Posts Tagged ‘Gary Nabhan’

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.

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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