Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Napkin Therapy

It’s been a long day. I’m tired and grumpy. Around 10pm I get out of a taxi in Batha and hesitate for a minute. Do I go home, go to straight to bed, and hope that tomorrow will be a bit more encouraging? Or do I go elsewhere in search of a little reminder of why I love living here?

Then the CHEERS theme song starts playing in my head:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you got...
Got that right.

Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot...

Yeah...but how?

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go...
By this time, I’m already halfway to the one place in the world...

Where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.

Now I’m on TALAA KBIRA, one of the medina’s main drags, speeding my way through the souk that’s just starting to close. I turn left into a little alley. At the end of the alley is a door. The theme song is finishing...

You wanna go where people know that people are all the same. You wanna go where everybody knows your name.

I make my entrance accompanied by applause from the live studio audience in my head.

“Alright,” I say, “Who’s got some napkins for me?”


is my Cheers.

I first went to Clock in late 2007, a few days after it opened. Some friends talked me into trying the Camel Burger. Mike Richardson, the British mastermind behind the café, greeted us at the door and encouraged us to enjoy our lunch on the roof. The second I went up there I fell in love. I was an instant regular.

At my favorite table at Clock, January 2008

When I returned to Morocco last fall the café had grown. Mike bought the house next door to expand the terrace and to add a cooking school. Clock now hosts art exhibitions, and coordinates classes in all sorts of arts – Moroccan and otherwise. They have weekly concerts, and throughout the week all the guitar players in Fez (it seems) come to jam together. The café has become a social hub that brings together local Moroccans, expats, and tourists passing through. Everyone talks to everyone else. It’s Fez’s very own melting pot. Somehow in 3 years this café has become an indispensible part of the cultural climate of a 1200-year-old city. Bravo, Mike.

Tango lessons with some Clock people - note the photography and calligraphy exhibition

Clock is an anthropological goldmine. Everyone I meet there constantly challenges my ideas about globalization and blended cultural identity, two focal points of my research. The very existence of a place like Clock, with its mingling of cultures, blurs lines and exposes modern Moroccan culture for what it is – complex. The interactions that take place at Clock speak volumes about how young people are navigating these cultural complexities, often without even realizing it.

Abdul, the resident flamenco guitarist, playing on the terrace

But I’m not always “on the clock” as a researcher. In fact, I’m usually part of the sample. I go to Clock because it’s a little haven. Because the plurality of cultures contained in that one little house in the Medina allows me to be as Western as I want to be and not be judged for it. In Morocco, Clock is the one public place where I’m very simply myself. I make myself at home. I laugh and dance. And I’m kind of a goofball.

Fati, Me, and Sis, goofing off at Clock

It’s this “myselfness” at Clock that has been the basis for some very close friendships. The regulars, and especially the staff, are some of my favorite people in the world. On days when I need a laugh, or just to be reminded that there are people here who know me, Clock is a sure bet.


AJ sets a pile of napkins on a table for me, and I start folding. Closing time is my favorite time. The kitchen is closed, the bar is closing, and clients are trickling out. I stick around to help fold napkins for the next day. The mindless repetition of folding napkin after napkin is soothing and therapeutic. The best conversations happen over a pile of Café Clock napkins. Whatever it was that made my day rough is soon forgotten as I talk and laugh and fold napkins in my very own Moroccan “Cheers.” I walk home happy.

Me and AJ at closing time, folding and laughing.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On Winning Grandma's Favor

Latifa’s mother, whom I call LALLA was the first to treat me like a part of the family. One night way back in 2008 she asked me to do the dishes after dinner. I'll never forget that night, because that’s when I knew I was in...accepted. The rest of the family soon followed suit. Except for the other grandma.

Said’s mother, MIMA, has taken the entire two-and-a-half years of our acquaintance to warm up to me. She is extremely critical (to my face), and has never really understood why the family keeps me around. Whenever she came around I’d always ask Latifa, “Is she going to be nice to me this time?” The answer was always “probably not” so I mustered my very best good-humoredness and settled into an afternoon of listening to why I will never find someone to marry me.

For the past couple weeks Mima has been staying with the family. I’ve been going there a lot too, spending as much time with them as possible before I leave. Slowly but surely Mima and I have been growing on each other. I greet her with kisses when I enter the room. I ask about her health. I listen to her recite Moroccan proverbs, which I really enjoy. I win points when I help Latifa in the kitchen or clear the table and do dishes after dinner. But the real test came yesterday.

