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I recently re-read Out of Africa and was struck anew with the power of her descriptions. Living in a time before cable television or any easy way to share photos, Isak Dinesen relied on the intensity of the written word to recreate the scenes of her life for those living far away. To a smaller extent I try to do the same thing on my blog, though in no other way am I comparing us—I would be thrilled if I thought a phrase of mine could enter the heart and echo there, reality captured and preserved in a mere sentence, like her writing does. (Although I don’t think I’d like to be played by Meryl Streep in the movie, simply because I’m much younger.) But I’ve tried to capture and preserve modern life overseas, what it’s like to be a typical American family living in Mauritania or Morocco, what is normal here and what is abnormal. I’ve tried to give a glimpse of my world.

I was chatting with a writer friend of mine the other night about our blogs. We agreed; when we post pics we use fewer words. She’s feels that too easy—lazy almost. I don’t know. I suspect my readers might be just as happy, in these busy times of over-stuffed feed readers, to look at a few pretty snapshots and get on with their lives, rather than reading my ramblings. I’m a writer married to a photographer, and we’ve had plenty of discussions, each defending our craft, but I do have to admit that sometimes a picture is worth at least 889 words, if not more.

And so, the point of today’s post is to show you more pictures of Meknes. Do you think I have enough pictures of arches? Because I’m just not sure.

The point of this was the kids playing; the arches are just a bonus!

A useful personality trait in the overseas traveler is a willingness to get lost. And few places are as conducive to getting lost as the medinas, or ancient cities, of the Arab world. These are places that grew organically; they are twisting mazes of winding alleyways, rabbit warrens, labyrinths, with narrow streets giving only glimpses of the sky. It’s very easy to get turned around in them. And so we set off, intrepidly even, because I always feel sure that I’m not getting turned around even when I am. It’s like I think I have an incredible sense for direction, which I do most of the time and makes those times I get turned around REALLY mess with my head.

I was very excited about this shot as it not only has TWO arches, but shows a woman carrying a tray of loaves to the local oven to bake them. Also gives you a sense of the potential confusion. Which way to turn? We followed her, mostly because the oven smelled so good.

I did not get turned around. I kept going in what I felt was the right direction and it turned out it was, so that felt good.

Not all dead ends are this easy to spot without unnecessary detours.

There are these wild old ruined walls running straight through the middle of the residential section. Wild, I tell you!

At this point, we had picked up a group of young men who had been informed we did not need guides but were following us anyway. We did wonder if we might not need to use the mighty roundhouse kicks we’ve learned in various aerobics classes over the years, but they didn’t bother us for long.

After we arrived in the open, touristy bit…

…we walked past this shop and I saw an elderly man working on a sheepskin. I wanted to photograph him, but thought he’d never agree. “Why not ask?” urged my friends. I did, and he was more than happy to let me, as long as I paid him something. I think we were both very happy with the arrangement.

Denise says he reminds her of her father.

I myself am very fond of this picture. My biggest frustration is that it could have been a great picture, instead of a snapshot with potential. Sigh. Oh well; it made me happy. I showed it to the sheep-shearer, and he liked it too. Maybe I should switch to a Leica?

On Friday afternoon, I got into a minivan (for real! There aren’t a lot of them here, but this was a real honest-to-goodness American mini-van) with 6 other women and headed out of town. We were headed to Meknes, where two of my wonderful friends had planned a little get-away for a few of us expats here in Rabat. In Meknes there is a riad which also houses a small cooking school; by appointment only, you can sign up to learn how to make one of several classic Moroccan dishes. I’d heard of it but never been, but several of my friends had.

I was the only woman in the car who spoke French, and none of us spoke Arabic, so I was on call as we rolled into Meknes. But by following the classic “This looks right” and “I just don’t think we should take this left,” we managed to find our way to the riad with only one false turn.

A riad is an old Moroccan house built in several stories around a courtyard. They’re found in the medinas, or the ancient cities, all over the country. Within the past 10 years or so, it has become very trendy for Westerners to buy them, redo them, and turn them into small hotels; they are also very popular places to stay. But at their heart, they simply old family homes, whose walls have probably seen generations of fat, curly-headed toddlers and old grandmothers coming to grief on their steep steep stairs.

Since this place isn’t used as a hotel, we had the entire place to ourselves. And we had a blast. Highlights included me sharing a room with Denise and staying up till 2 a.m. laughing hysterically (I told Ilsa and she raised her eyebrows at me), and a chocolate fondue with mounds of fresh strawberries, pineapple, apples, and pound cake for dipping—plus real marshmallows and graham crackers. (Two of the women are Embassy-connected, which means they can get American stuff).

