Gaza on my Mind
Like Obama in Hawaii I was vacationing and didn’t want my peace disturbed by bad news from a faraway dead-end place. I should have picked up the ample clues and listened to radio or sought a place with a TV and seen Al-Jazeera. But I chose not to and kept in full ignorance of what was happening in Gaza.
When Israel first unleashed its abhorrent violence against Gaza’s imprisoned and starved Palestinians, we were already in Morocco’s desert close to the Algerian border. In part, this wild trip was decided on my prodding; fossil hunting is a hobby of mine and the wild environs of Erfoud are full of black marble inundated with fossils. And Malaika, my third-grader granddaughter, was excited about the prospect of viewing the star constellations in the clear desert sky. So we all headed there and had a fantastic experience.
But every time the locals, Berber tribesmen or citified tourist guides, knew I was a Palestinian they would spill out their hearts in welcome and sympathy and prayers for Palestine. I took it to be the standard expression of solidarity with Palestinian people in their historic suffering and maltreatment. Truly, in all my years, I cannot recall ever meeting an Arab man or women who didn’t express solidarity with my people, discontent with his or her rulers for their cooptation by the West and for their abandonment of Palestine, and anger at American and European governments for their blind support of Israel. Such expressions of sympathy are not new to me. But this time in Morocco there was a touch of sadness mixed with admiration, almost adulation, in the eyes of my interlocutors, all despite the language barrier that we sought to transcend by reverting to high literary Arabic. Still I credited it all to a special infatuation of Moroccans with Palestine and the Palestinians.
On the second day of the New Year, emerging from our dream desert experience, we drove through the Middle Atlas toward Fez, our next destination. In a small Berber town the road was blocked by a crowd of high school students demonstrating rowdily with Palestinian flags and slogans. At the outskirts of Fez we stopped to ask directions from a group of young people on the walkway. One immediately identified me as a Palestinian and the group burst out into a mini demonstration jumping, thrusting their arms high in the air and shouting pro-Gaza, anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans. At the hotel I reconnected with the real world and saw the flood of emails condemning the continuing slaughter. Several friends had written to check on us and hear our thoughts.
For the remaining week of vacation I had to suffer the images of death and destruction. Gaza was constantly on my mind. Nothing I did or saw but reminded me of the children and mothers of Gaza. I had a deep sense of personal guilt tinged with shame for having enjoyed myself as they suffered. A few weeks before I had undergone a medical procedure and was still on painkillers especially during the night. I stopped taking my meds. Every little discomfort my body felt triggered a sense of guilt for having access to medications when the children of Gaza with their mangled limbs didn’t. Gaza, whose name was immortalized by an invention of its weavers of ancient times, has now run out of gauze to dress the wounds of its children.
In the butchers market in Fez the sight of lambs’ heads strung overhead made me cringe, not for pitying the lambs; somehow the sight evoked that of dismembered bodies and severed parts of children in Gaza. I stopped eating meat and missed out on all the lamb tagine, the lead dish of Moroccan cuisine. At night I slept little; every motion of my granddaughter who shared my queen-size bed made me jump. In daytime I guarded her like a hawk; every time she went up or down the steep stairs of the hotel I would follow her and every time we walked in the market I held her hand tight. All I could think of was the danger of her falling down the stairs or tripping on something and suffering a massive injury to her pretty face or loosing a limb.
As we viewed the ancient leather dyeing vats in the old city, a bastion of grime and foul smell, I pitied the leather dyeing workers climbing in and out of the vats: What despair and loss of dignity brings a human being to tolerate such degradation and suffering? But what do I know about the pleasures those men enjoy in bringing home bread for their children. But what if one goes home from work to find it destroyed and wife and children all dead! That had just happened in Gaza. Does such despair make people face the prospect of death calmly? Gazans say they do. The images of the children with bloodied heads and mangled limbs with that absolute blank look in their empty eyes, both hope and fear having been wiped out of them by shock, mesmerized me; I screamed because they didn’t.
On our last night we stayed in Casablanca at a hotel operated by a Spanish firm. They had a varied and fancy variety of breakfast foods including five differently flavored olive oils that I savored with freshly baked bread. Till I read the paper: Israel had targeted the Zeitoun (Arabic for ‘olive’) neighborhood of Gaza City killing 15 civilians including an old man and his grandchild. Nausea attacked and I ran to the bathroom.
