Last day in Morocco

I woke up eager to explore Fez on my last day. Ramadan is over and Eid-Fetr was yesterday. Also, today is Saturday which is not a holiday in Muslim countries. Or so I thought! Actually, Saturday and Sunday are also part of the weekend here and on top of that Eid-Fetr is four days not one and so the banks and museums were still closed! I resigned to my disappointment and started walking around the medina bazaar one last time. Surprisingly, most of the streets looked familiar and I could easily navigate my way around, not that I was going to anywhere in particular.  

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I still had to pay someone to go up a roof and see the famed tanneries in action. The place was smaller than I thought but the smell was as bad as I had heard it to be. The range of natural colours was beautiful to watch and I remembered they are made from everything from pigeon poo to cow pee to pomegranate juice! 

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After that I visited an old oil shop with rows and rows of herbs on the wall. The shrewd owner gave me a tour and let me try Argan oil and musk oil. I felt I was in the medieval times, travelling through the Middle East.

ImageWalking further down the streets, I became fascinated by the craft of a man who was making a “wind blower”. I bought one from him as another addition to my growing collection of tangible designs from around the world. These now include pipes from the Amazon, an Apache axe from Mexico, a Kukuri from Nepal, a singing bowl from Bhutan and a prayer wheel from India among other things.  

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I was again fascinated by doors and fountains around Fez. They are so beautiful and ornate that they can mesmerize you!

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After some more walking down the fascinating medina streets, I walked back to the new city via a large garden where I sat exhausted by the lazy afternoon sun and wrote Farsi beat poetry. 

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One of the fascinating aspects of life in the medina is the collaboration of people who work there. It seems each shop has only one thing that is shared with other shops when a customer wants it. I sat in a shop and they brought water from one store, the food from their place, coffee from the cafe across the street and milk from a grocery store. All of these items were on the one menu of the same restaurant!

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I had an interesting chat with a yogourt vendor who was puzzled that I could read Arabic and gave me a mini-lecture on the apparent incompatibility of wearing earrings and being masculine enough. I love to hear honest opinions! 

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In my hotel, after a second cold shower, I went for a meal. Before eating, I found a small music shop with a good collection of Moroccan music. The owner upon learning I am from Iran, kindly showed me around his shop and said his cousin has married an Iranian man and lives in Casa Blanca now. Upon hearing that my brother is a musician he gave me a CD of Berber music as a gift. I bought some Sufi, Andalusian and Gnawa music.   Image

For dinner, I ended up at a quaint restaurant where I shared a table with two Italian scholars I had met earlier in the medina. One of them teaches and studies Arabic-Greek Middle Age texts and the other is a Byzantium scholar. We had a conversation about Iran and its history. They both were very interested in visiting there. We all lamented the possibility of tourists inadvertently washing away Morroco’s unique identity by their desires for pizza, milkshake and dreadlocks! A very interesting culinary experience at the restaurant was that they brought sweets (similar to Persian zolbia or Indian Jalebi) to eat with the soup.

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“Stranger in a Strange Land”

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Sitting in a cafe in Ville Novelle in Fez at night, drinking sweetened mint tea and reading about the history of these “new towns” built by the French for French colonialists to feel at home in Morocco, I suddenly had a strange encounter.

I have seen glue-sniffing kids from Nepal to Mexico and it is always sad to see what this horrible addiction does to them: hollowed eyes, drooling mouths, empty smiles, souls slowly becoming thinner in inhalant fumes. I looked up from my book and a kid was staring at me and smiling that hollowed smile. I looked down and from the corner of my eye saw him linger sometimes longer and leave, turning back a few more times and finally walking away into the night.

It took me a few moments to realize he was wearing an Argentina soccer jersey. Maybe he thought I was from there (many many people think I’m South American, especially Argentinian). Maybe he wanted to tell me that, “I like your soccer, you play good!” But he was gone. Silence!

A few years ago, I met a drunk Mongolian policeman in a small town in China (Labrang) who staring at me from a bar stool suddenly got up started laughing and shot his feet in the air, mimicking a football kick, “you play good! Football!” At first, I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he said, “where you from?” “Canada.” This didn’t register. “No, where you are from?” “Hmm, originally Iran but I live in Canada”. “No! Maradona! You play football! Soccer!” “I see, no, actually, I am from Iran.” “Maradona, football, Argentina, good!” He kept kicking an invisible bar. Eventually, I gave up, “yes, football, good, Argentina!” He was satisfied. I left.

Here, in Morocco, I wish I was strong enough to walk up to this kid, see what he has to say and perhaps tell him, “no, I am not from Argentina, but in Iran we play good soccer too!”