After lunch Mima asked Soukaina to make tea. Unfortunately, Souks was about to leave for school. Mima then asked if “the girl” knows how to make tea. That means me. I told her I’d be happy to make it. The rest of the family tried to dissuade me: “Are you sure you want to do this...make tea for Mima?” I knew that if she didn’t like it, she’d say so. We’d have to take the tea back to the kitchen, and Latifa or Dounia would have to remake it...correctly. But I was determined.

There’s more to making Moroccan mint tea than boiling some water and pouring it over a tea bag. It’s a process. And if I messed it up, I’d never have a chance to win Mima’s good favor. I was nervous. Can you blame me?

I went to the kitchen and started the kettle boiling. While the water boiled I got out the B'RED. It’s not just a teapot. It’s a b’red.

I put 2 scoops of tea hboub – loose green tea “seeds” – into the b’red. Once the water was boiling in the kettle I poured it over the tea. I turned down the flame and put the b’red on it. Once the tea had boiled a little bit I added the sugar – 4.5 scoops – and let it boil again. Finally, the mint. I added the mint at the very end, to infuse it into the tea without burning it.

Then I prayed.

I carried the b’red on a tray with 6 small tea glasses and set it on the table. I sat on the couch and poured, lifting the b’red up high as I poured the hot tea into each glass. I’m not sure why you do that, but that’s just how you pour tea. Everyone watched silently. They were nervous for me, which made me even more nervous.

I distributed the glasses to Mima, Latifa, Dounia, and Hamza. They all held their breath for me as Mima took her first sip. “That’s it,” she said.

It was as it should be. Success.

“It’s masous,” Dounia said, meaning not sweet enough.

I almost got whiplash when I snapped my head around to shoot her a look of death. She winked at me.

“No it’s not!” Mima defended my tea, “it’s exactly right.”

The rest of the family exchanged congratulatory smiles for me. I was glowing.

“You just might find a husband after all.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

On My Mosaic

Fez is home.

I know the best shortcuts through the medina’s serpentine alleys and derbs. I know the best places to get a deep-fried mashed potato sandwich (called MACOUDA) in the Medina, the Ville Nouvelle and Fez Jdid. I know everyone, and everyone knows me – shop owners and cafe regulars and bus attendants. This month a taxi driver said, “I remember you! How’s your research?” and another one said, “I remember you! I asked you to marry me once!” And the few people who don’t know me somehow know that I belong.

My nationality is becoming increasingly ambiguous. Every day I hear people in the streets arguing over whether I’m Moroccan or gauria. Most commonly it’s when I pass a couple of shebab in the street, and one starts to make some sort of creepy comment in French, Spanish or English. The other looks at him like he’s an idiot “La, la akhoya! Maghrbia, hadi!” ("No, no, brother...This girl’s Moroccan!") Regardless of whether the “realization” that I’m Moroccan is followed by some respect or by simply another pickup line in Arabic, it makes my day. Every time.

I’m not sure what it is that makes me seem more and more Moroccan to people who have never seen me before. My appearance – very white, blue-eyed, dressing in unmistakably American style – should be a dead give-away. But I think there’s something else in play – some sort of intangible sense that I belong here. That’s not to say that I “fit in” in the typical sense, but I’ve carved a place in Fessi society and snuggled into it. I fit like a ZILEJ tile in a perfectly planned Fessi mosaic.

(Photo by JKP)

For the past couple months the thought of leaving this place – which will happen in 6 weeks – has seemed absolutely tragic. How can I leave this city that I’ve worked so hard to make my home? How can I remove myself from this master-crafted mosaic?

Then, I remember...

I want to. And I need to. America is home, too.

David Byrne and the Talking Heads said it best:

Home – it’s where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there.

I think I’ve unwittingly condemned myself to a life of perpetual homesickness, whether I'm here or there. But the glass-half-full side of the matter is that I’m leaving home to go home.

