Category Archives: Daily life

The difference between traveling and living in a country appears most prominently in the small details of daily life.

Aziz and the Todgha palmerie

This is how Moroccans give directions: “Drive into town, then call me and I’ll tell you where to go from there.”  Really?  I have to call you from the roadside and then try to listen to “second left, next right, two roundabouts” in French with bad reception while scrabbling for paper and pencil to write it down?  You can’t give me a post code ahead of time and let me look it up on Google maps?

Actually, Google maps are not very satisfactory in Morocco.  The site is blanked out over the royal palaces to protect the king’s privacy, for instance, but in addition to that, most city maps include a variety of unlabeled streets along with various streets labeled in Arabic script.  Remember that I’m reading  at about a first or second grade level.  Picture us driving.
James: “What’s the next street we’re looking for?”
Betsy: “Uh, can you pull over and let me sound it out?”
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As instructed, we called Aziz once we reached the outskirts of Tinghir.  “OK, just drive through town; the last café on the way out of town will be called  mflmr.  I’ll meet you there.”  The name of the café is impossible to catch, even with three repetitions: James thinks it’s Ahmed’s café; I think it’s Mohamed’s.  We’re in the midst of rush hour traffic, so it’s hard to drive slowly enough to spot the names of shops or cafés in the gathering dusk.  We’re convinced that our plans for the night and the next day have just gone up in smoke.  Suddenly, Aziz is standing beside the car, in the middle of traffic, like a ghost appearing out of nowhere.  Moroccan magic.  (This is the kind of story that annoys me when I read them in books, but still…) Aziz jumps in the car and tells us to turn right and right again and suddenly we’re on a dirt track curving along the bottom of the town.  The noise and bustle drop away–we enter a courtyard with a Berber tent, incense rising, and dusk falling.

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The auberge seems to be an all-male operation, which may explain a certain degree of grubbiness, but I’m too tired and sick to care.  I crawl into bed; Aziz and his brother make me a verbena tisane to try to settle my stomach; James and Jeremy have a couscous from which Zoe abstains, then we all fall asleep.

November 5th: Guy Fawkes day in England: my birthday!  As a present, James has organized another tour of the Todgha palmerie (and the children are willing to go along with it).  Give Zoe enough sweet mint tea and she can cope with anything.

We bribe Jeremy by telling him Aziz will teach him to weave little camels out of palm fronds, but damn, that’s harder than it looks.  (In the palmerie, six-year-olds are already doing this with ease…)  Aziz is amused by our struggles with the simple task.

Those of you who know my passion for permaculture will understand my obsession with the palmeries: these are permaculture sites that have been operating abundantly for thousands of years.  Our brief earlier tour did nothing to slake my curiosity about the details of how these palmeries are structured and maintained.

We start again at the garden of the Sacred Fish (Poissons sacrées) café and restaurant: a fresh water spring inhabited by salt-water fish.  Don’t ask me how this works: that’s why they’re sacred.
They’re hard to see in this picture, but they’re a little scary when swarming (leaping) for bread tossed on the water.

We’re hardly into the palms when Aziz stops for a conversation with a man passing by.  The man is his uncle, and they’re discussing the harvesting of a shared family date palm.  Aziz noticed that the dates were close to ripe and he told his brother to harvest them.  Evidently, there is another branch of the family (cousins to Aziz) with whom this uncle has some issues.  “I thought they were harvesting the tree,” said the uncle, “and I was going to give them what for” (a gesture with the hand–coincidentally?–holding a knife) “but then I saw it was your brother, so I left him to it.”

“Are there many family issues about dividing the harvest?” I ask Aziz.  “Not really,” he answers.  “The best thing is for everyone to be present at the harvest and receive their share.  If you can’t be present, then you don’t really have the right to complain.”  I’m not quite sure how this statement of principle works out in the context of the family story he just told me, but I don’t press the issue.  My family wants to get moving.

“You want to understand dattel farming?” Aziz asks me.  “Well, to start with, the farmer has to keep the palm trees pruned properly, or they will not produce.  Here, this tree is very messy: many fronds, no dattels.”  (I’m not sure why Moroccans call dates dattels–it doesn’t seem to come from French or Arabic or English.)

We cross the river which makes this particular palmerie so productive,
looking as we pass at the rock-and-wire bulwarks that people hope will contain the floodwaters when they come, so that the floods don’t uproot plants and trees in the oasis, as they have done in the past.

One of the delights of the palmerie is the cool shade it provides, even in the midst of blazing sun:

The middle layer of the palmerie–fruit trees–is much more closely interwoven with the palms than I had expected: here’s a fig tree entwined with the base of a (badly pruned) palm, and a pomegranate very near by.

Aziz stops to greet an elderly man.  In his youth, he was called Karim (the word for generous), but his nickname now is simply Aki.

Aki is busy working his garden, located behind a head-high pisé wall.  He invites us in to take a look.  In fact, the first thing he does is climb a big palm to pick us a few lingering dates.  I hope I’m half as agile when I’m in my 80s.
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The date season is already mostly over by early November, but there are 26 varieties of dates in the oasis, and there are always a few somewhere that are slow to ripen.  These are premium dates, Aki tells us, and they are indeed the best tasting dates I’ve ever had: enormous and sweet and juicy.

Each year, as a good farmer does, Aki prunes back a lower layer of palm “branches;” this means you can read the age of the tree by counting the rows of pruned branches up the trunk.  Some varieties of palm have tightly spaced branches; others are more loosely spaced.  As a result, the height of the palm doesn’t tell you the age of the tree: you need to count the pruning rings.

But date palms are only part of the picture here: there are fruit trees (including olives) around the edges of Aki’s garden,
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green fields of mint and (nitrogen-fixing) alfalfa (with some loose-leaf cabbage–this is the preferred variety of cabbage in the south),
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and beets and peppers and eggplant, oh my!
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Every time I admire a plant, Aki promptly harvests one and hands it to me: note the large bag of loot I am accumulating.  When he hears I’ve got a stomach bug, he finds a variety of celery that he says will help, along with more verbena.

