Travel Plans: East Africa 2010

Saturday, December 26, 2009 | Baltimore, MD, USA (map)

Ciné Afrique: a landmark on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar
It all started with the World Cup.

Four years ago, I spent the summer in Tanzania, mostly watching the 2006 "football" World Cup in local bars. While sipping Safari, Kilimanjaro, or other domestic beers, my friend Charlie and I rooted along with the Tanzanians for the African teams. Each night for a month, they whooped and clapped zealously for Ghana, for Ivory Coast, and for Trinidad & Tobago. Amid this fervor, I witnessed what I'd been missing all along by watching the World Cup in America, and vowed to myself that I would be at the next World Cup: South Africa 2010.

Over the last few years, I've met many who shared the same aspirations, but I knew we wouldn't all make the Cup. South Africa is distant, the event is expensive and lasts a whole month. Surely the rigors of jobs, grad school, and other "real life" obligations would keep many at home. But I knew

Goodbye Morocco, Until the Next Time

Thursday, December 17, 2009 | Rabat, Morocco (map)

The khemisa, a symbol commonly used for good luck in Morocco.
It has been 15 months and about a week since Jacqueline and I moved to Morocco.

The fact that we are leaving tomorrow morning, on a flight from Casablanca, feels extremely surreal. My arrival, and that first train ride to Fes, are still vivid in my memory.

In the last week we have packed our bags, sold our furniture, and moved out of our apartment. Yesterday I finished my last day of work.

I told co-workers that I would return someday, and despite my many frustrations with Morocco over these past months, a big part of me does want to visit again one day.

In such a surprisingly large country, we have inevitably left much undone, and many sights unseen. We covered much of northern Morocco last year, but I had hoped of late to spend more time in the south—a region I have only visited on my trips to Mount Toubkal and Essaouira. Tragically, the

The Final Countdown: Surfing Mehdiya in Winter

Thursday, December 10, 2009 | Mehdiya, Morocco (map)

Jon, Jen, and I pretending to be professionals, before being put in our place by the waves.
A year and a half ago, when I first began to tell friends that I was moving to Morocco with Jacqueline, they often asked what I planned to do here. Of course, I had no clue, no real answer. So I usually just smirked, and said, "I'm gonna work on my surfing skills."

The few who knew there were waves in Morocco chuckled, while the rest called timeout: "Wait, do they even have surfing in Morocco?"

Yes, they do indeed, though finding an opportunity to try it certainly took me a while. When we moved to Rabat last spring, I was excited to visit the city's well known Oudayas Surf Club. But once I saw (and smelled) the water quality, common sense dictated that these waves just weren't an option. Then this summer, I was stuck sweating behind my desk in Rabat while Jacqueline and her cousin drove down for a week in Taghazoute, one of Morocco's most famous surfing destinations.

How To: Study Arabic (and More) in Morocco

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 | Morocco (map)

"...قل هو الله أحد, الله الصمد, لم يلد": In Marrkech's Medersa Ben Yousef, a partial verse from surat al-ikhlas (112).
I spent my first three months in Morocco studying Arabic in Fes. Before leaving the country, I thought it might be useful to share what I learned through that process, as well as what I learned from other students during the year since then. Hopefully prospective study abroad students or anyone else looking to brush up on their Classical or Moroccan Arabic will find this information helpful.

* * *

First, a note on Moroccan Arabic: no, it's not easy. Arabic students who know only Modern Standard Arabic (العربية الفصحى) will at first find very little that is recognizable in the Moroccan dialect, known locally as darija (الدارجة المغربية). Darija incorporates many words and grammatical constructions from French, Spanish, and multiple Berber dialects. However, having heard for years before I came here

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Conclusion, with Some Final Thoughts on Literacy

Monday, November 30, 2009 | Morocco (map)

In Essaouira, the Marjana Cooperative offers literacy classes to the women who work in the argan oil production process.
I hope you've enjoyed my Reading on the Road in Morocco series over these last few days.

Before I leave the topic of reading, I have one final note—a disappointing observation, really. Yes, it's a generalization, but one of the truer ones I've told: in spite of the rich body of literary and narrative works written by Moroccans and about Morocco, this country still has no culture of reading.

The first few times I rode the train in Morocco, I felt something amiss. At the start of every long, dull ride, Jacqueline and I would sit down and immediately reach for our books. All around us, the Moroccans chatted with each other, stared at the wall, stared out the window or, more often than not, stared at us, generally doing little to fill the free time. (That I find their inactivity so bizarre is, I realize, also a reflection on my own, very Western inability to sit still.)

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Blogs

Saturday, November 28, 2009

 
Internet access continues to grow in Morocco, and with it the Moroccan blogosphere is expanding as well. Though many Moroccan bloggers write in French or Arabic, an increasing number use English—a reflection of the language's growing popularity here.

Because of the risks associated with expressing critical views—particularly on national politics—Moroccan bloggers tend to tread carefully. But in the expat communities in France and elsewhere, many have embraced blogging in order to share their unfiltered views of their homeland. (Their key role in the 9% movement is a recent example.)

In addition, a dedicated group of non-Moroccan bloggers—both in Morocco and abroad—also contribute to online discussions of events in the country.

So, for those looking for something more substantial than my own entries on Morocco, here are the blogs I have been following throughout this year, on topics related to Morocco and the greater North Africa region:

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Travel Guidebooks

Friday, November 27, 2009 | Morocco (map)

Guidebooks are the necessary evil few travelers can ever really escape. They warp our view of places, both by prejudicing us before the fact and by orienting our visit, once on the ground, toward a certain narrow selection of destinations (often the same ones every other foreigner seems to be visiting).

