Saturday, August 6, 2011

Sub-Saharan Migration

While in Rabat, I met a young Senegalese teen that was selling hand made wooden items on the street near the medina. Having bought a small mask the day before from him, I came back to see if there was another item that I would be interested in buying.

I talked with this young man for nearly 30 minutes and learned alot about how he came to be in Mocorro. He said that he was from Senegal, and that he was in Morocco with his brother. Not only had they come to Morocco alone, but they came without much money. Their original plan was to try to go to Europe via Spain, but that it was hard to do so, especially without money.

The following day, I went to go see him again, having emailed him the night before. He said that he and his brother had a serious talk that night and decided that it would be best to go back to Senegal for the time being, and to try to come back to Morocco some time in the future once they secured more money.

Art in Rabat

I am back in Rabat for the second half of Arabic lessons. I had the opportunity to visit  an artist's row next the park which had a rap concert going on.  In speaking with the artists, they informed me that this area was designed only for visual artists. This give artists an opportunity to showcase, sell their paintings and interact with the community. What amazed me was the quality of artwork. As an art teacher, I was also surprised that the paintings had real faces. In the art history books, they will say, Islamic art does not have people in it. I saw realistic to folk art portraits of people. In speaking with the artists, they brought to my attention that painting faces of people had nothing to do with religion. They didn't feel that they were doing anything wrong that would denounce their faith. Most of these artists had no formal training. Their love of art is what inspired them.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Impact of tourism

Tourism is an important source of income and employment in Morocco, but it comes with a number of challenges. For example:

  • Water is a scarce resource in Morocco, and tourists use a lot of it when they stay in hotels and swim in pools--and especially when they go golfing. A single 18-hole golf course requires 3500 m/day of water, which is 3.5 times as much as the average Moroccan consumes in a whole year. While traveling, we've seen several fancy golf courses in locations not far removed from houses without running water.
  • There's been a big increase recently in use of 4 x 4 vehicles for recreation and travel in the desert. These vehicles break the fragile crust which normally reduces soil erosion in sandy areas. During dry periods, scientists have measured a 4000 % increase in airborne particulates in areas where 4 x 4s regularly operate in the desert. Near Merzouga, we raced across sand dunes and black rock desert in 4 x 4s. It was a great way to come into contact with people living or working in remote locations, and some people are using this kind of transportation to support new "nomad schools". (I'm very interested in learning more about those schools.) But destabilized dunes often destroy important sources of water. Travel by camel doesn't have the same impact. We rode camels one day too, and I can't say I like that form of transportation any more than I like automobiles; in both situations, I am a terrible back-seat driver without much interest in taking the "wheel". But camels don't damage the desert in the same way that 4 x 4s do.
  • Morocco has done a better job than many countries with development of local tourist operations (hotels, guide agencies, transportation). But a lot of tourist dollars still "escape" the Moroccan economy because they are pumped into chain hotels owned by multinational corporations.
  • A Moroccan NGO recently released a study calling for better protection of coastal, mountain and desert areas that are attractive to tourists, with simultaneous consideration of the aspirations of local people. This study is consistent with UNESCO's definition of "sustainability"", which addresses environmental, cultural, economic and political issues framed by high standards for social justice.


In Safi, we saw a giant phosphate industrial facility beside the sea. It wasn't lovely, but it interested me because my students have been monitoring phosphate levels since 2003 for the King County Small Lakes Program in Washington state. Agricultural use in fertilizers is the main source of phosphate water pollution, but phosphates are also used in a long list of other products including some pesticides and detergents, lithium ion batteries, food additives (e.g. in Coca Cola), and certain kinds of bombs. It's called pollution because phosphates nourish blooms of cyanobacteria, which can make a body of water unfit for other life. Some blooms even produce neurotoxins, which can kill livestock (or people, if they drink the water). I've had the opportunity to work with Moroccan teachers and students this summer on water quality monitoring projects in both urban and rural areas (in Rabat, and south of Asilah), and we found cyanobacteria blooms in coastal coves, livestock ponds, and wells. The warm summer months encourage the most extensive blooms.