Then he wants to show us the oven built into the side of a wall: he shows us how he hangs, say, a leg of lamb inside the oven, with the coals below, and then banks it to cook slowly for two days.  Then he grins at us: it’s a good photo here!  Aziz, take their picture!

Laden with food, we leave Aki surveying his garden (built on the space where a house once stood) and head back out into the more open spaces of the oasis.

Water is everywhere: this palmerie is incredibly rich in water, flowing under bridges made from palm trunks.

The al-bayud fungus threatening the palmerie is treated by cutting down infected palms and burning the surface : the fungus lives on the outer layers of the trunk, so the inner trunk can be used for construction purposes.

One of the things I envy most is the remarkable ease and simplicity of irrigation here: a few stones, a handful of mud, and gravity.  It certainly beats bucket and hose.
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Deep beds (rather than raised beds) allow for deep irrigation, flooding for a few hours at a time:
Even if the irrigation is easy, though, the labor is still hard.  I remember Eric Ross drilling it into us: an oasis or palmerie is an agricultural system, highly productive but incredibly labor intensive.  Aziz has been telling us that the older generation know how to work all day long without getting hot or tired; the younger generation has lost this knack.  Here, for instance, the older man is wearing a djellaba and long sleeves, while the younger man is stripped as far as is decent.
Pruned palm fronds make a fence defining a family’s plot.  Nothing is wasted here.  Even the date stems, stripped of the dates, can be used for brooms, as Jeremy demonstrates:

This half-harvested plot is also one of Aki’s fields, Aziz tells us.  He’s one of the most productive farmers in the oasis.  This is a field of mint, left perennial.  He harvests it to take the mint to market (for the essential Moroccan mint tea); by the time he’s reached the end of the field, the beginning is ready to harvest once again.  I’m amazed it rebounds so well and so quickly–but then, it is mint, liable to be invasive unless handled with tough love.P1000351

There’s an interesting mixture of the traditional and the new in the work of the oasis. Note the dangling earbud on the man driving the donkey.P1000359 P1000360

After touring the oasis, we went to visit the abandoned village above the fields.  The pisé buildings with the mountain behind are very evocative of the American Southwest, aren’t they?

Inside, we see more of the palm trunk floor/roofing, and also the upper layer of the house.  I’ve been wondering about why people have moved out of these traditional buildings in such droves, but Aziz’s explanation clarifies things for me: not only is there no running water, but the traditional mode of living included larger domesticated animals (donkeys, sheep) on the ground floor, then smaller animals (chickens, rabbits) on part of the upper floor where the family lived.

The village offers a lovely warm spot for baking in the sun during colder winter days: Zoë decided to clone herself so part of her could stay here.P1000394

We leave Aziz at the Poissons Sacrés cafe and drive out of the gorge toward the desert.  On the hill above the palmerie, you can see both the fertility of the oasis and the aridity of the  landscape surrounding it:
P1000399 P1000400The contrast underscores the near-miracle of oasis productivity–and the precariousness of this life in an erratically warming world.


Visiting Brahim’s family in Tifoultoute

My friend and Swarthmore colleague Brahim el Guabli is in many ways the person who launched me into this Fulbright project, and he had urged me to visit his family during one of my visits to Ouarzazate.  (I’m probably going to mis-spell everyone’s name: apologies!) On the way down to Ouarzazate, I got a message from him with a phone number for his sister Jmia and the news that I could communicate with her in Darija. (Implication: the rest of his family will be speaking Tamazight.  Eeek.)

Now, I studied fusHa (or modern standard Arabic) for a semester with Brahim, but I was not the world’s best student and Brahim has a generous over-estimation of my Arabic skills.  My family drove down to meet me in Ouarzazate after the workshop; Ahmed and Hassan led us in convoy out to the small town Tifiltoute where Brahim’s family lives.  I had asked Sihem (one of the workshop participants) to call and let Jmia know that we were on our way.  Sihem was relieved to discover that Jmia did speak Darija so that the two of them could communicate.  (After we arrived at the family home, we discovered that Brahim had said we would be visiting but not when; also, he told them we would be staying for two weeks, and they repeatedly urged us wistfully to please stay more than a night.)

They also worked hard to find family members who could speak with us.  My brain was burnt out from teaching all day long in 30-year-old French, so my Darija was even more limp than usual.  Brahim’s niece Fadwa had third-grade French, so she tried to entertain us while Jmia and her mother cooked some (yummy!) supper.  Fadwa was a little shy, though, so conversation was halting.  I finally got her to teach us a few children’s songs.  Jeremy still sings “Bismillah, bismillah” (in the name of God) periodically.

Part way through the evening, Habiba, another of Brahim’s sisters, arrived with her two-year old.  Habiba (in the pink hajib) had very good French and did hard labor translating for everyone.  Her son loves loves loves his aunt Jmia (and, I’m told, his uncle Brahim).

Eventually, once the visitors were well well fed, Brahim’s mother sat down with the rest of her family; Fadwa’s mother (in the black and red) had arrived, as had Brahim’s cousin Mohamed, who speaks English! 

Impressive: to pull together multiple language speakers and different branches of the family on the spur of the moment!

After a good night’s sleep, and a breakfast of the very best milhui (rghaif, msemmen) I’ve had in Morocco, Mohamed and Jmia took us to visit the qasbah of Tifiltoute.

I was delighted to see a couple of storks’ nests up close: they made me appreciate Tahir Shah’s account (in The Caliph’s House) of his guardiens’ attempting to encourage storks to nest on the house by accumulating a pile of garbage:
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James has a thing for ruined qasbahs, but even I appreciate the way the nesting pigeons look like jewels set in the side of this crumbling wall:

We wandered around the back of the qasbah, to visit the place where the family’s house had once stood.  Jmia knew right where it was and could remember living there with Brahim.

