Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On Why Yo-Yo Should Be Proud

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
Yossarian saw it clearly in all its spinning reasonableness. There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art, and at times Yossarian wasn’t quite sure that he saw it at all, just the way he was never quite sure about good modern art or the flies Orr saw in Appleby’s eyes. He had Orr’s word to take for the flies in Appleby’s eyes.
-Joseph Heller – Catch-22.

I have an extensive reading list for my time in Morocco. I’m sure some of these books will make me smarter, like one entitled Women, the State, and Political Liberalization: Middle Eastern and North African Experiences. I plan to null these books out with some that are bound to make me dumber, like my sister-in-law’s gift to me: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And of course, there are those few books that simply maintain the status quo of my intellect. Catch-22, in all its brilliant idiocy, does just that.

Catch-22 is a book that I will always associate with Morocco. Last time I was here, Nick and I read passages out loud to each other...or at least we tried. It’s hard to spit out the absurd dialogue while we’re dissolving in uncontrollable laughter. You know, the kind where my face is fire engine red and I’m gasping for air, while tears are running down my face, causing mascara to run into my eyes and making me unable to stop crying for a good long while. The kind of laughter that causes a scene in JJ’s, and makes me deeply regret my inability to translate the inane antics of Yossarian and his gang into something even remotely humorous for Kamal so he can have some idea of why I’ve suddenly gone nuts. That kind of laughter.

I just finished re-reading it. But now the stupidity of Catch-22 is hitting closer to home. It’s probably not the best book to read while applying for residency in Morocco.

Applying for residency is one of the most dreaded escapades of anyone who wants to live here (legally) for more than 3 months. What should be a simple procedure gets tangled in the web of bureaucracy and (dare I say it?) corruption.

They know that we Westerners are into efficiency. This may sound cynical, but I think they purposely send us on wild goose chases just so we will throw up our hands and slip some dirhams into our passports next time we show up at the immigration office.

One of the favored techniques is the good old Catch-22.

To get a Carte de Sejour (residency permit) they tell you that you have to prove financial stability by showing that you have a Moroccan bank account with at least $2000 worth of Moroccan currency. BUT in order to get a Moroccan bank account you have to prove that you have legal long-term residency (i.e. a Carte de Sejour).

That’s some catch, that Catch-22.

This little catch is why I avoided getting residency last time. This time, the fact that I have a notarized letter from MACECE saying that my funds are provided for is supposed to be sufficient in lieu of a bank account.

But, of course, that would be too easy and make too much sense.

The following was my conversation at the police station yesterday. I already gave him my letters of attestacion from my ALIF and MACECE. The MACECE one is clear that my funding is taken care of by the commission. It wasn’t good enough, apparently:

Mean Man: You need to show me proof of a bank account
Me: I don’t have a bank account
Mean Man: How do you support yourself?
Me: My grant pays me every month.
Mean Man: Where do they send the money?
Me: To me
Mean Man: To a bank account?
Me: No. They do a money transfer through the post office.
Mean Man: You need to have a bank account with $2000 worth of local currency.
Me: No I don’t. My money’s taken care of by my grant. That should be enough.
Mean Man: No. You still need a bank account.
Me: No I don’t.
Mean Man: Yes. Come back when you have a bank account.
Me: No. I don’t need one.
This continued for a while...anyone who’s seen the angry and indignant version of me (the one when I start shaking and raising my voice while trying to remain semi-civil) can picture the scene...then the boss came over.
Boss: What’s the problem.
Mean Man: She needs a bank account.
Boss: No she doesn’t.

Defeated, the Mean Man gave me the papers I needed to fill out and told me to come back with one more paper...I question the necessity of this final paper, but it won’t be hard to get. Plus, I don’t need to push the issue. The Mean Man just got owned by a stubborn little white girl.

This one’s for you, Yossarian.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

On Searching For Karima - Part 2: Babies Bizaf!

News came of a child born into a world of people demented and wild. I will be here for you, my love.

Karima has been located. My second expedition to make contact will commence this Wednesday at 4pm. Inshallah.

My suspicions were correct. My dear friend Karima the seamstress got preggers and reportedly had her baby in August. She closed her shop, but is still working from home. Patti and I are venturing to Ein Sminh later this week to reconnect with her and meet the little one. As of now we're not sure if it's a boy or a girl, but we'll find out soon enough.

I don't even need to say how excited I am to see my dear friend Karima the seamstress. Clearly we have much catching up to do. Again, I'm shocked at how much can happen in 15 months. Last time I was here I didn't really have young people in my life. Soukaina (then 14 years old) was the youngest person I had regular contact with. Somehow, though, it seems like all my friends have had babies in the year and a half that I was away. Now I have babies and toddlers everywhere I turn. Good thing I spent the past year and a half getting used to little people (teaching Sunday School to 2 year olds, hanging out with a 2 year old Iraqi, etc.)

My friends Johnetta (South African) and Fouad (Moroccan) had a little girl in January. She's gorgeous, with big blue eyes and such a pleasant little disposition (despite the fact that she's teething). Some cousins of my Moroccan family have had babies, and they're adorable too. But of course I'm partial to Joey.