My students share and compare the results of their water quality research with partner schools in several countries, and they follow up with remediation and educational outreach work. They prepare brochures and teach workshops, especially focusing on alternatives to using phosphate fertilizers and best practices if you do use those products. But Moroccan students are much more aware of the challenges when it comes to limiting phosphate use in agriculture.

Morocco is the world leader in phosphate production, with more than half of the world's known reserves. The national industrial group known as OCP (see controls thirty percent of global phosphate exports. And it's not just the money that matters. Historically, colonial control of the phosphate industry was a big issue in the independence movement and in the war over the Western Sahara. At the time of independence, many European "analysts" warned that Moroccans couldn't manage the phosphate industry for themselves, and there is earned pride in proving these predictions wrong. (For more on the role of phosphates in Moroccan history, see Morocco: From Empire to Independence, by C. R. Pennell, pp. 138, 148-49, 153, 157, 163, 170-73, 179.)

But phosphate fertilizers are expensive, and the price is going up. This is good for the Moroccan GNP, but not so good for small Moroccan farmers who must compete with capital-intensive agriculture. The government, through OCP and through various ministries, has put into place some support systems for small farmers--and one form of support is reduced-cost access to phosphate fertilizers. Meanwhile, especially during the recent drought years, many associations have reported livestock deaths due to cyanobacteria blooms.

The price is going up because experts say that world reserves will only last for a few more decades. You've heard of "Peak Oil", and the conflicts (actual and expected) around growing competition for a declining resource. James Elser, Arizona State University professor, speaks in terms of "Peak Phosphorus", and he says we're there. The difference is that a number of countries are big oil producers, but Morocco dominates the world phosphates market. This means money in the short term, but it points to the need for diversification of the economy.

It also begs a question about national security, since Morocco has something that other countries want. It's such a big deal that the United States Department of Energy has appointed a specialist, in its Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, to address the phosphate supply issue. She says that she is not at liberty to discuss her work, due to "geopolitical sensitivities". (See, "Phosphate:
Morocco's White Gold".)

Because of the expected shortage, some scientists are experimenting with ways to isolate phosphates from human urine. What goes around comes around: Phosphorus was originally discovered by an 18th century alchemist searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Dr. Elser recounts that he pursued this goal "by collecting urine from beer-drinking German soldiers and then heating it up and evaporating it away until he got only the phosphorus left". The rock-like substance glowed in the dark.

Phosphates are essential for life as we know it. Without phosphates, there wouldn't be any DNA, RNA or ATP molecules. But we're releasing it into the biosphere now at a rate that's four times what Dr. Elser thinks is manageable in terms of its impact on water resources. It took hundreds of millions of years to produce the phosphate reserves in Morocco, which formed in sedimentary rock under an ancient sea. Remember the marine fossils we saw in the desert workshop? Some of them were fragments of stromatolites, defined by NASA as "laminated organo-sedimentary structures formed by the trapping and binding and/or precipitation of minerals by micro-organisms". Most important of those micro-organisms? Cyanobacteria. And it's not surprising that an organism which is nourished by phosphates would also be associated with its release. Indeed, there's a relationship (not yet well understood) between stromatolite-building organisms and phosphate mineralization. (See Stromatolites, by M. R. Walter.)

But there isn't any more stromatolite formation going on in Morocco, and there isn't an endless supply of phosphates. Phosphate use comes with environmental risks, though phosphate fertilizer has short-term benefits for farmers who can afford it. And the phosphate industry is an intelligence matter in countries that want more of it.