The structure of the walls was easy to see here, and the views out from the site were amazing.
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We had seen Habiba on the way and stopped at her house after the qasbah for more mint tea and cookies.  In fact, everyone was so wonderful to us and we liked everyone so well that it felt almost too difficult to leave.  We compromised by deciding to visit the Atlas movie studio, bringing Mohamed with us.

Burping like a camel

Jeremy delivers this pronouncement solemnly, after looking around at me with surprise: “Mama, you’re burping like a camel.”
Camels have a remarkably resonant digestive system: we were all in giggles on our camel ride, listening to the sounds emerging from either end.

I have tried to keep quiet (!) on the topic of digestion, but in fact I’ve been variably ill since the week after we arrived: vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps that double me over in the daytime or wake me up at 3 a.m.  I’ve tried Smecta, a cocktail of Moroccan stomach-related prescriptions, Cipro, Zithromax, apple cider vinegar, Flagyl.  Nothing seems to work.  (In retrospect, I can say that it’ll take a total of four and a half months for my stomach to adapt to Maghrebi norms, and that I’ll spend the months of August through mid-December down 15 pounds and generally exhausted.)

All of this intensifies a certain mid-fall melancholy and homesickness.  The rest of the family (ironically, it seems to me) is doing fine, but I’ve had dreams of going home.  In one dream, we’re packing up to return to the States and I suddenly realize everyone else knew that we were always planning to return in November.  I’m the only one who thought we had to stick it out till June.  I wake, amused by the dream’s blatant wish-fulfilment.

Fortunately, the cedar forests around Ifrane are very beautiful, and I can counter the homesickness by taking a short walk each day in the Ras el Ma: the woods known as the head of the stream.

Even better, for the purposes of assuaging homesickness, is the creek that winds past the poplar grove on the back road to Azrou, a grove I suspect was planted by the French.  But the changing leaves answer my need for autumnal light and color.
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And the creek itself momentarily sates my craving for water.
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Unfortunately, after I had enthused about my woodland walks to some friends from the university, I was warned that a number of AUI faculty and students have been raped in the woods and that it’s not safe to walk there alone.


I’m glad I didn’t get that warning until I started feeling better.

October in the Middle Atlas

Life goes on.  It’s the end of October, but the world around us seems brimming over with life and fertility, from our neighbor’s hedge, full of bees and butterflies,SONY DSC

to the praying mantis on our bicycle wheel,

to the monkeys (Barbary apes) we see once we manage to get off on our bicycle ride up to the Ras el Ma (the head of the stream).

In the afternoon, we drive around the “lake circuit” near Ifrane and marvel at the color of the (sorry to say) scum lightly coating the nearby lake, Dayat Hachlaf,

the birds on the lake, undeterred by the odd coloration

and the cows and sheep grazing nearby, with boys playing football in amongst them.

Our favorite lake is the largest, Dayat Aaoua:

We climb the hill above the families picnicking with their impromptu barbecues and marvel at the wildflowers.  Who says there’s no second spring?  In Ifrane, with the September rains, the ground turns green and a multitude of flowers appear.
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Zoë and I go for a little extra wander.  In the upper left of the photo, you can see one of the many local orchards, with netting spread over the small trees to offer shelter from the blazing summer sun.

Meanwhile, James and Jeremy play peekaboo by the lakeside.

Back home, at dusk, a boy and his dad turn a plastic bag and a couple of sticks into a kite to fly into the sunset…


Eid el Adha

Early in the morning of Eid el Adha, I am listening to the sheep in the neighbor’s garden, waiting for the slaughter.  For days, we have been watching the sheep go by, strapped onto the top of busses, lashed onto the backs of bicycles, driven in herds to the edges of towns.
I find myself braced, physically tense, as I listen to the children squealing, the noise increasing in pitch and intensity.  Still the sheep bleats: I am waiting for it to bleat its last.

Ignorant as I am, the first details I learned of Eid el Adha came in discussion of Eid el f’tur at the end of Ramadan.  Eid el f’tur (breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan) is  also known as the “little Eid” (eid el sghir) versus the “big Eid” (eid el kbir) which is Eid el Adha.  “So what happens during the Eid el Adha?” I asked Youssef.  “What makes it the big celebration?”

“It’s the festival of the sheep,” he told me, which left me even more befuddled.  What’s so special about sheep?  This is a religion opposed to idols, right?  Surely they’re not worshipping sheep.

“What happens, exactly?” I asked Youssef, and his face lit up. “My family all gathers.  My father has bought a sheep.  My brothers and I hold it by the legs, with the head up (miming a tussle), and my father cuts its throat.  Then we hang it up and we pull the skin down and off.”  Youssef’s Darija was punctuated by vivid explanatory gestures.  I held up my hand to stop him: this was perhaps more than I wanted to know.  But after Youssef left that day, I looked online and found multiple photos and descriptions of travelers encountering piles of sheep corpses on street corners.  It occurred to me then that Spain might be an appealing destination for my vegetarian family over the Eid holiday.

But Eid has come and here we are.  It’s almost 10 a.m.  The children are still squealing in the garden behind our house.  At the front, on our left, adult voices build, peak, recede.  I hear the scraping of a shovel on the ground, the click of a bucket handle as the bucket is picked up and set down.  I hear running water.  I can’t seem to turn off my imagination’s visual accompaniment to this particular soundtrack.  Inside our house, Jeremy is listening to the story of Mozart’s musical childhood.  Outside, there are more sweeping and scraping and popping sounds.  Are they chopping the sheep—separating the joints?

Another man stops by next door.  “La bas?”  (“What’s up?”) There is a guttural satisfaction to the exchange: I’m not sure of the exact words that follow, but I’d swear they translate to something like, “Now that’s the way to kill a sheep.”

