Thursday, November 19, 2009

How I was Charmed By Paris: A Retrospective

So I’m about to embark on my most adventurous adventure yet, but before I do I need to tell you - my dedicated readers - about a few things. Lets start with highlights from enchanting city: Paris

The Arabic Speakers:
I heard a good deal of Arabic in the streets, picking it out easily from the pretty gobbledygook that is French, but only three times did the fact that I can get farther with my Arabic than with French struck me as hilarious. The first time was at the Museé D’Orsay on our first day in Paris. We were so excited to be there, we pranced through the doors, set our stuff down to be screened, and started walking through the metal detector when the security guard says something very grave in French. I look at him, and without thinking, blurt out “Shnu!?” (“what!?” in Moroccan Arabic) and he laughed. Actually laughed, and then asked me if spoke Arabic, to which I responded “Eeya” like a good Moroccan. We stood there, making people stand in line while we discussed his Algerianness and what we were doing in Morocco…eventually he let us pass without even glancing at our bags. Turned out the grave thing he was saying was meant as a joke, which we obviously didn’t get until it was translated to Arabic.

The second time was when we were looking for the main drag of Avenue St. Germaine. We really didn’t have a clue where we were (this was before I dashed off to purchase a Lonely Planet Paris “Encounter” edition) and I heard some guys speaking Hebrew on the street. Lisa ran up to them and asked, in the proper tongue, where St. Germaine was -- the responded “At Holechet Alav” (“You’re walking on it”) and begin to walk away, which was a relief. But to their surprise and my amusement, Lisa yelled after them: “SHUKRAN!” (Arabic for “thank you”). I almost died of laughter.

The final time Arabic came in handy was when we were rushing on our way pre-Shabbat to Sarcelles, the suburb, or should I say ghetto (only blacks, Arabs, and Jews live there) for Shabbat with Baria and her daughters (yes, it was adorable. It was like having four Barias all at once.) I was nervous, as I was navigating first the metro system, then the train system (quite a disaster that was) and then the bus system, and I had three different numbers for which bus to take…so, like I said, I was nervous. In any event, I got onto one of the buses it could have been (369, I think) and just said “Albert Camus?” hoping he’d understand my meaning, which he did, and said “Oui” (which I’ve learned is the correct way to spell the pronouncement “wee”). In any case, I think it was when I was buying my ticket that he saw a dirham fall out of my change purse and said something something French something…Maroc. And I answered him abck in Arabic. I think he was more than a little stunned. Turns out he’s from a little place close to Rabat and I told him that I study there, and he was even guessed where I study (AmidEast, Agdal). We were friends after that -- and it was a long bus ride, so I was glad of it.

The Tourists:
We met some interesting people on our travels, and I think that’s actually what make traveling fun - the places themselves are nice, but its really the people you meet in the places you’re at that make the difference. Looking for directions (again before the purchase of the LP), we ran into four middle aged American women, one of whom was from Portland (originally from Seattle!) who had us take a picture of them and then took a picture of us. They were hilarious - all dressed up, carrying shopping bags, grinning from ear to ear, looking like they were just having a ball. It was a “girls trip” to Paris, it seemed, and they had done everything. They gave us some tips -- including the idea to get coffee at the clock café at the Museé D’Orsay (Which we did. It was lovely.)

The most memorable tourists we met were less “cute” and more “grimy-traveler” but definitely just as sweet. We were lost - again- and saw these two guys, one of whom was carrying - of course - his Lonely Planet guide to Paris in his hand. I was jealous. He had dreads, was wearing the same grey wool glove cut-offs and brown leather jacket as I was (weird). He and his friend were both carrying gigantic backpacks. (I had left mine at home.) But the best part was that when they opened their mouths they revealed thick Irish accents and graciously pointed us in the right direction of course with the use of their Lonely Planet. I bought one the next day.