And I’ve been thinking about that mosaic. Maybe I had it backwards. Maybe it’s not that I’m a tile in this mosaic of Fez. Maybe, instead, Fez is a tile in the mosaic of my life.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

On Reporting From The Yellow Brick Road

A year ago Soukaina armed herself with a flat iron and set about the task of straightening my curls. My hair was quite long at the time and the process took ages, but was always a welcome opportunity to shut ourselves in our shared bedroom and have some time for just the two of us. As she struggled to beat my curls into submission, Soukaina hummed along to the tracks of The Avett Brothers’ album “I and Love and You” which had just been released and was constantly playing in our room. She took a particular liking to the song "Tin Man" and I began to translate it for her.

You can’t be like me, but be happy that you can’t. I see pain but I don’t feel it, I am like the old Tin Man.

Her blank stare betrayed to me that she had no idea who the Tin Man was. Geeeeeeeez....

I had to backtrack into composing an Arabic summary of The Wizard of Oz, just so she’d understand who the Tin Man is and his significance in American culture. Only then could I translate the song with any real meaning. That’s a lot of mental energy to expend while she’s tugging on my hair, which will never go quite straight.


Two weeks ago Soukaina and I took a walk with our friend Kelsey, an American student who was staying with the Khattabis for a few weeks. Not far from the house we passed an alley where a man was tying an enormous TV onto the back of a donkey. Soukaina and I barely noticed until Kelsey mused, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

I translated: Ma baqinach f Kansas. I sighed. Another Wizard of Oz quote, lost in translation.

But I had to laugh when I remembered the last time I had used that phrase myself – in Tel Aviv, commenting on recycling bins, mini skirts and enforced traffic laws. In that case, “Kansas” was Morocco. Weird.


Yesterday Soukaina and I had a date. I took her to a showing of The Wizard of Oz, followed by a discussion with Moroccan students of English at the University and at the American Center. Soukaina, who has just started to take English lessons, was excited to see other students and their engagement with American culture as part of their language studies.

Watching The Wizard of Oz in that context – in Morocco, with Moroccans – was like watching it with new eyes. Naturally, I had my own research in mind as Glinda explained to Dorothy that she could have gone home any time she wanted. But before that she just needed to explore, adventure, ask questions, fall down, and learn things for herself. It was through the journey and adventure in Oz that she (along with the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion) developed her character and found the strength to stand up for herself and for her friends (and her little dog, too) in the face of injustice. Glinda gave Dorothy instructions – follow the Yellow Brick Road – but didn’t hold her hand every step of the way. Dorothy had to figure some things out on her own.

What a beautiful metaphor for my research! Young women developing their characters by adventuring beyond the world they know, where they’re not taken seriously and are – as yesterday’s discussion facilitator described the black-and-white Dorothy - “ignorable.” But the girls in my book, who foray into a complex world of color, excitement, adventure, danger, good, and evil, do not do so randomly or aimlessly. They’re guided by something bigger than them: tradition, values, family, truth...the Yellow Brick Road. It's this anchored independence that takes Dorothy and my girls out of the realm of "ignorable" and makes them heroines.


And of course, as I'll explain in my next post, one other idea from the movie struck me hard yesterday...

“There’s No Place Like Home”

Monday, September 27, 2010

On Work and Play

It’s been 2 months since my last the day. I have a series of excuses I could make, but my dad told me something about excuses once...ahem...the crux of it is that they all stink.

So, a quick, excuseless recap...

Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting) took up most of August. For various reasons I decided to fast with my Muslim friends the whole month, so from about 4am until 7pm I didn’t eat or drink – water included (except for Sundays, when I ate with my church). The days were long and hot, physically draining and emotionally trying. As expected, research productivity dwindled as my interviewees made themselves unavailable and I myself wanted to do little more than lie around all day, conserving energy and not dealing with people who might annoy me when I was hungry and irritable. When I walked about the city I pretended to be Bear Grylls (from the show Man vs. Wild), doing all I could to prevent sweating and to preserve hydration. I walked in whatever shadows I could find and curbed my natural tendency to power-walk everywhere. It was of little use though, as the intense, dry August heat always got the best of my survival tactics. Water was the first thing I reached for when the sun set.

I began Arabic classes again as a way to maintain some level of productivity even though my interviews were lacking during the month. Getting through 2 hours of class every morning while I was undernourished and sleep deprived was certainly a strain, but I made it through and have, in fact, seen a significant improvement in my Media Arabic.