James and I go out on the balcony and look over into the courtyard next door, where a sheep carcass hangs by its back legs, all pink and white.
I rethink “popping” as a description for the noises I heard: it must have been the sound of the skin being peeled off the body of the sheep, inch by little inch.  Ripping, snapping, perhaps.  On the wall across the road, the skin hangs, like a pair of footy pajamas turned inside out.  It waits, as a gift, for whoever may need it.
Meanwhile, the sheep’s head is roasting on a fire the neighbors have built in a metal wheelbarrow: it looks both unreal and a little too lifelike.

James goes over to greet the neighbors: they welcome him in, past the hanging carcass.  They encourage him to take photos; they force-feed him sweet tea and cookies.  They urge him to bring me over as well, but he demurs on my behalf, pleading a combination of illness and vegetarianism. I wave from the balcony, feeling like an old-style Moroccan housewife, happy to keep my Eid a vicarious experience.

11 a.m.  Around the neighborhood, smoke is rising from a dozen courtyards or more.  The smoke and smell of roasting flesh drift into the house and I close the doors and windows.  The noise of bleating sheep has diminished but not disappeared. Zoë swears she hears the sheep screaming; my hearing is not so finely discriminated, but the bleating is sometimes more frantic in quality, and sometimes abruptly interrupted.

There are thudding sounds from next door and I wonder again if they’re quartering the sheep.  The family eats one quarter, gives a quarter to the poor, preserves a quarter, and gives a quarter to a second cousin or similarly distant relative.  But no: still the pink and white carcass hangs, complete.  James reports that the noise is the removal of the ram’s horns, before the head is returned to the roasting wheelbarrow.  Eventually, they’ll crack open the skull and eat the roasted brain: a delicacy.
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Noon: James takes Jeremy off to visit our friend Said, at Said’s father’s house, carrying a cake we bought to contribute to their festivities.  On the way, James and Jem watch a sheep being skinned; near the entrance to the house, they pick their way through pools of watery blood.  Said apologizes for what he names the unsanitary conditions—James responds honestly that he’s very taken with everyone’s openness and communal celebration.

Still the sheep in back of our house continues to bleat.  I’m starting to feel grumpy with that slow-moving family.  For the sheep’s sake, get on with it, people!  A small child’s squalling blends with the more distant bleats.  Online, the Huffington Post presents photos of Eid el Adha from around the Muslim world in 2012.  Each photo includes the explanation that the holiday celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isma’al.  How did I manage to ignore this for so many years?
I prefer the Muslim version of the story, really: Isma’al acceding to the sacrifice, unlike poor innocent, ignorant Isaac.  The Muslim Ibrahim, like his God, asks more than a father should dream of asking—but the Judeo-Christian Abraham seems to me to betray both the duty of a father to protect his offspring and the truthful relationship of a father with his son.

In both cases, the readiness is all: Allah and Yahweh both permit the substitution of a ram for a son, right at the brink of destruction.  In the Muslim version of the story, Ibrahim is rewarded for his obedience with a second son, Isaac.  What does Isma’al receive?  A lifetime of sibling rivalry?  Does it take a ritual sacrifice of a first child in order to have a second?
Finally, all the sheep—even the one behind our house—are silent.  James returns home, impressed at the number of people so very competent at managing the slaughter that that undergirds carnivorous consumption. This is more honest, he insists, than a lifestyle in which killing is rampant but almost totally denied.

We bake a chocolate cake and make lentil soup for a gathering of Americans abroad.  “The Al Akhawayn Christmas party!” one of our guests quips.

The day after our party, a man comes down the street on a bike with a cart hooked to the back to collect the hanging sheep skins.

“Why don’t they shear the sheep first?” asks Zoë.  “It seems so wasteful.  All that wool gone to waste.”

I gesture at the stuffed wool cushions that make up the banquettes on which we sit.  “They don’t go to waste.”

Zoë makes a face.  “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”

Dams old and new

Driving south from Ifrane, through Azrou and Midelt, you see a lot of barren landscape.
The first time I made this drive (on the way to Ouarzazate), I gasped when I saw the blue waters of the Hassan Addakhil dam.  It felt as if those waters were easing an intense visual or mental thirst:
But even in a sideways glance (or in a small photo), you can see the high-water mark on the hillside, defining the drastic loss of water to evaporation.  (Note the small buildings in the foreground, constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who helped build the dam in 1971.)

And as you come closer to the dam, certain angles of vision let you see how little water it actually holds:

Let’s remember that in southern Morocco, irrigation is everything:

In the Sahara the oasis–which is to say, the forest of date palms–is primarily a man-made affair and can continue its existence only if the work of irrigating its terrain is kept up unrelentingly…. It was never the practice or the intention of the sons of God to live there.  They have a saying which goes, “No one lives in the Sahara if he is able to live elsewhere.” …. The oases, those magnificent palm groves, are the blood and bone of the desert: life in the Sahara would be unthinkable without them….

(Paul Bowles, Their Heads are Green and their Hands are Blue: Scenes from the Non-Christian World, 1957)

The most obvious forms of irrigation in the Tafilalt are the rivers, the canals, and the khettara.  Archeological reconstruction, for instance, shows that the builders of Sijilmassa diverted the Oued Ziz into a channel that ran along the side of the city.  [Lightfoot & Miller]

But traditional irrigation also relied upon periodic flooding, and on a series of low-lying, traditional dams across the Ziz, to divert waters when in flow.  Here’s a photo of Rasif dam, one of these traditional dams:
And here’s what that dam looks like from the air:
Eric Ross notes of this satellite image (on his blog): “The masonry structure zigzags across the dry valley of the Ziz River. The dam’s reservoir (light grey area north of the masonry) is completely silted up. Occasionally, after heavy rains, water will still rush down the Ziz and flow over the dam.”