The Funny Frenchpeople:
I wanted to buy something for our host, Greg, who had done so much for us. He, among other things, picked us up at the airport at 1am, bought us glorious kosher food (5 cheeses!), took us down the Champs Elyeése in his car (it was cold!), through the Arc d’Triumph (Napoleonic) and up the Eifel Tower (gorgeous) on Saturday night as well as up to Montmartre to see the Sacre-Coeur, and, of course, let us crash on his floor (he had a Japanese-style mattress) and me play his piano (sigh) for three nights! So I decided we should buy him something. Flowers were out, chocolate and wine were stupid (the man lives in Paris!) so I thought it would be nice to buy him some strawberries. This turned out to be an adventure. The man I wanted to buy from was just funny. Kind of a goofy-looking guy in a bright sweater, he gave me the impression that he loved what he did, selling fruit and being friendly. He had a parrot at the cash register, and a man with a Chihuahua came by and he made the two make friends. Then his friend came by - and lo and behold - started yelling at him (jokingly). The only words I understood were “Jakob” (his name, clearly) and “kippa” (!) while this other guy kept covering Jakob’s head with his hand. I got the point. Jakob was Jewish but not wearing his kippa. Oy.

The French-Moroccan Wedding:

Two words sums it all up: Singles Table. No more needs be said. Other than that there was mixed dancing at the end after the (exceptionally strict) mechitza dancing at the outset. Don't worry, I mostly danced with Baria.
Also, the old Jewish quarter of Paris is stunning sells an extrodinary amount of excellent Jewish fare.

OK well that’s enough for now - I thought I would get through more here, but Paris was just too exciting. As for me, this next week will (inchallah) include travels to Ouarzazate, the location of the sets for films including but not limited to: Star Wars, Troy, and Gladiator, then hiking the tallest peak in the Atlas Mountains known as Jebel Toubkal (lets pray for no altitude sickness!), and then a pampering weekend on the beach in Essouaira where I may (or may not) take up an invitation by one of the AmidEast language partners to join him and his family for Eid Al-Kabir. I can’t decide if it’s a good idea or not. We’ll see. Anyway, a departing song for y’all: Love Will Come Through by Travis. I’m in that sort of mood.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Pain in My Foot and Stomach

I'm skipping Paris -- for now. I'll do a quick catch-up later. Maybe. Anyway...I’m sick (because of something I ate last night). And I’m tired (because I couldn’t sleep because of something I ate last night). And I still have the taste of cigarettes in my mouth from when I got up at 4 in the morning parched as a penguin and tried to drink water out of a bottle I had bought last week that had been sitting on the dining room table all weekend, or so I thought. I very quickly discovered, however, that Khadija had helped herself to it -- and it tasted like stinky, sickly smoke. I almost threw up. I proceeded to brush my teeth especially thoroughly to no avail, and now, six hours later, I’m still sort of pissy at Khadija. SO -- I will endeavor to forget my woes in this blog post…here we go anyhow:

This weekend I went to Casablanca and Marrakesh. Actually, more accurately, I went to Marrakesh, with a two-hour stop-over to see the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. But I’m glad we did -- it’s really something to see. It’s the third biggest mosque in the world (after two in Saudi Arabia in Mecca and Medina respectively), and it was built in the 80s. The upkeep costs are enormous because some good percentage of it (like ¼ or so) rests on the ocean, and the corrosion from the sea-salt is constant. But the place is gorgeous. They call it the high-tech mosque even though everything inside was made by hand, since it has speakers built into the stucco-work, electrically heated floors for worshippers, and a retractable roof like Seattle’s Safeco field which takes exactly 3 minutes to open. Most of the prayer facility is not used every day, but it overflows during Ramadan. The bathhouses (both Roman and Turkish for both men and women), however, are never used. They built them and the decided that instead of making them functional, they would pour the money for them into another project…I think it had to do with literacy or Quranic scholarship or some thing more…well…productive.