On arriving back in New York I went to bed and slept for three hours. It must be jetlag. At 2 AM I tried to catch up with my email. One report after another by Human Rights organizations, peace activists, independent journalists, UN officials, etc. expressed objection and outrage at what Israel had done. A deep discomfort nagged at my conscience; something was missing; I need to explain to all the people in the world that we all are missing several core facts. We are speaking, as if, of two equal parties and making many false assumptions, even when well-intentioned. I need to alert everyone to the danger of such misconceptions.
Deep in my heart I know all the pieces of the puzzle: Stripped of all the political propaganda and American Zionist-inspired spin-doctoring and Christian born-again zeal and prejudices, it all starts with conflicting claims by two peoples to the same piece of land, the weaker party having been on it for centuries and the stronger one intent on dislodging them off it even if that required eliminating them off the face of the earth. The latter bases its claim on a special deal with its own deity several millennia ago. Both parties have fallen back on stupidity and stubbornness and on their not unrelated dependence on their faiths. But I needed to elucidate my narrative and support it with factual information and historical accounts. Putting it at this level of simplistic analysis equates between aggressor and victim, the very thing I am upset about when I read the calls for both sides to refrain from targeting civilians.
By morning when the family awoke I had accomplished nothing. I was still angry and full of outrage at the hypocrisy of so many ‘neutral’ authorities and observers. I took my granddaughter to her school and spent the rest of the day in a daze.
I kept at it for a second night. This time I read in depth several analyses. There is very little I want to say that has not been said by better qualified people: my friend Jonathan Cook looks at Israel’s hidden agenda http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10132.shtml; The Israeli historian Avi Shlaim gives a good insight into the background to the current situation http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/07/gaza-israel-palestine; Another friend, Ilan Pappe, delves into the peculiar self-righteousness of Zionist Israel http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article10100.shtml; Robert Fisk sheds some light on the Israeli standard lies in times of war, on who the Hamas rabble in Gaza are and on Israel’s role in pushing them to the corner from which they have no option but to act in the way they do http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-why-bombing-ashkelon-is-the-most-tragic-irony-1216228.html; and Omar Barghouthi gives but one example of the complicity and preconceived prejudices of so many international officials and reporters http:/www./counterpunch.org/barghouti01022009.html. But then what policy maker in the world heeds the opinion of contributors to the Electronic Intifada. At least a third friend, Prof. Rashid Khalidi, got some unpopular ideas published as an op-ed in the New York Times http://www.nytimes. com/2009/ 01/08/opinion/ 08khalidi. html.
One statement I have not seen yet: Israel is out to diminish the number of Palestinians in any and every way it can, so as to eliminate as many claimants in the ongoing land dispute as possible. And one stream of analysis I have not seen, though bits and pieces of it are on every one’s mind: By its bloody trampling on the human rights, institutions, infrastructure, property, and lives of Palestinians Israel hopes to draw Hezbollah into the fray, to take revenge on it for having withstood its aggression in 2006, and simultaneously to strike at Iran, possibly with nuclear arsenal. And this has all been cleared and coordinated with the American lame duck president and administration. The one remaining hope is that Hezbollah will resist taking the bait till Obama takes over.
Finally I proceeded to empty my bags and enjoy the beauty of all the exotic souvenirs we acquired on our trip. My wife had picked up several ceramic dishes from Fes. I shuddered; I had just read the news: Israel had hit the UN school in Al-Fakhora (Arabic for ‘ceramic factory’) neighborhood of Jabalia Refugee Camp killing 43 civilians, mostly children. I spread out the traditional Berber rug I had purchased: My God! It is blood red!
I sought comfort in reading personal emails from friends. The Rev. Barbara Grace Ripple ends her message of sympathy and wishes for peace and justice from Hawaii with the simple statement that she had spent the day in fasting and prayer. I am not a religious person. But that statement touched me to the core; that is what my late mother, an illiterate Palestinian villager, would do every time she lost a child.
Mixing with the locals in Marrakesh
In winter both storks and the French flock to Morocco. It is a short cross-Mediterranean hop and offseason charter flights are $100 roundtrip. In the city the storks nest in pairs on the high minarets while French couples go for romantic riads, the traditional enclosed former residences of the better-off families in the old quarters, each built in a multilevel quadrangle surrounding a garden or a central court with a fountain and with its walls and floor covered with colorful arabesque designs in ceramic. The roof of a riad is often furnished with beach chairs and a mini-bar, the perfect spot for relaxing and sunning oneself. Didi and I have stayed more than once in such intimate luxury before in Andalusia, historically the extension of the Arab-Berber culture, better known as Moorish culture, of North Africa that flourished to outdo and dominate its progenitor. Except that in Spain riads are known as pensions.