The Hassan Addakhil dam was built in 1971 after a catastrophic flood in 1965.  The dam was designed both to stop such massive floods, and to hold water for farmers.  It has been only partially successful.  On the plus side, the dam moderated the severe flooding of 1989 (greater flow than the 1965 flood that prompted dam construction), and it provides clean drinking water throughout the Tafilalt, with water piped from the reservoir directly to community fountains outside each qsar.
(Blurry night photo of large blue buckets being filled at a community fountain and mounted on mules and donkeys.)

On the downside of the equation…
the dam stops most of the periodic floods that used to recharge the water table, so the water table is sinking dangerously low;
not all flooding is contained by the dam;
rissani-flood (photo Tachfine Baida, Eric Ross’s blog)
farmers complain that the cold water sent downstream with each timed dam release “burns” their plants;
fertilizer use and irrigation have both increased dramatically since the dam’s construction, with accompanying soil depletion;
cement irrigation channels increase evaporation dramatically over the khettara or traditional mud channels;
community fountains are placed outside the qsars, making it more laborious to gather water (and contributing to the local tendency to keep girls out of school). SONY DSC SONY DSC
An old community well, now dried up and useless; girls and women preparing to carry water.

John Shoup reports that one of the engineers overseeing the dam told him the best thing to do with the dam would be to blow it up.  Hsain Ilahiane suggests there may be political benefits to the dam’s introduction of “a bureaucratic structure of water management, a social welfare institution whose motives coincide with anchoring the state’s presence in a border area not far from a defiant Algeria.” (Dissertation, 1998)

Water is wealth; water is power.


Qsar defensive architecture, slaves, and colonial resistance

On the second day of our trip to the Tafilalt, John and Eric took us to visit a qsar that now houses a museum: Qsar al-Fidha.

First, we looked at some qsur (plural of qsar) from the outside, and talked about pisé or rammed earth construction.
As we saw in the construction of the Fez medina, pisé or rammed earth architecture is both sustainable and locally appropriate.  The thermal mass of the thick walls offers insulation, keeping housing cool in summer and warm in winter.  Typically, construction uses subsoils low in clay, saving topsoils for agricultural use.  The mud can be shaped into bricks which are sun-dried; these are then stacked in a temporary frame and connected using a mud slurry.  Alternately, damp soil can be poured into the frame and directly tamped down using ramming poles, working up 4-10 inches at a time until the top of the frame is reached.

According to Wikipedia, rammed earth holds humidity “between 40% and 60%, the ideal range for asthma sufferers and for the storage of such susceptible items as books.” For an academic with an asthmatic child, this is of no small interest!  The width of rammed earth construction also offers significant sound-proofing, helpful when an entire village is living cheek-by-jowl.

The downside of pisé construction is the ongoing labor of its maintenance.  A new earth-based rendering needs to be applied almost every year in order to keep the walls from dissolving in the winter rains.  And the communal nature of the qsur means that if your neighbor lets her house disintegrate, your house is much more vulnerable to decay.  Here, external ramparts work to support a wall whose decay threatens its neighbor.
SONY DSCThe process of decay also makes visible the rammed earth bricks underlying the connective slurry.
Another example of earthen bricks in the process of decay; water pipes working direct water far from the rammed-earth walls.

(John also mentioned a 20th century Egyptian architect, Hassan Fathy, who works with rammed earth.  Unfortunately, Fathy’s carefully designed rammed-earth village has suffered from salt-stone foundations; if you’re interested, the village is featured in this video:  Rammed earth is becoming a hot topic on sustainable building sites: check it out.)

On to Qsar al-Fidha!  Eric describes the “onion” layering of this particular  qsar: a large outer courtyard, surrounded by walls; a smaller inner-walled compound, with additional buildings around the edges; a central compound which was occupied by the governor of the local province, “always a member of the royal family.”

The first courtyard or mashwar is big enough to allow the drilling and display of military force, though at the moment, it mostly makes for a long walk for women and girls collecting water.
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In the photo below, our host Abdullah, the head of the museum, proudly descended from the upper slaves of the royal family, crosses the mashwar to prepare for our visit.  Certainly, the size of the space has a psychological effect on a lonely visitor.

When you pass through the gate pictured above, you find yourself facing a wall: this was an obvious architectural defense strategy, breaking the momentum of any possible enemy charge:

A second “elbow” turn in the structure of the qsar served as a guardpost, where the guardian of the village could keep an eye on everyone coming in and out (and what they were carrying).  In this particular qsar–the qaidate, or the local center of government–the guard post would also have been the place where taxes were delivered and counted.  Taxes were paid in kind, so people would have brought bushels of wheat, quantities of dates, heads of sheep and so on.  This would also have been the courthouse, where unresolved conflicts across the oasis would have been brought to be decided by the governor, or more likely his deputy.  The finer stucco finish of this gate area speaks to its grander purposes (unfortunately, the photo doesn’t give much sense of the space included in the L-turning).

Soon after the guard post, the corridor/street gives access to the mosque and the well.  Two things you could not refuse a traveler: water and a place to pray.  (But you could position those resources close to the guard post so that you could keep an eye on those dubious strangers.)
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The well only provides water for washing now–the water quality is too low for drinking or livestock or irrigation–hence the long walk out to the more modern water fountain.

The next layer of the onion brings us to the governor’s palace.  Here, we see classic white-and-blue plasterwork designed to rest the eyes from the glare of the sun as you enter a darker space.


Before we get to that restful vision, however, we pause once again in the antechamber to hear John’s account of the qaidate under the French and earlier.
Our host, Abdullah, is proud of his lineage, drawn from high-level palace slaves.  Here he holds  pictures of the Alawite dynasty his family has served through the generations.  As John explains it, Abdullah’s father would have been given as a slave to the son of the governor  when he was a boy.  The two boys would have grown up together, as intimates, closer than brothers, since the royal boy’s brothers would be competing with him for power.  Once grown, the governor’s slave would be the second most powerful man in the region, offering a separate channel of access to the governor.  People would approach the governor’s advisor (rather than the unapproachable governor) and pay him to put their case to the governor.  The advisor-slave would maintain his power by being absolutely honest with the governor, so he would have to choose the cases he accepted with care.
Audiences held in the antechamber probably featured the governor sitting in front of a curtain, a curtain that could serve many purposes: decoration and demonstration of power, but also a hiding place for the governor’s advisor/slave.  The governor in thinking over an issue raised by an audience could lean back slightly to hear from behind the curtain the views of his slave advisor on the matter or the people at hand.  (Yes, yes, the wizard of Oz and the man behind the curtain definitely comes to mind here.)