But as miserable as the days were, I already miss the Ramadan nights. The famous Moroccan hospitality was at its best, as I was invited to FTOUR (the meal to break the fast) at some family’s house almost every night. (For the record, I still think Latifa has THE WORLD'S BEST HARIRA.) In the evenings after ftour the streets came alive, something that only happens in Fez during Ramadan and the Sacred Music Festival (in June). For once, it was safe to walk around until about midnight, as families went for strolls all over the medina. I filled the evenings with guitar jam sessions on the roofs of several different cafes, going out for walks with friends and their families, taking Soukaina out to the fair, or simply staying in, watching sitcoms and Ramadan specials. And, of course, eating.

Ramadan ended on September 10, and since then it’s been a massive return to productivity. Interviews have resumed, and my calendar is full of classes and research-related appointments. Most of my otherwise free time is spent writing and writing and writing.

But we know what Benny Franklin says about all work and no play, so lest you worry that I’m becoming a dull girl, some photographic evidence to the contrary:

(Why yes, indeed, I did tour Morocco’s winey-est winery last weekend.)


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On The Words Of An Uneasy Writer

It just occurred to me that the title of my blog: Musings of an Uneasy Writer, as well as the tagline: Ten Thousand Words could do with a bit of explanation. Since interviews are moving at summer pace (meaning it’s a thousand degrees in the shade and no one wants to do anything), I’m focusing on reading, writing, and catching up on some blogging. It seems like a good time to explain my header a bit.

Both the title and tagline are references to songs by The Avett Brothers, far and away my favorite band of all time. The Avetts (consisting of brothers Scott and Seth Avett, plus Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon) are very important to me, especially while I’m over here. For one thing, they make me feel at home. I will never be able to dissociate the Avetts from my whole family. It’s truly amazing how my mother, father, brother, sister and I can all bond so strongly over a single band. Whether we travel together to concerts, listen to new albums together, or get in arguments over interpretations of certain songs (especially The Ballad of Love and Hate, which I tend to re-interpret annually as my understanding and experience of both Love and Hate change), the Avetts have been a uniquely unifying influence in our family life.

The other reason the Brothers are so meaningful to me is that their playlist can dispense advice as a good friend, with nuance covering the spectrum of emotions and situations in life. It allows a temporary indulgence in "negative" emotions such as bitterness, anger, or revenge...then gently steers me back to a more balanced view on life, with wisdom and simple but profound honesty that are hard to come by.

The title of this blog references the alternate title of an Avett song called Denouncing November Blue (Uneasy Writer) off the Avett’s 2006 album, Four Thieves Gone. In the song (which is itself a take-off of the Charlie Daniels song “Uneasy Rider”), the narrator denounces a previous Avett Song called (you guessed it) November Blue. The original song (from the 2002 album Country Was) laments the fading of a summer love that is “bit by the cold of December, falling like the leaves.”

The denouncement of this song is clear in the Uneasy Writer’s opening lines:

November came and went like the summer that I spent with a no-name girl that walked in jelly shoes. I returned to my home with a heart part made of stone, and cried all night for a girl I never knew.

The rest of the song (“Denouncing,” that is) tells the story of what happened next. The narrator saw much, experienced much, and wrote several books, including:

Being a Free Man
People Don’t Know Nothin’ (No Matter What They Tell Ya)
Life in Prison: Volume 1

In a way, I guess that’s what I see myself doing at the moment. I’m striking out into the world, seeing people, places and things, and trying to write about them. I hope that the people I meet and the things I experience will eventually materialize into a coherent book (preferably not a single volume called “Life in Prison,” since a Moroccan prison is the last place I’d like to be). But at the moment, this blog is simply the haphazard musings of an Uneasy Writer.

Now onto the tagline...Ten Thousand Words...

A song with the same name is included on the Avetts’ most recent album, I and Love and You (2009). The song speaks to the importance of words and how we use them.

Aint it like most people, I’m no different. We love to talk on things we don’t know about.

As a writer, a linguist, and a human being, I’d have to say that words are a pretty important part of my life. How I use them matters. And what shall I use them for?

Truth, apparently.

That’s something that an Uneasy Writer can always be reminded of in a world where “there are no lines separating the truth from the lies.” (And It Spread). In my research, my writing, my blogging, and my life, the purpose of words is to convey TRUTH. I don’t want to forget that.

