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.