In no country does this appear more true than Morocco. Something about the place just seems to make every writer want to liberate their inner Orientalist: Welcome to a land of ancient enchantments, of labyrinthine cities perfumed in exotic spices, of secrets yet untold, hidden behind the veil. Welcome... to Morocco.

Wincing, shuddering, and cringing yet, all at the same time? Me, too. Thankfully, not all the guides are created equal. Here are my impressions of those I've used personally:

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Nonfiction

Thursday, November 26, 2009 | Morocco (map)

Morocco's unique history, geography, and social composition make it fertile ground for academic studies, travel writing, and historical narratives.

Many of those currently published in English are written by outsiders, but Moroccans continue to produce ever more works on their country, including a growing body of reflective personal histories and memoirs.

Here, in no particular order, are the nonfiction books on Morocco that I have read during my time here:

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Fiction

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 | Morocco (map)

Particularly within the context of English-language literature, both the fiction about Morocco and the fiction of Morocco are dominated by one man—Paul Bowles. As the novelist emeritus of American expats in Morocco, Bowles is known worldwide for his own writing as well as his contribution to the "discovery" of many now-famous Moroccan authors. To many, he remains an icon of Tangier's heyday as an international capital of arts and debauchery. Several generations of Moroccan authors owe him a debt, though the country's literature continues today to evolve in new and unexpected directions, having been reclaimed by Moroccan luminaries like Tahar Ben Jelloun and a new generation of stars.

In no particular order, here are the novels and story collections on Morocco I've read this year:

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Introduction

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 | Morocco (map)

Since I first tore through The Crusades Through Arab Eyes while exploring Crusader castles in Syria a few years back, I've been a firm believer that reading a novel or historical narrative while actually in the place where it is set is a special experience. Both the travel encounters and the reading can be richer and more engaging for it.

So, among the suitcase-loads of books that Jacqueline and I lugged to Morocco last year, we selected many that are set in the country. Now that I've read them all, I thought I might share some impressions. I've split my comments into several entries, which I'll be posting in the next few days.

I hope you enjoy my reviews and recommendations, and I encourage you to read some of these works—they are a great way to learn about Morocco, particularly if you're interested in traveling here someday.

Bonne lecture:

The Final Countdown: Southern Comforts in Essaouira

Saturday, November 21, 2009 | Essaouira, Morocco (map)

Above, the classic shot of Essaouira's medina walls, on Morocco's southern coast.
For my birthday weekend, Jacqueline and I planned to celebrate by escaping Rabat. But we were only two blocks from home, the clock still showing an hour until dawn, when the shit hit the fan.

Bound for Essaouira, Jacqueline and I had just left our apartment, blurry-eyed but with coffees in hand. At the first traffic light, Jacqueline's stick-shifting prowess gave out. We stalled once, twice, three times. Each time the rental car bucked like a rodeo steer, sloshing more hot coffee on us and the vehicle's interior. Soon Jacqueline and I mutually decided that I should drive the trip's first leg.

Solving the "who's driving" debate also solved the "which route to take" debate. As driver, I unilaterally decreed that we would take the scenic coastal route the whole way to Essaouira, 450km south of Rabat.

We skirted Casablanca (الدار البيضاء), and passed through El Jadida (الجديدة), where a cop pulled us over

Lonely Planet Polls Self, Disappoints Readers

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Window with Arabic calligraphy (Medersa el Attarine, Fes).
The travel guide publisher Lonely Planet is forever on the fence. It wavers somewhere between being the budget travel sector's equivalent of a benevolent, can-do-no-wrong Google, or its incompetent, ultra-corporate opposite, Microsoft.

This week, LP took a step toward the incompetent side—and managed to disappoint some of its followers—by publishing a "Top 10 Countries for 2010" list without first polling its readers. Judging from their comments, those readers care less that LP clearly missed out on a chance to create a fun, interactive exchange with its fans, and more that the publisher just seemed to choose lame countries.

While the choices of El Salvador, Malaysia, and Suriname seemed to earn LP some kudos, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, and the USA certainly didn't seem like adventurous picks. Morocco, Nepal,

... and Hello, Horses

Thursday, November 12, 2009 | Meknès, Morocco (map)

Above, a happy horseback moment with Jon, Jen, and our guide from Club Farah. It was a beautiful afternoon for a ride, not that I had much time to soak in the atmosphere. (photo by Jacqueline)
About a year ago, Jacqueline and I had tried to go horseback riding but never managed to organize a trip. But on the Sunday afternoon of our Fes finale weekend, along with an eager Jon and Jen, we rode the train to Meknes, then a taxi to Club Farah, a riding club in the hills outside the city.

Jon and Jacqueline both knew the basics, having ridden a few times, while my experience was limited to one quick, exhilarating ride a few years earlier in Petra. That left Jen—as the only member of our party with any considerable riding experience—to help the stable hands select suitable mounts for us. ("Stallions?! Um, no. Mares—do you have any old, slow mares? Very calm?")

