Monthly Archives: July 2013

Down the mountain to Azrou

In the midst of house-hunting, our friend Said took us on a drive to the nearby city of Azrou for some shopping.  The drive itself was an amazing tour of the local cedar forests and the Middle Atlas mountains.  Descending into Azrou, you really see the mountains; up high in Ifrane, they’re less noticeable somehow.  Not that I managed to take any photos on that winding road…
In Azrou, Said tried to orient us to the shopping resources of the town: where to get fuel, where to get prickly pears (good for the digestion during Ramadan), where to find the best bakery. Then he took us on a high-speed tour of the permanent market (as opposed to the famous Tuesday suq or souk).
Lots of delicious smells of parsley, cilantro, mint.  Also chickens and ducks sitting on blankets surrounded by eggs.  “Are they there to lay eggs?” asks Jeremy.  “No: I think they’re there to be bought and eaten.”  “Why don’t they fly away?”  “Probably their legs are tied.” Then there are the butchers’ shops with the lamb’s heads still attached to their skinned bodies.  We passed some men with long lines stretched down the narrow alley.  One of the men held a motor in his hand.  It made me think of flying a kite.  “What are they doing?” I asked.  “They are helping make a djellaba,” replied Said.  The motor twists the strings together to make a braid for trimming the edges of a traditional overall covering or djellaba.

On the way home, we noticed a vacation center and mosque built by developers from the United Arab Emirates.  Morocco is evidently becoming a vacation destination for other parts of the Muslim world….
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So here’s another postcolonial ecology note: Opuntia (prickly pear, native to the western hemisphere, probably Mexico) was introduced into North Africa by the French as a means of feeding cochineal, insects whose shells and eggs produce a red color used to dye food and clothing.  Opuntia quickly naturalized and in other places became invasive.  In Morocco, it seems to exist in balance with other plants, providing fruits especially appreciated during Ramadan.   Who would have anticipated this?



“Moroccan bureaucracy

… is to be enjoyed lingeringly,” Kevin Smith told us before we even arrived in the country.  I can’t quite remember who attributed the bureaucracy here to post-colonialism: “Take French bureaucratic procedures circa 1930; let them calcify considerably; add in Moroccan social norms of operating through family connections; et voila!” (Voila in Morocco is pronounced with gusto: Wala!)

Thursday we finally completed the application for a “carte de séjour” or residence permit–the first step of attempting to buy a car.  Monday, James took passports and various forms of paperwork to the university.  This made it possible for them to draw up a contract for him to sign.  Then he needed 12 small photos–but it took a couple of days to find a photo place open during Ramadan.  Wednesday, J went up to sign the contract, then we both had our photos taken (separate trips, to leave the children at home):

I think James looks quite nice here, as opposed to the “My teeth are rotting” look I seem to have adopted.

Then James had a medical: blood pressure measured, some listening to the heart and lungs, some discussion of medications and availability in Morocco.

One poor guy in HR was postponing his vacation to get James’s application in, so J made me a doctor’s appointment for 9 a.m. Thursday.  We arrived at 9 a.m.  Fools.

At 9:05 we were informed the doctor was not in: when might he arrive?  10…
It was a hot hot day, and the air was still and close in the waiting room.  Tempers rose and James and I started to wonder why we had decided to bring the children this time.

At 10:30, the doctor arrived while J was taking Jeremy for a little wander: luckily, they came back just as the doctor was asking for my passport, which J had tucked in a pocket.

The medical exam? (in French)  Madame, do you have any illness?  Er, no, not really.  Done.  He stamps the form: ka-thunk.  It’s a magical sound.

Now the HR guy goes to the police station to submit the application–presumably on his way to vacation with his 2-month baby.  Eventually we’ll get a recipe (receipt) which is almost as good as the permit itself–and by that time, the guy selling the car may be back from his vacation and James can take the next steps.

