Monday, December 21, 2009

Visit to Fes

This month was meant to see a bit more traveling than it has so far, but an earthquake interfered at certain points. My extremely high-energy fellow PhD candidate and friend, Bozena, here in Rabat had set up a wonderful meeting of women activists in Marrakech this past Thursday. In preparation for the 5.45 AM train departure, I turned in at 10 PM to get as much sleep as I could. Alas at 2.30 or so, I awoke to what I thought was my neighbors doing laundry (you’ll recall the monstrous loudness of Moroccan washing machines). I couldn’t fall back to sleep, and the noise didn’t cease for a while. At 4.30 when alarm sounded, I sent a regretful text to my friend letting her know I was in no state to travel 5 hours AND face a full day of appointments. It was a shame, as she had an amazing time. But the good news is that the contact is in Rabat this week, or so I believe, so I shall endeavor to contact her. Anyhow, the sound that awoke me was in fact an earthquake. My roommate mocks me for thinking that an earthquake and a Moroccan washing machine sound the same.

Anyhow, Bozena left Morocco yesterday, as well as another friend, my dear, little, self-named Puppsimaeuschen Tina. Tiny Tina’s flight home departed from Fes yesterday via Ryan Air. So at noonish we departed from Rabat-Agdal station for a scheduled arrival at 14.45, all of which occurred very punctually. En route, somewhere before Meknes, a passing train in very close proximity frightened me, and the rest of the train car. Now this isn’t unusual for me, because frankly a train passing at full speed in parallel usually startles me to pieces. But this time, somehow, something hit the window directly next to me (and my precious head and other parts) and cracked it into an intricate web of thankfully still connected shards. We pulled the shade down to keep the glass from falling in on us if it were to break apart. The women across the aisle insisted that someone threw a rock at the train, but I am not so sure.

Anyhow, arriving at Fes was unremarkable, including the super persistent, aggressive taxi hacks waiting outside the station. To one particularly aggressive chap I finally said ‘on n’a pas besoin d’aide,’ (we don’t need any help), to which he demanded in French, “why are you so racist?” Let it be known that for this gentleman, refusing unsolicited, unwanted help is racist. Good to know. As Tina and I crossed the street, he circled back over to me and babbled some nonsense about Moroccans not eating tourists, and that I need not be afraid. What a freak.

Eventually, with the help of a few slightly clueless (but not too clueless) Fessies, we found the special navette (shuttle) that delivers people to Fes Saissi Airport, which may be the only airport in the world that doesn’t have any food. The ‘cafeteria’ had tuna sandwiches and almost nothing else, which was unhelpful since Tina already had a tuna sandwich prepared by her host mother that she had been avoiding eating since we’d left Rabat. So I ordered a couple of pains aux raisins and a diet coke (I should have had water but I try to avoid drinking anything that’ll make my body ‘function’ properly while traveling away from home). Tina checked in and we said our goodbyes. The real fun was about to begin for me. I brought my book, Feminisme au Maroc, to pass time en route back home. Since it’s an important part of my lit review for my dissertation, I have been marking it up with notes whenever I am forced to read away from my computer. After leaving Tina, I sauntered over to the bus stop, where I stood under the dark sky debating whether I should play snake or read. I decided on snake since my phone was fully charged, and played for a few minutes before a man came over to inform me that I had better take his taxi since the bus wouldn’t come until 19.00 (It was just before 18.00 at this point). I assured him that I didn’t mind waiting (20Dh for bus vs. 120DH for taxi=waiting wins). A bit later, he pulled up in his private, distinctly un-taxi, car and again entreated, “mademoiselle, c’est moi de toute a l’heure” (miss, it’s me from a few minutes ago). This guy really did expect me, a solitary traveler, to board his private car and go off into the darkness with him. Perhaps more annoying was my compulsion to offer yet ANOTHER ‘non, merci’ to get this jerk off my back. Cripes. Eventually the navette did arrive at around 18.15, but the very helpful gentlemen aboard informed me that it wouldn’t even leave the airport till after 19.00, so as to coincide with the arriving flight from Frankfurt. Well that was singularly bad news, considering that my already purchased train ticket for 18.50 would go to waste AND there wouldn’t be another train to Rabat till after 1 AM.

I reflected on my options—get a room at the Hotel Ibis next to the train station, try out CTM to see if any buses were leaving that night, or catch the 1 AM train. The idea of staying at Ibis was starting to appeal to me as I considered the comfortable bed, the in-room heater and the en-suite bathroom.

