Back to Berberland

Sunday, October 30, 2011 | Rabat, Morocco

Bab Rouah, along the walls that ring the royal palace in Rabat.
From Mauritania, my work trip continued to Morocco. It was my first time back in nearly two years, since leaving in December 2009. Before I left home, friends had asked me if I was excited to be heading back. "Morocco and I have a long and troubled history," I would respond with a smile.

In Rabat, returning to my old haunts—the neighborhood of Agdal—was surreal. Every cafe, hardware shop, kitchenware store, grocer's, and flower shop dredged up weighty memories from the depths of my subconscious. The sign on a laundromat, the croissants at a neighborhood bakery, the green plastic bag of local wine shop—my eye seized on even the most innocuous details to recall some lost association. But after living there as half of a couple, I welcomed the opportunity to return alone and rediscover the place on my own terms.

Rabat's new tramway was up and running, but daily life in the city seemed otherwise unchanged.

Nouakchott, City of Sand

Monday, October 17, 2011 | Nouakchott, Mauritania

Traditionally, Mauritanian men and women both cover up from head to toe outside the home. After a minute in the country's blinding midday sun, it's easy to see why.
The night before I left Nouakchott—the desolate capital of the even more desolate northwest African country of Mauritania—a sales email managed to slip through my spam blocker. It began, "Unless you've been living under a rock somewhere in the desert, you MUST have heard of Viagra..."

Funny you should say so. As a matter of fact, I do feel as if I'm living under a rock in the desert.

* * *

Thanks to a long-anticipated transfer at work, my new portfolio includes a series of projects in North Africa. This means the end—for now at least—of my Central African travels, and a chance to further explore this other familiar corner of the continent.

My first destination in the region, however, was one I had never visited and knew little about. I had read about Mauritania's spartan "desert blues" music on a blog I enjoy, Sahel Sounds, and I could

9/11 and the Tenth Parallel

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Twin towers of a different kind, Damascus
Among my many emotions on this somber anniversary, the greatest is frustration. Here's why, and what I think we can do to fix it.

In response to a series of events ten years ago today that an arrogant and naive America could not anticipate (much less comprehend), our nation launched two wasteful and devastating wars, dismantled protections of civil liberties, sanctioned torture and illegal detention, built walls—both physical and bureaucratic—around our borders, shamefully failed the selfless volunteers who sacrificed to protect us, and embraced xenophobia and racism in our public discourse. All these rash and careless and downright stupid responses to 9/11 frustrate me, but not nearly as much as our collective failure to respond in one single, all-important way: to seek to understand what led to those events and how can we work to decrease the chances of their ever happening again.

Hama: Faces from a Forsaken City

Tuesday, August 2, 2011 | Hamah, Syria

A fruit seller and his tea, July 2005. Hama, Syria.
Since its vibrant, idealistic beginnings eight months ago, the Arab Spring has splintered into many different summers. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia—the Spring's most successful by any measure—have dissolved into banal squabbles over electoral systems and constitutional provisions and party politics, as they should. The aspirations of Bahraini democrats were brutally silenced, but Moroccans, Jordanians, and a few others may still hope to see some small good emerge. Less promising is the civil war in Libya and, perhaps not far behind it, similar disintegration in Yemen and in Syria.

The Syrian case is particularly troubling to me. That's not because, after a summer of Arabic study there, I pretend to know the country, its people, or its politics well. Rather, it's because I have never genuinely loved a place that was not my home the way I loved Syria. Nowhere else have I met

Turqoise to Timberline: Chasing Trout in the Rockies

Thursday, July 7, 2011 | Leadville, CO, USA

Spying on the enemy from above, at Timberline Lake. (photo by C. Graham)
DC is the last place on earth any sane warm-blooded creature would want to be during the summer heat. So a few days before the Fourth of July weekend arrived, when my uncle Chris called to invite me to spend the holiday camping in the Rocky Mountains with him and my aunt and two cousins, I wisely accepted.

From their home in Denver, I drove with my uncle and his chocolate lab, Ollie, to Turquoise Lake, where we met the rest of the family and pitched our tents for the weekend. (Of course, in our minds this was largely a fishing trip, so my uncle and I made sure to stop at several points along the way—fly fishing shops, trout streams, and rivers still bursting with this year's late snowmelt.)

