Boris Fishman

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Morocco Journal

April. I have heard it from dozens of alumni, but privately insisted that it would be different for me. Still, by about the eighth month after university, I am forced to concede that the mystery that hung beyond the horizon of graduation has unceremoniously dissipated into a spiritless routine — rise, commute from the suburbs to New York City, work long hours, mourn tiny paycheck, commute again, go to bed. Desperate for an experience radically unlike life in midtown Manhattan, I book tickets to Morocco along with Vance, a college friend currently in Russia on a Fulbright grant. I am the child of stereotypically overprotective and frantic Eastern European Jews, and this decision pleases no one. In the next month, as Jewish cemeteries are defaced in France, a synagogue explodes in Tunisia, and more than a million march in Rabat to protest Israeli oppression of Palestinians, life at home is explosive. My parents hew to alarmingly right-wing perceptions of the Arab world and how the United States must respond to 9/11 and the conflict in the Middle East. The immigrants I know — mostly Russian Jews — share their view; I am stunned by this rejection of a liberal tradition that, among other things, helped bring these very people to this country. I wonder if this hostility, this unabashed extremism, derives merely from a wish to appear sufficiently patriotic. Or perhaps it stems from their resentment at having the invincible America of their dreams swept out from under them. I don’t know, but I grow hoarse arguing. Their attitude, I tell them, reinforces the criminally specious point of view — Americans despise Muslims and desire their subjugation — that Osama bin Laden wishes to impose on the Muslim world. We have an obligation to prove otherwise. It is an obligation inflicted by no one but bin Laden himself, but I relish the opportunity to war against him in this personal, infinitesimal way. I leave on a rainy day, a heavy lump in my chest. My grandparents think I am going to Ireland.

May 1. Arrival at Casablanca’s Mohammed V airport is oddly ungalvanizing — palm trees, dismal concrete. On the train to Fez, I tell Vance that it hasn’t sunk in — we are in Africa, American Jews in a Muslim land not long after September 11, just after the Israeli incursion into the West Bank. This changes instantaneously when we enter Bab Boujeloud, one of the gates into the Fez medina. We join such a ferocious crush of people surging through such an improbably narrow street that my will and excitement momentarily waver. As we wade the thirty feet to our four-dollar-a-night hotel, merchants and hangers-on attach themselves, offering wares, food, guidance.

It is a testament to Fassi sociability and hospitality that in less than several hours we feel comfortable, welcome. Indeed, we stop telling people we are from Canada. (Ironically, it is the tourists, among whom one would expect the unfamiliar circumstances to foster a sense of solidarity, who are wary of each other.) Whereas typically I begin genuinely to enjoy my vacation only after it ends (together with the discomforts of linguistic and cultural ineptitude), here I am surprised to find myself content to exist in the moment instead of thinking about tomorrow.

As we conduct minor sallies into the medina’s impossible knot of alleyways, merchants who sold us a pancake spooned with honey or gave directions shout “Americains!” or smile and wave hello. “A thousand welcomes, my friend,” is the incantatory salutation wherever we pause, hands flying up to chests: an indication of sincerity. Our thanks are returned profusely: there seem to be no words for “you’re welcome” in Moroccan Arabic, only “No, thank you.” When we stop to browse, we are asked to spend our money but are assured that goodwill does not depend on it. This turns out to be true.

As in every cramped medina we will visit, luxurious interiors await behind many of the unremarkable doors. Roused at 4:00 A.M. the next day by the plaintive muezzin chant from the mosque next door, we see one for ourselves, the twelfth-century arching rooftops and weathered colored glass of a traditional bathhouse. A booming octogenarian named Ahmed leads the way into a tiled room, where he plops us on the floor to be massaged and contorted into a number of implausible positions, scrubbed with bristly gloves and soap, and finally doused with alternating bucketfuls of hot and cold water. “Masaje bueno!” he roars, uninterested in the extent of our Spanish. “Massage good! … C’est bon!” proceeds the survey of Continental languages. “Mezyen!” he finally announces in Arabic, and we tuck another word into our meager arsenal.

May 2. A skeptical idler eases out of the way as we ring the bell of the rusty black gate of the Cimitiere Israelite de Fes. Ten minutes later, a hunched custodian pulls aside the creaky door, and we are welcomed to wander among the headstones. I discover the grave of an ancestor of a Moroccan friend from school. The most recent grave states the date of death as 1954.