In any case, then we marched back onto the bus to sit until lunch, lunch at a “Minibrahim” (a chain of the best places to stop along the coastal highway, and I particularly like the name, it reminds me of one of my cousins). When we got to Marrakesh, we went to the Jardin Marjorelle, a beautiful, brightly colored garden left over from the Occupation (I believe) that I had already been to, but enjoyed nonetheless. It began my observation that Marrakesh was very different this time ‘round from when I had been there during Eid (post-Ramadan holiday) last time. There were more people around, more tourists buying things, more Moroccans selling things, more tourists paying for overpriced hot chocolate at the Marjorelle café, more Moroccans playing Genoa music for you in traditional dress hoping you’ll drop a couple dirhams in their bowl.

We got to our budget hotel in the Ville Novelle and I started making inquiries for the synagogue (thank you Mom!). It was 5 blocks away. It was almost as propitious as that time I found the synagogue next door to my hotel in Agadir. We got to the synagogue which, of course, was packed with Israeli tourists, and sat down. After shul I asked for The Guy I had been told sort of “ran” things for the Jewish community (or what remains of a Jewihs community) in Marrakesh. I asked for Itzak. First I got an Israeli tourist who didn’t know limin (right) from leesir (left), but then I found him -- the man who was taking all of the Israeli tourists home to eat a kosher feast prepared by his wife -- and invited us and my two friends to join him. So we did. We walked about 3 and ½ blocks (in the direction of our hotel, nonetheless!) to his house with 50 Israelis who were fascinated by us. All of them wanted to ask us all of the same questions all at once. It was strangely gratifying. We had a six-course meal which included fish, pastillas and lamb (I didn't eat all of it, I've learned...). Yizak's family sat with us - his wife, daughters and granddaughter - and we spoke in a mixture of Hebrew/Arabic, and I learned a few things: There are no longer Jews in Ouarzazate, there are no other places in Marrakesh to eat that were kosher, and the next day there would be a MASSIVE schina (I saw it on the platta) for everyone, and we were invited.

I managed to get a friend of mine psyched into walking with me all the way from the Ville Novelle (New City) to the Jama’a al-Fna, the main, happening square in the old part of Marrakesh. On the way, however, actually just as I stepped onto Rue Mohammad V, the main drag of the Ville Novelle, I cut my foot. Deeply. It was bleeding. My friend and I found a pharmacy, and the pharmacist, without saying a word (I think he assumed we didn’t speak Arabic or French), sat me down, used cotton balls to pour what alcohol, which he called Al-Haram (it means “The forbidden” -- it was a joke), into the gash, then taped gauze to it, and covered it with a sort of meshy gauze that he tied around my ankle. I was very grateful. And I managed the hour down and the hour back with just this bandage. I met the rest of AmidEast and we walked around, saw the Ba’ya Palace, the Saadian Tombs, the Khuttubia mosque, the oldest, no-longer-in-use synagogue in the Mellah (I was told by a few of the men there that there was one around the corner that was still in use, in fact, it was frequented by Itzak, but didn’t get a change to go see it. It was also 1 in the afternoon and I doubted very much that he’d be there). I spent the afternoon wandering through the old souqs (markets) with my friends who were buying up the town (don’t worry, I did my own shopping on Saturday night) and then walked back for a shaleshudis of sorts on the roof of the hotel. We didn't make it back to Yizak's, but maybe I'll get to go back next time I'm in Marrakesh.

I came back home, ate some old salad that was in the fridge, and proceeded to become painfully ill. I didn’t go to school today, but I hope to tomorrow, as we have Wednesday off (!) because it’s Moroccan Independence Day.