With a Moroccan partner teacher, it'll be interesting to develop a cross-curricular unit about phosphates. The story ties together learning goals in biology, chemistry, geography, history and current events.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Water stories

In my classroom, I use cultural stories about water to establish the importance of learning about water issues. I've developed integrated science/social studies units on water for different parts of the world, most recently the Tigris-Euphrates region in greater Mesopotamia (including parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iran) and the Yellow River watershed in China. I want to do the same for Morocco, so I'm collecting water stories. For example:

  • At Volubilis, we saw a Roman mosaic representing the legend of Diana and Actaeon. This is one of my favorite stories, because my grandmother (suffering from Alzheimer's Disease and unable to remember my real name) liked to call me Diana. Spellbound Actaeon spied on the goddess while she was bathing in water from Pegae, the spring associated with Pegasus. Outraged, Diana turned Actaeon into a voiceless stag; he couldn't even call for help when his own hunting dogs attacked him.
  • Nearby, another mosaic shows Hylas at Pegae. Hylas was an argonaut with Hercules, but his travels ended at the sacred spring. Naiads, in love with his good looks, pulled him under the water and he was never seen again. In some versions of the story, he had the chance to escape but chose to stay with the water nymphs.
  • In Volubilis we also saw Roman aquaducts, fountains and rainwater collection systems.
  • In the oasis at Tinghir, we walked with an Amazigh guide through communal farmland irrigated by water that also passes through dramatic Toudra Gorge. We came to a place where a small irrigation canal flows under a footbridge, and our guide told us about a tradition that has only recently lost its meaning: When a young woman was anxious to find a husband, she would strip off her clothes and hide them in the date palms nearby, and then float five times under the bridge. If her clothes were found, a marriage arrangement was sure to follow.
  • The "marriage bridge" was very near to an irrigation canal which was temporarily blocked with mud and gravel, diverting the water to a small patch of maize. Once the crop was watered, so we were told, the canal would be unblocked and the water would flow to other fields. The resource is shared by the families that farm in the oasis, and the crops are also shared as needed.
  • On the site of Chellah in Rabat, ancient Roman city and later (during the 13th through 15th centuries) a royal necropolis, there is an old hamam--a communal bathhouse--similar in structure to hamams still in use. Most of the women in our group have gone to a hamam in one city or another during our sojourn in Morocco. You steam and clean yourself, apply henna to your skin, and then scrub hard until the old layers are removed.
  • The cleaning of carpets may also be accomplished in a public place. At "the source" in Chefcahouen, a cascade of water coming from between two mountains above the city, women scrub carpets in a natural pool where children also swim.
  • In the medina in Fes, we learned that zigzag patterns in Amazigh carpets always signify water.
  • At Ksar Ait ben Haddou, we learned about salinization of the local water supply. UNESCO now brings water 15 kilometers from the mountains to resident families in the kasbah.
  • In the desert, we learned about the ancient route from Morocco to Timbuktu in Mali. The name of the city is a compound word: "Tim" refers to a particular source of water, a well that still exists. "Buktu" refers to the woman who carries the water.
  • Also in the desert, in a remote tent camp, an ancient Amazigh woman told us that when she was a girl there was more rainfall and more permanent sources of water; the climate has changed, she reported.
  • Where there is now desert, once there was a great sea. We saw many marine fossils preserved in sedimentary rock, including Orthoceras (relative to the squid), goniatites and ammonites (nautilus species), trilobites, and stromatolites.
I will write another blog about stromatolites and the connection with the Moroccan phosphate industry.

Runaway Tram Adventure

I enjoy walking through the city of Rabat, and I have had some long distance walks. However, because of time restraints, many times it was necessary just to use a tram. I have had interesting incidents occur either right before I was about to use the tram, or when I was on the tram. Below are just a few of those incidents.

  1. I was waiting for the tram near the African Studies Center in Rabat, when after waiting for some 25 minutes finally found out that there was an accident that prevented the tram from continuing for a little while.
  2. I was in the Agdel section of Rabat and was heading towards the tram that I needed in order to return for an afternoon lecture at the African Studies Center when suddenly in the middle of the tramway a group of protestors promoting rights for disabled and blind people prevented the tram from moving. They were there for about 20 minutes.
  3. I was on a tram and was planning to use an unused tram ticket from the day before. However, I was essentially thrown off the tram by a ticket collector because apparently you can only use a ticket the same day of purchase. Nobody told me this, though I use unused tickets from previous days before this situation anyways. I was almost charged 50 DH for a 7DH ticket.
  4. I was on the tram, but the door shut right before I was exiting. I waived goodbye to the people I was traveling and had to get off the next stop.

