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.