My two cousins, twin 15-year old boys, led the charge with their friends on the next day's hike to Timberline Lake. The two-hour climb to 11,000 feet (3,350 m.) involved fording several snowmelt

Sylvestre's Stories

Wednesday, June 29, 2011 | Nyamata, Rwanda

Sylvestre has taught me a lot during my visits to Rwanda.
Of the small group of young Rwandans with whom I work each time I come here, Sylvestre holds a special place. The other Rwandans on our team call him Mzee, a Swahili term reserved for respected elders. He gets that nickname in part because he's the oldest, but at roughly 33 (his exact age is sort of a guess) Sylvestre is barely older than the others, so there is more to it. It's not rank or education either—he's our office's driver and fix-it-man. Rather, they treat Sylvestre with an extra touch of respect in part because he is "a survivor." (In Rwanda, that term has only one meaning: a survivor of the 1994 genocide.) None of the others are; they all returned to Rwanda in the aftermath, having grown up in Burundi, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, or Tanzania. But Sylvestre and his family stuck it out in Rwanda, despite being of mixed ethnic heritage, and thus subject to the anti-Tutsi campaigns that erupted with increasing frequency throughout the '80s and early '90s before fully exploding in 1994.

Gorilla Country: There Are No Creationists in Virunga

Monday, June 13, 2011 | Virunga National Park, Rwanda

I had to remind myself that they only look like humans in gorilla suits.
Within a week of returning home from family vacation in Ireland, I was back on the road for another work trip to Rwanda—my third in the last year and fourth overall.

In my previous three trips, I had never managed to visit Rwanda's most famous tourist attraction—the mountain gorillas. The price tag was a big reason. Visiting the gorillas requires getting to Rwanda in the first place (not a cheap proposition), then to Virunga National Park, on the country's northern border. But the expenses don't end there; the permit to join a small group and enter the lush highland forests, under mandatory escort by a team of trackers, guides, and armed scouts, costs US$500. For that price, one is allowed to trek up the volcanoes' steep slopes to find a gorilla family and observe them for a maximum of an hour. Of course, seeing them is not guaranteed, and online travel forums are full of horror stories of visitors paying the hefty fee only to climb through

Leaving Ireland on a High Note: Galway and the Aran Islands

Sunday, June 5, 2011 | Inis Mor, Co. Galway, Ireland

Family portrait above the cliffs at Dún Aengus fort, on the largest of the Aran Islands
Galway, Ireland's third largest city, is everything its fellow towns along Ireland's western coast aren't—a cosmopolitan, boisterous charmer of a city, alive with the energy of outdoor cafes and street buskers, of art galleries and open-air food and craft markets.

But even Galway can't hide the signs of the times; like everywhere else in Ireland, Galway's residents spent the last decade building. The B&B in which we stayed was just the latest of a long string of recently—and shoddily—constructed places we lodged in, adorned with cheap furnishings and tacky décor. While the various B&B owners were all exceptionally warm and inviting, they also all spoke of Ireland's economic boom and bust in gloomy terms. Ireland's housing bubble was a large part of the cause, but so was America's own economic slump; as our host in Galway explained, the economy in this part of Ireland rises and falls with the tides of American tourists, and this year we

The Cliffs of Moher and the Savage Clan

Sunday, May 29, 2011 | County Clare, Ireland

Sister Margaret and I posed at the top of the cliffs. (Photo: M. Graham)
En route to Galway, we made a detour past the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland's most famous natural sites. We saw the 200-meter high cliffs, famed for their ruggedly scenic views, but unfortunately did not spot the puffin colonies that are rumored to inhabit their base. By the time we left, a heavy fog was rolling in off the sea, rendering the cliffs' jagged dropoff yet more sinister.

At the gift shop in the cliffs' subterranean visitor center, I happened upon a map showing the traditional homelands associated with various Irish surnames. The Coloes were elusive, but all alone on a spur off the island's far northeast shore were the Savage clan, the other half of my mother's Irish ancestors. If I had been smart and looked that up in advance we might have arranged to pay them a visit!

The Dingle Peninsula: Irish Postcard Country

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 | Dingle, Ireland

A perfect Irish coast at Slea Head, Dingle Peninsula
After our hair-raising run-ins the day before along just one small stretch of the Ring of Kerry (known in online travel forums as "The Ring of Tour Buses"), my mom and sister and I weren't eager to experience a whole day of the same. So at the recommendation of our B&B's owner, we instead opted to drive around the Dingle Peninsula, just up the coast. There we visited the wide, mirrored expanse of Inch Beach, ate fish and chips beside the port in Dingle town, and made the scenic drive to Slea Head, the peninsula's most extreme point.

The Dingle proved to be about as Irish as I could have imagined. Of course, the scenery looked like the postcard images sold in tourist shops back in Dublin, with jagged cliffs plunging down to the sea, greener hills than any we had yet seen, more sheep than people, and very moody weather.