The gentlemen in the navette offered many suggestions, including trying to catch the local bus 16 to the strain station, which makes many stops, unlike the navette that shuttles nonstop between each destination. At 18.23 bus 16 pulls up and I made a run for it. The nice gentlemen yelled an amiable ‘bislama’ and off I went, making it onto the vessel just in time. I paid the 3.40 Dh and calculated the likelihood of arriving in time to catch my train, in consideration of the fact that a non-stop journey from the airport to the train station is usually 20 minutes. With only 25 minutes to catch my train, it felt increasingly unlikely that I would arrive in time. But alas, miraculously I managed to sprint from the bus stop in front of the train station, avoid slipping on the ridiculously and incomprehensibly slippery (even when not wet) floor of the station hall, stairs and underground corridor, and board the train just after 19.00. I stood for a while in the packed hallway of the train about an hour till eventually I was offered a seat. Somehow I survived the obnoxious music screeching from the cell phones of a couple different young men (Brian Adams, Avril Lavigne and other terrible stuff), and the child who wouldn’t sit still, and arrived back in Agdal famished. My roommate had lovely Thai food and chicken soup waiting, and I was relieved to have made it home. Ah traveling!

My 3rd international television broadcasting experience

Somehow I've made it once again onto international news. My first ever appearance was on Al Jazeera English the night of the US presidential elections (November 2008). Or rather the morning of. I had a class until 7pm, and I then waited for my friend to finish with his class. At around 10 pm the media was finally announcing VA, which then lead to the overall declaration of Obama's victory. Together my friend and I drove across the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in persistent rain to little Phoebus VA (or rather Hampton). When I got to Phoebus, a friendly woman did my make-up and I waited with my pals till they were ready. Sometime after 3 AM Al Jazeera English was finally ready for our little live bit at the pub, whose name I've forgotten. Anyhow, since it was broadcast live, and Al Jazeera English doesn't play in the US, there was no way for me to see it until I got the DVD in the mail from the folks that put the piece together. You can read an interesting piece here on Al Jazeera English's election coverage.

The second time was this past summer (27 July 2009) when I made it onto footage shot by BBC Arabic when I was in the audience of a press conference for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights in el-Manial in Cairo.

And now the third! My friend Nora Fakim, a journalist with the Iranian agency Press TV, had me do a bit for her piece available here. I come on at exactly 1:00 into the piece. Nevermind my misspelled name and not-quite-right credentials. I'll let it speak for itself. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

La Vie Quotidienne au Maroc

There are so many reasons to love life in Morocco. On the other hand, those of us spoiled with the upbringing of a highly developed country encounter many and frequent annoyances that complicate what formerly were banalities in life. There are more feral cats than Moroccans roaming every space with their fucked up little faces, scratched and furless from brawls over trash-sleeping privileges. Paying the electric bill requires a visit to the office that lasts at least an hour. The Moroccan washing machine, if one is so privileged, is practically medieval. It has two drums. One must be filled with water from a host that extends from a spigot on the wall to an aperture on the machine. Except when the hose develops a hole or won’t secure properly to the washing machine hole, then you have to do it manually. You can’t walk away because the stupid hose will fly out and spray water everywhere. There are 2 settings—drain, agitate, and super agitate. After you have filled the drum with water, requisite soap, and your clothes (which will never be the same again), you choose your agitation cycle. When it finishes, you must then turn a dial so the water drains. To rinse, you fill the drum again, turn the dial to agitate without adding soap of course, and then turn the dial to drain when it’s finished. There are always so many frigging suds that I usually rinse twice, too lazy and too stingy with my time to go beyond that. The second drum is the centrifuge. It’s the devil. You have to arrange the clothes just so in order to avoid the earthquake that results if you’re careless. Horrific.

Heating water for bathing or cooking is also a dangerous affair for the careless. In my apartment we are blessed with 2 separate hookups—one for the shower and one for the range. Other homes have only one, which means the butane vessel might more likely empty in the middle of your shower than while you warm up your supper if you're unlucky. Even though there is a vice at both ends of the hose (hopefully) preventing the escape of deadly gas, it is prudent to close the valve when not in use. And hot water at the faucet or washing machine? None of that. At least not in my apartment. We are tree huggers against our wills with our conservation of energy by washing dishes, clothes, and our hands in cold water.


Having just enjoyed an avocado, tomato and canned meat sandwich, I no longer have the wherewithal to complain. Morocco has amazing, seasonal produce, most of it local. I had some Larache raspberries last week and strawberries from nearby. I have two delightful and perfect pears in the kitchen and the usual tasty apple. After the success in the medina (see below) with the pie-making accouterments, I found and purchased an 8 pound pumpkin half, whole cloves (you can buy spices a la carte, what an amazing, wonderful idea), buttermilk and other ingredients. The result was 2 adequate pumpkin pies. There is enough pumpkin left for pie throughout the holiday, I just need to figure the crust out. I’ve got a crust recipe from my friend Emilie’s mom on standby, and she assures me that she made it here in Morocco with total success.

