landscaping, but Aziz with not with us. His soul had already begun to fly over toward that hidden oasis:

            “Forgive me, but I must tell someone—I must tell you—of my vision for that place and for many places that are perhaps like it. The idea is to go somewhere in the desert, perhaps to a place that has been neglected or degraded over the years…We’ll proclaim that yes, this has become a desert [i.e., desertified] , but now we’re going to make it into a living oasis, one where we’ll not only respect but where we will nurture a diversity of life. In fact, we’ll arrest all activities or uses of chemicals that damage or kill other species, you know, that reduce diversity. If pesticides might kill off any animals—eliminating them from the landscape—then we’ll eliminate their use.”

            One of the crutches fell down to the floor from where it had been propped against his chair, for he had begun to wildly gesture, although their was no stridency in his voice, no obvious eager or promotional flair that made us feel as though he were marketing his vision to us. He simply laid it out, as if it were right there before us in the room, and he was merely describing that which had begun to materialize before our own eyes as well. (Perhaps that is a flaw of each and every visionary, for he does not immediately notice that others cannot not see as fully and richly the vision he is describing, and the skeptics may doubt that it can even exist…) But politeness, skepticism or reservation does not stop a visionary like Aziz from continuing, for what he sees is not a desert mirage, but something palpable:

            “Of course, we don’t want to stop with remaking just one oasis….” Aziz now shifted from the singular to the plural, although the rest of us were ignorant about whom the we  included:

             “Our idea is to bring many, many small farms restored to oasis-like conditions into a chain—how do you say it?— a corridor …. to bring them together into solidarity. It is not that we merely want each oasis farm to become fully self-sufficient, for we want to create oases in solidarity with one another. All will exchange not only goods but ideas with one another, in order to serve the larger community of which they are part. They will also be in exchange with the people of the city who might not be able to grow their own food, but who have arts and ideas they may crave. They may give a portion of their production to these urban dwellers who will become cultural ambassadors for them and for the oasis corridor as whole…”

            “And so we will create solidarity among people on and off the farms, who will begin to walk the long road of ancient wisdom again together. We will bring back the old grains of the region—what do you say, seeds? —as symbols of the grains of wisdom we must sow. Over the centuries, these ancient seeds have been adapted to place…”

            I could not be sure whether he was speaking of crop seeds or of cultural wisdom at this point…. 

            “Over the centuries, these ancient seeds have adapted not just to a ntural ecosystem, but to a cultural, spiritual setting as well. It is not just about farming plants in a desert oasis…it is about cultivating solidarity among peoples as well…if we get that right, a thousand other things will emerge, flower and bear fruit…”

            “But we must return to the adapted seeds, for they play multiple roles, whereas modern hybrid seeds play only one or a few limited roles. When we manipulate seeds to give more yield in quantity, I see only one sad goal driving the entire system: profit. And what one can get out of those genetically-manipulated seeds is just that one thing, at the expense of all other values. In essence, if we take this perilous short cut  rather than staying on the long road,  we lose all other options.”

            Aziz took a brief sip of tea, then plowed on:

            “To counter these trends, we must remember that centuries of love and care are manifested in each kind of little seed. There is love and care imbedded in each and every olive growing on our trees, in each grain ground into our bread.”

            “And so we must regenerate a series of diverse desert oases, and then link them through our solidarity. Thast solidarity—not any one place in and of itself— makes the cohesiveness, the base that keeps all this diversity intact. Each place, each oasis, is important. And so, no single placer is more important than any of the others. We have to be more than just brothers, each going about our own work. We must work and pray as members of the same community.”

             Aziz grabbed his crutches and stood up. He looked at us—spellbound visitors—and laughed.