Song of the moment, as inspired by Jack: Mouthwash by Kate Nash.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Boooo, Shev, booo! I missed a week. This might be the first time. I got back on Monday night from Paris -- which is what I've been meaning to blog about and haven't --- and I'm off to Casablanca and Marrakesh for the weekend. Right now - literally - I'm running off to reach English and then heading to my favorite live music venue, an African bar called "Yakut". I'll be better next week. Inchallah.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Adventures in and out of Rabat

I just need to complain for a moment. My host parents are in Paris, where I am joining them in just a few hours. But I’ve spent the week with our housekeeper, who is not live-in usually, but is essentially house-sitting while the Ben Loulous are away. Khadija, is usually is just sugar and honey to me all the time, but - turns out- when left to her own devices, is often unresponsive and irresponsible. I will give you the three examples, briefly

1) Khadija smokes and drinks black coffee. I’ve never seen her eat. But when Baria is home, she smokes only in one room - the parlor - though she sips her coffee everywhere. Now that Baria’s gone, I've seen her ashtrays in the kitchen sink, and I smell her ciggystench everywhere. I feel like I have begun to live inside a giant cigarette.

2) T
he day after Baria left we ran out of na’ana (fresh mint) from which we make tea every morning and occasionally in the afternoons. I had been told by Baria that if I needed anything to just ask Khadjia to get it during the day since all of the shops would be closed by the time I returned from school. And I asked Khadjia to go get some the day before. She went out the next morning searching for it, but of course there was none -- it was 7:30am! And this same story repeated itself the two days following. Each morning I would ask if there was na’ana and she would respond by walking out the door only to come back empty handed just in time to make me late for school (note: I couldn’t leave the house until she got back since she doesn’t have a key). In any case, I finally had tea with na’ana this morning. Ahhhh.

3) The Kicker: Mike was dropping off Lisa and myself one evening after going out to my favorite place in town, an African bar with live music called “Yakut”. It had been a lovely evening and we arrived inside Bab Diwana around 1am. All of the balconies were closed, including ours, and as I looked through my purse for the key, a stone sank in my gut. I didn’t have it. What were we going to do? It was our first night alone, and if Khadija wasn’t there and I didn’t have the key we would have no way to get in for the next 3 weeks! We’d have to break down the door! Mike was exhausted and had no brainpower to offer us. Lisa was freaking out and waving her arms. I was pacing. And thinking. After about ten minutes this, plus ringing the doorbell a hundred times, calling the house phone (which we could hear from outside!), and yelling Khadija’s name, I had to stop and just think. I took the opportunity to explain the situation to Zohair (AKA Homo Religiosis), our as-yet unmarried, supposed do-nothing neighbor whom you will recall from previous posts. And then I had an idea. I would climb onto the top of Mike’s truck, shimmy up the awning of the hanut (local store) that lies below our balcony. So I did. With strength I didn’t know I possessed I leveraged against the flimsy iron overhang and pulled myself up and over the balcony railing. I banged on the door yelling Khadija’s name. No response. It was at this point that I despaired. It was fair to assume that she had gone home and that we were truly locked out. So I climbed down, letting myself drop gently onto Mike’s truck to have another think. I walked around the house, examining each window slowly. And low and behold - there it was. Baria’s room’s window was slightly cracked open. But, as you all know, I am short, and there was no hanut overhang to grip. I considered our friend, Mike, who is probably about 6’2 or 6’3. But I didn’t even think he’d be able to reach it. It was really high up there. And then Zohair saved the day. He asked me if I wanted a silm (Hebrew: sulam English: ladder). My jaw dropped. YES I wanted a ladder! Now I had it. I would get Mike to back into our alleyway, put the ladder in the back of Mike’s truck, and pull myself up and into our house! And it worked! I had to get to the tippytop rung of the ladder, and it was precarious, and I was nervous, and I risked my neck, and…I made it into the house. Everyone applauded. Whew. And then I ran to get the key (I knew exactly where I had left it) and saw none other than Khadija -- passed out and snoring obscenely like a teenager with a bad cold. She had been there the whole time - through the doorbell rings, the phone calls, the yelling, the banging on her balcony door - she had been narry a meter away from all of these things, and had remained lost in dreamland hearing nothing but the sounds of her subconscious.

Lets juts say I’m glad to be going to Paris to reunite with Baria, even for a short time. We only have three or four days of Khadija’s propitious care left when we get back…alhumdulilah.