Also to be loved is that one can find anything one needs in the medina. My nokia cell that I bought new in Jordan in 2007 still works like a champ and holds a charge longer than any phone I’ve ever seen. The downside is that after much use by me and friends who I’ve lent it to since I bought it, the numbers on the original keypad had completely rubbed away. Since I don’t text at home, and am thus no expert at limping through the keypad without numbers, not having the letters—both Roman but especially Arabic—was an annoyance. So on the same evening that I determined to buy 2 pie plates and a rolling pin, I also hoped to find a new shell for my phone. Prepared to bargain and ready for success I finally found a plastic knock-off shell suitable for my particular model. I drove the salesman from 30 down to 22 Dh, which is not a tremendous achievement, but slightly gratifying nonetheless, considering that even generic phone parts cost nearly 10 times that retail at home.

In addition to other lovely peculiarities of Morocco, it finally occurred to me that the guy I heard from the street a few times each day shouting "بيع" (transliterated "by3") might not be the simpleton I imagined, roaming the streets and yelling things. Indeed there are many fellows who ride around on bikes, shouting "selling," who will buy your 2nd hand items or sell you mint leaves or whatever else he might have on his bike cart. It is one of my favorite sounds of Morocco, and I am convinced there must be a training program, because all of the by3 sellers sound exactly alike.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Part 2: At long last I have returned to finish the story!

After walking in the rain the required 7 or so minutes across the border, weaving between approaching vehicles and border entrepreneurs enticing passersby with last chance purchases, I arrive finally at the gate that will release me back into Morocco. But alas I was not allowed to pass because I hadn’t gotten my passport stamped. After asking several bureaucrats (all the while it is STILL raining) I make my way across several lines of slow moving automobile traffic and back, still not finding the elusive window. Eventually after wandering around for nearly an hour and without the help of a single border guard (NOT one of them could direct me to the ‘putain de guichet’

like this, but in the rain and without the hats...

to get the form and the stamp), I finally was able to obtain the customs form at the drive-up window, but I couldn’t convince them to service me since I was on foot. After completing the form, and trying futilely to keep it dry, I join the nebulous mass of people that characterizes all bureaucratic transactions in Morocco. In a refreshing twist, the bureaucrat refused to acknowledge a woman who jammed her arm past mine under the narrow window aperture. He took my passport and wet customs form, stamped as necessary, and off I went finally to emerge back into Morocco.

But alas the adventure was only beginning. Ever still in the rain, by this point I was soaked through my hoodie, cardigan and shirt down through to my padded bra. At the entrance where the grand taxi had deposited me a few hours earlier, there was total chaos and no Tetouan-bound vehicle in sight. After scoffing at a ridiculous offer of transport for 200 Dh (I paid 15 Dh to get there), I stood amidst the hordes without a plan or a clue. Before entering Spain I had switched my phone off to avoid fees should I receive any calls or texts. So standing bewildered and stranded in the rain I searched through my thoroughly wet bag filled with 2 wet books and my grocery purchases for my phone. It occurred to me that I might call Alaina, have her commission a grand taxi and come fetch me. However tragedy struck when I couldn’t turn my phone on because I had forgotten it requires a security code. It’s such an incredibly, infuriatingly reliable piece of archaic Norwegian technology that I never switch it off and am thus unhabituated to entering the code. There I was, wet and utterly screwed—I had no phone numbers and no notion how to get back to Tetouan. Happy Thanksgiving.

I do not imagine that I can remit the complete desperation of the situation, but like any good Muslim would, I surrendered. I submitted—after all Muslim means one who submits—to the situation, bereft of a plan. Eventually I started asking people shyly if they were headed to Tetouan. None of them were remotely interested in assisting me, despite how pathetic and clueless I was. After watching 2 or 3 wild hordes overtake the few incoming Tetouan grand taxis, I noticed a woman over wrought with bags. I approached her and said, “You need help. I help you.” And I took some of her bags, of which was a large package of adult diapers. Oh the dignity. A young man, whose name I would learn is Radwan, had also come to her assistance, and I followed them without thinking and without a notion of how we would proceed, knowing only that they would provide. I heard the woman, whose name I’ve forgotten, say the Moroccan word for public bus. I agreed, assuming that she was suggesting we make our way for the next town over, Fnideq. So Radwan arranged a grand taxi to take us a few km away into town. We then walked the rest of the way (still in the rain) to the bus station, which is really too sophisticated a term for the location. There we waited still more, me with my own small bag and two of the woman’s bags (I hope the diapers were intact when she got home). When the bus for Tetouan approached, it was Bedlam! Radwan was the first of our troupe on board, and he dutifully saved seats for us. I managed to fight my way through, triumphing over the diminutive but nonetheless ruthless Moroccans, and boarded from the back door (that’s what she said). In no time the bus was excessively full, yet another miracle of flaunted but practical (contextually speaking) lack of safety standards. Radwan was a pleasant and well-mannered conversationalist and the woman generously offered me water, which I drank, from the communal bottle.