Soon I was bouncing across the nearby fields, at just a trot yet already a mess of flailing limbs, swinging stirrups, and lost reins, trying for dear life to cling to my rock-hard saddle. Jen helped considerably to sort me out, adjust some straps, and help me overcome my instinct to clamp my

Farewell, Fes...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009 | Fès, Morocco (map)

The newly refurbished Medersa el Attarine sports ornate plasterwork and cedar carvings.
It was supposed to be our final visit to Fes, a city with which I now feel we share a long and tarnished history. In truth, it was no more than half a year, rendered longer by the harsh weather and still harsher social climate (which I've described before—see "Running the Gauntlet: Street Harassment in Fes").

Jacqueline and I visited the few friends we have left in the city, poked aimlessly around the medina for an afternoon, and picked up a few cheap gifts. Long under renovation, the 14th-century Medersa el Attarine (مدرسة العطارين) was newly reopened, so we checked it out, too. Staying with our friends Jon and Jen was, as always, a highlight, but during the hours on our own in the city, we soon ran out of activities and sights.

What has changed in Fes, since our departure? Almost nothing. Well, there is the new fountain in

In Honor of Friday Couscous, Notes on a Moroccan Classic

Thursday, October 29, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

My favorite couscous in Morocco? Definitely couscous tfaya from Carousel Cafe in Agdal, Rabat. It's sweet but spicy, served with hardboiled egg, salted almonds, and a glass of cool leben (sour milk) on the side. Perfection.
Before I came to Morocco, I rarely ate couscous (كسكوس). My mother—ever the adventurous and talented chef—had made it now and then throughout my childhood. But although certainly no picky eater, I had never liked the dish much. At home or in restaurants, it always seemed a bit too mealy, too dry, and too bland to really be enjoyable.

In Morocco, of course, couscous is the national meal. Without fail, the kingdom's entire population eats it every Friday at lunch, by hand or by spoon, at home or in a restaurant. It is a nationwide rite unparalleled in America. (Catholics' fish-only-Fridays comes to mind, but Friday couscous in Morocco is on a whole other scale, approaching universality. Finding a restaurant or cafe that serves anything else on Friday afternoons is a rarity.)

Given Moroccans' enthusiasm for the grain-based pasta—which they both grow and consume in

Jemaa el Fna: Bring Your Appetite

Sunday, October 25, 2009 | Marrakesh, Morocco (map)

Few places in Morocco have as much energy as Marrakech's Jemaa el Fna at night.
After ascending and descending Jebel Toubkal—Morocco's highest peak—in less than 48 hours, Chris, Susannah, and I were famished. We met several other friends in Marrakech and hit the food stalls of Jemaa el Fna square. After gorging ourselves on various meats, grains, and salads, we wobbled on shaky legs through the nighttime crowds, stopping to watch the snake charmers, storytellers, and acrobats that draw local and foreign onlookers alike each night.

Toubkal: A Climb to the Roof of North Africa

Saturday, October 24, 2009 | Jbel Toubkal, Morocco (map)

Victory! A triumphal shot from the top of Jebel Toubkal, with Chris at left, Susannah in the middle, and me at right.
The mountain had been on my list since we first arrived in Morocco. Jebel Toubkal (جبل تبقال), at 4,167 meters (13,671 feet), is the highest peak in the Atlas range and in all of North Africa.

By a stroke of luck, I managed to get last Friday off work, just as my friends Chris and Susannah were planning an ascent of the peak. I packed and provisioned, and made the 3:15am train to Marrakech with them. After a few hours of lousy midnight train sleeping, we took a winding grand taxi ride from Marrakech to the town of Imlil, at the foot of the Atlas.

It was late in the morning when, stocked up on water, Chris, Susannah, and I shouldered our packs and began to shuffle up the trail, tired but energized by the challenge ahead. Susannah had reached the summit a few months earlier, but Chris hadn't quite made it on his own trip. Many hikers used mules to carry their gear; we were going it alone.

The Final Countdown: Asilah

Wednesday, October 14, 2009 | Asilah, Morocco (map)

Asilah proved to be one of my favorite Moroccan towns, not least because of its beautiful murals, like this calligraphy-based one.
This past weekend, in our continuing effort to see as much of Morocco as possible before our impending departure, Jacqueline and I hopped aboard the northward train, and disembarked several hours later beside the town of Asilah (أصيلة), on the Atlantic halfway between the ports of Larache and Tangier.

Asilah itself remains, nominally at least, a fishing port. But its charmingly colorful medina attracts so many European tourists—including many who have settled permanently—that tourism has clearly eclipsed the town's traditional trade.

In Asilah's bright murals, immaculate streets, reserved shopkeepers, and relaxed atmosphere, Jacqueline and I felt we had escaped Morocco. It was unlike any other town we have visited here so far. Where tourism seems only to increase resentment, racism, and crime in most Moroccan cities,

The Final Countdown: Moulay Bousselham

Thursday, October 8, 2009 | Moulay-Bousselham, Morocco (map)

The beach at Moulay Bousselham, where life is good.
As our final months in Morocco tick slowly away, Jacqueline and I are doing our best each weekend to visit some of the many sites that we haven't yet hit.

Several weeks ago, we headed up the coast to Moulay Bousselham (مولاي بو سلهام), a quiet fishing village poised between the Atlantic and a large inland lagoon. The nearby Merdja Zerga ("Blue Lagoon") is a major pit stop for migratory birds traveling between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

We checked into the Villa Nora, a friendly bed and breakfast perched high above the beach, and made ourselves comfortable.