It was a fun, relaxing time. At one point, Denise and I and another friend decided to work off just a teeny bit of all that chocolate we’d been eating, and we wandered round the residential part of the medina, looking for the touristy bit. We found it eventually but needed to get back for lunch and after all, the point was the walk.

Meknes is an imperial city with a rich history full of bloodshed and glory and tiled arches, but this really wasn’t the time to play tourist. The goal of this trip was more chocolate-oriented. There’ll be time to go again and see all the area has to offer.

Over the past, oh 20 years or so, I’ve fallen into the habit of getting my hair cut only about twice a year, sometimes less. At first I like it, then I get sick of it, then I decide to grow it out, then I decide I look frumpy, then I get it cut again. That’s because no matter what I do to it, by the end of the day it looks the same. It will always be curly. It looks best medium length, with some layers. It’s boring. I buy mousse and shampoos marketed at curly hair, and I believe they make a difference although my husband, who is bald, is not convinced.

My last visit to the coiffeuse was in June, so my hair had gotten quite long. And by long I mean past my shoulders by a few inches. Remember, curly. Yeah. But since it was a grow-out of a shorter cut, it needed to be shaped and trimmed, I felt.

I pondered my hair at odd times. I was in a taxi on my way downtown, sitting next to the taxi driver, “When I Need You” playing on the radio station that plays obscure English songs. Incredibly, the taxi driver started singing along.

Should I go back to Madame and her little local salon, where it’s less expensive but seems somewhat limited? Or should I splurge and go to a more Westernized place, in hope of getting something different than the standard cut? “Wen I neeeeed luf! I just close mi EEEYYYYYEEESSS…” warbles the taxi driver, like he’s trying to be the Rabat version of a Venetian gondolier. I decide to try the more Westernized salon, for a change.

Since I go so rarely, I tend to forget the vocabulary, so I spent some time doing research ahead of time. I reminded myself of the word for layers, and how to explain how much my hair shrinks when dry, and how to explain that if my hair is all one length it will form a sort of tangled triangle.

I show up on time, and the woman looks vague but then remembers my appointment. “Madame Jeness?” she says. I nod. One of the fun things about taking a common name like Jones overseas is that it becomes exotic. My kids used to be so amazed, reading books, when the lady down the street was named Mrs. Jones. “Like us!” they used to exclaim in excitement, while I would roll my eyes.

I had specifically asked for just a shampoo and cut, declining to pay extra for the dubious pleasure of having my hair styled and sprayed into a stiff bouffant version of its former self that would only last till the next day anyway. I carefully explained what I wanted, using all my new-found vocabulary strength.

She shampooed my hair, settled me in a chair and away she went! About half way through, I knew that this was not what I had asked for. Moments like this leave me puzzled. Is it that my French is just not understandable? Was I having an off day? Or did she not really listen? Or, even, was this just her version of the standard cut?

At the end, she re-shampooed my hair (not sure why) and blew it dry so that I wouldn’t have to catch my death of pneumonia by daring to walk outside on a 70-degree day with damp hair. It was kind of her. I liked her. She added a bit of gel to give the curls a bit of definition, and we were done.

She did a good job, I’ll give her that. And it’s not the same cut that Madame does, I’ll give her that too. It was professionally done, nicely thinned, the shrinkage of the curl allowed for. I even like it. It looks fine.

But it’s not what I asked for.

I search the online French-English dictionary for the word “bullying.” Harcélement, it tells me. A wikipedia article calls it “le bullying” and states that France is “extremely behind” in dealing with this issue, with a policy of “closing their eyes.” This is not reassuring.

I’m preparing for a meeting with the CPE of the kids’ school. I think he’s the equivalent of a vice-principal. (Meredith, would you agree?) He’s a really nice man, with friendly brown eyes, often chewing gum. I got to know him when I did the English Club at the school last fall. He told me how much he admires my children, and how good their French is “for anglo-saxons,” which amuses me no end. (Talk about damning with faint praise! He means it as a compliment though)

This meeting will not be so chatty, I worry. It’s because Abel is getting picked on at school. Apparently it’s been going on all year but we’re just finding out the extent of it. We knew there were some issues, but it came to a head this week when Elliot got involved. Kids were teasing Abel, picking on him, snatching his recorder and playing keep-away with it while he tried in vain to get it back. Elliot saw what was happening and sauntered over with some of his friends, snatched the flute back, and basically pulled rank…older/bigger/alpha male! Yeah. But Elliot can’t be Abel’s watch dog. The teachers, when appealed to after kids steal Abel’s fountain pen, ruler, pencil sharpener, have proven to be completely useless. Feet of clay all. So, on Elliot’s advice, I appeal to Caesar, as it were.