In Marrakesh we were guests at Riad Saba, a guest house operated by Jubran, an entrepreneurial friendly young Moroccan and his Swedish wife who, unfortunately for us, had taken her daughter home for Christmas. Still we greatly enjoyed the hospitality and personal attention of the local staff of three. Their freshly prepared breakfasts were greatly satisfying. At Riad Saba we were introduced for the first time to msemmani, the multilayered thin pastry dough deep fried in ghee. Malaika has demanded it at every breakfast thereafter and even back in New York still agitates for her grandmother to experiment with concocting the exotic food.
For the one week we stayed in Marrakesh we dined at several of its famous restaurants. [In editing this piece I had to change the original verb, ‘targeted’, I had used; its military connotation made my stomach turn.] Yet my most enjoyable meal was at the humble home of a family we befriended by chance. Seth, my son-in-law, and I were looking for the neighborhood’s hammam (local bathhouse, not unlike the classic Turkish bath) for men. We all had been to a fancy one operated by a French firm which was more of a spa than a hammam. This time we were after the authentic experience; we wanted to bathe with the locals. As we reached the spot there was a smell of cooked lamb wafting out of an open door with sawdust piled up waste-high and spilling down into a dungeon-like basement where a lanky man was shoveling it into a furnace. We waved at him and he cleared the stairs enough for us to negotiate our way down. The furnace is for heating water for the hammam on the other side of the wall. The hot air goes through a longish passage in the wall and a recessed space in the wall serves for cooking a specialty dish, tangia, meat and vegetables with the proper condiments placed in a ceramic jar which is closed and left on low heat for hours. There were a dozen or so crocks cooking and I had my picture taken holding one with the furnace operator.
The next day Seth and I decided to try to do our own tangia: We would buy the ceramic pot, the mutton, the vegetables and the spices, arrange the ingredients in the pot and take it to our friend, the furnace man. Malaika decided to accompany us on the venture. Our wives sarcastically wished us success. As we approached the bathhouse we heard drums beating. We looked down a side alley to find a group of children clapping their hands and beating tambourines. Malaika decided to join the fun and we followed her. A housewife approached us and explained that the kids where her own children and their friends practicing for the procession their school is having in celebration of the Islamic new year in ten days. She invited us into her house for tea and we accepted. As we savored the heavenly Moroccan very sweet mint and absinth tea we enquired about the family: She was a housewife; her husband worked long hours as a taxi driver; they have six children, the oldest in high school; they own their house, another classic though a humbler riad with chipped old ceramic tiles and with clotheslines strung across from the second story inward-facing balconies; and they share the riad through inheritance with her brother’s family and with that of her widowed sister. I climbed up with an older child and took pictures. I was intrigued by the thin strips, obviously not of fabric, that hung in the sun from one clothesline. These turned out to be fresh lamb innards being sundried for later use.
Before leaving we asked for directions to a good butcher and the hostess offered to guide us to one. When she learned our plan she offered to help with preparing the dish for us. After all, the butcher, the vegetable stall owner, the baker, and the furnace operator were all personal friends of hers and she knows the art of cooking tangia and will take care of everything for us. It wasn’t every day that she met good people from beloved Palestine and she wanted to prove her sincere sentiments to us. We accepted on the condition that we will share the tangia dinner with all the members of her family. Since it was the time for the Friday noon prayer all shops were closed. She proposed a plan: She would consult the butcher as to the amount of mutton needed to feed fourteen people and purchase a good cut from him; he will rent the pot from the baker for us; she will buy the vegetables and cook them separately since tangia was best done with mutton alone; and she will bring back the pot before eight o’clock. We left enough cash for all the expected expenses and headed home. We had to forcefully extract Malaika from her new-found band of friends and could do that only after taking multiple pictures of her and them kissing and hugging, individually and in groups. That is how fast children bond. How painful it must be for the surviving children of Gaza to take leave from dead siblings and friends!
When we returned in the evening our hostess’s demeanor had changed; she had become a little cagey. She hadn’t brought the pot back from the furnace. When we accompanied her to bring it our friend there demanded an added fee. We consulted and decided to play along and let it slide off our backs. After all she needed the money; they all needed the money more than the proprietor of an expensive restaurant that we would have gone to. We had to double the amount to the butcher and pay extra Dirhams for the fresh vegetables, for the bread, and for a load of sweets, though we had already brought a good amount of that as a present to the family. It all added to near hundred dollars. [“Ah! The almighty American dollar!” sighed one riad owner when I paid him in hundred-dollar bills. And that is what is padding the Israeli war machine.]
