Posts Tagged ‘Ognen’

Building in Fez

May 5, 2010

Building in Fez

At the beginning of the evening we passed through the parking lot and saw the ambulance and a fire truck, men dressed in the heavy uniforms of disaster, and we wondered collectively and out loud what was going on, smelled for smoke, caught nothing but the usual in the air, dust and animal (cat spray, piles of dead wool rotting beyond the cars), garbage, rain too—it had rained sporadically through the afternoon. Damp dust, no fire. We kept going, according to the schedule, which has been hard to keep, cat-herding to a clock is even harder, all these people and tours and meetings, visits here and there in a labyrinth designed against speedy conclusions. Builders and citizens of old Fez: did you have a deadline in mind? In what century did that deadline fall? Dead line: I think of all long threads of string being used, sort of plumb lines in vertical, by the (suspiciously) young men who are (seem to be) planning the rebuilding of the medina’s interior walls.

Through which we wandered up, up, up, past the babouche slippers and the small pretty drums hanging from wires, (further back in the rectangle of the shop, look at all the instruments hanging on the walls!) through the eternal gate created by black chickens standing on their crates, then meat, represented charismatically by a camel head whose mouth is stuffed with parsley, or an enormous bouquet of sheeps’heads too. Or was the meat before the chicken?–I thought of Eddin and his love for the roast bird–then we were walking between stalls of dates and great loops of dried figs tied on greasy wool string (I ate figs every day for a week after everyone left . . .) and heaps of apricots and raisins, then vegetables, apples and orange-juice stalls, the usual, though the eggplant and the courgettes looked small, tired, more than ready to be eaten.

We were talking—we are always talking, a group of writers giddy with thoughts and opinions, (except for Ognon; he is mostly quiet, w/ lightning strikes of humour) trying to find a place to put the newness in our heads and then get it all out and be interesting as we do it, not cliched, but also not too pushy, or too eager, while also being ourselves, but without offending anyone (at least too much), though Dina admirably offended several people at lunch. “What is the point of all these designs, all this decoration?” She talked about the suspicious ease of consuming the town of Fez, feeding on the experience of it. Our consumption is tourism—though some of us resist being called tourists. Dina is cynical about the doubleness even of basic exchange when one cannot speak the language “So when you get your piece of bread you feel you have communicated something important.” To which, part of me responded, haven’t you? One starts at the beginning, and the beginning of every culture is breakfast.

Anyway, I don’t think Dina was talking so much about distrusting Islam or Muslims (Mabrouck countered her doubts about the smiling Sufi man by saying that there are many happy and smiling Muslims in many different Muslim countries ….) She was talking about the unknowable nature of this particular place and its layers, the great swirl of patterns that do not settle, cannot settle for us because we are too shaken up, too unsettled ourselves, and because there is no time. Time, the nature of time, the need for time, the perpetual Western lack of it. But when you are alive, time is all you really have. Why do we believe so passionately in the shortage of it?

To return to Dina’s bewilderment: what’s wrong with the great swirl? Why would we understand something that is so foreign and strange to us? Isn’t it lovely that we cannot understand?

She said, with a tightness in her voice (frustration? embarrassment at being outed among enthusiasts and more innocent Westerners?) “What is behind all these beautiful designs? Something else, something we cannot know”. This observation is clearly right; it contains a more profound question, as well as a basic truth. The post Soviet/post Central Asian nomadic perspective was something I had not considered. See how we carry all of our baggage this far? Will I ever learn to travel light? (But there were nomads here, and they are still here; they influenced the place and its traditions, its rhythms, held the balance between civilized decadence and the nobility and strength borne of living in the desert, the hills, away from the structure of towns and cities. Imagine that—people of old thought that Fez was structured! Ha!) Most of the kelims we see hanging on the walls were made by nomadic or semi-nomadic Berbers and much of the jewellery is Bedouin. Or made in China??)

It had not occurred to me that tile work and patterns and hammered silver and bronze might be disturbing. For me it is inlaid, textured, visual delight. But Dina’s comments incited another kind of a pleasure, the pleasure the open-hearted get from a good cold splash of cynicism. It’s appropriately bracing to be reminded not to be such a pushover. The Moroccan writer Laila Lalaimi’s journalism had a similar effect on me when I was reading pieces from her website.