Medina vs. Mega Mall

Malls are never fun as they seem. Void of any characters, they are concrete structures with cookie-cutter stores and pretentious sale persons. If you have seen one mall, you have seen them all!!! Same shoe stores, same clothing shops, same food court, and the same consumers trying to fill their emotional void with materialistic and superficial things.

During my last weekend in Rabat, Moroccan friends of mine took me to the only western style mall in Rabat called “Mega Mall.” (Yes, that is the real name of the mall) He told me that there is a bigger version of it in Casablanca. As I walked through each floor of this mall, past the bowling alley, past the ice skating rink, and the food court, I was disgusted with what I saw. I travel so that I can get away from places like this.

I prefer to stroll along the streets in the Medina with the unique shops and one of a kind food stands that does not appeal to the masses. I enjoy mingling with the locals who are not dressed up in the latest western fashion styles. When I told my opinion of this to my Moroccan friends who were with me, they responded, “Isn’t that what everyone is aiming for around the world? To live like Americans.” The images that are shown on movies, TV shows, and music videos, the perception of America and it’s economic system are like a mirage. Of course this is just my personal opinion, but the current situation back in the United States proves my point.

Essaouira Dreams

Throughout my travels to many countries and hundreds of cities, it is rare that I find a town that I want to settle down at. I have been to many cities in Morocco during this fellowship and none compare to Essaouira, a charming town with unique characteristics located off the coast of north-west Africa. This is the second time I have been here to this coastal town of about 30,000 people. Formally named Mogador by the Portuguese, Essaouira was put on the map because of its musical festival in the late 1990s. Since then, many Europeans have bought properties here as their retirement or vacation home.

The atmosphere in this town is unique and cannot be explained. Even the dogs and cats here look relaxed, in a Zen state of mind. It might be the coast, or the ocean breeze, or the people, or the blue sky, or the big giant donuts that they sell along the streets in the medina, or all of the above. What ever it is that makes this town unique, I am definitely coming back!!!

Monday, August 1, 2011


One day we visited a farm near Rabat, and a wedding procession passed by. The wedding tent was across a field fenced by prickly pear, a cactus native to North America which reportedly made its way to Morocco during the sixteenth century. (The fruits of this plant are ripe now and sold from food carts in the medina and buckets beside rural roadways.) A gap in this green fence was closed by a brush gate, which was opened for us so we could cross the field to join the festivities. We walked around grazing sheep and toward the music. The wedding musicians were warming up the guests prior to the appearance of the bride, and the women were ululating, clapping, and occasionally dancing. Several women made a protective circle and then lifted their skirts to show the henna designs on their feet and lower legs.

The earliest written evidence of the use of henna in bridal adornment goes back to 2100 BCE, when it was associated with an Ugaritic legend about Baal and the fierce goddess Anath. It was grown and used in Spain from the ninth century to 1567, when it was banned by the Inquisition. But it is still widely used--by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Sikhs and Roma--across the region from India to Morocco, and in places where people from that region have migrated. My Roma grandfather wrote a beautiful short story about his grandmother's wedding day in Wales, describing the henna designs on her hands. Henna has been used for joyful occasions other than weddings, including battle victories, births, circumcision ceremonies and birthdays.

True henna comes from the plant known scientifically as Lawsonia inermis. The active ingredient is an organic compound called lawsone that, when it bonds to proteins in the skin, is responsible for the coloring effect. Lawsone is found in fresh henna leaves, especially in the petioles, and it is released by smashing the leaves with a mildly acidic liquid. The mash may be powdered and then mixed with lemon juice or strong tea six to twelve hours before use. Without this resting period, the lawsone might not be released and the coloring might not successful. The stain may be improved by adding essential oils (e.g. tea tree, eucalyptus or lavendar) with high levels of monoterpene alcohols. The paste must be made from fresh leaves and left on the skin for at least a few hours and preferably longer; to keep the paste from falling off during this time, a sugar-lemon mixture (or just sugar) may be used. Sometimes the designs are also loosely wrapped during this period. Old henna turns brown, but some dishonest artists use a green dye to make the mix look fresher--an understandable deception in a hot climate, perhaps, since henna spoils quickly if it isn't kept in a cool place and away from exposure to sunlight. But once henna is applied to the skin, steaming or warming may darken the stain. Alkalines hasten the darkening process. Soaps and chlorinated water may spoil the stain.