When we returned to the house with all the food the open smiles returned to our hostess’s face. Joined by her brother and her French-speaking mobile phone-obsessed teenage daughter, a specimen right out of a Paris salon, the three kept repeating welcoming remarks. She labored hard at waiting on us and on the members of her family and those of her brother and sister: dishing out the meat from the steaming pot, preparing and serving the vegetables the fruits, and the tea, and topping our dishes again and again while urging us to eat more. By the time the fantastic feast ended, the lady had certainly earned her cut. But I would rather have given it to her directly as we had originally planned.
Another occasion for rubbing shoulders with Moroccan brothers and sisters had come that same afternoon. As I often do when traveling, I had asked Jubran if he could arrange for us to be invited to a local wedding celebration, a real one and not the show put on for tourists. There weren’t that many weddings this time of year but he would try, he promised. That morning we noticed a decorated new Mercedes parked at the entrance to our ally. We were told there must be a wedding or, more likely, a celebration for someone who has just returned from pilgrimage to Mecca. Then we heard music in the street. I went down to discover a traditional Sufi-style religious band with some twenty men dressed in white jellabas and colorful red kaftans, singing and playing their drums, cymbals, and reed pipes. I ran back to alert the family and found them already in the alley that was now packed with children and women singing and ululating. Jubran was talking to a woman who had just reprimanded me for aiming my camera in her direction. [Only a camera! I am a pacifist; I don’t aim deadly weapons at people.] She turned out to be the daughter of the celebrant pilgrims and he had asked her to invite us. She did so very graciously with repeated welcomes and joyous songs in our praise and in praise of Palestine. We accompanied the noisy procession to the house at the end of the alley where we were invited in and separated by gender, the men upstairs where I hugged the father freshly arrived from Mecca and glowing with pride and holy content. I congratulated him on performing his religious duty and wished him long life, politely declined his invitation to join the feast being served, and returned to the inner balcony for more pictures of the band and womenfolk downstairs. [Wouldn’t all that money be better spent had it been donated for a charity in Gaza! And how about the money we spent on this whole trip? And the price of our incessant overeating and the money we will spend on taking the extra weight off? How many starving children in Gaza would that feed? If only they would live to see the day I turn philanthropist!]
Our riad was only a short walking distance from Jama’a El Fnaa’, deservingly promoted to tourists as the world’s most lively city plaza. We have experienced its exotic excitement before but this time we had the added pleasure of sharing the venture with our two grand daughters, two and eight-years old. On repeated visits over one week we managed to eat at its not-so-hygienic food stalls, to use the services of one henna artist, and to see the varied and unusual entertainment it had on offer: snake charmers and performing monkeys, colorful water-sellers and gnouai type singers jingling their cymbals and twirling their fez tassels enough to make you dizzy, musicians playing their tambourines and single string instruments, single or group gymnasts, local tooth extractors standing with a pair of pliers next to a low chair and a dish containing several hundred actual human teeth, and glib charlatans hawking their magic cures to local customers who formed a mesmerized tight circle around them. And we rode around the square in horse-drawn open carriages. What I found most intriguing was the fact that the place was frequented by more local customers than by tourists who flock to it from all corners of the earth. Jama’a El Fnaa is truly an authentic display of the local culture reflecting the interface of Morocco’s Arab, Berber and African roots.
Yet our level of excitement never reached that of the French family we met at Riad Saba. The wife, a pediatrician, was so involved with the happenings at Jama’a El Fnaa that she achieved the unique distinction of being bitten by a monkey there and needing to go for anti-rabies shots.
We also hit some of the cultural highlights of the city including a few historical sights memorable amongst which was a guided tour of the majestic graves of the Saa’dis, the royal dynasty that preceded the current Alaouis, historically both having burst on the scene from their desert tribal enclaves claiming descent from the prophet Mohammad, to fill the political power vacuum in the capital, each in its own time. The fine Arabic calligraphy and the fancy decorative artistry in ceramic and plaster that covers the walls, floors, and ceilings of the mausoleums is reminiscent of the not unrelated artwork and craftsmanship seen at Alhambra Palace in Granada, the last Arab capital in Andalucía.
Other than the visual pleasure and the sense of elation at seeing the highlights of one’s own culture, this place held a second enticement for me. When the first Alaoui sultan defeated the Saa’dis, he posted the heads of their fighters atop the city wall, and there were enough heads to go around the entire wall. Surviving Saa’dis dispersed to all corners of the Arab world, including to Palestine. Back in Arrabeh, my village in Galilee, there is a contingent of Saa’di’s and Othman Saa’di, an electronic engineer with a successful business enterprise in Germany, is a very good friend of mine. [In Gaza there must be Saa’dis too. And their fate under Israel’s sword is no less gory than under that of the first Alaoui Sultan. Except that it is done with more efficient and less personal means of revenge.]