But these kinds of governing structures also had a role to play under colonialism, also known as the French Protectorate.
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The Tafilalt was one of the last parts of Morocco to fall to the French.  The center of this region fell in 1930; the outskirts, down to Zagora, held out until 1933.  The battle around Jebel Sahro cost the French more officers per capita than were killed in World War I.  (Local people targeted the easily-recognizable officers, having realized that the rest of the soldiers didn’t know what to do if the officers were killed.) Force majeure concluded the struggle: the French brought over their long-range artillery from French-held Algeria and bombarded the town until concessions were finally made.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 2.13.01 PMArea of heavy resistance to the French

Victory was relative.  Our host remembers his father answering the phone, setting the receiver down, and walking away.  An hour later, he might return, pick up the receiver and say, “Oh! you’re still there!  I forgot about you!”  The message? “The qaid rules here, not the French.  You will have access to the qaid when I feel like granting you that access, not before.”

So the French would have to get in a jeep and drive from Erfoud to this qsar in Rissani, just above Merzouga–only to find that they were kept waiting at the gate until someone could be bothered to let them in.  Same basic message.  This kind of passive resistance persisted for some 20 years.  Only in the 1950s did the French decide to move the administrative center to Rissani, shifting the caid’s office to the same building, in order to acquire ease of access.  Until independence in 1957.


Women’s weaving collective at Tarmilat

On the southern back road out of Ifrane, heading toward Azrou, there’s a kind of squatter’s community on the open ground to the right of the road.  This town is known as Tarmilat; it’s  home to a group of shepherds.  The original families came to this area some 50-60 years ago, right around independence.  Probably they looked after sheep for the French, or perhaps for wealthy Moroccans collaborating with the French.

Now there are some 50 families living here, in houses built from stone, roofed with large tin cans that have been cut open and flattened.
The contrast with the royal palace, whose entrance is across the road, a little ways back, is striking.
Karen Smith, Christian pastor at Al Akhawayn University (AUI), has brought a group of AUI affiliated folks–mostly students, a few faculty–out to Tarmilat to purchase rugs and bags and share a meal with the women weavers.

Half a dozen years ago, a group of high school students, working with an AUI-affiliated organization called Hand in Hand wanted to raise money to help the people of Tarmilat.  Karen, a member of Hand in Hand, insisted that they begin by meeting the women and finding out what the women themselves needed and wanted.  What they wanted most was to form themselves into a weaving cooperative, even though only a few had weaving skills.

Karen remembers driving one of the women and her baby up to Tangier to learn from a successful cooperative there about how to form such an organization.  Imazighen women don’t diaper their babies–something Karen hadn’t yet learned–so she had no sheets or towels to protect or clean the car or the mother.  “It was an experience!”

The Tarmilat weaving cooperative has been very successful, leading to other changes in the community.  To begin with, none of the women could read or keep track of numbers, so there was one man serving as treasurer for the collective.  “One man and twenty eight women: that was never going to last!” says Karen.  (Someone else told me later that the treasurer was accused of stealing the women’s money.)  Perhaps as a result of this experience, the women were very concerned that their children go to school.  But the nearest school was in Ifrane itself, some five kilometres away down a road not safe for pedestrians.

The community started trying to build more permanent structures, claiming Karen had told them this was necessary for their cooperative (not true).  These structures were impermissible and had to be taken down.  But when it came to a school, the women pulled every string they had access to: the biggest string was Hand in Hand, with the governor’s wife on board.  Wala! (Voilà!) The community now has a cement school and even a mosque–but the homes remain stone-and-recycled-can structures.

SONY DSC IMG_0907Inside most of the buildings, it’s dark and a little smokey–but the home-made bread, butter, and tea is delicious.  In the right-hand photo above, the blue-and-white thing in the upper right corner is a “churn” for making butter: it’s a kind of swing in which the cream is pushed back and forth to make it slosh around until it solidifies.  This cooking hut is warm with the fire, so many of us crowd in briefly to get out of the chilly wind.  To our right is one of the community’s looms, with a rug in process:

Our family buys two “lap rugs” (thick and small) against the coming winter, plus one small rug for the kitchen.  Each piece has a tag describing the weaver, in English geared toward the AUI community:
SONY DSC SONY DSCIto, pictured here, was one of the founders of the cooperative, and a major force in pushing for the school.  One day, a Moroccan friend came to tell Karen that Ito had died, since everyone knows that Karen has been closely involved in the Tarmilat community.  Karen and Fatima drove out to Tarmilat to attend something like a funeral.  They sat around with a group of women mourning Ito and they all told stories about her, describing how they had known her.  The next day, someone from Tarmilat came to town to tell Karen that in fact Ito was alive and well–it was a different Ito, from the same family, who had died.  Now there are jokes about Karen having attended Ito’s funeral prematurely.

Aisha is one of the wealthier members of the Tarmilat community, as this tag notes: her husband has a hired hand; her grown son works for the city and owns a truck.

Fatima, by contrast, is the second wife of a elderly deaf man whose first wife is disabled.  I can’t help but wonder about the internal dynamics of this family structure–or what Fatima’s earlier circumstances were, that made it sufficiently appealing to accept a marriage that seems mostly a formalization of caregiving responsibilities.  I love the simplicity of her rug.