Improperly stored henna may be contaminated by Salmonella or other microbes. Premixed henna powders may contain adulterants, including silver nitrate, chromium, pyrogallol, carmine and/or orange dye, that are hazardous to your health; certain henna products for use in body art are thus banned by the US Food and Drug Administration(though it is approved for use in hair products). So-called "black henna" is not really henna at all, and caution is advised: It often causes an extreme allergic reaction, with blistering and permanent scarring. The blistering might not appear until three to twelve days after application. Sometimes "black henna" is mixed with gasoline, kerosene, benzene or other chemicals associated with risk of adult leukemia.

But properly grown and mixed henna seldom causes an allergic reaction or other health problems. Morocco is among the major growers and exporters in the world, along with India, Pakistan, Yemen, Egypt, Iran and the Sudan. During years with the requisite timing and amount of rainfall, plants may yield two or even three crops a year. Fine henna artists in Morocco, almost exclusively women, can earn good money with their skilled work. Henna is also used to dye wool and leather, for its color and also for its antifungal properties. In ancient times the henna plant was also used to make perfume, and there is a new commercial demand for this product.

I teach a class that integrates science with global studies, with a focus on sustainability issues. I look forward to teaching about the history, production and chemistry of henna, closing with a (legal) henna party.

Donkeys 2

For another story about the importance of the humble donkey, read the section on the collapse of the sultan's authority in precolonial Morocco, pages 131-133 in the book Morocco: From Empire to Independence, by C.R. Pennell. The author suggests that the most serious rebellion during that time was led by Jilal bin Idris, a former government functionary who was briefly imprisoned for forgery. In 1902 he garnered support in the mountains near Fez, "claiming to be Mawley Mahammad, the sultan's long-imprisoned brother. He used his skill as a magician to gain credence and, like so many religious rebels in North Africa, mounted himself on the back of a donkey."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Diversity in the Desert

As we journeyed through this great land, one of my friends commented that the geography is similar to that of California and that she was amazed by the bio-diversity of this country. This is true of the land and it is also true of its people. I noticed that there is no definite classification of a typical Moroccan, just like Californian. Moroccans comes in different shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.

One example of such diversity in this country was, when we took a trip to the Sahara town of Merzouga. During our camel trek, we were guided by the Amazigh (Berber), who had light skin, light blondish hair, and blue eyes. The next day we were entertained by Ghanawa Music Cooperative whose members have dark skin and dark color eyes.

We, as a human being, tend to draw conclusions about other based on images or stereotypes. All these assumptions dissipate once we finally have dialogues with those that we stereotype.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bargain Prices

After having traveled to countries where bargaining on prices for items is the norm, I have become accustomed to the back and forth negotiating between myself and the shopkeeper to try to reach an agreement for the price for any given item. I would argue that bargaining is an art form all on its own. It requires a certain amount of skill, headstrong stance, and charisma. If you are polite and nice to the shopkeeper, usually you can get a better price. You also need to gauge and think about how much you think the item is actually worth. But most importantly, realize that if you don’t get the item for the price you want, usually you can find a similar, if not identical, item someplace else.