Across the Arab Middle East, Saa’dis still enjoy a certain regard and have an aura of holiness about them, apparently maintained from their better days in al-Maghreb. In recent history in Palestine this was augmented by the heroic performances of two scions of this ancient clan, Farhan and Nimr el-Saadi, who achieved martyrdom together with Izz-eddin el-Qassam, the inspirational leader of the 1936 peasant uprising against the British Mandate and its Zionist allies. The latter’s name is now familiar the world over as the brand name of the crude homemade missiles of Hamas in Gaza. And in Arrabeh I have a colleague, neighbor, and distant relative named Farhan Saa’di who sought his olden roots and married a Moroccan beauty.
Othman’s uncle, Sheikh Ibrahim el-Saa’di, who dabbled in writing amulets for the sick and disturbed, was the husband of my late aunt Nijmi. He was especially famous for treating one particular ailment, the locking of the jaw because of the displacement of its joint, what we physicians call temporo-mandibular joint displacement. Sufferers of this painful affliction flocked to his humble home from all parts of Galilee, if not all of Palestine. In modern day medical practice the usual nonsurgical treatment is for the doctor to grab the lower jawbone with both hands, thumbs inside the patient’s mouth and firmly pressed over the lower molars, and to yank down the jawbone into position. Sheikh Ibrahim used his Moroccan-style soft leather show, having read a healing prayer over it, to whack the jaw back into position. It was reported never to fail.
At Home with Berbers
In rural areas storks settle in high trees though they often invade with their oversized nests the towers of the same kasbahs frequented by the French vacationers. Kasbahs were the mini-castles of the rural Maghreb, inhabited by local tribal bosses. They were constructed out of mud bricks with mud thatched roofs, all molded out of local earth. This still is the construction material for most of the humble abodes of the Berber who populate the Atlas Mountains and their valleys and foothills as these descend towards the arid desert. That is why Berber towns and villages merge so well with their surroundings, so much so that they give the impression of total wilderness and desolation and nearly escape notice were it not for their well-tended green fields and the occasional foot traveler, local farmer on his donkey or mule, or woman with a load of firewood or the picturesque huge hay bundle on her back.
On our way from Marrakesh to our desert destination, we passed many Berber towns and villages and stayed for a total of three nights in their kasbahs and other tourist havens. As the color of the rock formations changed from the tedious gray into the charming pink and the intriguing multicolored red-streaked painted desert-like sandstone hills, so did the color of the Berber towns and villages and their old kasbahs.
Despite their lowly building materials kasbahs can be architecturally quite elaborate. In Skoura we stayed at such a kasbah and had lunch at another. At the latter we found the owner’s family, descendents of an influential Berber chieftain who built the highest kasbah in all of Morocco, busy collecting their olive crop. We pitched in and helped, thus earning our hors d’ouevres of freshly baked local bread with same-day freshly pressed olive oil savored right under the trees from which it came. I have a real infatuation with the magic stuff and never fail to register its taste in comparison to my own home produced oil. This was more akin to the taste of the raw olive itself and I interrogated my host, a young college grad with a degree in physics, about the reason.
In the same environs we befriended three children, siblings on their way to the fields, and had Laiali ride their donkey while Malaika joined them in the donkey cart. I took pictures and showed them to the giggling children. [Al-Jazeera TV in English has just become available on line in the USA for the first time. Today it showed the ICRC representative in Jerusalem describing how her staff in Gaza evacuated injured and starved children, surviving for four days next to the corpses of their dead mothers, by donkey cart because the Israeli army wouldn’t allow ambulances in. Look out! ‘F-16s and Donkey Carts’ will be the title of my next movie.]
Our other stop was at the famous Glaoui Kasbah, a veritable palace in the desert. The late Thami Glaoui acquired a great fortune, much influence and national notoriety for his support of the French during Morocco’s struggle for independence in the 1940s and 50s. Often hosted by the French masters in Paris with much aplomb and fanfare, for he also was a handsome devil, he had a solid base of followers among his Berber tribesmen and held sway over large swathes of the desert with its mineral riches, the income from which filled his coffers. Though he repented and begged forgiveness from the exiled Sultan, at whose feet he literally threw himself on the eve of independence, his image as a collaborator and a playboy apparently was never repaired. This I assume from the reluctance of the local Berber guide that accompanied us on the visit, himself a Glaoui, to enter into any detail about the life of the man beyond the information about his famous kasbah. Others I attempted to draw into a discussion of Thami’s role in the struggle for independence were equally evasive. [Will Palestinians ever achieve independence? And at what price? And if they do, which I doubt, can they ever rehabilitate all the turncoats and traitors to the cause that Israel’s secret services have corrupted?]