I can’t go away to Paris for the weekend without writing about my trip with AmidEast last weekend to Tangiers, Chefchaouen, Ceuta and Asilah, which must been some of the most starkly attractive places located on God’s good earth. “Dazzling” might be an apt word to describe these places. Chefchaouen, for example, is basically a garden town with a Spanish-made river running through, nestled up against Rif Mountains, which we (sometimes nauseatingly) travelled through by bus. The Rif are the northern-most of the mountains in Morocco from whence comes most of the kif, or hash (some of you may recognize this Arabic word from the Hebrew use of the word "kef" which means "fun"), running perpendicular to the Atlas Mountains where I will be spending some time two weeks from now (for the preview, I will be in the Berber village of Ouarzazate, hiking Jebel Toubkal, and spending a weekend in the quaint European surfer-vacation town of Essouaira. Asilah was probably the most picturesque town we saw on the trip and we spent under two hours there. It’s a place known for its artists and sunsets and we left just before, but were able to watch it from the bus. Lisa and I made sandwiches sitting on the beach of salad and kiri (the cheap soft cheese I've developed a taste for). Yum.

My Famfam....
In conclusion to this adventure-post: I wanted to make a note - and post some pictures - about how much of an adventure and how wonderful it was to have my family - especially my grandparents - here in Morocco with me over the past two weeks. Though I saw them only for about a quarter of their time in Morocco (in Fes for the weekend, Casablanca for lunch, and Rabat for an afternoon and lovely dinner) it was wonderful to see friendly, American, familial faces and share the experiences of crossing a the street in Rabat, being stuffed full of delicious food by Baria as a family, buying coats of many colors in Fes, learning about the JOINT’s work in Casablanca, and eating kefta in Rabat’s only Kosher restaurant, Le Circle. Thanks for coming Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Louis, Aunt Bayla, and of course, MOM! It was a pleasure to be able to host you in this colorful country.

Entirely unrelated, I can't believe I've never put up one of my favorite Israeli artists of all time on this blog, so its time, ladies and gents, for a bit of Idan Raichel and his marvelous Project. I am in love with this song -- every time I listen to it I get a bit of a different tingle in my cranial cavity, and the video adds just that much more.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Burning Garbage Smell Like Home...but Seattle Will Always Taste A Whole Lot Better

I'm listening to Belle and Sebastian’s “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love (feel free to ignore the weird montage) and I can’t help thinking what a wonderful Sunday morning song it is. Sunday morning is my favorite time of the week -- mostly at home, but sometimes at Penn too. When I make pancakes or French toast (hopefully with cinnamon and not havdalah spice {cloves})…Having - at in the summer - just come back from waterskiing, still wet from the shower, but starving, I pop in a Sunday Morning Mix and just flip those pancakes with sweet sweet syrup and a whole lot of love.

Sunday morning. Ahh. (Azoses, if you're reading, you probably understand....) Maybe its because my mother and grandparents have been in town since Thursday night! I still sort of can’t believe they’re in Morocco. We went to Fez for the weekend, and if I thought the Toledano’s was a resort vacation, well, let me tell you, the Palais Jamai hotel in Fez (situated on the edge of the ancient 9th century medina, actually in the Melah (what was the Jewish quarter) was so far beyond luxury I cannot express in words the beauty, detail, and attention I received as a guest in this hotel. Not to mention the breakfast. Reminded me of Sunday mornings at home.

I want to write about Fez, but the Palais Jamai looms literally and figuratively in my mind and I am finding it difficult to put down words that don't overflow with
praises for the place. Which is why I chose my title -- its weird that burning garbage has become such a normal smell to me - its like home, but at the same time its a) not Seattle and b) compared the Palais Jamai, which is, I suppose, (in fairness, a bit above, but closer to) my personal "quote" standard of living "end quote", its this weekend was very very weird. But here goes my howla (attempt):

FEZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (sometimes with a Z sometimes with an Arabic its a "Sin")
Fez is an assault on the senses. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a welcome assault, but it can be sort of, err...violent at times. The tanneries, for example, exude the ungodly smell of camel, sheep, and goat hides transported on donkeys, the primary mode of transportation in the medina itself, one of which literally tried to stomple my poor grandmother. But just a moment -- I’m rushing ahead of myself...