            “You know, it’s funny, but I can’t waste time worrying about whether or not this will work. There is a proverb in Arabic, and I suppose similar ones in other languages. It says it all: If it looks like the last day of the world is upon us, that the end of life may be coming, and you happen to find yourself planting trees that day, well, DON’T STOP PLANTING…”

            “It’s not just activism I am talking about, though we may need some of that. I’m talking about something larger, deeper—participating in creation— for that very act is an expression of our love. Yes, love is the driving force. I can say that…Love, why not? “

            “Every day, I go out to prune and to renew the growth of a thousand ancient olive trees on that patch of land that was suddenly and mysteriously gifted to me, I know one thing: I must take care of them with love, not just with the science of pruning.”

            And with that, Aziz waved us to follow him, and despite his herniated disc and two crutches, he ambled out into the garden, to show us dozens and dozens of kinds of plants he cares for as his life work.

            Jujubes, loquats, limes and sweet lemons.

            Kumquats, grapefruits, mulberries and olives.

            Pomegranites, roses, lavenders, and prickly pears.

            Agaves, cardon cactus, safflowers and crocuses.

            Scallions, onions, leeks and garlic.

            Beets, radishes, spinach and coriander.

            Spearmint, peppermint, epazote and sage.

           Oregano, sage, rosemary, and thyme.

           Sunflower, tomoato, squash and maize.

           Common beans, fava beans, chile peppers and cabbage. 

           Planted in solidarity. More than just companions. Community.

Traces of West Africa in the streets of Fés

May 3, 2010

Sometimes history can be read in a design stamped in leather or found in the syncopated beat of a song.

In the medina of Fés, we stood inside the old walls of a fandouk, an inn dating to the 11th century. The first floor, with its high ceilings and open central courtyard, was a combination stable and warehouse. On the second floor were the rooms where the travelers stayed. Some of the guests may have come all the way across the Sahara, traveling in caravans from water source to water source with their camels. To the medina of Fes, they brought gold, slaves, and kola nuts from West Africa. In that very courtyard perhaps, they negotiated their sales, then loaded up their camels and set out south again across the desert carrying blocks of salt and the teachings of Islam.

Gold, salt, slaves, cowries, and kola nuts that split open like red hearts at the touch of a fingernail and promise to end thirst and hunger for those who chew them–these were the trade goods that were loaded up at one end of the trade route and unloaded at the other, haggled over, bartered and bargained for. But other commodities came along, too, invisible ones, traveling back and forth until it is sometimes difficult to sort out who brought and who received, who borrowed and who loaned.

The teachings of Islam traveled south with the traders, and when I hear the sing-song call to prayer rise above the medina of Fes, it recalls the little mosques in the villages of Mali and Burkina Faso and northern Ivory Coast, where men in long robes and leather sandals or slippers are hearing that same call and crossing the villages to pray. The stamped designs on the harnesses, saddles, and scabbards of the traders inspired the diffusion of leatherworking styles across West Africa in ways we are still trying to understand. When I meet up with these designs in the medina, on wallets that hang around a man’s neck or on slippers, they have the familiar look of acquaintances I have known before in some other place. Words, too, travel easily; there are many Arabic words in the Mandé languages of West Africa and words from African languages have surely found their way into Arabic.

It is hard to think of human beings being bartered and sold just like salt or gold or kola nuts. But of course they were. And people, even enslaved, carry with them their own words, their own stories and beliefs, their own knowledge of plants and food, and their own music and dance.

On our last night in Fés, as we sat at dinner in the medina, we were serenaded by two Gnawan musicians. They are descended from slaves brought to Morocco from West Africa, but I had no idea about their history when they began to play. Their black hats decorated with cowry shells reminded me of the hats some Malian praise singers wear. The three-stringed instrument one of them played was a larger version of the one-stringed lutes of the Fulani herders of West Africa. His percussive style was exactly like clawhammer banjo, a technique brought all the way to America by enslaved Africans. The iron castanets beat the time like the iron percussion instruments played all over West Africa. When the castanet player stood up to dance, I recognized the tune even though I had never heard it before. I felt they were singing to me, and this is the song I heard:

here we are, here we are,

still alive, still alive,

all these centuries later, here we are,

no longer slaves, still alive, still alive,

with the beat of West Africa still inside us,

so hear it, so hear it!