Doors and Fountains


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Fez is a city of doors and fountains. They are everywhere: beautiful doors (mostly closed because today was Friday and also a holiday) and fountains large and small. I walked through the empty old town and did the impossible: did not get lost!

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Most of the shops were closed which was helpful as the empty streets are easier to navigate. I visited the one museum that was open: the Wooden Arts and Crafts Museum with an (of course!) amazing door and building and interesting exhibits.

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Lunch was at a beautiful tea house tucked into the bazaar. The coffee in Morocco is divine (probably a French influence) and after a few days of scarcity of foodstuff during the day because of Ramadan, it was refreshing to walk the city caffeinated and be able to drink water in the scorching heat!

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In the evening, streets were again full to the brim with the old, young and everyone in between. The energy reminded me of Iran with people walking up and down the streets and children playing until late in the evening. I saw a MacDonald’s that was completely full.

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Vastland

This vastland is my home,

My desires running bare feet like orphans, recognize me and hold my hand,

I am back and will not leave again.

 

This vastland is my home,

I finally recognized the light at the end of your silence and kissed your parched lips, my broken lost friend!

 

This vastland is mine,

It stretched under my feet wherever I ran away and cringed when I finally stopped and sat,

“I love you!” I said and the sky began to cry after such a long empty night.

 

Beneath the dry skin of this desert, seeds of wild flowers hide, timid and fragile and insecure,

I cut my veins and water them with my blood,

As my eyes close and I am overtaken by the Great Sleep,

My last vision is of flowers blooming around me.

 

I’m a “numad”

I left Tangiers and its contradictions: major streets named after Beethoven and Mozart, people devoutly reading the Koran in the grocery store and playing prayer recordings at gas stations, with both nostalgia and relief.

As the train slowly moved out of the station into a desolate landscape of sunburnt fields with occasional sudden crops of sunflowers, a sight that would have made van Gogh happy, I started reading computer science papers on my laptop and playing pac-man in between.

I came across an interesting paper that described a new form of lifestyle, called Nu Nomads (I like to abbreviate it to Numad!): people who spend a significant part of their time travelling for work. I was happy and relieved at the same time. So there is a name for what I am (sort-of) doing! It’s usually good to find a new identity. The paper, entitled “Designing for Nomadic Work” by Norman Makoto Su and Gloria Mark, went on to compare modern nomadic workers who travel for their work and have to be on their laptops a lot and meet client “face-to-face” with “pastoral nomads”, traditional tribes that travel to sustain their animal husbandry. The researchers identified the modern mobile office, usually consisting of a laptop, smartphone and so on, with a main animal that the pastoral nomads care for. They also draw parallels between searching for resources (e.g., internet connectivity, power in the case of numads and good pasture for pastoral nomads) and maintaining relationships with fellow nomads (via social networks and conference calls for numads and through tribal relationships and rituals for pastoral nomads). It was a good read. 

Arriving at Fez, I checked into a nice hotel and had an afternoon nap before the evening call to prayer. At that time I went for another traditional “iftar” which consisted of milk, orange juice, hard-boiled egg, a super tasty soup called Harira, sweets and dates.

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The streets were completely empty after “iftar” and I walked to the old town where lots of people were sitting drinking tea and smoking (mainly cigarettes but also lots of hash). The streets were amazingly intricate and since it was night I only stuck with the ones with people in them. I exercised my 3d navigator skills learned after years of playing Wolfenstien and Doom by finding my way back to the main entrance. Before coming back I heard another call to prayer and everyone started going through a door into a large mosque that was hidden in the souqes. I followed and for a few minutes sat there listening to the sound of Arabic prayers and people repeating them.

I decided to postpone exploring more of the old town to daytime hours and walked back to the new town where lots of people in Western clothes were walking down streets or sitting corner-to-corner at coffee shops drinking coffee or tea and smoking. I met a young man who said he was going to marry an American girl in a month. She was to bring him to the US where he was gonna become a barber, hoping to gather money to send his parents to pilgrimage in Mecca. I found his story and his dream fascinating. It would be a good plot for a novel!

I continued walking down the street for a few more hours taking the sounds, sights and smells in. The city was totally alive with lots of children playing in the park when I felt exhausted at 1 am and decided to go back to the hotel.       

Persistence

Last night I could not sleep. During Ramadan, the city comes to life during the day and usually people will go to sleep only after the last permissible meal of the night at 4 or 5. During this time, there is a lot of socializing, talk and laughter on city streets (including in my street) and finally at 3 there is a loud and persistent drum roll urging people to take their last meal before dawn!

But I enjoyed the warm airless hours of the night in my room and as I had a strong desire to leave Tangiers in the morning, decided to stay one more day! Not so much out of masochism but out of desire to give this strange city more time and, boy, I’m glad I did! My persistence paid off to the point I can see why so many expats flooded here in the 50s. (Especially listening to fusion Jazz music in the lazy afternoon).

