Posts Tagged ‘Carol Spindel’

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.



May 2, 2010

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

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.

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?”

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.”

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.

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!


Walking in Cemeteries: Fes

April 30, 2010

The white-washed tombstones gleamed against the steep green hill, inviting us to climb up and share their view. But the graves were set close together, and in the narrow spaces of earth between them, purple thistles with spiny stems flourished. Dina and I had no choice but to step on the flat tops of the tombs, and the sharp edges of the thistle leaves scraped our bare ankles.

Wherever I go, I try to walk in a cemetery. The departed are good company, and in crowded cities they often have valuable amenities to share—open sky, benches, beds of blooming flowers. The cemetery on the hill outside the old city of Fes offered a rare vista of the medina and its walls.

We were settled comfortably a little more than halfway up the hill near a grave enclosed in an iron “cage” when a man entered the cemetery and climbed toward us.  Middle-aged, well-dressed, he wore glasses and carried a small camera. His expression was serious. We both felt slightly apprehensive. Perhaps he intended to upbraid us for using someone’s resting place as a park bench.

But just below us, he stopped, leaned on a gravestone, and commiserated matter-of-factly about the thistles. “It’s overgrown because it has been closed for years,” he explained, “although you can still be buried here if you own a plot.” He looked out at the hillside. “It’s not the responsibility of the families to clean the graves,” he added. “It’s the city that should do something.” He gestured to the top of the hill. “I am trying to get up there. My mother is buried there. My whole family, in fact.”

He told us he was a Fassi, a native of Fes, but worked as a socio-economist in Larache, a port city near Tanger. Although his father had moved in with a sister in the Ville Nouvelle, they held on to their old house in the medina. It was still completely furnished, and when they gathered for family visits, they stayed there.

Below us, near the entrance, men were replastering a little square house with a pointed roof—an entrance gate or a tool shed, perhaps. No, the tomb of a saint. The little building was the tomb of Saint Lissane Eddine Ibnou Al Khatib, he said. A Fassi poet, physician, and theologian. “And philosopher,” he added, seeing me take out my notebook. “Be sure to write philospher.” Lissane Eddine means literally “tongue of the religion.”

He pointed out the nearest gate in the ancient wall. “The government calls this gate, Bab el Sharia,” he said. “The Gate of Religious Law. But no one here calls it that. We Fassis call it Bab el Mahrouck. The Gate of the Burning. This is where they used to put people to death by burning them alive. And decapitate them, too!”

In response to my question about funerals, he replied that he had recently buried someone close and told us about the prayer a person should say when death was approaching, the washing of the body, the prayers at the mosque and then at the cemetery, the dried figs and bread the family hands out at the cemetery, the honey and butter they serve at the house to those who come to give condolences. When I asked about the women, he said that only men came to the burial. The women came to the cemetery on the third day to say prayers. The name for this ritual comes from the Arabic verb “to separate.”

“Do you picture your family in Paradise?” I asked.

“Of course,” he answered without hesitation. And then glancing up at the top of the hill, “Yes, they are certainly in Paradise.

“You know that the Koran,” he said quietly, “gives images of Paradise from the dreams of desert nomads. The Koran speaks of water, women, fruit, and green vegetation. But,” he added softly but firmly, “Islam was made for everyone and for all time. Paradise is presented in the Koran as the dreams of men—men living a hard life in the desert. I am educated, but observant, a believer. Yes, Sufi.” He paused and then went on. “In the Koran, there are phrases for another era and phrases for all time. We must distinguish between them.

“For example, the Koran says the sun moves across the sky. Now we understand that the entire galaxy is moving. Since Galileo we have understood this. Man is swimming in the sky, and around us, everything moves, everything turns.”

When I thanked him for his explanations, he gestured dismissively back toward the medina. “The guides—they have memorized some facts. They point out the architecture. But this is not what matters. What matters, and this they do not understand…what matters most are ideas.”

And with that he asked to take our photograph. Dina laughed about someone wanting to photograph us for a change as we posed, smiling. We didn’t ask his name, nor did he ask ours. After we said good-bye,  he resumed his climb through the purple thistles toward his mother’s grave.

bonjour de Paris

April 20, 2010

Whenever I am in Paris, I walk the Meridian of Paris, traced from the Observatory of Paris beginning in the 17th century. As I do, I think about the lines that cross the earth and traverse our lives, lines that connect all the places we care about (and those where we want to be). As I walk the Meridian I think about the early scientists who asked such enormous questions about our planet and then devoted their lives to answering them. When I first walked this line in the 1990s, I thought (a little nostalgically) that I would never live in an age like theirs, an age when even the best-informed scientists knew so little about the earth. But my awareness of climate change has made me revise these ideas. And now, in Paris, under a cloud of ash whose movements no one can predict, I am reminded again that we still need to ask big questions about our planet and seek answers.

Stuck here but hoping to move south and east to meet up with all of you!