But more telling still was the language. In fact, the prevalence of Gaelic—or "Irish", as the Irish call

Gap of Dunloe, Ring of Kerry: Ireland's Fun Though the Driving's Scary

Monday, May 23, 2011 | Killarney, Ireland

Maggie made new friends on our hike through the Dunloe Gap.
The town of Killarney is the gateway to one of Ireland's most famous tourist destinations: the Ring of Kerry, a 179km loop around the Kerry Peninsula, which juts off the island's southwestern coast into the Atlantic and is known for its stunning scenery.

My mom, sister, and I spent our first afternoon in the area hiking the Dunloe Gap, a scenic pass in the peninsula's central mountain range. From a small parking lot, visitors either set out on foot or by rented horse carriage along the narrow lane that winds 3.5 miles across the valley floor to the gap's narrowest point. We opted to test our luck with the weather by walking.

Along the route, we passed reed-filled ponds and meandering streams, moss-covered trees, wildflowers and delicate ferns, and plenty of animals. There were ducks and herons, grazing horses, local sheepdogs, and of course quite a few sheep, whose owners apparently spraypaint blue and red

Kill Village Ahead

Sunday, May 22, 2011 | Kinsale, Ireland

It was undoubtedly Maggie's favorite Irish road sign of our entire trip.
"Kill" or "kil" is an old Gaelic word for "church," we learned on day two of our Irish roadtrip, after Maggie dutifully Googled it on her Blackberry from the back seat. (You can do that on trips in this part of the world, which is a novelty for me.) So this explained how every other Irish village we passed along our drive from Waterford began with some variation of this prefix. But it did not entirely explain why one village along our route was named simply "Kill".

On the day's drive from Waterford to Cork, we made a detour to Bunmahon Beach. Ireland's ever-present rains dampened the sea views a bit, and it was still raining later that afternoon when we passed through Cork and wound our way down to a B&B overlooking the coastal town of Kinsale.

The Irish Roadtrip Begins: Kilkenny Castle

Saturday, May 21, 2011 | Kilkenny, Ireland

Kilkenny Castle was in far better shape than any of the castles I have visited in the Middle East.
Within minutes of arriving in Dublin, I had stepped into oncoming traffic and had to leap back to the curb to avoid being squished. Given that I was supposed to drive us around on the left side of the road for the next week, this troubling early sign was on all our minds on our third day in Ireland, when my mom and sister and I picked up our rental car. As my mother gripped her seat, white knuckled, and made gasping sounds of certain impending death, I pulled the car onto the road and began to adjust to the disorienting sensation of lefthand driving. After managing to avoid plowing into any cars in the first few blocks, I made it to the highway and began to feel more comfortable. We were on our way.

At Kilkenny, a few hours south of Dublin, we stopped to visit the town castle and its stables and gardens. Though the castle was clearly of the same origin and similar construction as many of the

The Dublin Tourist Circuit

Thursday, May 19, 2011 | Dublin, Ireland

The Temple Bar district makes a fun hangout for bachelor/bachelorette parties, tourists, and locals alike.
For as long as I can remember, in the back of my mind I have been able to hear my mother's voice reciting "Before I die, I have to see Ireland." The land of her great-grandparents loomed large in her mind as much for the ancestral connections as for the cool weather, rolling green hills, and friendly, English-speaking locals.

As my mother's Christmas gift last year, my sister Maggie and I agreed to shoulder the bulk of the costs for a 10-day tour of Ireland. Maggie found a solid travel provider that organized self-driving tours along a variety of routes—we picked the dates and a loop across the country and they made all the arrangements.

* * *

Our plans were interrupted right off the bat at the Dublin Airport, where my mom and sister announced an unscheduled stop to watch "the royal wedding." European and American tourists were

A Note to My Readers on the New "Ibn Ibn Battuta"

Thursday, April 28, 2011 | Washington, DC, USA

The author in Tarifa, Spain, February 2009.
Even when I'm not traveling, I sometimes tinker with improvements to Ibn Ibn Battuta. Last summer, I began the laborious process of transferring the blog to a new service and upgrading the layout. In my free time, I would redesign pages, re-code sidebars, fix old typos, or add new photos.

I was willing to put in the time because Ibn Ibn Battuta is more than just my travel blog. If I kicked the can tomorrow, Ibn Ibn Battuta would be the one thing I've produced so far in life that might endure—my one shot (lousy though it may be) at immortality. It is a chronicle of my most formative experiences, my record of my personal journey with all its ups and downs. I try to make that record honest, even when I would rather not acknowledge some of the downs.