Silently I answered:

I hear you, I hear you, I hear West Africa singing inside your song.

Insha’Allah

May 2, 2010

Thoughts upon returning home (for this writer, home = Brooklyn, New York, United States):

I.
As I did my damndest to leave all expectation at the border, I was surprised to discover the difference between Jerusalem and Fes for me: while both cities were impactful and fascinating, I experienced Jerusalem intellectually and Fes emotionally. Jerusalem ignited my mind, while Fes moved me to tears. Cerebral versus sensual. Head versus heart.

II.
Re. the beginner’s mind:
Kaz: “finding ease in the chaos”
Gary: “finding joy in the humility”
Ognjen: “decolonizing our idea of a strange place”
Eddin: “how are we different from tourists, if at all?”
Carol: “If I hosted someone from Morocco in Illinois, what would I show her?”

III.
Borrowing again from Susan Orlean:
“To be honest, I view all stories as journeys. Journeys are the essential text of the human experience—the journey from birth to death, from innocence to wisdom, from ignorance to knowledge, from where we start to where we end. There is almost no piece of important writing…that isn’t explicitly or implicitly the story of a journey.”

IV.
My first stop back in Brooklyn was to our local independent bookstore, seeking a Moroccan cookbook. I chose a lovely little volume with colorful photos, simply called Tagine, by Ghillie Basan. I then headed to the best Middle Eastern grocery store in town, Sahadi’s, on Atlantic Avenue, to purchase ingredients like fresh ginger, saffron, cracked green olives, preserved lemons (for which I thanked the salesperson in Arabic: shokran). But my favorite ingredient: the recipe called for the “freshly squeezed juice of one lemon,” and I realized that I had one from Aziz Bousfiha’s organic garden still in my suitcase (don’t tell the folks at JFK customs). Plucked from a tree in Fes, and, perhaps 30 hours later, squeezed into a chicken tagine in Brooklyn.

V.
We’ll get back to Jerusalem and Fes, and reunite with our new, far-flung friends, one day—insha’Allah, g-d willing. Meantime, some storytelling of the non-verbal variety (click on the photo to access the whole album). Salaam!

Fes

Imaginary cities. Real bribes.

May 2, 2010

The trip to Essaouira from Casablanca took me three and a half hours, whereas it took the main group of writers six hours on the same road.

“How did you get here so fast?” the group wondered.

“Our driver was speeding the whole time.”

“And what about the police? They didn’t stop you?”

“Of course they did.”

“And what happened?”

“We just bribed them.”

“Did they ask for bribes?”

“Three times.”

For most Westerner’s this practice can be a shock, but for people from my part of the world bribing is part of our daily routine. Our police tend to be underpaid and therefore, try to supplement their meager incomes with bribes. Our traffic cops only earn about $100 a month but can make as much as $150 a day. We call this phenomenon, “police paradox”. I told my group that I thought our driver was lucky. He only had to pay one bribe for speeding. In my country, he would have had to pay one bribe for speeding and a second bribe – for bribing.

The group seemed surprised by the bribing…. and I was surprised by something else.

“Why couldn’t you get a visa for Algeria? It was easy for me!” I told the group.

“We don’t know. It was weird. It took so long for them to review our documents.”

“Why didn’t you offer them a bribe? Maybe you didn’t get their cue.” I said.

I didn’t have any problems getting one. The officer at Algerian embassy told me that my documents were fine, but “as of today” the price for an Algerian visa went from 25 to 45 euro.

“I can show you the new prices,” he said. Since he was in Uzbekistan and I live in Kazakhstan, his cue was obvious.

“No problem,” I answered. I paid bribe and got my visa. Too bad we didn’t make it to Algeria… I heard anything can be bought in that region – visa’s, marriage certificates, and even diplomas. I imagined how I get a backup driver’s license.

More interesting here

http://observers.france24.com/en/content/20091118-buy-bribe-online-saudi-arabia-mstaml