Talking, talking, as talkers we were still sorting it out even as we walked, half-dazzled by the almost-familiar path through the medina now, dazzled but half-blind, too, not paying any particular attention except to enjoy the swimming newness of it, the jangle, the immediate injection of human energy one gets in a public market, which is why I’ve never liked travelling in groups, even with one other person, because though travelling with others gentles the solitude and confusion of a new place, it also blunts one’s senses to the experience. not paying any particular attention . . . You become more attuned to the people you are with than the place you are in. You cannot escape them; you became attached to them, to the insights, the voices, the jokes, even to the little power plays and grinding points and the ego’s need to assert itself.

Yet I’ve liked it; it hasn’t mattered to me, this time, because everyone has been vital, engaged in a larger and enjoyable conversation. And I am less accustomed, now, to solitude, and to the patient openness necessary to get to know strangers from other cultures. It is a kind of charm, too, or openness to being charmed that goes both ways. The face like a child’s face; Eddin talking about wonder. To feel wonder you need to submit, to be taken over by what you see. Invaded, really. To know another place deeply you have to be vulnerable to it. Hardly the right disposition for buying a carpet (I believe I paid about $100 too much for the one I bought; tant pis.)

We walked and talked through the evening noise, the medina at dinner, people still buying and selling but without pressure, the big business of the day was done, you could see the release in the men’s faces, the way some of them had a chance now to chat with each other or sit down on their stools and smoke or lean over the rows of vegetables, figs, almonds, trays of olives and meet your eyes and say La bas? (How are you?) easily, nothing invested in it. The walk through the medina leads us into the left turn that opens onto the little square and the great gate, Bab Boujloud. Up, down, around, past, through, we run the whole gamut of prepositions just getting from one place to another.

The evening walk turns into a rich dinner in a richly decorated interior, not the interiors that we are let into (as though penetrating the great secret) but the interiors that have been made for us, restored for us, rebuilt for us, rich foreigners. We have not seen the cramped, modest spaces that the great majority of people live in here, a family to a room, two small rooms, no running water or no hot water. (And have you noticed that the authorities have kicked most of the handicapped beggars outside the old medina’s walls? The blind eyes, the twisted legs, hungry old men sitting outside the Bab Boujloud, the woman in her wheelchair. To spare us, the tourists, I imagine.) We do not see the third world but an exotic version of our own, albeit one filled with men: men dancing and singing, men serving, men guiding, men on their donkeys and their tractors, men behind the counters, everywhere the presence of the male, his access, his comparative ease in this universe beyond the walls of the house, the man and his power. Old habit, learned twenty five years ago in a small Asian village, where they didn’t want me to wear shorts, or show my bare arms, and though I hated this rule, their modesty, it was easier to acquiesce, as it is now: long sleeves, loose clothing, a jacket despite the heat, a false though also sincere chasteness in the gaze.

Would you go so far as a headscarf? If I found myself out at night, absolutely. Being around all these women in djellabas, I have begun to feel forever underdressed, underlayered, oddly . . . skinny. If you are a woman here, it is better here to have bulk, solidity, an extra ten or twenty pounds. In every non-western, non-western-developed culture, to be thin is to be closer to weakness, death, vulnerable to the menace of illness or famine. And who cares about the heat, one must be covered . . .

Always the layers, and no easy peeling away, the thin translucent pieces stick together: the tourist trade and the rebuilding of interiors supplies work to hundreds, thousands of people—how many hours of labour does it take to restore an entire riad? A year’s worth, or two years (given the pace at which things work around here; it’s got to be at least as bad as building in Greece, more coffees, more cigarettes, more tradespeople who don’t show up, more washers and faucets that cannot be found, more plumbing and electricity puzzles, more people who don’t actually know what they are doing. So: three years, four, more. Which means employment, revitalization, men supporting their families, sons learning the trade from their fathers. The foreigners drive up the prices and take over/gentrify the medina, hmm. Yes, but the alternative is the medina crumbling into the ground. There is one restoration organization in the town that renovates, for free or at a great discount, the houses of the inhabitants already here; but they cannot fix all the houses. The medina is crumbling; how many buttressed walls there are, throughout the minor passageways. And the medina’s image, to Fassis, crumbled long ago. When we went to the hammam, one of the women said that everyone’s dream is to leave the medina; to leave the maze of narrow streets and buy a house in the spacious Ville Nouvelle. But we know ourselves, don’t we? The rich and spoiled of the world (c’est nous) are the most adept at romanticizing poverty and cramped quarters.