Back Up:
On Shabbat my mom and I walked the centuries…and the city. We walked from the time when Islam came to Morocco with Moulay Ismail in the 9th century and Fez was established directly to the Fes Al-Jedid, which means “The New Fes”. Now, “The New Fez” is actually in no way new. It was built after the mass emigration of Muslims and Jews in the 13th and 14th centuries from Spain during the Inquisition. We walked down the road that used to separate the Muslim area (25 Mosques) from the Jewish area (36 synagogues!) and saw all of the Andalusian architecture and balconies that remain. Gorgeous, but surreal. It felt like we were back in Cordoba, Grenada, or Ronda, for my Aunt Lauren’s wedding! We walked all the way past the King’s Fes palace - apparently the largest one in Morocco - with Marrakesh a close second. On our way past we took a look at the doors that were put up by a Fessi artisan in 1968. I recognized them. They were the doors that adorn the cover of my (and every other tourist in Morocco’s) Lonely Planet Guide! We got to meet this auspicious character that very day on our tour of the medina on our way back from shul! Anyway, just past the palace the French take over, and the bread becomes suspiciously white, the boulevards auspiciously wide, and the fountains conspicuously lavish.

The Shul is Green!
Going to shul in Fes was great. I still am not sure why it was Green...maybe the evil eye or maybe because the color of the city is blue and the Jews always have be contrary in some way. In any case, I reconnected with the Israelis from Agadir and the Hillulah of Rabbi David U-Moshe who seem to be following me everywhere, while my mother marveled at the similarities between “our” SBH and EB Sephardim back home and the Moroccan Jew’s tunes and customs (which involve much rolling of their throats (there's a word for that but I forget and you know what I mean) and yelling corrections at the ba’al koreh [Torah reader]). We had Kiddush with the old Fessi group (between 15-20 regulars) of which I knew-ish one through another friend-ish that I made on the way to the Hillulah from Casablanca. Incredibly friendly people. Post-kiddush lunch with the masses of Israelis - schina, of course - was delectable.

I got over my over-eating at lunch by walking all the way to and through the old medina, seeing the Rambam’s house (!), or actually just a tile in the wall that says “Maimonides House”, where a Muslim family now lives, an antiquities shop with ancient Berber-Jewish jewelry, menorahs (I bought an imitation later in Chefchouen this weekend...but that's for later), and even an ancient Torah scroll. I saw kids with no shoes running up and down the steps of this ancient (9th century, don't forget!) valley, bleary-eyed donkeys who's drivers yell "Balak!" before they try and trample you, and the Kairowan University mosque -- and although we couldn’t go in, its intricately detailed doors stand as a testament to the allegedly first university in the world, founded by a woman, and still located in Fes.

The Rest -- Briefly:
I BOUGHT A LEATHER JACKET AT THE TANNERIES. So much for the vegitarian lifestyle- but its definitely local (though I didn’t see this animal killed….allhumdulilah) I saw the hide being transported, the skin being dyed, dried and shaped -- before my very eyes. So at least its local. We saw carpets galore in a riyad with the tallest ceiling you’d never know was there if you didn’t open the door, and a view from the top that was just breathtaking. We saw potters and weavers and the man who made the Lonely Planet doors - I think I mentioned that. And then I went back to Rabat on the train. And I had midterms. And that’s why this blog is late. My mother left yesterday which was sad...sigh. Sunday mornings.

I think this post, and all of my 3-4-5 hour trips with nothing but me and my ipod warrant two songs for this post. So here's a song I had stuck in my head all through Ceuta, which I will discuss, inchallah, very soon. Its by Ben Folds, and its called Hiroshima. Listen to the lyrics. I chuckle every time.