While I love animals, I'm no bird watcher. In fact, I almost always prefer to watch bird watchers than to actually watch birds. With no such entertainment in sight, I opted to skip the lagoon this trip. Jacqueline was equally uninterested, probably more out of a desire to avoid haggling for a boat

Looking Back on a Year in Morocco

Monday, October 5, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

In 12 months, we have managed to cover a lot of ground, but Morocco is larger than you might think, with more to see and do.
For Jacqueline and me, Ramadan's passing had another, more personal significance: it marked a year since our arrival here in Morocco.

On first reflection I feel like the year has rushed past. But then I recall all that we've done and seen and survived. In just our first few months, we found a first home in Fes, learned to navigate the old city, road tripped through northern Morocco, visited Spain without leaving Africa, mastered shopping à la marocaine, expanded our culinary horizons, helped butcher a sheep on 'Eid al Adha, dragged my family around the country, skied the Atlas mountains, and suffered Fes's endless street harassment.

Those nearly six months in Fes, while probably the defining epoch of our Moroccan experience, were trying, to say the least. The palace in which we ultimately settled had no roof over its courtyard,

Ramadan Reflections: Diversity in Morocco, and the Myth of the Universal Majority

Friday, September 11, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

During Ramadan, Moroccan families take evening or late night strolls along Rue Mohamed V in Rabat.
Catfights aside, I actually tend to enjoy Ramadan. In some years past, whether in Jordan, the US, or Morocco, I've even chosen to fast.

Of course, part of me enjoys the challenge, but the greatest motivation of all is not personal but social. In any Muslim country, Ramadan presents one of the surest opportunities to get "in" with the locals. Fasting far surpasses the "gesture of solidarity" realm—it's not easy, as Muslims know firsthand. Because they fast out of religious conviction, many show respect for any non-Muslim with the capacity and willpower to partake voluntarily. In this most generous of seasons, that respect translates into a lot of new friendships, invitations to share meals, and a rare instance of genuine bonding across the great cultural divide. This instance of commonality is all the more precious here in Morocco, a place where the locals have a distinct edge about them.

Observing the Holy Month, from a Safe Distance

Friday, September 4, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

A typical gut-busting spread in Morocco mixes soups, pancakes, meats, and all manner of syrupy confections.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan (رمضان) began almost two weeks ago, and with it our tranquil routine of daily life in Rabat was flipped on its head.

On the first day, a Saturday, the normally busy streets of our neighborhood of Agdal were lifeless. Rabat had become a ghost town, as its residents waited out the daylight indoors, suffering through the start of their obligatory month of daytime fasting.

With the arrival of dusk, I knew, the streets would buzz with life—couples and families would stroll together, the cafés would stay full until the wee hours, and a carnival atmosphere would envelop the city.

But those public festivities are reserved for after iftar—the daily breaking of the fast. This ritual gorging begins in the family home each evening with the sunset call to prayer. Though Ramadan is

From al-Andalus to al-Maghreb, and Beyond

Thursday, July 30, 2009 | Malaga, Spain (map)

The break in Portugal and southern Spain has been good for us. Here, tourists take a carriage across one of Ronda's many bridges.
Before returning to Morocco, Jacqueline and I spent the last days of our Iberian roadtrip kicking around Andalucia.

In Zafra, we discovered Secreto Ibérico. At a café in the old town's main square, both of us ordered the mysterious "Iberian Secret", left unexplained by the menu, on the waitress's recommendation. It turned out to be a tender pork fillet, seared to juicy perfection—perhaps our best meal of the entire trip.

Our next stop, Ronda, was a picturesque stone-and-mortar town split by a deep chasm, its sandstone cliffs housing the swallows that swooped through the evening skies.

We wandered between tapas bars, shopped for espadrilles, sampled local wines and prosciuttos, and climbed the city's ramparts for a view of the surrounding horse pastures.

Sipping Porto in the Douro

Monday, July 27, 2009 | Pinhão, Portugal (map)

After a long day's drive, we enjoyed a glass of white wine in the quinta's garden.
The next stop in our Portuguese road trip was the Douro Valley, famed home of Portugal's most celebrated export—vinho do porto, or port wine. Though its production begins like that of traditional wines, port is infused with brandy partway through the fermentation process, increasing both the alcohol and sugar content of the wine and adding yet more layers of complexity to its flavor.

The Douro River runs from the mountains of northeastern Portugal westward to the Atlantic, where the city of Porto is located. Around midday, Jacqueline and I drove into the valley some 150 km upriver, near the town of Lamego. The valley at once appeared impressively large, especially considering that almost every inch of soil for as far as we could see was terraced with grape vines.

At Peso da Régua we turned onto the narrow road that wound along the riverbank, toward the town of Pinhão. A train passed by, chugging through tunnels and over trestle bridges on the far shore.

Aveiro: the "Portuguese Venice" Proves a Good Catch

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 | Aveiro, Portugal (map)

Brightly painted houses are just part of the unexpected flair of the fishing town of Aveiro, on Portugal's Atlantic coast.
All on its own, the town of Aveiro might have justified our entire road trip through Portugal and southern Spain.

On the Atlantic coast halfway between Lisbon and Porto, a wide expanse of salt marshes surrounds Aveiro. They begin at the town's edge, and stretch to the horizon in a geometric array of shallow ponds and grassy dikes. This patchwork, and the occasional ramshackle pump house, are the relics of Aveiro's once famous but now fading saltworks.