As guides and new friends are eager to remind us, Morocco is well known for its history of tolerance. Perhaps its most generous manifestation occurred during World War II, when the Nazis demanded that Mohammed V, the Moroccan king under the French protectorate, supply a list of Jewish citizens. In an echo of the Danish King Christian X, who is said to have worn a yellow star in solidarity with the Jews of his nation, he replied that there was only one list he could supply, that of sixteen million Moroccans. Some 300,000 Jews lived in Morocco then; between 6,000 and 30,000 — estimates vary dramatically — live there today. We ask many times if there was more to the departure of Moroccan Jews en masse in the mid-1950s than the creation of Israel, but never receive a persuasive answer. The typical reply ignores the question and cites the country’s record of religious harmony. “There are streets in Tel Aviv named after [Kings] Mohammed V and Hassan II!” we are told. In Fez, where about 150 Jews now live, we ask Edmond Gabay, the solitary but exuberant keeper of the museum attached to the cemetery, why he hasn’t emigrated. “To where?” he answers, laughing lustily. “There’s no safer place in the world to be a Jew!”

Just as geologists can examine strata of rock for clues about its age, so my grandmother could easily identify the last time this museum was cleaned by the volume of dust that has accumulated on its motley congregation of tchotchkes, a good portion of which seem designed to impress upon the visitor just what kind of Jewish luminary he encounters in Edmond Gabay. My father, with whom dusty dignity goes a long way, collects battered tools, and Edmond notices me leering at a giant pair of paint-flecked scissors whose blades form the shape of a leaf. He prods me in the ribs, and I explain. “Five dollars,” he announces conspiratorially, and I walk away with my own piece of the museum.

May 3. The Merenid tombs, a complex housing the remains of a thirteenth-century dynasty more skillful at administration than foreign policy, rise from a plateau that offers a view of the Fez medina on one side and the treacherously green expanse of the Rif mountains on the other. We pass a flock of dyspeptic sheep, whose owner is implacable: you must buy one, he says. Suddenly, a swarm of grimy children appears, begging us to photograph them. We gladly oblige, and this elicits such glee that one throws his arms around me, so tiny they don’t meet around my back, and plants a volley of kisses on my cheek, yelling “Shokran, shokran, shokran!” (Thank you). A soccer ball materializes, and a spirited game develops, girls and boys, parents and children. Soon half the players are sprawled on the ground from exhaustion and the other half from laughter, the absolute language barrier absolutely forgotten. “The I.M.F. should try this,” Vance says, gasping and smiling.

May 4. Morocco: fewer options, fewer distractions, fewer nuances and dilutions. The odors are punchier, the sounds more cutting, the colors more resplendent. Objects, phenomena here are so untempered, so undomesticated, that I can’t help being seized by their sensual intensity and spacing out. This is transporting, disarming, exhilarating, exhausting. I cannot bear to do anything else, let alone engage in sophistication of any kind. It isn’t possible to read here; it’s never possible to read when I travel. The allure of novel surroundings distracts. But here the sensations are so immoderate that even thinking is simplified to match the literal directness of what I see. Curiously, one of the novels I have brought along, after four uneventful years on my bookshelf, is Paul Theroux’s “My Other Life.” He seems to have the opposite reaction: abroad he is a compulsive, feverish note-taker — you can see him licking his lips as he records a tangy tidbit from this or that village’s lore. I am afraid I cannot identify, and sadly concede that I would not make a terrific travel writer.

The travel writing about Morocco passed on by friends is infuriating. Culled from magazines like Conde Nast Traveler, Elle, and Gourmet, it is the work of authors who, clearly confronted by the same intensity I sense, choose to translate it by spicing up adjectives and inflating verbs. No one “sells” in these dispatches; street vendors “hawk.” Camels “bellow,” carriages “plow,” and Morocco, of course, “teeters on the cusp of irrevocable modernity.” The embellishment invariably calls for the trotting out of native words — zellij, hammam, ksour — when English would do. But why? Exoticism? Proof of expertise? Though grateful and good-hearted, these bulletins from Morocco’s premium hotels and exquisite restaurants seem unrepresentative of the country I am visiting.