As it gets dark, we gather inside Ito’s house, with a dim bulb powered by a solar panel bought with proceeds from the cooperative, and the community serves us a f’tur-style dinner: bread and msemmen and hard-boiled eggs and harira soup.  There’s a new baby in the community: a baby born to two 15-year-olds who were married last year.  Julie Reimer tells of attending the wedding and becoming the official photographer because she was the only one with a camera.  When she came back to the community to share the photographs later, the mother of the bride was (mildly) offended because Julie had not taken any pictures of her.  “She was wearing a bathrobe,” Julie explains, “so I thought maybe I shouldn’t take a picture.  Turns out, it was her very best bathrobe.”

I asked Karen if we could arrange for Zoe and me to have weaving lessons.  “Probably.  There was a student from Haverford who came and stayed at Tarmilat for three months a few years back (part of an anthropology thesis) and she learned to weave.  The gendarmes were not at all happy about it, though.”  Maybe once our Darija improves…

The mothers are not the only entrepreneurs here: the boys of the community build sleds out of old wooden pallets and (sometimes broken) skis.  When it snows, the boys stick their sleds in the drifts by the side of the road and hire them out to tourists who have come to see the snow.
James makes friends with some of the boys by video-taping their play and then showing them the results:

These hills are full of small communities like Tarmilat, though Tarmilat with its school and its mosque and its solar panels now ranks among the most prosperous.  What would extend the (relative) success of Tarmilat to other communities in the Middle Atlas?IMG_7930
(photo by AUI student)



Fès: domestic architecture and its logic

In this post, I’m trying to reconstruct a presentation given by Alla of Dar Seffarine, an architect originally from Iraq, but now a long-time resident of Fès.   Alla and his wife Kate own the guesthouse Dar Seffarine; Alla also specializes in reconstructing traditional houses in the Fès medina, so he has thought deeply about the architectural features of the typical Fassi house.

Imagine these words as spoken by Alla, as he gestures towards the features recorded in the photos.  (All errors, of course, are mine–and the first photo is actually of David Amster showing our group an entry to a derb, where the door and the guardian would have been located.)
Alla: Every derb, or residential street, should have a door at its beginning, and that door should be watched by a guardian.  The guardian will ask of each visitor: where are you going? who are you coming to see? how long will you stay?  Only in the past 60-70 years has the tradition of the doors been lost, the doors themselves sold, the guardians unemployed.  This entry (to Dar Seffarine) is actually the door to the street.  Since there are only two houses on the street, the government lets us maintain the street door between us.
The riad is the garden (visible just through the window above the right-hand door); the house or dar exists just beside the garden.  A duera is a small house connected to another house: servants’ quarters, housing the servants and slaves who served the family of the dar.
When you come to the house proper, you will notice that the door that opens for daily use is on the right side.  You use your right hand to open the door. All this emphasis on the right hand comes from the Quran, which teaches that the right hand is the good hand.
The door opens to the inside of the house, and you find yourself in the corridor.  Every house has a corridor: it is an essential part of the house.  Sometimes, the corridor is only a meter long; sometimes it is much longer and has a door at each end; but all traditional Fassi houses have a corridor.  To be polite, you stand in the corridor as your host goes into main part of the house and tells the women to leave, that a guest will be entering.
Notice the square holes down at foot level: these are ventilation for the basement.  Fassi houses have basements, with columns and arches, where one can escape the heat of the summer.  Some houses, you enter, and then go four or five steps down: again, the principle is to use the cooling available below grade.
Also in the corridor, you may see windows to the street: this will help with ventilation.
The street itself may be roofed (as seen in the second photo of this post) to create a tunnel to help move the breeze through the space.
Above your head, you may see a boxed in area.  This is a storage space for taxes, or zakat, the charitable giving obligatory in Islam.  At the end of Ramadan, each household had to give 1.5 kilos of flour to the poor [multiplied by some factor, it seems to me—bb].  That boxed area made it possible for householders to buy the flour when it was cheap, store it, and then distribute it at the appropriate moment.
Immediately inside the door to the house, you see another door, leading to an internal staircase: this allows the man of the family to visit one of his wives without the others having to know.  Separate doors for separate wives: this minimizes conflict within the family.
On the wall in our corridor, we have hung the contract of sale for our house.  As you can see, this is a large document, recording the most recent three sales.  The three pages—one for each separate sale—are bound together.  Every time the house is sold, the oldest contract is removed, and the newest contract connected to the document.

At the end of the corridor, we have another door—a door within the door.  The larger door allows for large items to enter or leave the home; the small door, for everyday use, forces the person entering to duck.  You must enter the house with respect.  When you have stepped through the doorway and you straighten up, you raise your eyes to the calligraphy opposite, which reads: “All this belongs to God” or “There is no power but God.” This saying counterbalances pride in the owner of the house and envy in the visitor.
Finally, you find the courtyard on your right.  You will never enter a traditional house directly: always, you turn to discover the house, the central courtyard.
That courtyard is open to allow for gradual cooling overnight.  Houses in Fès were single-storey buildings originally.  Seffarine’s small minaret tells the story: the minaret must always rise above surrounding buildings, but today that minaret is dwarfed by the houses and buildings around it.  Originally, the houses would have been a single story, but as the city grew and wealth increased, homeowners expanded their houses upwards, building additional living quarters around the existing courtyard.
On either side of the courtyard, two salons face each other: one salon is for family use; one is for entertaining guests.  This salon is a man’s space.

Above, there is a mezzanine for the women’s use, where the women could sit and listen to the men’s conversation without being seen.
[BB: From the inside, the mezzanine is fabulously decorated with ornate zouaq–painted wood–but it’s a small space, too low to stand in.  Definitely only a space for sitting on the floor and listening.]
The norm in domestic architecture as in more monumental or sacred spaces, is to decorate the floor and lower areas with zellij, tiles in complex geometric patterns; above the zellij comes plaster (often plain, then carved), calligraphy (in plaster or tile), and then carved or painted wood.  Dates in houses are recorded in terms of the Hijra or Islamic calendar–a lunar calendar starting with 622, the year Mohammed moved to Medina–and they normally just register the date the most recent plaster was finished.