On Wednesday morning, I trudge off to the meeting. It goes well. The CPE is as nice as ever. He is disturbed. I tell him, “I realize some of it is Moroccan culture (the pushing, hitting, calling names—all of this happens in the teen class I teach, regardless of my best efforts to stop it). But it’s still not good for Abel. I worry that if it’s not stopped, it will escalate, and regardless, it will affect his self esteem.”

The CPE agrees. He asks for names, promises to help. That wikipedia article was wrong—this seems exactly what anyone anywhere would do. He promises to talk to Abel’s homeroom teacher and the kids involved; he says that if there are any further incidents we must come straight to him, no appointment necessary.

I know that he follows through, because two days later a kid in Elliot’s class tells him that he overheard kids in Abel’s class threatening to beat him up because he told on them to the CPE. Elliot dispatches himself to keep an eye on his sibling as much as possible, and so far, nothing has happened.

Sure, some of this is our nationality. We’re the only Americans at the school—or anglo-saxons, as I prefer to think of us. As things are tense on a global stage, maybe not specifically now but overall, we can expect some hassle. Abel has gotten picked on specifically for being an American before. During the first year of the Iraq war we were living in France, and an Arab boy, about 5 years older than Abel, took it upon himself to take out on Abel the feelings watching the evening news stirred in him. But we were able to work that out through talking to the kid.

But honestly, that’s not what’s going on here. Elliot and Ilsa have no problems. Abel is young for his age, small for his age. He’s a sweet kid—thoughtful, caring—but when teased, he responds. He gets upset. He struggles a bit with his French and that doesn’t help. In no way do I want to blame the victim, but sometimes he misses out on social norms, such as the time he was practicing the recorder at recess.

What bugs me so much is how many clues I missed along the way. It’s been going on all year, every day. Now I can see clearly how it’s been affecting him, but at the time I just worried that he didn’t seem to have settled in. How could I not have realized?

The ol’ blog’s been quiet lately. Nothing much going on that I feel like blogging about. Donn was gone all last week on a photo excursion in the region of Morocco south of Marrakech and Agadir, returning exhausted from photographing sunrises and with two new rugs for the house, handmade berber rugs in sunrise colours of oranges, yellows, and blues. (I will photograph them once I get batteries for the camera) So the kids and I had a quiet week, eating less meat, staying up later and reading during meals. I never know how much of daily life to post about, but I doubt you want to hear about me rereading an Agatha Christie till 1 a.m., or about how none of the teens showed up for my class last week and how most of the business-people skipped theirs too. All was quiet here in the land of the sunset (which is what Morocco’s name in Arabic, “Maghreb” means. Makes sense, since we’re at the western extreme of the Arab world).

Yesterday something blogworthy happened. I was on my way to class. Twice a week, I teach a group of business-people in their office, which is downtown. Parking is nonexistent at best, often simply imaginary, so I usually take taxis. I am a very organized person and never get involved reading a book or blogs and so have to stress about finding a taxi…cough…but exceptionally, yesterday, I was running late. And, as is usual when one is running late, there were no taxis to be found, not for love or money. (It was only money I was offering, in case you’re wondering) To be more exact, there were plenty of taxis, but all full, or not heading in my direction.

I was starting to feel somewhat panicky when a nice car pulled up in front of me, and a woman I’d never seen before said to me, in French then in English, “Where are you going?” Agdal, I told her. “Get in!” she said.

Obviously I must know her, so I got in, racking my brains as to where we could possibly have met and who she could be. “I live nearby,” she said, gesturing at the neighbourhood on the other side of the main avenue. “I know how hard it is to find a taxi around here!” Ironically, I think we live in a good area for taxis, unless you’re late of course.

I realized that I did not actually know her, but we introduced ourselves and chatted away, quickly finding that my French was better than her English. She was really nice! We established that she’s a fan of America, and that her dream is to become a photographer, and that I live in Rabat and have 3 kids and teach English.

We made good time down that street with all the schools, and at the end she ran a red light and got stuck in the middle of an intersection! If I’d been one of the other drivers, I’d have been enraged, but from my new and improved perspective, I just laughed. She carried on a conversation by gesture with a policeman who was eyeing her askance, and she laughed at herself for doing such a thing with an American passenger. “What will you think of me?” she said, but I reassured her.

She dropped me off near the office and gave me her business card. I promised to call her. After all, it’s not every day you make a new friend when you’re just trying to catch a taxi to work.

April 2010

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