I woke up at 9 and walked empty burning streets to the clean train station where I bought tickets for tomorrow from a helpful young man. Walking back, I passed a couple of low key cafes that were open and ready to cater to travelers and foreigners. I decided to pass and walked to the old medina.

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Next, I went to the Tangier American Legation which is an old traditional house in the medina with a very interesting wing dedicated to Paul Bowles, the American novelist, poet and musician who lived here for many years. He was friends with the Beats, translated many Arabic novels to English and went through all of Morocco for six months collecting samples of traditional Moroccan music for the American Library of Congress.

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They had his suitcases, photographs, postcards and recordings. Also, there was a note saying Jack Kerouac also stayed in the same hotel I am staying at now! Lovely! If you are interested more about the beats in Morocco check this out!

After this, I went to the Casbah museum which is an old palace. I walked around it and stumbled upon a photography exhibit. There I started talking to an American-Moroccan artist about her experience of Tangiers and many many other things. It was great to connect with someone from here after a long time. I also met her friend who said he has a good friend from Iran who lives in Tangiers, London and Los Angeles and is a project director. Iranians everywhere!

Before we said goodbye, my new friend showed me a very nice perfume shop where you tell them a famous brand and they make a fake one right away! They also have original amazing fragrances.

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The exoticness of this culture seems to bring out creativity and timelessness to ones thoughts. Thinking about why I travel (even when at times it makes me lonely), I wrote a short poem.

I travel

 I carry a backpack full of eyes,

And many ears listen out of my luggage,

When my two feet are worn and tired,

Invisible forces push me on,

Like a drop of water rolling down a river,

getting closer to an ocean.

I don’t travel by myself,

There is a whole nation of seekers in my hotel room,

and they are thirsty to experience everything, with hunger, with joy.

Sometimes, I am tired, don’t want to do it anymore,

Then, I remember I am alive, I breath, I see and I will take the next step out of love, for you!

Tangiers in Ramadan

I was surprised to find two movies I wanted to see on the flight to Paris from Toronto. One was “The Past”, Jafar Farhadi’s new film that is shot in France and the other was “Despicable Me”, a popular animation known to be light and funny. Watching Farhadi’s movie was hard and not only because one of the side characters who undergoes a lot of pain is my namesake. I could identify too much with the main character and it’s not a happy movie. But it was an excellent watch on the plane. I followed it, appropriately with the much more chilled and light “Despicable Me”.

In France, I met a friend and relative after many years and spend most of the day talking about everything from travel to theater. In the evening, we had a pleasant riverside dinner. A shocking thing about Paris was how empty it is these days because most people take their vacations during August and July. During our conversations, I realized I will be in Morocco during the last days of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. During this month, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk and have a mini-feast called “iftari” every night. Since I was traveling, I was not required to fast but had to be respectful and not eat outside and also couldn’t go to the famous cafes and restaurants during the day. I decided not to eat and drink during the day anyway and take part in the evening festivities.
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I had a grand entrance to Morocco where my backpack arrived soaked in a mysterious liquid I later realized was maple syrup: one of the bottles I had brought from Canada as gift was not able to endure handling by Royal Air Maroc staff! (Although I have to say it was partially my fault and I had not packed it properly). Arriving from the airport, I was driven by a driver who was shocked to hear I was originally from Iran and kept repeating my Arabic name! I decided to stay in the legendary Munirie hotel. This is the hotel William Boroughs stayed in and wrote his infamous Naked Lunch novel: a novel that was rescued in fragments from under piles of garbage and vomit and is a hallucinatory account of heroin visions and sexual adventures. My stay will be more boring, as I am not into boys or heroin and am happy to share the same wildly creative space for a night of imagination and nostalgia. The hotel is tucked into a side street, is central, cheap and clean.

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After checking in, I went for a walk around the old town or medina and was immediately lost! I was planning to find a museum about the Beats but soon gave up and started following crowds of people buying foodstuff for iftar in the market. Many different kinds of sweets, bread and olives were on display. I made a resolution to come out and try to find good iftar place in the evening. My plan unfortunately failed because I fell asleep and when I woke up the prayer was already over and all the iftar places were out of special food. I settled on a mediocre tagine and decided to try my luck the next day.
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Tangiers still retains some of its seedy feel and especially the old city did not feel safe at night. Having said that, it is still a very interesting place and walking along the main cafe-lined boulevard I saw a couple of interesting things: a fire broke out in a shopping mall with many people gathering and becoming excited and a group of communist activists suddenly started rallying and shouting in the street. I soon got tired of walking and headed back to my hotel, ready for a good night’s sleep before heading out in the morning.