The town itself—perfectly quaint like every other city and village in Portugal—straddles a series of canals plied by brightly painted gondolas. In this "Portuguese Venice", a renaissance is clearly underway. The narrow rows of traditional fishermen's homes have given ground to new pedestrian thoroughfares, a flowing shopping center integrated elegantly into the town's center, and even a

Though the Meter Man Lurks, Lisbon Still Delights

Monday, July 20, 2009 | Lisbon, Portugal (map)

Each of Lisbon's hills has a distinct atmosphere, from the seedy to the sacred, making the city a thrill to explore.
Why, oh why, did we decide to drive?

I first began to ask myself this question on the highway just outside Lisbon, as we sat in full horizon-to-horizon gridlock, creeping imperceptibly toward the Portuguese capital.

Strangely, when we finally reached the center of the city it looked almost deserted. Late on a Sunday afternoon, most shops were closed and the pedestrians were few.

So too were the parking spaces. Thus, while Jacqueline and I walked around downtown searching for a suitable place to stay, our rental car sat in a garage, racking up a substantial bill. We finally opted to stay in the brand new Shiado Hostel, on Rua Anchieta in the Chiado district, a hopelessly parked-up maze of narrow streets sandwiched between two of the city's most popular neighborhoods. The car spent the night parked far, far away.

On the Algarve Coast, Discovering Portugal's Charms

Saturday, July 18, 2009 | Lagos, Portugal (map)

Praia Dona Ana sits between the cliffs and shimmering waters west of Lagos, on Portugal's Algarve Coast.
Saturday morning we accompanied Jacqueline's family to the Málaga airport to say our goodbyes. Afterward, there was no master plan; we just needed to be back eight days later for our flight back to Morocco.

In a snap decision, we scrapped our plans of public transport and rented a small Opel four-seater. At a gas station on the road to Sevilla, we picked up a road map of the Iberian peninsula, adding to our minimal library of knowledge on Spain and Portugal (which until this point consisted only of our as-yet-untouched Let's Go! Spain and Portugal guidebook). Our Iberian road trip had begun.

Eager to reach Portugal, we hurried across the rolling plains of southwest Spain toward the border.

After four hours driving, as we neared the Rio Guadiana, which separates southern Portugal from its larger neighbor, the radio stations took on a different flavor. Raucous Spanish rock songs gave

Southern Spain: We Could Get Used to This

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 | Marbella, Spain (map)

Spain's Marbella Club Hotel: now those are some nice digs.
The second leg of our trip with Jacqueline's family took us from Marrakech to southern Spain.

We planned to stay outside Marbella, the nightlife capital of Spain's Costa del Sol, where a Powers family friend owns a condo. However, when the airline misplaced our bags—including the one with the condo's keys inside—Jacqueline's dad Jeff picked up the phone. A few calls and an hour later, we pulled into the swanky Marbella Club Hotel, for decades an exclusive beachfront retreat of Europe's rich and famous. Framed black-and-whites of Spanish royalty lined the walls of the reception; our room came stocked with a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries and fresh fruits. This was a lot better than any "Plan B" I might have come up with (as Jacqueline was quick to point out).

* * *

The next day, after several hours' waiting at the Málaga airport, we moved into the condo, located just down the coast from Marbella in San Pedro de Alcántara. The family relaxed on the porch that

Marrakech: Summer Vacation in the Red City

Monday, July 13, 2009 | Marrakesh, Morocco (map)

Marrakech's Koutoubia Mosque looms large over the old city.
After a grueling and nearly sleepless week, my last five minutes in Rabat were a whirlwind: toss reports on boss's desk, shut down computer, sprint three blocks home, dump fridge contents into trash bag and give to building caretaker, shoulder backpack, cut power, fumble door lock, sprint four blocks to train station, board train and collapse.

My latest contract finished, I was finally, unbelievably heading out for two much-needed weeks of relaxation. First destination: Marrakech, surely one of Earth's least relaxing cities.

I taxied up to the Villa des Orangers in mid-evening and ducked through the thick wooden door, hidden amidst a grease-blackened strip of mechanic shops.

Jacqueline and her family were inside the hotel's opulent central courtyard. Her father and stepmother, and her ten-year-old twin brothers Jack and William, were visiting for several days

Letter to the Editor: Pirates, Peace Treaties, and Prejudice

Thursday, June 25, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

"I ♥ Islam": spotted on the streets of Temara, Morocco
Last week I noticed an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun called "Rewriting the History of America and Islam" (Viewpoint; June 18, 2009). Written by a local academic, the piece outlined some of the sordid history behind America's early relations with Morocco—cited by President Obama in his Cairo speech as "the first nation to recognize my country."

The author's efforts to educate were well-intentioned, but part of me worried that local readers in Baltimore (admittedly not a hub of knowledge on the Islamic world) might misinterpret his message. The other part of me just wanted my name in the paper. Perhaps that second part shown through more strongly, or perhaps when I submitted my letter to the editor, he or she merely determined that the Sun's readership would be more interested in reading a series of typo-laden letters about pit bulls, drag racing, or the constitutional right to tax-free plastic shopping bags.

Something like Jazz, au Chellah

Friday, June 19, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

The Chellah's gardens are a relaxing destination by day, and a pleasant backdrop for some jazz.
Rabat's annual "Jazz au Chellah" festival tends to be a fairly sedate affair, as one might imagine. Assigned seating, a crowd of stiff European expats, and mellow tunes lend it a refined garden party atmosphere.