Dinner begins, dinner is delicious. A few of us go back to another beautiful interior, another gorgeous and sumptuous riad, to be served wine by an exhausted boy who wants only to go to sleep. Goodnight, we say, eventually, and we are tired ourselves. What are we supposed to take away from this time, with each other, in these places far from home that we are trying to know, somehow, or even simply to see. To see, just to see: this is a significant accomplishment in itself. To be imprinted with images, pure moments of place. I like Ognen and Yaka’s ease with it all, their good spirits and the small culture they have between them, shared language and lots of alcohol and flashes of humour. Wasn’t it reassuring, honestly, to hear Ognen’s open acknowledgement that the places we light down in so quickly cannot be known? “You are what I will write about, the people in this group are what I am learning now.” Tomorrow there will be the real goodbyes, we will all be leaving soon, the visit to Fes is almost over. (Though I am not leaving Fes, I will be leaving this, this collective thinking and talking process.)

Sarah and I walk back through Ain eZleiten, the parking lot, tired, a little sad—a day of goodbyes tomorrow, and an end to this intense beginning of a friendship begun in Jerusalem. (Where I did not see the Wailing Wall at all, but instead braced myself against another wall a couple streets away from it and struggled to puke up/to not puke up a bellyfull of rotten almonds. On hearing this sad tale, Yaka grinned and hit the mark with his question, “Were you weeping, wailing, praying?” I was praying, in that leaning-on-a-wall-with-churning-stomach-burning-face-trembling hand sort of way.)

Sarah and I step down the steps into Ain eZleiten and I brace myself for the men, the watching sometimes mildly taunting men. I think protectively of Sarah’s slenderness (those thin sharp shoulderblades in a brief hug) and I wonder how much much worse the men will be when I am alone. But the men don’t seem to see us. These hours later, the firetruck is still in the parking lot. Something serious has happened because the men are not in the least interested in us, two foreign women out walking at night. We pad through the gravel and dust to where a very large ambulance is turning around. Aizlin from our place, Noujoum Riad, is watching the tight maneuver. Anyone seeking to cross this part of the lot has to wait, and we wait, with Aizlin. Men are standing around, but concern immobilizes their faces. Aizlin whispers, “A house fell down in the medina. Two people die, no, three. Mama and two enfants.” That might explain (or it might not) why the ambulances aren’t going very fast. They’ve finally got out the bodies and loaded them up, but there’s no need to hurry now.

Sarah and I are stunned by this news, stunned to silence on this, our last night in this beautiful strange world. We stand gaping at the ambulance as the driver executes, bit by bit, the tight turn, the front and back of the ambulance almost knocking up against cars on either side. When it is safe to get past, we walk on, with Aizlin behind us, shuffling, looking over his shoulder, simultaneously shepherding us forward and hanging back. The faces at the entrance to the medina are grim, none of the usual sparky expressions and laughing conversations going on now. A house fallen down, people have died, two children, their mother. Aitzlin tells us that the police had visited the house two times, to tell the people they had to come out, it was dangerous, but the family refused to leave and the landlord didn’t go anything, never fixed anything at all, “This is Maroc people,” said Aizlin, “this is how they are.”

In the morning the story changes; the woman was resuscusitated, the earth cleared from her nose, both children alive, one w/ a broken leg, the other with a gashed head. But alive, alive. Ils vivent encore. This is the story we want to hear; the story that the inhabitants of the medina want to hear too. In the afternoon, everyone in our entourage leaves for Casablanca, except for me, and they leave with the happy ending intact, a story of disaster and survival. I ask a few people where the house is, if I can see it. But no one knows where it is; they will enquire. Or they know where it is but it is “too deep in the medina” to visit. Or “you will see nothing from the outside,” an answer I receive on every level. “You will see nothing from the outside.” “You will see nothing from the outside.” Yes, I have always believed that myself.

Later that week—exactly a week later, a week of one thousand and one stories, the night before I am to leave on my own for Casa—I have dinner at Fatima’s home, with a group of familially intertwined women. That is one of the stories, but during the dinner they tell another one: the teenage girls tell us that the mother in the fallen house did die; she was heavily pregnant with her fifth child. How do the girls know her? One of them used to go to her house for tutoring after school; they used to live close to the family in the medina, but then they moved to this apartment building. And two children didn’t die when the house fell down: all four children died, from toddler to teenager, plus the unborn baby. The father of the household has gone crazy with grief and guilt and fury. The only thing the girls were not sure of is whether he really was in the mental hospital or not.