Dounia's son Yousef was born in June, and he's precious. Really precious. The name Yousef is the Arabic version of Joseph and from the beginning I decided to call him Joey.

I'm hoping that in the 15 months that I'm here the name Joey will stick. That way, when he's older and people ask him why he goes by Joey, he can say, "When I was a baby there was a really awesome American girl who lived with my family. She called me Joey all the time, and it just stuck."


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On A Different Brand Of Beauty

“We see a lot of beauty. Some becomes ordinary. Mountains and canyons and prairies...sunsets over [the Sahara desert]...” – The Avett Brothers, Letter to A Pretty Girl (with sincere apologies to Mr. Crawford, as well as the Chesapeake Bay).

The past week has been a busy one. I’ve scampering all over the Moroccan countryside.

In the middle of the week we had a mini-retreat for the Fulbrighters in Morocco to touch base with MACECE and see how things have gone one month into the language grant. We went to the Cedar Forest in Azrou, a couple hours’ drive from Fez, and it was a much appreciated break from the smoggy city. The forest struck me as a lovely place for a picnic, and it’s always nice to have a monkey sighting.

And then this weekend I went down to the Sahara with a group from ALIF. This was my third trip to the desert – the first was in October 2007 with the ALIF students of the time, and the second was in February 2008 with 2 dear friends from high school. This trip, like my very first one, was gorgeous and surreal. I have photos that look like cartoons. Blue skies and orange dunes. Berber men in blue JELABAS. Drumming and dancing. Tea and TAGINES. Sunset. Stars. Sunrise. Camels.

The February 2008 trip, on the other hand, was windy and rainy and somewhat miserable weather-wise. We were overcharged and somehow brought the entire Moroccan village with us. For the whole 9 hour car ride into Merzouga, we crammed 4 of us into the backseat of a GRAND TAXI while 2 others (plus the driver) occupied the front. We tried to introduce the wonder of the Avett Brothers to our Moroccan friends but they could listen to us sing Paranoia in Bb Major for precisely 30 seconds before shouting “MAMA AFRICA!” and drowning us out with their banging and chanting.

But really, we had very little to complain about. The lunar eclipse (or two) that we saw will forever be burned into my memory. Despite the unbelievable (and often frustrating) circumstances of the trip, it’s one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. How often do you take a weekend trip to the desert with two of your oldest friends? If that’s not beauty, I don’t know what is.

This weekend I paid close attention to the landscapes on the way back from the Sahara. Incredible. I must have blinked during the transitions, because somehow we went from an expansive desert of nothingness to breathtaking gorges and canyons. Then suddenly we were in the Middle Atlas, braving mountain passes during which I clutched the handle on the door until my knuckles were white. We passed sheep grazing in the pastures. Then we were in the forest. Then we passed the French colonial haven of Ifrane (nicknamed the “Switzerland of Morocco”). And after what seemed like forever, we arrived back in Fez.

Suddenly I was back in my city of trash heaps, donkey poop, and stray cats that look like death. Of construction that seems to systematically eradicate any patch of green left in the city. Of air so thick I should probably chew it before inhaling. It made me seriously question why I chose to live in such a city, and why I love it as much as I do.

Nothing about it is naturally, or even physically beautiful. It’s certainly an aesthetically stimulating city, but its most beautiful aspects have been “corrupted” by tourism and innovation. Every time I take a photo from a roof in the medina I secretly wish that I had the patience to photoshop out all of the hundreds of satellite dishes.

But then I realized that’s where Fez’s beauty lies. (At least it’s what gives my entire project its salience.) It’s the tension that fascinates me: satellite dishes next to MINERATS, donkeys pulling carts full of Coca-Cola, old men in jelabas talking on cell phones while riding motorcycles. This is Fez.

Much like my February trip to the Sahara, its value lies in more than comfort or convenience or cleanliness. It’s in the past and the present. It in my experiences and relationships, and in what I currently can only describe as the insanity of everyday life. It’s in the city’s identity crisis. It’s in the city’s resilience.

The beauty of Fez is not the same as the “natural” beauty of the landscapes of the Middle Atlas. But maybe it’s even more natural. It’s anthropological...cultural...historical...and modern.

This is my city.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On A Jihad Worth Fighting For

One of my favorite little FASSI secrets is what I like to call the 3D TAXI.

Typically a taxi from the Medina to the Ville Nouvelle should cost about 8dh, but if I pick up the taxi at a certain corner, I can get to the VN for 3dh. The same goes for the way back.

Taxis, always in competition with the bus system, will wait until 3 passengers get in, and then drop us all off at the same point in the VN. If you do the math, you’ll see that the cab drivers get 9dh, so everyone wins. Except, of course, the bus drivers. This little scam is not exactly legal, but the police turn a blind eye.

The catch, though, is that sometimes it’s hard to get these taxis. At certain parts of the day (particularly lunchtime on Friday) everyone is trying to get home, including the taxi drivers. People crowd these “special corners” and few drivers will stop to pick us up.

Simple economics of 3d Taxis: Supply goes down, Demand goes up, Price remains constant. Result: chaos and violence.