The backdrop helps, too; the concert stage is tucked among the overgrown ruins of the Chellah (الشالة). One of only a few sites of historical importance in the Moroccan capital, the Chellah is a jungle-like complex of deteriorating Roman and medieval Islamic structures, all surrounded by high, crenellated walls. On a balmy Monday evening, the storks whose cackling normally dominates the site's treetops gave way to the sounds of jazz.

At least, it was supposed to be jazz. I was soon glad, however, that I had picked the one night of the festival which was open to more experimental sounds.

El Jadida, Just Five Short Centuries After Its Prime

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | El Jadida, Morocco (map)

Lousy camera phone pics definitely do not do the cistern justice.
Enough of politics—time to hit the road.

Jacqueline and her cousin Carolyn (visiting from New York) were leaving Saturday for a southern Morocco surfing odyssey. Unfortunately, chained to my desk as I am these days, I couldn't go for the full trip, but our friend Chris and I managed to tag along as far as El Jadida (الجديدة). The ladies dropped us at the entrance to the town's old Portuguese medina, leaving us to our own devices for the day.

Five centuries ago, El Jadida was the site of a seaside Portuguese fortress named Mazagão, at the time the largest port along Morocco's Atlantic coast. The Portuguese influence remains in the now-decrepit architecture of their fortified medina (very reminiscent of other crumbling outposts I saw in Mozambique), but its Moroccan inheritors have clearly left their mark. A synagogue—testament

Local Elections: Room for Improvement

Saturday, June 13, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

In every Moroccan city, numbered rectangles are spray-painted on walls to indicate where candidates may post campaign materials.
For days, the excitement was building up. First, symbols and posters began to appear in the numbered boxes spray-painted on walls around the country. Then, swarms of youths in matching t-shirts began parading the streets in ever-larger numbers, blocking traffic and leaving a stream of leaflets in their wake.

Here in Morocco, Friday was local election day. At stake? Some 28,000 municipal council seats across the country. Don't worry though, you can be forgiven for not knowing about the vote—most Moroccans themselves hardly seemed to notice.

On Friday, I asked several colleagues at work if they had plans to cast their ballot, and received a wide variety of "no"s—mumbled excuses, outright laughs at the mere suggestion of voting, and—this from several who had lived abroad—sheepish embarrassment. This last group, at least, knew

After Cairo, a New Era Begins?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"خطاب أوباما.. الرسالة وصلت." The headline of Friday morning's Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reads "Obama's Speech.. The Message Arrived." The lead photo shows Palestinian militants watching Obama's speech live the previous morning.
The speech came, the speech went. Here in Morocco, some watched, but many didn't. (It was 10:00am on a work day here when Obama began his address at Cairo University.) The few Moroccans I've asked about it haven't had much to say, and none have raised the topic on their own. Even in Egypt, (likely inflated) government figures indicate that only 55 percent of Egyptians watched or read about the speech.

Were it not for Obama's mention of Morocco, press coverage here might have been non-existent. Even after the President's reference, two of the three local newspapers I picked up the following morning made no mention of the speech. Those local press outlets that swooned at Obama's specific mention of early US-Moroccan relations seemed to miss the larger point of the speech in the process. ("Morocco first nation to have recognized US independence" was the lead headline from the

Tough Crowds Await Obama in Cairo and Beyond

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Has Obama been judged before he even reaches the podium?  I'm hoping not, but I expect that many in the Arab world will be skeptical of Obama's ability to offer them much of substance.  (Illustration by Arab Leftist.)
Finally, the event we've all been waiting for has nearly arrived! That's right, it's Obama's much-hyped "address to the Muslim world", to be delivered at noon tomorrow at Cairo University in the heart of the Egyptian capital.

What's that, you say? The Muslim world isn't interested in yet more rhetoric and false promises from yet another American president?

No matter; the Egyptians (never known for being a quiet bunch) have plenty to say about the visit, though Obama isn't likely to find much of it favorable.

In one of seven op-eds from around the Muslim world published in today's New York Times, Egyptian journalist Hossam el Hamalawy equates Obama's choice of venue with support for Hosni Mubarak's far-from-democratic regime:

Devolutionary Biology

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Burnt hillsides and makeshift huts overlook Lake Kivu at Goma, in eastern DRC.
In my previous travels, I have offered separate observations on both the turmoil in eastern DR Congo and the ecosystem collapse threatening Lake Victoria.

Delphine Schrank's brief report, "As Go the Hippos...", in the latest issue of The Atlantic highlights the intersection of these two phenomena beside another of Africa's Great Lakes. The resulting disaster, on the shores of Lac Edouard, is proving much greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, the convergence of economic, environmental, political, and population pressures is likely to make such multi-faceted disasters even more common in coming decades.

Nor Common Sense, Nor Crowd Control Shall Stay Them

Wednesday, May 27, 2009 | Rabat, Morocco (map)

Alicia's jeans were tighter than anything Morocco had ever seen.
Last week's full-speed-ahead east coast tour left me wholly drained, but was well worth the effort. After eight months here in Morocco, it was a treat to spend a week with family and friends.