To complement Alla’s presentation, here’s a map of a traditional Fassi house before the Protectorate from Roger Le Tourneau’s book:

Here you can see the stairs, the bathroom, the kitchen, and the entryway.    But what stays with you after a visit to Dar Seffarine is the glory of that courtyard, lifting the eye to  wonders overhead.


Lynn’s rugs

I had not wanted to live in an expat community during this year in Morocco, but as I trudge up the hill toward the suq, I begin to see some advantages.  I am wearing a pair of linen trousers and a linen shirt, both of which belong to Lynn-the-textiles-expert-who-is-leaving-for-Doha. I still don’t know Lynn’s last name or even her email, but over the next few months, I will be wearing her clothes, drinking out of her mug, eating her spices.  Channeling Lynn.  At the same time, I will be regretting my failure to record her impromptu lecture-demonstration on Moroccan rugs and textiles.


Lynn’s first career was as a spinner and knitter in the United States, and she achieved national recognition for her work.  When I came by to look at her rugs and her give-aways, she was packing up some of the journals that featured her work.  She showed me some exquisitely fine hand-spun lace knitting she had done, and (like all true spinners) dismissed my inability to work with a drop spindle.  “It’s easy—and so convenient!”  Convenient, yes; easy, for some.  Give me a wheel any day.

“What brought you to Morocco?” I asked, but I should have known.  It’s an old sad story.  Textile artists, like many other artists, can’t survive on their work. When Lynn realized that even the top people in her field could make a living only by traveling and giving workshops six months out of the year, she decided she needed a day job—and that day job, in academic support, has taken her on a twelve-year odyssey around the globe, with a two-year residence in Morocco.

I think about Lynn, not only as I wear her clothes, but as I look around at her rugs, scattered through our house.  We have an exquisitely soft, hand-spun, naturally colored brown-and-gray striped piece that I can’t bear to put on the floor.  “It could be a couverture (bed covering) or a rug,” Lynn acknowledged, and I imagine huddling under its fibers in the cold winter everyone warns us about.
Similar in coloring, but rougher to the touch is a goat’s wool rug I’ve put under my work table.  “Walk on it and the fibers will become shiny,” Lynn advised.
In the living room, we have a large rug, striped red, purple, blue, with one thin slice of bright orange.
“Those will be synthetic dyes, probably, because the orange is not available with the natural dyes.  That stripe, it constitutes a signature,” Lynn told me.  “The way it stands out, calls attention to itself: it’s a mark of individuality, idiosyncracy.”
On the other side of the living room, there’s a slightly older piece, hand-spun, all in red, with wonderful variations in color; the red comes from cochineal—crushed insect shells.  Remember the insects that live on Opuntia–prickly pear cactus?
There are rugs I didn’t buy, because we felt so short of cash: one rug that had a wonderful patched hole in it, from serving as part of a Berber tent; another where the colors were too bright for my taste.  There were other rugs Lynn wasn’t selling—she felt obliged to return them to the person she had bought them from, because she had had to work so hard to persuade the original owner to part with them.  There was the immense “aliens” rug—yellow and brown with other accents, full of humanoid figures.  “The prohibition on reproducing the human figure comes from Arab culture, not Berber society,” Lynn noted.  “But what would you do with this piece?  It needs to be hung in some monumental space.”  She described another rug as being “woven with time.”  The weaver used the same dye but left the rug exposed to the sun during the weaving process so that some of the coloring would fade, creating a two-tone pattern.

Lynn was particularly interested in a transitional moment in bouchereite: rag rugs produced by Imazighen (Berber) women.  “There’s this explosion in creativity,” Lynn asserted.  “All of a sudden, there were these industrial scraps available, and they were cheap, and so the sky was the limit.  It wasn’t like working with wool that you had to shear and clean and card and spin.  The rags must have felt like a windfall, a nearly free resource.”  In her collection of bouchereite, Lynn tracked the way weavers would create a sense of motion in their work: the blue river, she called one piece, for the meanderings of blue rags down the middle of the pattern.
Another piece that she called the red trellis showcases the traditional diamond pattern that Lynn insisted was vaginal—“I have a picture of this old weaver woman, her knees wide, holding open her vagina: it’s a classic diamond, I’m telling you”—and a recording of lineage, a weaver recording her family back through her mother and her mother’s mother.
Lynn prized the oddities, the idiosyncrasies in rugs: “These are the places where you see a woman, weaving in isolation, making a statement, creating something personal.  The workshops that have been set up more recently make women’s lives much better by offering them a community in which to work, and providing a clearer market for their goods, but there’s a loss in terms of creativity.  Instead of a single woman making her individual decisions, there are set patterns that are taught and maintained.  They’re all good—I just happen to like seeing the individual weaver at work.”  But the transitional moment passes.  “After that initial explosion, the spark goes out,” Lynn said.  “It’s as if the women suddenly looked up and recognized what they were working with: garbage.  Call it recycling, repurposing, call it what you want, but it’s the same old story: you don’t get any real resources after all.”  Now there’s a Marxist-feminist analysis: base and superstructure as seen through the lens of gender.

Someday, once we acquire a car and my Darija improves, perhaps we’ll go rug-shopping for ourselves, for the education of it.  In the meantime, Lynn’s rugs have moved into Omar’s house, and together they offer a beautiful, comfortable back-drop to our lives here.  And that’s even before considering the linen towels, sheets, and pillowcases Lynn gave me: suq finds that I hope to replicate, if my fingers can ever become as knowing as Lynn’s, as quick to feel the differences among linen, cotton, and synthetics.  “This piece,” she said, showing me a prize she would take with her to Doha, “came from Hungary: you can tell by the design.  I love to see these fabrics travel, to imagine the route that would bring them to this little suq in Ifrane.” Fabrics and people, wandering through this landscape.