May 5. The Complexe Touristique Timnay Inter-Cultures sits halfway between Fez and the Saharan dunes of Merzouga, our next destination. A joint Belgian-Moroccan venture to initiate tourists into “the culture and lifestyle of nomads and sedentary people of the Atlas mountains and upper valleys,” it seems to have inspired few enthusiasts, as we are the only guests. We trek through a segment of the Cirque de Jaffar, a 79-kilometer ring through the foothills of the Djebel Ayachi, which rises to more than three thousand meters. At one point, a gaggle of young girls appears from behind the surrounding ridges and hillocks, dressed like the Berber matrons of the Atlas — slippers, long stockings, head scarves, and endless aprons bunched on top of one another — and insist that we visit their tent, a solitary blip amid the tremendous peaks. We agree and are soon ushered into this tiny Amazonian encampment, presided over by a centenarian grandmother who is tickled at the sight of foreigners, asinine smiles of appreciation pasted to their faces. Chickens squabble in the gathering wind outside the tent, but the middle generation is nowhere to be found. The girls rush around the tiny tent, baking bread and making tea. We try to say thanks, but they seem to speak neither French nor Arabic, and our Berber is … well, we know how to say “Berber” in Berber, and that’s about it. With flailing hands and facial gymnastics, we convey our names and where we come from. The latter causes a great deal of puzzlement. We wonder if they are unfamiliar with the geographical locations of the United States and Russia, and we pull out pen and paper to draw a map of the world, labeling Morocco, France, Russia, and America. This hardly helps, and we slowly realize that the girls have never heard of these countries, much less seen a map of the world. Even Morocco evokes a blank, if curious, stare.

May 6. A torrential rain drives hard for several hours and, for want of other means of expression, turns to snow. A flash flood has blocked the single roadway between the Complexe and our next stopover, the southern town of Er Rachidia. We scramble onto a bus large enough to weather the copper-colored current that runs across the road. Immediately we are targets of intense curiosity. One boy is overwhelmed and cannot stop smiling, his dark face illuminated by a block of shiny white teeth. A young man sits down next to us and asks where we are from. Slightly unsettled by his glower, we say Canada. He doesn’t miss a beat: What do you think about the conflict in Israel and Palestine?

During the next three hours, the length of our slog to Er Rachidia, Hassan explains that the world map must be scrubbed clean not only of Israel, a usurper, but also of the United States — for him, an embodiment of the Western arrogance and manipulation that he holds responsible for the decline of the Arab world since it reached its pinnacle a thousand years ago. He delivers these views with a calm confidence, his face a sly grin, reminding me of Osama bin Laden’s gentle face, so unrevealing of the fury that compels him. As we talk, the younger boy occasionally steals a peek at us; his eyes widen and his mouth dissolves into a smile, and I can see his breath catch every time we make eye contact.

Cautiously, we press Hassan for his explanation of American action to protect Muslim lives in Kosovo, of the American government’s responsible rhetoric regarding the treatment of American Muslims in the aftermath of September 11. He shows little interest in these questions. He talks about the spinelessness of Moroccan politicians, the stinging betrayal of corruption. Hassan’s views contradict everything we’ve heard in Fez and the Berber villages of the Atlas, namely that Islam is a religion of peace; that we are Americans and Moroccans second and human beings first; that our blood is the same color. These words come from people mostly without a formal education and, often enough, without employment. One of the last things we learn from Hassan before our bus pulls into Er Rachidia is that he lacks neither: he recently graduated from university and now works as a teacher of first graders.