Only two factors made my brief reintegration to American life difficult. The first was light switches being just inside, not outside, of each room. All week long I consistently found myself walking into dark rooms after having just turned on the light in the hallway behind me. The second, less mundane factor was English—specifically, the fact that everyone was speaking it. Here in Morocco, I have become very accustomed to hearing Arabic all around me, to understanding only bits and pieces of conversations on the street, and to detecting English spoken anywhere within a mile radius (a survival skill every expat must surely develop). All week in the US, I found myself snapping my head around, unable to control my "English?! Who said that?!" instinct. Like Jacqueline described

Home Awaits, But Only Briefly

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 | Rabat, Morocco (map)

Go ahead and add Baltimore's Inner Harbor to things I miss back home.
Eight eventful months have passed since Jacqueline and I arrived in Morocco, excited but about the prospect of settling here for a long haul. It's strange to realize that we have just passed the half-way mark.

In our own way, we have each wrestled with a number of frustrations since our arrival—everything from petty street harassment to homesickness to the big questions about our paths in life.

By and large, however, the positives have outweighed the struggles. With new friends or just the two of us, exploring cities, towns, beaches, and mountains throughout the country is consistently invigorating, while the comfortable routine of daily life in Rabat has seemed to dull those old longings for home.

But home—as hard as it is for me to believe—is where I am headed tomorrow morning. My all-too-

Of Kasbahs Rocked, Peaks Surmounted, and Jobs Forgotten

Thursday, April 16, 2009 | Chefchaouen, Morocco (map)

A few miles from Chefchaouen, Ryan scopes out the view of the Rif Mountains.
Over a recent long weekend, while Jacqueline was back in the US visiting family, my jet-setting friend Ryan dropped in en route from Dubai to New York.

Busy with jobs and life in distant cities, we haven't seen each other nearly enough since our Georgetown days, so it was a good opportunity to catch up. Since the trip was, for Ryan, also a rare chance to escape his desk in Manhattan, I did my best to haul him as far from civilization as I could in three short days.

Thursday evening, after home-cooked Moroccan couscous with spiced chicken, apricots, and almonds, we cruised the neighborhood bars—always an interesting, if not enriching, cultural experience. Friday morning, we made the obligatory tour of Rabat's few cultural sites, visiting the modest medina and the Kasbah des Oudaias.

Tarifa: Envying the Other Side of the Strait

Thursday, April 9, 2009 | Tarifa, Spain (map)

Seafood pasta: Did I really eat this? Yes, yes I did. And it was delicious.
Situated at the southernmost point in mainland Europe, Tarifa is a quaint little fishing and surfing town in many ways the opposite of Tangier, its bustling Moroccan neighbor across the Strait of Gibraltar.

From the ferry port, Jacqueline and I began our Andalusian weekend by strolling to Tarifa's old medina. Its meandering main street led us past haut couture boutiques, shops offering pastries or tourist gear, and sunny open air cafés where Spaniards munched churros and browsed newspapers.

Every local, it seemed, was accompanied by a dog. Large and small, shaggy and short-haired, they lounged in laps or underfoot. All weekend long, we saw them tagging along with their owners, not just along the streets but also into every store, restaurant, and bar. Some were leashed; most ranged freely. And why not? The uptight atmosphere of the Moroccan street was slipping rapidly

First Taste of Tangier: Not So Bad After All

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 | Tangiers, Morocco (map)

Locals leave the mosque in one of Tangier's main squares, beside the old medina.
Many Moroccans think of Tangier the way Americans think of a place like Newark, New Jersey. (Phrases like "the armpit of the country" come to mind.) TV travel personality Rick Steves once called Tangier "the Tijuana of Africa."

In seven months here in Morocco, I have had the same conversation every time I've asked anyone—Moroccan or expat—about the city. Their response always starts with a great sucking in of air, then a slow exhale. Their eyes wander off. "Wellll..." they say, struggling for a word that could describe the city favorably, yet still truthfully. Their face betrays signs of the struggle—there must be something good I can say about the place—before they inevitably shrug and settle, with a liar's smile, on "It's nice."

The reputation of Ibn Battuta's home town seems never to have recovered from its role, in the 19th

Culture in the Capital

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

Cultural offerings abound in Rabat.
Fes has long been known as Morocco's "cultural capital", thanks in recent years to the popularity of the annual World Sacred Music Festival and Sufi Culture Festival, among a number of international spectacles. Unfortunately, none of those festivals took place during our time in Fes, and we took advantage of smaller events in town only too rarely.

So, since moving to Rabat, Jacqueline and I have made a point to get out of the house more and experience some contemporary Moroccan culture. On a random weekday night last month, we met for dinner off a lively square in centre ville before heading to the Royal Cinema for a showing of "Amours Voilées" ("حجاب الحبّ", or "The Veil of Love"). We sat in armchairs in the theater's balcony, flanked by teenage boys who chattered through the film and, with each sex scene, hooted wildly to mask their anxiety. Since its release several weeks earlier, tremendous controversy—all

In Agdal, Rediscovering Creature Comforts

Wednesday, March 25, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

Furnishing our new living room required several trip into the depths of Rabat's 'Akkari furniture market.
Surprisingly, all proceeded according to our plan during our last morning in Fes. Frigid cold—check. Last loaf of warm bread from the baker's next door—check. Clothes, books, kitchen supplies, and other gear bagged and heaped beside the door—check.

At 7:30, right on time, our caretaker Jawwad knocked at the door. Our carrosa was here, waiting at the end of our alleyway. The push-cart's operator helped us lug the bags to the cart and cinch them on precariously. The wheels looked like they were about to buckle under the weight, but he and Jawwad, huffing and puffing together, managed to set the cart in motion. Bent double under the weight of our backpacks, Jacqueline and I followed the cart out Derb er-Roum to Tala'a Sghira, up the long hill, and toward the medina's edge.

