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.

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