Category Archives: Reading

Notes on readings that don’t appear in the “Place-based writing” section of this site.

Ouarzazate and first impressions

I feel as if I’m on a blind date—I don’t know what or whom I’m looking for.  Will Hassan, my contact, be arriving by car, bike, motorcycle, petit taxi?  What will he be wearing? How will he recognize me?  I am standing at early dusk in the shadow cast by Kasbah Taourirt, the tourist attraction par excellence, waiting to see how and whether I will be seen.


No joy.  In the end, I have to go back to the car to find the phone I’ve left.  Hassan has left two messages.  Evidently, we are neither of us what the other expected.  Even once Hassan has told me that he is standing in front of the Marmara bus, I seem to drift right past him.  I’m about to phone again when he calls to me, coming from the direction I’ve just been.

We go to meet Ahmed at the Centre de Documentation Pedagogique (CDP—center for teaching documentation) and there’s another odd echo of a feeling—this time of a bargain waiting to be struck.  A weird benevolent-Godfather kind of vibe.  Would I work with students as well? at the end of November?  “Ah, yes, that is what we wanted to know.  Very good.  We invited you to work at this time with the French group, but we don’t need to be limited to that time.  There is a long history of Moroccan-American collaborations.  Very good.”


Ahmed tells me tomorrow we will go to Telouet, an area associated with the de facto ruler of this part of Morocco in the early twentieth century.  Glaoui? I venture.  “Yes.  All this area is known as Glaoua.  So you will learn a little history, a little geography.”

Thami el Glaoui: I’ve read a little about his immense power and wealth, and his lack of squeamishness when it came to extending either.

After this short meeting, I follow Hassan’s car over a narrow causeway to the newer section of Ouarzazate, to his family’s home.  I will be staying with them both nights I am in Ouarzazate.  Bleary from the eight-hour drive, I try to summon the mental energy to recall my small portion of Darija.

Hassan’s family doesn’t seem to eat much meat, and I don’t think that has anything to do with my visit.  The first night I stay with them, they eat semolina soup; the second night, rice pilaf.  Dinner is late, maybe 8:30, about the time I’m ready to crash; Hassan’s nephew stays up late, and as we drive through Ouarzazate, the streets are full of children out with their families.  Don’t they fall asleep in school, I wonder?

Just as my brain feels ready to explode, a friend and neighbor of Hassan’s stops by to meet me.  His name is also Hassane, though for reasons unclear to me the spelling conveniently includes a distinguishing E. I revive a little on discovering that Hassane speaks fluent English and is working on a PhD in cultural studies at the university in Fez.

“What did you think of the landscape on your way down?” Hassane asks me.

“Amazing! It was like driving through the Grand Canyon,” I say.

“Yes, this is what everyone says!” Hassane replies, underscoring my own sense of the predictability of my response.
We go on to talk about the books we have both read, enthusing together about the work of Brian Edwards in Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghrib.

Even on the drive down, I had been thinking about Edwards, and his chapter on how American soldiers in Morocco during the second World War responded to Morocco as a mixture of the Wild West and a kind of Biblical pastiche.

“Here I go,” I thought, looking out the window at that Grand Canyon landscape, “making that same old American translation of the unknown into the known.”  But is there really an alternative to this habitual recoding of the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar?

Can we just confront the unknown head on—or will we always duck aside at the last minute, giving up on the cultural game of chicken?

The problem with projection and transposition are the misrecognitions that come with them.  So…. focus on geology: seeing the angle of the stone, imagining the the pressures that must have thrust it up out of the ground.
Focus on specifics—the details of this particular teaching task, this context—to help separate reality from imaginary projections.

I have so much to learn.




Fassi nostalgia

The city of Fez is shrouded in a mist of nostalgia.LdE9gPyyjd1oe4NVXMeW2JmkdqmwBUTJmDuO6s9RP0E[Note: Fez in Arabic is spelled Fas; the adjective for things associated with the city is Fassi.]

Everyone who writes or speaks of it—and there are many people who love this city deeply—seem also to speak of its present state as a dim reflection of its past glory; often, they describe the city as perched on the brink of destruction.

The local bakeries are closing; the public fountains are drying up. The buildings themselves are on the edge of collapse, some or many of them, depending on whom you talk to.IMG_0662
I find myself totally caught up in this sense of imminent ruin, only to remember that Edith Wharton was already marking the city’s demise in the 1920s, and Paul Bowles foretold its end in the 1950s.  [In what follows, I don’t mean to downplay the real threats of overcrowding and limited resources–I’m just struck by the persistent perception of imminent demise.]

Wharton, an enthusiastic supporter of empire, is hard to read today: her prose is at times wonderfully detailed and energetic, but it is almost always marked by a willful prejudice, a pre-judging of what she sees.  Her “first vision” of Fez is introduced by the ideological (and clearly false) claim that “Nothing endures in Islam except what human inertia has left standing and its own solidity has preserved from the elements.  Or rather, nothing remains intact, and nothing wholly perishes, but the architecture, like all else, lingers on half-ruined and half-unchanged.”  I want to distance my view from Wharton’s, but she too is focused on Fez’s liminality.
“There it lies, outspread in golden light, roofs, terraces, and towers sliding over the plain’s edge in a rush dammed here and there by barriers of cypress and ilex, but growing more precipitous as the ravine of the Fez narrows downward with the fall of the river.  it is as though some powerful enchanter, after decreeing that the city should be hurled into the depths, had been moved by its beauty, and with a wave of his wand held it suspended above destruction.”  Note how “dammed” evokes the idea of damnation just before Wharton changes direction from religion toward a narrative that might have come from the Thousand and One Nights.

Paul Bowles had his own predispositions.  He wrote in his preface to The Spider’s House, “I wanted to write a novel using as backdrop the traditional daily life of Fez, because it was a medieval city functioning in the twentieth century.”  The struggle for independence intervened, however: “I soon saw that I was going to have to write, not about the traditional pattern of life in Fez, but about its dissolution.”
P1000846 But has traditional life really dissolved?  Or has it just morphed to include high top sneakers and modern shoes along with seasonal mandarins and beans?

Sure, there’s an uncanniness here: a medieval city in the modern world,minaret with satellite dishes
minaret with satellite dishes

an acclaimed World Heritage Site that survives partly on its own terms, but largely as a simulacrum of itself, offering up its performance of authenticity to the tourists whose influx of money keeps the life support functioning.  I don’t mean this critically: I’m fascinated by the liminal status of Fes, and even more fascinated by the length of time that liminality has lingered.

I hope you will linger in Fez with me for the next week or so.  I have come down the mountain from Ifrane to Fez to take a study tour of “The Art of Islamic Pattern” led by two British artists and teachers: Richard Henry and Adam Williamson.
The course includes teaching sessions on the geometrical and biomorphic patterns of local Islamic art, along with tours of the medina—tours focused on architecture and traditional arts.  Disclaimer: as a result, my image of Fes is shaped by a number of English-speaking interpreters, guides, teachers (and of course books in both French and English).  So here’s what’s coming up: a quick primer on the history of Fez in relation to the rest of Morocco and the Islamic empire; a glance at Fez as a palimpsest, full of historical layers and overwriting; an overview of domestic architecture; a glance at some of the logic underlying geometric pattern in Fassi zellij or tile mosaics; a still briefer glance at some principles of biomorphism in Fassi plaster and wood carving; and a trip through the artisanal centers of Fez, divided into four separate posts.  Lots of photos and not too many words, I promise!