The songs that the Avett Brothers write are oozing with unpretentious truth. If I can write a book like they write music, I might be in good shape.

November came and went,
Like the summer that I spent
With a no-name girl that walked in jelly shoes.
I returned to my home
With a heart part made of stone,
And I cried all night for a girl I never knew.
From the east it comes,
Her love and the rising sun,
And I pray each time they come it's not the last.
You see, I've gotten strong,
I made it through what came along,
But I can't move on for the beauty of the past.

I came across a pretty girl,
For about a month she was my world,
And I held her hand, and swore we'd never part.
I moved on, she stayed behind,
I said I'd call, she said she'd write,
We lost touch the moment I drove off.
I left town like a gambler with
The sense to cash in all the chips
Before I lost them all on a bad deal.
I made believe I was in a race,
Drove ten thousand miles in seven days,
While writing a book called "Being A Free Man".
I Met more people than the president,
The good times came and the good times went,
And I learned how to ignore my hunger pangs.
I looked ahead to the open road,
Thought about the people and what they know,
And wrote a book called "People Don't Know Nothin".
(no matter what they tell ya, man)

Once I spent my last dime,
And counted the ratio of miles to time,
I looked up to my disdain and my surprise.
I had driven my car around the world,
Ended back in the town with the girl,
So I wrote a book called "Life in Prison".
(Volume. 1)
I see that girl every now and then,
And we drink to having such good friends,
And apologize for the way it did not last.
Funny thing that it's all true,
And I'll always love November Blue,
But I turned her down for the beauty of the past.

November came and went,
Like the summer that I spent
With a no-name girl that walked in jelly shoes.
I returned to my home
With a heart part made of stone,
And I cried all night for a girl I never knew.

Ten thousand words swarm ‘round my head
Ten million more in books written beneath my bed
I wrote or read them all when searchin’ in the swarms
Still can’t find out how to hold my hands

And I know you need me in the next room over
But I am stuck in here all paralyzed
For months I got myself in ruts
Too much time spent in mirrors framed in yellow walls

Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different
We love to talk on things we don’t know about

And everyone around me shakes their head in disbelief
And says I’m too caught up
They say young is good and old is fine
And truth is cool but all that matters
Is you have your good times

But their good times come with prices
And I can’t believe it when I hear the jokes they make
At anyone’s expense except their own
Would they laugh if they knew who paid?

Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different
We love to talk on things we don’t know about

And after we are through ten years
Of making it to be the most of glorious debuts
I’ll come back home without my things
‘Cause the clothes I wore out there I will not wear ’round you

And they’ll be quick to point out our shortcomings
And how the experts all have had their doubts
Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different
We love to talk on things we don’t know about

Monday, July 26, 2010

On My Home On Derb Errome

I moved. I felt like Fes Jdid was sucking the sweetness right out of me, so I opted for a fresh start: back to the medina, to a little place called DERB ERROME.

The house I live in is beautiful. It’s owned by a friend of a of those brave souls who bought and is in the process of restoring an old Moroccan home.

I live on the first floor...a lovely little apartment with plenty of space for dancing (a must), and a nice big window. The window is key. It lets in sunshine and the noise from the street below. (Of course by “street” I mean what anyone in America might call an Arabic we call it a DERB.) The noise from the street took some getting used to, but it’s certainly grown on me. It’s the noise of guides leading groups of tourists in English, French and Spanish. It’s the clinking and clomping of donkeys carrying Coca-Cola or tanks of gas to the hanut on the corner. It’s the music of weddings in the huge house next door, where the owners rent their home out for parties. It’s the noise of laughter and gossip and boys playing soccer. It’s the noise of people living. I love it.

Upstairs I have a terrace. A beautiful terrace. It has an incredible view of the city I love. Already this terrace has become the site of dinner parties, dance parties (thanks to the free live music from weddings next door), movie nights, guitar jams, morning coffee, and sunset beverages.

Have a look. DAR DARKOM (My home is your home.)

Look, Mom! I cook! That chicken that I'm cutting up in my sink was alive when I bought it, and we ate it several hours later. Also, notice the window.

A view of Derb Errome from my terrace.

The terrace view of my city in the evening.

(Photos taken by my lovely little sis)