May 8. Most Moroccans, having spent four and a half decades under a French protectorate, with another chunk of their country under Spanish control, appear unexcited by the possibilities of a lasting rancor toward the voracious, manipulative West. Perhaps it’s an attitude of necessity — French and Spanish are Morocco’s links to Europe, which, while voracious and manipulative, is also prosperous and sophisticated. (One night, we ask Ben Jelloun, the owner of a shop of Berber, Muslim, and Jewish antiques in the Fez medina who is writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Moroccan theater, whether Moroccans think of their country as the southernmost point of Europe or the westernmost point of Islam. “Depends who you ask,” he says. “The king will say Islam. The people — Europe.”) At the same time, Moroccans seem equally unmoved by the West’s cultural examples. (Politics, we are told, may be a different story: Morocco was the first nation to recognize the nascent United States in 1776.) As David Levering Lewis recently wrote in these pages, Morocco remains “relatively unfazed by Western influences and [is] doing its utmost to accelerate its modernization.” And, indeed, the people we meet, despite an unfailing graciousness, exhibit little curiosity about the United States, and, save for pens — the plea of every child we meet, on account of their exorbitant cost here — or the occasional coin for a panhandler, want nothing from us. (Moroccans do like to barter, and many sales are sealed only after I drag out a personal item — sunglasses, cologne — to help pay.) This contrasts with the norm in Russia, the destination of my last extensive tour, where the news that you are a Westerner quickly turns native inflexibility into cloying compliance and supplication. Is modernization without cultural Westernization possible in this century, then, in this country? I think back to Hassan, in the waterlogged bus to Er Rachidia, and the Nike swoosh on his jacket. “It means nothing,” he says. “You cannot buy any other kind of jacket. But it means nothing.” And to Ben Jelloun, surely one of the most sophisticated people in Fez, whose friends are pondering a boycott of all things American. “If you stop buying Coca-Cola,” Ben Jelloun gently reminds them, “it’s the 120,000 Moroccans employed by the local distributor who suffer most.”

May 10. We meet droves of French, German, and Spanish tourists during our twelve-day sojourn, but not a single American. It is disheartening that at a time when it couldn’t be more important for traveling Westerners to mingle with Muslims, Americans avoid Morocco. Along with Turkey, it is perhaps the most moderate nation of the Muslim world, but unlike Turkey, it combines its moderation with an impassioned religiosity.

Cultural exchange is crucial, but often squanders good will as effectively as it promotes it. The American couples in Parisian restaurants who demand that their waiters translate the menu into English; the British cranks who berate security guards at the Casablanca airport with frightful insults for taking issue with one of the items in their luggage; all of those English speakers who, on principle, refuse to memorize a single foreign word when they travel — these are perhaps the same people who are baffled by the ubiquity and belligerence of anti-Western sentiment.

In Fez and Marrakech, the Sahara and the mountains, most of the visitors we see ignore the guidebooks’ pleas for modesty, the men wandering in T-shirts and shorts, the women in outfits that would make some of us blush back home. I think of my Morocco reading list and wonder if the essential message of these reports of high-end gallivanting — Morocco is not just desert and outhouses! — isn’t all wrong, whether the point of travel isn’t to remove oneself from familiar surroundings rather than preserve them. Arabic is tough, and I manage to pin down only the lexicon of salutation and gratitude — shokran for thank you, b’slemah for good-bye, sbakh l’kher for good morning, and so on — but this is sufficient to produce surprise, joy, and thankfulness, in that order, every time.

Fez — cozy, guileless, and convivial — differs enormously from Marrakech, which is edgy and seamy, with pockets of good will, and Vance and I wonder how much this has to do with tourists, of whom we see hundreds if not thousands more in Marrakech. Even the souks of the Old Cities stand apart: Marrakech peddles tacky trinkets and wares aimed at tourists; almost all the items in Fez are for local consumption.

May 11. Vance asks why I want to be a writer. I hesitate, then propose that writing is a license to dispense with the facts, the confinements of veracity, and tunnel deeper, to a different though no less compelling and accurate truth — and one virtually ordained by this tricky life of ours. As an example, I consider my trip and how rarely I’ve managed to put pen to paper. When I return, my recollections probably will have been smudged by time and subsequent impressions. For a magazine fact checker, someone who has begun to develop a fetish for precision and clarity, I am strangely unalarmed by this prospect and wonder if this is Morocco’s silent doing. (I also realize that my job is somewhat antithetical to my career plans.)

In the minds of most Moroccans, what happened on September 11 was the profoundest tragedy, not only because innocents perished, but also because bin Laden took upon himself the judgment of others. In Islam, they say, no man has the right to judge another, for that is exclusively the province of God. This attitude facilitates survival in Morocco, where so much is out of one’s hands. It recommends a certain good-natured resignation, which is different from fatalism, an awareness of how much can intervene between plan and realization. Inshallah is the constant mantra here — “God willing.” It’s different in the United States. We are the architects of our own tomorrows, and little interferes, save for our own ambition or sloth — an infinitely more empowering reality, but also more merciless, as it doesn’t permit refuge from responsibility. But I am still in Morocco. And as I sit at a Marrakech cafe, this fact checker’s expectation that the truth of my impressions will most likely remain inside the country’s borders disturbs surprisingly little. I’ll just have to come back.

Published
January 30, 2003