Having been in Morocco for a few weeks now, I realize something about many of the shopkeepers that I have met along my travels. One, they tend to give me a better price when I am alone trying to negotiate with a single individual than when I am with a group. Two, they charge foreigners much more for the same item than they do with Moroccans. And three, they tend to place whatever starting price they want and see if people, specifically foreigners, can be suckered into paying outrages prices. I have had all these three experiences while in Morocco. For example, at one store where hand carved items were sold, I was told that an item would cost 100 Dirhams, whereas a Moroccan traveling with us said that the owner told her that the item cost a mere 30 Dirhams. In another example, a store owner was trying to sell me a shirt for 250 Dirhams, but I offered to pay 50 instead (we eventually negotiated that I was buy 2 shirts for a total of 150, and I’m sure that he still made a good profit). But like I said, negotiation is an art form, and not everyone is comfortable with it. Once I saw a British couple agree to pay 1000 without negotiating for a necklace where literally 15 minutes earlier the owner was trying to sell me the same necklace for 300 Dirhams.

Still, it can be lots of fun to go shopping and negotiate with the owners over the prices of what you are interested in purchasing. If you stay long enough, you can have great conversations with the owners about anything from politics, to religion, to culture, to globalizations, to music, or whatever else comes up. Shopping becomes very personal this way, and way more interesting.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


As in many countries around the world, crops first cultivated by Native Americans are important in the cuisine of Morocco. The Friday meal of couscous usually includes potatoes and squashes, and a Moroccan salad is always made with tomatoes. Sometimes sweet kernels of maize are put in the salad too, or made into a soup.

Maize might have come to the Old World with Columbus after his first or second voyage, but conventional scholarship indicates that the Portuguese first planted it in Europe and then introduced it to Africa and Asia. This analysis is largely based on historical documents. Recent linguistic analysis suggests a different story: Maize may have been planted in Morocco before it reached the Iberian peninsula with Arab traders or immigrants.

Either way, maize is a staple crop in Morocco--second to wheat, but especially important during periods of drought. Maize is twice as productive per acre as wheat. It requires a shorter growing season, and it is more adaptable to marginal farmland. We have seen small maize fields wherever local families control what is grown on the land: In the oasis near Toudra Gorge, where our Amazigh (Berber) guide told us that crops are shared communally as needed. By the river below Ksar Ait ben Haddou, an ancient kasbah that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with only eight families still residing within its walls. In irrigated gardens in the desert, among melons and fruit trees. Donkeys carry basketsful of maize into the medinas, where the ears are roasted and sold from small food carts--and the donkeys eat what's left.

Maize might become more important, for two reasons: the impact of climate change, and the price of wheat. From June 2010 to January 2011, the world price of wheat went up more than any other crop; it doubled in that short period of time, and the second biggest cost increase was for maize. But good harvests in Africa kept the price of maize relatively stable, while wheat became a luxury for many. In the medinas we've seen the ovens where people bring their bread dough to be baked. We've been served bread at every meal. What might it mean in Morocco to have to cut back on eating bread?

Around the world, 44 million people were driven into poverty because of rising food prices during that six month period. Morocco is closer to food self-sufficiency than any other country in the region, but everybody is talking about the impact of drought, desertification and salinization. At Ksar Ait ben Haddou, UNESCO brings fresh water to the eight resident families from 15 kilometers distant; the local water is too salty to drink, even if it's drawn from wells that are 50 or 60 feet deep. In the desert, we saw dune stabilization fences almost buried by drifting sand. When we drove 4 x 4s to a remote Berber tent camp within sight of Algeria, the matriarch told us about the impact of climate change on the nomadic way of life. It's much harder now, she said--but still, she offered us a big loaf of good bread. The texture was gritty with maize meal added to the wheat.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Donkeys in Morocco

I thought at first that I might write about donkeys in Morocco because I see them everywhere, so I did a little research to deepen my understanding--and I quickly learned that Susan Orlean already wrote that story for Smithsonian Magazine (September 2009). She wrote about donkeys carrying the same loads I've seen on their backs: men, women and children; televisions and mattresses; lumber for construction; food for the shops and restaurants in the medina; silky fabrics; piles of fragrant mint; garbage for removal to some mysterious dumping ground. Like me, she probably saw them pulling wooden plows through rocky fields in the Middle Atlas Mountains and carts full of chickens and watermelons in the narrow winding lanes of the medina in Fes. She wrote about the wealthy American Amy Bend Bishop, who was so concerned about the condition of the 40,000 donkeys and mules working in Fes that in 1927 she established American Fondouk --a free veterinary service which was pointed out to us during our tour of the city. She also wrote a great bit about a weekly donkey market which has declined in recent years, not because fewer donkeys are being traded but because it's easier to evade taxes on such transactions if you do your business outside of the souks.