* * *

One day back in September, Jacqueline, then in her second week of law school, announced that we were done. Done?! Done. A week later I was still numb, lost, and tumbling as I left for a work trip to

A Fast Night and a Slow Day in Kampala

Sunday, March 20, 2011 | Kampala, Uganda

While Jon was occupied with the ketchup, I chowed down on freshly grilled tilapia and chips, washed down with ginger beer.
After two weeks in pristine Rwanda, where the streets are swept clean each day and traffic flows in orderly single file, I wasn't prepared for the shock of Kampala. Amid the fog of dust and exhaust, an overwhelming disorder reigns on the boisterous streets of the Ugandan capital.

I had managed to stop here for a 24-hour layover on my way back to Washington, in order to visit my friend Jon (of the duo Jon & Jen, main characters in many of my tales from Morocco). While Jen was back home in England, Jon was working and holding down the fort at their new home in Kampala.

Together, Jon and I made the most of my brief visit by sleeping as little as possible. My memories from our night on the town include: zipping through evening traffic on the back of motorcycle taxis, Jon's insistence that I sample every brand of Ugandan beer, gorging ourselves on a goat feast at a

Rwanda Redux

Friday, March 18, 2011 | Kigali, Rwanda

Two colleagues and I crunched into the back seat for a drive to the city of Butare.
Despite spending the first two weeks of March in Rwanda, I managed to return to Washington without even the hint of a suntan (as my friends have happily pointed out since my return). Unfortunately I spent much of this visit working in offices and conference rooms, with less free time than I enjoyed during my last trip in October. But with each visit, I continue to learn more about the country and its many peculiarities, and to strengthen my bonds with several Rwandan colleagues and friends.

Since my last trip here, Rwanda has beaten its own economic growth projections, completed its nationwide fiberoptic network, and won a $25 million grant from the African Development Bank to finance an environmentally friendly power plant that will run on methane gas found in Lake Kivu. Just a few more steps in Rwanda's march toward world domination...

Egypt: The People Victorious

Friday, February 11, 2011

From earlier today, the headline on Al Jazeera's Arabic broadcast reads, "Egypt: The People Have Won" and below, "Live: Celebrations unite the Arab world from the Atlantic to the Gulf at the fall of the Mubarak regime."
This morning I heard an NPR story on the Egyptian protests' reverberations in Iraq, in which a group of Iraqi activists expressed perfectly what so many ordinary citizens across the Arab world have felt for years: "We are like camels. We carry the gold, but we only get to eat the grass."

Today the people of Egypt have finally thrown off their load, refusing to be beasts of burden any longer. The joy of the crowds in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and elsewhere is infectious. In just 18 days, they have managed to wrench their nation—and perhaps the Arab world at large—onto a new historical course.

Tomorrow the real work will begin, and Egyptians will have to grapple with the power vacuum left in the revolution's wake. But tonight is a time for jubilation.

The Arab Street's Moment Lives On (To Be Continued...)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tune in to Al Jazeera's free streaming coverage of events in Egypt here.
When I last wrote ten days ago of the swelling fervor in Egypt and the Arab world at large, Egypt's streets were filled with protesters.

In the days that followed, President Mubarak responded by unleashing violent thugs on his own people. (Many were security forces out of uniform, while others were ordinary citizens paid a few bucks to attack their compatriots—which says much about the depths of Egyptians' poverty.) The attacks dimmed many Egyptians' hopes for change at just the moment when many began to fear for their economic security. The need to put food on the table began to take a toll and, though the nucleus of the crowds remained in Tahrir Square, many Egyptians returned to work.

Earlier this week (after two weeks of protests now) the release of detained online activist Wael Ghonim—and his emotional interview that followed—breathed new life into the demonstrations.

January 2011 Explained: The Arab Street Gets Its Moment

Monday, January 31, 2011

Market street (Fes, Morocco)
This month's events have turned the Arab world upside down—and have done so with a speed few ever could have imagined. January 2011 will be remembered in the region much like Europe's Summer of '68, if not like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Because of my interest in the region, I have spent a good part of the month glued to Al Jazeera English, but most Americans have not. Many might now be wondering: After years of stagnation, how did a region so "stuck in the mud" ignite so suddenly? And what does it mean for the future?

Act I: Tunisia

It all began in Tunisia, where a well-educated, globally aware population endured decades of repression under a police state. Thanks in part to satellite television and in part to strong European ties, Tunisians knew what they were missing. Their country's listless economy, chronic high