When we took the detour to the Glaoui Kasbah, the road was narrow but looked like a reasonable short cut. After the kasbah we sought the advice of our guide if we should return the way we came or continue on the shorter road. He questioned us about what car we drove and was assured it can make it. Still he cautioned that we should drive on right away so as to make it to the asphalted road before dark. “You have to descend down some steep stairs,” he informed us casually. At least two of us appreciated the ride: Seth who loves off-road driving, and I who took the front passenger seat and enjoyed the view. Malaika sat between us and spent a good part of the time face down in my lap with her hands over her eyes; Didi developed a serious heartburn; and Rhoda fell back on the classic excuse of all mothers: “Slow down! The baby is asleep.”
The road was impossibly narrow, rough, jagged, and curvy and it crawled down the very edge of a ravine. And it did have several stairways to traverse, some of the circular type, it seemed. Quite early on, we came to a fork that Michelin doesn’t show on its map. They can be sued for criminal intent for showing the road on their map in the first place. Soon we were joined by a group of young Russians who were on a more challenging mission: to travel the same road with regular cars including a small Fiat. Mercifully, three women on foot showed up from different directions and the puzzle was solved with sign language. Instantly another source of help materialized, a local tour guide driving a carload of tourists to the same destination, Ait Benhaddou. We followed him. This was a mixed blessing: he had driven this road before and knew were he was going; but also he drove fast. One added advantage was that should we meet an oncoming vehicle we would have advance notice. The one time this happened we were lucky to be in a small village where we could pull to the side and wait the half hour it took one of the two cars to drive in reverse to where there was enough space for the other to pass.
We covered the 40 Km in three hours flat. But the four times that we found someone to ask about the remaining distance we received the same estimate we were given at the start, fifteen Km. Excepting a few tension-filled moments where I mentally reviewed major events in my life, I enjoyed the adventure greatly. The light of the setting sun brought out the special hues of pink, red and orange of the cliffs across the ravine and magnified the shadows of the rocks and the charm of the farmland below. The quilt-like patchwork of multicolored geometrically varied pieces of land, red freshly tilled, green already-planted, and yellow or pink wild flower covered, all tightly packed at the base of the ravine for its entire length were magical. It brought vivid memories of my childhood in Galilee: not as wild, but no less pretty. This is how our farmland looked in early spring in the years before we lost it to Israeli settlers who turned it to commercial farming: one clean swipe, one boring color at a time.
One of the several locals we passed looked peculiarly out of place in this wilderness: a young woman with local features dressed in western attire, hair cut at shoulder level and with a purse and a backpack, deftly squeezed against the rock wall as we passed her. We couldn’t possibly make the space in the car to offer her a ride. I felt bad about her. Was she a university student home for a vacation? Or could she be a conscientious civil servant, a teacher, a social worker, a nurse or a health educator on her way to visit a client. I had made similar forays into some wild Bedouin localities in Galilee. But this was a tougher setting. And she certainly proved to be a tougher loner than I ever was: By the time we reached our destination she was already there. She must have taken shortcuts across the wild terrain.
As a villager myself, I found the rural area of great interest. The narrow asphalted road down the Dades valley goes through one Berber town after another with little distinctive features for the casual stranger, except perhaps for the hue of the soil that colors each town, as if the same can of paint had been splashed across the whole area. The farmers with their donkey carts and mules, or on foot with farm implements balanced on their shoulders, had me reminiscing. And the rock formations and strange shapes of the mountains, of course, were magical. At Ait-Ali we hired a local guide, took a local picnic lunch and went for a local hike across the river and into a canyon between the strange-looking wind and floods-sculpted rocks that the French call ‘Monkey’s Fingers’. Even Didi, with her pronounced acrophobia, enjoyed the experience. Many of the peculiarly-shaped rocks evoked visions of human images, a veritable three-dimensional Rorschach experience. Now, as I review the pictures on my camera, I can see clearly a Madonna with Child, a family seated in a circle, and corpses, many corpses piled one on top of the other, a whole mess of corpses. Is that an Israeli soldier peering out of his tank in the distance?