Read the story by Susan Orlean. I'll write something else here instead, though it still has to do with donkeys.

At Volubilis, on the floor of an ancient Roman house, there is a well-preserved mosaic of an athlete carrying a trophy while riding backwards on a donkey. Scholars explain this in different ways: (1) The athlete is arrogant about an easy victory, and mocks the conventions of the celebratory procession. (2) He is humble in receiving his accolades while seated on a donkey, and doesn't presume to face those who celebrate him. (3) He is performing an acrobatic feat, and might even be a sort of sacred clown impersonating an athlete.

I have little interest in or talent for discovering the absolutely correct interpretation of phenomena, but I am fascinated by the connections between perspective and personal or social history. And it turns out that there's a lot of history about riding donkeys backwards. You know you want to know about this. Think of it as a reflection on the importance of considering different points of view while traveling through Morocco.

Story Number One is about the Muslim Saint Nasruddin Hodja, who is buried in Aksehir, Turkey. On his gravestone the date of death is given as "386", which is reportedly impossible--but if you reverse the date to "683" on the Hijira calendar (1286 on the business calendar), it fits the facts as they are known. Even in death, the saint pressed the point that you have to look at things from different points of view. That is why he rode backwards on a donkey all the time. It's supposed to be both funny and wise, and he reportedly explained his choice in terms of seeing what he couldn't see if he faced the other direction like everybody else. When I traveled to Turkey with a group of teachers, one of my projects involved collecting Hodja tales.

Story Number Two is about a Christian festival celebrated during the early Middle Ages. On the Saturday after Easter, church bells summoned people for a procession to the Basilica Leterana where they welcomed the Pope with praise songs. Priests entered into round dances, singing in both Latin and Greek. A sacristan was central in the next part of this pastoral play; dressed in finery and wearing a horned crown made of flowers, he danced like a jester--jingling a wand with little bells on it and tipping his horns in various directions. This was a masked dance, and his mask was associated with the ancient idea of the underworld. At the end of his dance, he seated himself backwards on a donkey and attempted to carry coins to the Pope in a washbasin balanced on the donkey's head. An untethered fox was also given to the Pope, but of course the coins spilled and the fox escaped. This festival is often described as a continuation of pre-Christian propitiary traditions, like the Greek Bacchanals, that focused on the relaxing of strict points of view about acceptable behavior. Pope Gregory VII banned the festival, but he died in exile and the tradition has persisted in various carnivals found around the world. I've been to a couple of those carnivals.

Story Number Three: Into the eighteenth century in England and France, a man who experienced physical abuse at the hands of his wife might be ridiculed by his neighbors by being forced to ride a donkey through town--seated backwards, and holding the donkey's tail. To make sure everybody witnessed his shame, there was a great beating of pots and pans to bring everybody outdoors. Supposedly this tradition has died out, but in a rural village in France I once stumbled upon a group of women banging pans and shouting at a man riding backwards on a donkey. I never learned why.

None of these stories considers the donkey's point of view. But they get me thinking that I should be careful to avoid jumping to conclusions about what I see while I'm on the road, starting with a Roman mosaic on a Moroccan hillside. They also inspire me to attend to the similarities in stories from different times and places, and not just the differences.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Visiting Volubilis

This week was busy and amazing.  I went to see the Roman ruins in Volubilis. Our tour guide showed us mosaic floor tile that was discovered under all the dirt. They where beautiful, each mosaic had a story to tell and a lesson to learn. I could not believe after centuries most of the tiles still had its color. On this site, Jupiter was the main god worshipped, but there where others as well. I ask the tour guide did people still believe in the Roman gods, surprisingly, he said yes.