Ifrane: first impressions

We seem to be experiencing an odd kind of culture shock here, one partly composed of seeing familiar things in unfamiliar contexts.  We knew in advance that Ifrane was a French hill station—a cool mountain village where the colonial powers could retreat from the heat of summer.
We knew that the houses were constructed as “villas,” and that the town itself was known as “Little Switzerland.”  But we didn’t fully recognize what it would be like to live in this mixture of European and North African elements.
(Aziz, the “guardian” of the house, brings me roses from the garden nearby!
Who would have expected these?)

The sun is so strong and the light so correspondingly bright that life feels a little like an over-exposed photograph.  There have been very few spells of rain: what rain there is reliably comes on the days when we have laundry drying on the line—but even after a drenching, our clothes dry in less than half the time they take at home.
Ahmed the gardener comes to water the garden after dark, after he’s broken his fast with his family.  The flow of water is stronger after dark, he explains, and it’s cooler besides.  Ahmed works at the palace as a gardener during the day (the king has a palace in Ifrane, one of many royal residences); gardening at the Smith’s house is a second job for him.

When Ahmed and I talk plants, it’s very useful to have scientific names to draw on.  Yes, he agrees, that tree is indeed Gleditsia tricanthos: the same honey locust that grows in front of our house in Swarthmore.
Just as in Swarthmore, there are volunteer Gleditsia’s all over the town: at least they’re fixing the nitrogen, enriching the soil, I think.  This one is feeding a small rose bush.  There’s another Gleditsia here, though, with delicious drupes: that’s the kind you really want to plant, Ahmed tells me.
But even the weeds are familiar here: how can that be?  It takes days for my brain to wake up: of course, this is postcolonialism.  Even the normal flora of the country has been changed by French imports.  Perhaps the most striking example are the sycamores that line the streets in Ifrane and even many of the major roadways in Morocco.
Jeremy loves Ifrane—“I want to live here the rest of my life!—and he loves to serve as guide around the town.  He has found his bearings better than either Zoë or I have, and he takes me by the hand and leads me around the town in the cool of the morning.  He likes to walk down to the duck pond and visit the large stone-carved lion which seems to be Ifrane’s major tourist attraction. 

He also likes to go out in the evening to look at and listen for the storks which nest in the chimneys of the houses here.  I asked Kevin Smith if storks were considered good luck in Morocco, and he answered, “Well, they bring the tourists.”

The storks clack their beaks at evening, and sometimes they make a kind of gargling sound.  I wonder if they stay through the winter.  I guess we’ll find out.

F’tur and Ramadan

It seems a long time ago, now, but our first meal in Morocco, the day we arrived, was f’tur or if’tar, the traditional breaking of the Ramadan fast.  Kevin Smith, the  generous colleague who  loaned us his house while he and his family were away, walked us through the process.  First we waited for the magic hour of the Isha prayer to arrive (the 5th prayer of the day, 7:38 p.m. or thereabouts); then we wandered into town and found a table at a restaurant where we sat and waited some more, this time in company with everyone at the surrounding tables, for the actual call to prayer.  A waiter brought us a platter of dates, candied pastries,


and boiled eggs to sprinkle with cumin and salt, even before the call to prayer sounded. IMG_0108

We stared at the waiting food, talking but also listening hard through the talk.  With the call to prayer, dates began to vanish at tables all around the restaurant; egg-shells were cracked and peeled almost in unison.


After this kind of first course, the waiter brought us fried flatbread (rghaif or milhoui) and a kind of spongy bread (bghrir) to drizzle with honey, and harira (spicy lentil soup with a mutton base, so we had vegetarian “potage” instead).SONY DSC   SONY DSC


Even this first meal emphasized for me the communal aspect of Ramadan in Morocco.  How different it must feel to be Muslim in the United States, fasting in community, surely, with other Muslims, but not with an entire country behind you.  So here’s a geeky thought for you: Canadian Benedict Anderson famously claimed that nations are imagined communities constructed by (for instance) being able to imagine everyone else reading the same newspaper at the same moment.  But how much more powerful a communal experience this simultaneous meal creates!  Ramadan seems to me to be defined by both fasting and f’tur; both the fast and its conclusion incorporate—communally embody—a kind of social unanimity.  I can’t imagine having this same experience of communal identity in the United States.  Except maybe at Thanksgiving!