grand taxis next to Lovers Park in Tetouan

We reached Tetouan after about 90 minutes, but my duties didn’t end there. Radwan and I followed our 3rd companion into the Tetouan medina, handed over her wares, wished Eid Mubarak and parted. Radwan kindly accompanied me back to Alaina and Mary’s apartment with the inept directions I was able to offer in Arabic—they live next to a flower shop and you can see the mountains from the balcony.

It occurs to me as I write this that I owe him a thank you text, which I will dispatch shortly. On this Thanksgiving 2009, I am thankful for selfless reciprocity, vaccines, raincoats, and Spanish wine. I spent a pleasant, dry Thanksgiving with Alaina and Mary, enjoying my Thanksgiving shawarma and Spanish wine.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thanksgiving in African Spain, Part I

As an American in Morocco I am obliged either to obtain residency through an arduous, non-descript process, or to leave before the end of three months. I held out for a while, gathering paperwork here and there. But eventually I gave in, realizing that leaving Morocco is less of a hassle than staying and navigating the bureaucracy. It is thus that I came to the brilliant idea last week to leave a day earlier than planned for the Eid el-Kebir celebration. Instead of departing on Thursday with my friend up to her family in Tangier, I decided to leave on Wednesday to Tetouan. My friend Alaina lives there—we studied beginning Arabic together in Jordan on the Critical Language Scholarship program in 2007.

On Tuesday 24 November I took a cab from my Arabic school to the CTM bus station, which is inconveniently located a ways from the city center, but convenient enough to where I study. I felt pretty good after my Arabic conversation with the taxi driver, but when I arrived to CTM I realized I had forgotten to bring enough cash for the ticket. Luckily when it was my turn I noticed a sign informing me that they were equipped to accept credit cards. Unluckily when it came my turn to pay, the handheld card swiper was out of receipt paper. In between I failed utterly to understand in Arabic a complication in the ticketing, eradicating the taxi conversation success. It took over an hour for someone to locate a ‘technicien’ (defined in French as a professional who has mastered one or several techniques—I’d like to know what the training program entails) to change the receipt tape in the machine. Buying the $20 bus ticket took almost 3 hours.

The next day I appeared at the bus station a bit over an hour before the scheduled 11 AM departure despite knowing the bus’d probably be late. Eventually a woman asked me the time, and after I answered her she began questioning me about my stay in Morocco. It all really felt like it was leading to a plea for money, especially because she told me almost immediately that her husband had slept with her best friend. There were also several interjections about her lack of money after the purchase of her expensive bus ticket. Since she informed me that she resided in Spain, I willingly gave her my contact information when she asked. It turned out to be a good decision, because just as I handed her my calling card, another woman sat between us and noticed the heading said “International Political Economy.” She joined and eventually hijacked the conversation, and I am expecting a call from her tomorrow to talk about some projects to work on together on economics and IPE in Morocco.

The bus ride from Rabat to Tetouan was uneventful. Alaina met me at the bus station and we spent a lovely, calm evening in her amazing apartment downtown with a fabulous view that she shares with a fellow English teacher. The next morning, Thanksgiving, I set off to find a grand taxi (shared ride to a specific destination) to Ceuta (Sebta in Arabic), one of the Spanish administered enclaves of Morocco. Getting there and across the border was a breeze. Not a single Spanish authority even bothered to look at my passport beyond a quick glance to establish that I wasn’t Moroccan. The no. 7 bus was waiting for me, and for €.70 I was schlepped to the city center. I wandered the city, taking copious amounts of photos and buying presents for myself like Spanish wine, nutmeg and a €22 sausage. It began to rain so I sidled into the Da Vinci Café on Calle Real for a chorizo and manchego bocadillo. That little grilled sausage and cheese sandwich was tremendously delicious. I finished it off with a café con leche, which I savored while staring at a very unhappy little boy who would have rather been anywhere else. There was a short pause in the rain allowing me to reach the bus back to the border in relative comfort.

The real adventure began in no man’s land between Spain and Morocco. TO BE CONTINUED...