Writing Arabic

My first week in Rabat was a learning experience. After learning how to say the alphabet correctly, I am learning how to write in Arabic. Writing in Arabic is an art form. My favorite letter to write is the  s . I can not wait to use my calligraphy brush and ink to write the alphabet.

Mural at the National Library in Rabat

On the opposite side of the entrance to the National Library in Rabat is a large mural painted on the side of a wall of a large flight of stairs. There were several aspects to this mural that were very interesting for me.

First, the mural was very well created. You could tell that it was professionally done by a great artist. Another interesting aspect to the mural is that it included a large woman's head at the center of the piece. The woman is youthful, and wears the traditional Islamic head covering that many of the women in Morocco wear as a sign of modesty and to associate themselves as fellow Muslim women. Surrounding the woman's head are a variety of geometric patterns and shapes that create more of an abstract look to the mural. But more importantly, there are various letters from both the Arabic alphabet and the Tifinag alphabet that surround the woman.

I believe that the combination of the Arabic script and the Tifinag script (a newly created alphabet to represent the Amazigh languages) is meant to show the unity between the Arab and Amazigh cultures, while the woman herself represents not only the Islamic cuture, but also represents the motherland of Morocco as well.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ancient Roman Influence

First, I just wanted to say that it has been an amazing first week here in Rabat, Morocco. I am having a wonderful time learning Arabic, and enjoying the Moroccan culture through the sites and sounds of the city.

However, it was not until several days into the program that I finally had some time to truly visit some of the areas of Rabat. Having majored at UCLA with a B.S. in Anthropology, archaeology happens to be a great passion of mine, and I greatly enjoy visiting world museums that display archaeological finds from various time periods. Having learned that Rabat has a Museum of Archaeology stationed nearby, of course I just had to go see it, so I did.

The museum was much smaller than I anticipated, but very quaint. It had a good amount of artifacts from the Neolithic through the Islamic period, separated by rooms. However, though the participants in the GPA Fulbright Program here in Morocco have been learning about Moroccan, Arab, and Amazigh (Berber) culture, I have not heard anything regarding the Romans that once occupied this land as well. I had no idea that Roman influence was significant in ancient Morocco, and was pleasantly surprised to see an array of Roman artifacts ranging from marble statues, slabs with Latin script, and bronze figurines. There was an entire cabinet full of miniature bronze figurines that depict many of the most significant Roman gods (Minerva, Bacchus, Eros, Fortune, Victory, Neptune, Mercury, & Vulcan). Moreover, there were miniature statues of Isis, who is an Egyptian god that had many cult followers in Egypt, Greece, and ancient Rome, which may have lead to Isis cults in Morocco in the past.

I was literally the only “tourist” in the museum, though it was nearly 1 in the afternoon. Apparently, the museum does not get very many visitors, although I do think it is a very interesting place to visit. One of the museum workers that I met there walked with me a bit from room to room trying to explain to me (in French, though I don’t speak French) some of the important artifacts that the museum holds, and I was fascinated by it. In addition, he also informed me that because of Islamic law forbidding idols, much of the artwork that depicted Roman gods was once destroyed, sold off, or reutilized for its raw material, and that is why ancient Roman artwork doesn’t exist as much. At the end of my visit, he told me to visit the Roman site of Chella, which was 1 km away. It didn’t take long to walk there.

The site of Chella was amazing. There is a large fortress that surrounds the entire area. You can make out some of the ancient buildings, though the later Islamic influence is evident by old cemeteries and small mausoleums. The site is very nice to walk through, and there is even a lovely garden near the bottom. But the view is fantastic since you can see the river below, the hillsides, and all the greenery of the surrounding area. The architectural style of the ancient site is very beautiful, although it appears that there is not much upkeep since the site in overrun by grass and weeds. Plus, the site is also overrun by many large storks with giant nests not only in the trees, but on the top of the buildings as well.

At one time, it appears that Roman influence used to be significant in Morocco’s past. However, after centuries of changes to the culture of Morocco, it does not appear that people relate themselves any more to the ancient Romans, but rather more to either the Arabs, Amazigh, Jews, and possibly the Andalusians.