Last week (on Friday afternoon) I had to throw a couple elbows. In return, someone stepped on my foot. We each ended up getting one of the coveted spots, hamdulilah. When we were safely inside with the doors shut and on our way to Batha (where the Taxi drops me off in the Medina), the foot-crusher apologized profusely and commented on what a struggle it is to get a 3d Taxi on Friday afternoons. Of course, I had to laugh because the word he used for “struggle” was jihad.

On the list of jihads worth fighting, I’m pretty sure a cheap taxi is pretty high up there.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On Searching For Karima - Part 1

I’ve been a little under the weather for the past week or so, but on Saturday I finally felt well enough to go on my first real adventure since my return to Fez.

Last time I was here I had a dear friend named KARIMA. She’s amazing. (Warning...get ready for a flashback.)

My host sister DOUNIA got married while I was here last time, and I had the honor of attending her wedding. I wanted to have a Moroccan dress called a CAFTAN made for the occasion. An American friend named PATTI told me she knew a seamstress who could use the work, and I was more than happy to exchange my DIRHAMS (Moroccan currency) for her goods and services in the fashion market. I couldn’t tell you why, but for some reason I expected the seamstress to be a frumpy older lady who would grunt at me in darija. I figured I’d just point and nod and hope that whatever she produced would be acceptable attire for Dounia’s wedding.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I have a terrible poker face. Everything that goes through my head is painted right there. And I’m pretty sure my eyes popped out of my head when Karima greeted me at Patti’s house. She wasn’t exactly what I expected.

She was around my age – about 22 at the time, I think – and she was beautiful. Her HIJAB (headscarf) matched her purse and stilettos and she looked so...fashionable. There was also something striking about her demeanor. Something about the way she carried herself demanded respect.

She answered the door at Patti’s house, took me by the hand, and escorted me into the salon. She sat me down and tried to get an idea of what I wanted in my Caftan. I really had no idea. It’s all foreign to me. I just wanted to wear whatever was trendy at the moment. Heaven forbid I be the laughing stock of the wedding when I show up wearing last year’s style.

Karima and I then ventured out to the market where I could look at some models of the “in” fashions and buy the fabric for my own creation. She didn’t speak a word of English, but was so patient to speak to me in Fusha and took such great pleasure in teaching me fashion-specific vocabulary...button, belt, silk, lace, etc.

Eventually we bought the material, and I gave Karima full artistic license. I swear she had a twinkle in her eye when she said, “Ok, come to my shop in a week for a fitting.” things tend to go in Morocco, the dress wasn’t even close to ready in a week. But I went anyway. Over the next few weeks I visited Karima quite often, occasionally for fittings, but mostly to chat. Sometimes we’d leave her shop and go make lunch or listen to music, or hang out with her sister in-law who lives with Karima and her husband. We talked about everything, and the more we talked, the more I admired her. She’s smart and funny and kind...and she thinks critically about everything. I love that.

Finally, after a few weeks my dress was ready. Before showing me the finished product, she warned me that it was a little different. It was certainly still a Moroccan dress, but she customized it a little...just for me. She said she didn’t want anyone else to have a Caftan like mine at the wedding, so she did something funky with the sleeves. She said, “You speak Arabic. You can get around Fez like a Fezzi, But you’re still different. Don’t lose that.”

In short, the dress was beautiful, and Karima is brilliant.

(End Flashback)

I think Karima is one of the most admirable people I’ve met here in Fez. She’s exactly the kind of person I want to write about in my book.

Interview Question #1: “Karima, how did you get so awesome?”
Interview Question #2: “Karima, can you be my best friend?”

I really truly value her friendship. Something about being with her is so edifying, and I need to have people like her in my life. Ever since I’ve been back here, I’ve been wanting to go find her. I don’t have her phone number, and she has no idea I’m back.

Finally this weekend I was able to make the trek out to EIN SMIN – the neighborhood where she lives and works. It’s way way way out on the other side of the city, and there’s really no reason for foreigners to go there ever. Unless, of course you want to hang out with the best seamstress in the world. Most Moroccans give me a funny look when I tell them I’m going there, and when I walk through the neighborhood people just stare at me. I’m sure they’re thinking, “Is she lost??? She must be REALLY lost, because the neighborhood is a good 20 minutes off the main road...”

I didn’t want to take a taxi because it’s so far, and therefore expensive. So I walked. It took me about an hour and 15 minutes. When I got there, Karima’s HANUT (shop) was gone. I couldn’t remember how to get to her house, and I had no idea if she was still around.

I just stood there for a minute, staring at the place where her shop used to be...right next to the elementary school. Everyone was staring at me. I was really disappointed. My whole expedition to find “my dear friend Karima the seamstress” (as I always call her with my Moroccan family) was a complete failure. I got in a cab and went back downtown.

Of course I haven’t given up. Sometime this week I plan to go again and do some sleuthing. I’ll ask the neighbors what happened to her shop and if she still lives in the neighborhood. If that doesn’t work, when Patti returns to Morocco in a couple weeks I’ll see if she has any information on the whereabouts of my dear friend Karima the seamstress.

To be continued...