The driver we had arranged to drive us from Fes to Rabat arrived a few moments later in his dented

A Fruitful Shake of the Trees in Rabat

Saturday, February 21, 2009 | Rabat, Morocco (map)

An apartment on Rue Oued Fes will be our new home in Rabat, Morocco's seaside capital.
Apartment hunting makes me miserable under any circumstances, but the process is especially depressing in a rain-soaked North African port in the depths of winter. But Jacqueline was entering the second phase of her research; our move from Fes to Rabat was approaching. So last month Jacqueline managed to drag me through a weekend of scouring the capital for housing.

Until then, I had never struggled to find housing abroad. But in Rabat, there was no language school to help me, and unfortunately no Craig’s List either.

In the Arab world, apartment rental is traditionally an informal process dominated by neighborhood brokers called simsaars. At their worst, simsaars are one part real estate agent and one part cockroach, and leech off every stage of the housing process. They post most of the rental ads in newspapers, on bulletin boards, and at maroc-annonces.com (something like a local version of

Man in the Street: Opinions of Obama from the Muslim World

Tuesday, February 17, 2009 | Fes, Morocco (map)

Moroccans I have spoken with are hesitant to embrace Obama until they see real change first.
A big thanks to my friend Jeb (an old buddy from my days in Jordan) and his colleagues Matt and MDC over at Foreign Policy Watch for publishing my guest column "Obama and the Muslim World: Bridging the Gap When Words No Longer Work". In the early weeks of the Obama era, I examine Moroccans' views of the new American administration, and offer some insights into why the Muslim world may be hesitant to embrace the hope which Obama inspires in many Americans.

Check it out at FP Watch or below, and let me know your thoughts:

In Zemrude, A Revelation About Fes

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 | Fès, Morocco (map)

A hooded figure sweeps through Derb Serraj in Fes's old medina.
As I wrote in my previous post, street harassment has tainted my experience in Fes these last few months. But writing the place off as a pit of brutish, resentful street rats seems overly critical. After all, this is Fes—UNESCO World Heritage site, Morocco's self-styled "cultural capital", an imperial city with 1,200 years of history, and last but not least, Travel + Leisure magazine's number one pick for the "Best Romantic Getaways of 2009".

Fes?! A romantic getaway? At first that announcement bewildered me. Then I began to wonder, Why do I see this city so differently from this magazine's editors and lovestruck readers?

The gap between the Fes I find when I walk out my door, and that which a young honeymooning couple might encounter is at least partly in the attitude. As with any destination, Fes can to some extent be what you make of it. If you arrive expecting the city that the travel magazines and

Running the Gauntlet: Street Harassment in Fes

Monday, February 9, 2009 | Fès, Morocco (map)

The streets of Fes can be an unpleasant place if you enter them unprepared for what's coming your way.
The heckling began as soon as we arrived in Fes back in September. Faux guides came out of the woodwork, offering tours of the old medina's historical sites. When, in the course of exploring our new home, Jacqueline and I passed a group of young guys in the streets, they might whisper and snicker to each other furtively. Sometimes one might call out "Hellooooo! How are you!" or its French or Spanish equivalent.

After the tenth time in a single day, this pesky chatter could start to feel slightly annoying, but in general, living with it was easy. Smiling, I would either shrug it off or greet them back in Arabic. They never seemed to pursue the conversation much after that. And in truth, their bantering just blended in with the hubbub of the medina. In quaint, still-medieval Fes, what wasn't to love?

* * *

If we had left after a week or two at most, as all the tourists do, that's where it would have ended.

Moroccan Skiing, and Apes on Ice

Monday, January 26, 2009 | Michlifene, Morocco (map)

Three things you never thought you'd see in the same photo: Arabic, snow, and an ape.
Some reports online (which definitely don't merit a link) tout Mischliffen—a ski resort south of Ifrane—as "the Moroccan Aspen". To be fair, on our visit last Saturday we did find Mischliffen nestled in a natural alpine wonderland, but one of considerably less dramatic heights than its Rocky Mountain counterpart.

Mischliffen's two ski trails—one modest and the other more so—empty into a large bowl at the hill's base, where hundreds of Moroccan kids and teens spent the day sledding on wooden fruit crates nailed to sawed-off ski halves. Often several of them would join together in a train at the bowl's lip and slide downward, screaming hysterically, until their formation suddenly dissolved into a mass of tumbling bodies, with sleds skittering away in every direction. (No, these are not the "apes on ice"—that comes later.)

A Mountain That Can Be Climbed, But Never Conquered

Saturday, January 17, 2009 | Jebel Zalagh, Morocco (map)

Seen from Bab Guissa, Jebel Zalagh arcs like a stony spine on the horizon. From the summit, the Atlas Mountains' snows are visible.
I didn't think much of Jebel Zalagh (جبل زلاغ) during my first few months in Fes. It was just the mountain north of town, and I had plenty of exploring within the city itself to keep me busy. This week, however, with no more Arabic classes to fill my days, the peak took on a new allure.

Before heading out, I spoke to several friends who had made the climb before. Their advice was slightly unsettling—on the way up the mountain, watch out for territorial farmers and their even more territorial dogs.

Is there a certain path I should take? I wondered. Not really, they said. Just head for the radio towers at the summit, and look out for the dogs. Oh, and also for the thieves at the top who stole our friend's backpack.

Great, I thought. One of those trips.