The King and we
The evident lack of any attempt at renovating the impressive Glaoui desert fortress cum palace fits well with my impression of the intentional neglect of the authorities of Thami’s legacy despite the successful national reconciliation so far. Later, as we reached sunny Tinerhir, the town was bedecked with so many Moroccan flags that from a distance it had a red sheen. At a local café a ferocious-looking Berber sat at the next table, his stern face, with its thick features and handlebar moustache framed by the hood of his gray thick woolen jellaba, foretold of foreboding news. We repeatedly exchanged glances and I finally asked him in high Arabic what was the reason for all the flags. He said that the King had been expected to visit the town today but this morning he cancelled the visit. I sarcastically said: “fortunately, ha!” The man glowered at me from under his hood and snapped an angry “What did you say?” I immediately corrected my remark to “unfortunately!” and withdrew apologetically from his zone. It turned out that the royal visit was only postponed, not cancelled. I didn’t go back to see if my friend could now smile.
Not only here but all along our desert route flags were posted every so many meters single or in clumps. At the entrance to small villages long stretches of camelhair tents were erected surrounded with flags and big banners with welcoming slogans in beautiful Arabic calligraphy, the distinctive Moroccan script adapted from the famous Kufi script of Iraq. [Not to worry; I will stop here; I won’t go on a tangent to speak of America’s war crimes in Iraq.] Even at little Merzouga the flags and the welcome banners were there. As we took off for a two-hour ATV ride across its famous sand dunes, we were informed that his Majesty, King Mohammad VI, is expected to come for a similar ride. After the exciting experience I wondered if a king also gets the same adrenaline surge as we did from the ride, or does he get used to excitement? Perhaps royalty get addicted to adrenaline highs and that is why the number of flags and slogans has to increase progressively.
It seemed the king’s planned trip, had he not decided to avoid us, would have taken him to all the same places where we ventured in southeast Morocco. Emerging out of the desert we caught up with him in the High Atlas town and ski-resort of Ifrane, Morocco’s answer to the Swiss Alps. The number of policemen and members of the Royal Guard on the road was impressive. And on the freeway from Fez to Casablanca, part of the king’s expected route, policemen were posted within sight of one another on both sides of the entire road. At a rest stop we found a score of shiny motorcycles in the parking lot with their Royal Guard riders sipping tea inside and awaiting orders. As a closet pacifist I never feel comfortable in the same room with an armed security person. I broke in a cold sweat.
The national slogan that we saw everywhere we went was “God, The Homeland, and The King”. This declaration of allegiance, Morocco’s own holy trinity, was there on banners and city signs and spelled out in stone on hills and mountainsides all across the country. Yet all of this did not measure up to the number of pictures and slogans that I remember seeing ten years ago when I visited the exotic country for the first time. King Mohammad VI image doesn’t overwhelm the commercial ads and business venues as his father’s did. Even now many shops still have King Hassan II gazing at the customers as they enter the door.
We were pleasantly surprised by the noticeable degree of improvement that has taken place in the general sanitation especially in Fes and Marrakesh, the two cities where we stayed in the old walled quarters. Major repairs, restoration and maintenance efforts were in evidence. Mosques, baths, and sabeels were in good functioning order. A sabeel is a drinking fountain set in the center of a decorative mural, a wide, recessed and tiled wall with a typical serrated overhanging arch. These are a typical feature of Islamic old cities, a source of clean drinking water for the benefit of passersby, dedicated by historical venerable figures or rich merchants. They break the monotony of the repetitive displays of the same type of goods in one shop after the other in the traditional market streets. I remembered the sabeels in Akka from my early childhood. Akka, Haifa, Jaffa, Lidda, Jerusalem and all other old cities in Palestine once had sabeels. With the absence of both the beneficiaries and the benefactors they have turned to nonfunctioning and broken down relics of past days. How did the sabeels in Gaza fair this time, I wondered.
In Fez we lucked out with our choice of accommodation, La Maison Bleue, a superbly restored riad abutting the historic site where the original independence proclamation document was drafted and signed in 1943, hence the name of the plaza it fronts, ‘Istiqlal Plaza.’ The riad’s center courtyard walls and their arcaded recesses that serve as private dining rooms while still in open continuity with the central space, allowing the full enjoyment of performing musicians, has been done with such refined ceramic handicraft artistry that it matches anything we have ever seen anywhere in palatial grandeur. And the service was equally hospitable while the rooms combined all modern conveniences with the imagined excesses of an oriental guesthouse of old, from heated beds to bathtubs enveloped by clouds of warm amber oil vapor. By now I have learned of the ongoing massacre in Gaza. The sense of guilt tore at my heart and I hated the excess luxury.
We walked the markets and visited the famous Buananieh school, the home of such world-renowned Arab thought luminaries as Ibn Khaldoun and Ibn Battuta, both having penned their volumes while on full pension from the sultan abu-Anan, the founder and mentor of the school, hence the name. The shopkeepers were not too aggressive with plying their reasonably priced and truly authentic carpets, ceramics, leather goods, and other locally produced souvenirs. But you had to know the essentials of bargaining. That I certainly do. When bored I practice my skill at bargaining as a sport. I choose a small item and drive the price down to the absolute minimum that the shopkeeper will accept and then pay him his original asking price. It always elicits a big smile or even a hug and an invitation to tea.
The one aspect of the marketplace that we found irksome was that everyone we asked for directions mutated right under our sights into a paid tourist guide insisting to show us the best place in town which was, of course, not the one we had asked directions for, and then demanded remuneration for his services.
Laqlaq, Arabic for stork, is a more interesting sounding word. It imitates the sound made by the bird and is pronounced with the guttural ‘q’ that few other than Arabs and storks can make. Laiali, my granddaughter, couldn’t stop repeating the word. As behooves a toddler, she appreciates repetitive sounds. She says her name is Lulu and her sister is Lala and Morocco was full of laqlaqs, and of camels, of course.
Lulu has never seen a warwar, bee-eater, another more colorful migratory bird that is called by the sound it makes. It used to cross the skies of my childhood in Galilee in flocks that would cover the whole sky with bright green. My uncle who was influential enough, or co-opted enough if you wish, to rate a hunting-gun permit from the British administration, would stand on the roof of his house and shoot a few warwars for dinner and we children would compete with his Seljuk dog in retrieving them. We would specially delight in the great flocks of storks that would frequently choose the skies of our village to circle endlessly round and round. Apparently the stream of warm air that rose from a our village provided the uplift the storks needed to take a rest, a brief R&R on their arduous flight from Russia to East Africa or back. The storks were holding a wedding dance, we, the children, believed. And we would join them in our own joyous group dance, the Dabkeh. Alas, it seems a rare occasion that I have seen a stork wedding party over Arrabeh or a flock of warwar in the over fifty years since I reached adulthood. Is it the loss of innocence, I wonder, or the modernizing influence of Israel that has caused our ‘desert to bloom’ and migrating birds to change their course and avoid us?
The French also seek warmer environs and sing, dance, circle and sway when they hit a warm spot. Indeed a veritable noisy flock of them crowded the dance floor at the desert retreat where we stayed and celebrated the New Year. We dined, Rhoda and Seth danced, Malaika danced with her parents and played with her French age-mates, and little Lulu befriended an older French boy and spent the evening dancing, running and shouting with him, both using their toddler babble and sheer energy as a common language. We didn’t know then that the New Year had started that differently for people in Gaza.
All through the trip our grandchildren experienced Morocco as a super petting zoo: camels, horses, mules, donkeys, sheep, goats, monkeys, cats, guinea pigs, parrots, snakes, turtles and even porcupines. And I have pictures to prove it.
No pet pigs or dogs though. Both are considered filthy in Arab and Islamic culture. Dogs are kept mainly outdoors on guard duty or to shepherd the flocks. They don’t reach the level of respectability to associate closely with humans and be petted. Especially in Gaza dogs are currently getting some particularly bad press. They are reported to be eating the corpses of dead children left out to rot. I wonder who is to blame! Soon we will read and hear, I am sure, about the awful parenting practices of Palestinians who leave their dead children for dogs to eat. And Israeli, American, and European experts will delve into analytical discourses and offer socio-cultural and psychological explanations.
Exaggeration! Blood libel! You say.
Wrong! I say. You, your intellectuals, politicians and media moguls, and, dare I say, your born-again fundamentalist Christians, in and out of the White House, have maligned us before, twisting facts to suite your malicious intent. You have dehumanized me and my people to the point that you are unable to pity our dying children. You have demonized me and my people and pictured us as mindless savages without conscience, sub-humans unworthy of your attention. You have made it a virtue, nay, a commandment to kill me.
Enough is enough! It is time you opened your mind and heart and looked me straight in the eye as your equal in humanity and compassion. It is time you knew me for what I am: another human being, pure and simple, one capable of all the hate and malice that you can muster against your enemies, but also of all the love and compassion that you have for your friends. It behooves us both to consider the alternatives. Just don’t look at me through your gun sight; drop the gun from your hand and take your heavy boot off my neck so I can breathe some fresh air and be your friend again. Stop bludgeoning me and pay attention to my own narrative; Say what is on your mind but hear me out too.