Sunday, May 20, 2012

Falling in love with Paris all over again

Last weekend finally arrived, the weekend where all of his things were packed up to leave for the summer back to the U.S. Since he was flying out of Paris, we decided what better send-off than to spend one last weekend together in Paris before his Sunday departure? (It was also helpful because I needed to renew my visa.)

At 4 in the morning we rolled/dragged all of the suitcases and got picked up in a grand taxi to be taken to the airport. We woke up a few hours later as we were landing in Paris on a rainy Friday morning. After finding our hostel we wandered around the city trying to soak in as much as we could. Here are a few photos from our trip.

Like any good tourist, we started by wandering down towards the Seine and then made our way over to the Louvre. I am always blown away by how grand the architecture is in Paris. Everything feels like it was placed with the greatest of intention - every fountain, flower box, statue, and pigeon. 

While we were debating about whether or not to go inside, we decided to do some trompe l'oeil photography. 

"Winged Victory"
Mounted in an archway atop a landing on a marble stairway, this statue representing the goddess Nike towers over all visitors wishing to enter her wing of the museum. Such a breathtaking piece of art. 

This is the face you make when you realize that Friday nights the Louvre is free after 6 pm for all under 26 year olds! 

Ingrès - L'odalisque

Seeing this painting felt like I was meeting a friend for the first time after years of written correspondence. L'Odalisque was one of the major influences/references that I used in my senior thesis last year on the contemporary literary/visual art response to 19th century French orientalist art's depictions of North Africa. Interestingly, though Ingres is known for his depictions of the Orient, he actually never once set foot in North Africa. The furthest he got was Italy.  

A view from outside the Louvre. For those of you who haven't visited the Louvre, this once was the palace of the king of France. The entrance of the museum is through the glass pyramid.

The archway across from the Louvre. Though this picture doesn't do it justice, I was struck again by the marvels of French architecture. We came upon the arch just as the sun was setting, and if you looked straight through the archway you would see a tree-lined garden "boulevard" (too wide or grand to be called simply a pathway) with Cleopatra's needle, and then finally the L'Arc de Triomphe mirroring this arch on the other side.  

Our hostel shares its arrondissement (18e) with Montmarte and Sacre Coeur. This is the view of the church from our walk to Gare du Nord train station, our nearest metro stop.

On Saturday, we went to the Catacombs, which begin close to the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. Apparently this location is just south of what used to be the city gate, which was called the "La Barrière d'Enfer" (The Gate of Hell). 

Built in the 18th century as a way of dealing with the overflowing city cemeteries due to various battles and plagues, the Parisian catacombs are a sight to behold. It is a series of tunnels that stretch over a mile long and are filled with neatly stacked bones of over six million skeletons. The whole site has a very macabre vibe. At each turn there is a new marble plaque that has a quote usually in Latin or French about death. For instance, after going down over a hundred steps to get into the catacombs, there is a sign hung above an archway that reads:

 "Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort"

(Halt! Here is the empire of Death.)

There was another plaque further along that read:

"où est elle, la Mort? Toujours future ou passée.
 A peine est-elle présente que déjà elle n'est plus." 

(Where is she, Death? Always in the future or past. As soon as she is present she is no longer.)

The catacombs were fashioned out of old Parisian mines. Back when France was part of the Roman empire, it was customary to bury the dead on the outskirts of the city (interestingly, this practice is also seen in the way that the old Moroccan medinas are set up - with the cemeteries by the outer walls). However, with the arrival of Christianity, it became customary to bury the faithful in consecrated ground around churches. Between population growth, war casualties, and plague victims, the amount of dead was leading to not only spatial issues but sanitation ones as well. Moving the bodies underground seemed like a logical solution.

Afterwards, we continued strolling and sight seeing. 

France's color palette: beige, iron black, green, glass. 

We kept remarking about how great it was to spend a few days in France as an interim before he headed back to the U.S. not just because it's Paris, but because it helped facilitate a gradual adjustment to the inevitable culture shock of returning to the U.S. after spending nearly a year in Morocco. Though it is still very different from Morocco, there were several commonalities that we found to be comforting. First of all, while the city was comparatively pristine to our home of Rabat,  the similarities in the architecture of the buildings in Paris to the ones that line the grand boulevards in Rabat were undeniable (though admittedly, ours are a bit more worn down). Another similarity was in the language, though not in the way you would expect. While walking through the city we often heard more Moroccan darija than Parisian French, which made our ears perk up. On our last night in the city we grabbed falafels by the Notre Dame Cathedral at a small little stand on a cobble-stoned side street. I overheard several clients speaking to the man behind the counter in Arabic, so I decided to order in the true lingua franca. After a short exchange, we realized that not only was he a Moroccan immigrant, but he grew up in Rabat in the quartier just next to ours! It's moments like this that make you feel like the world isn't the large after all. 

After 48 hours in Paris, we found ourselves staying up late drinking wine from the bottle and agreeing that we should live here some day. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"Sarkozy, c'est fini!"

On the evening of May 6th, the long-awaited French presidential election results announced François Hollande as the next French president by a mere 3.8% over Sarkozy (51.9 to 48.1, according to Le Monde). The crowd of hundreds of thousands of Hollande supporters cheered and popped bottles of champagne around the Bastille as they waited for Hollande to make his first address as president.

I heard a report on NPR's Morning Edition that discussed France's election night, Hollande's plans for France, and the differences between Sarkozy's and Hollande's political platforms. One of the major differences that was highlighted in the news program (as well as in other popular media outlets) is their position on immigration and foreign affairs. While Hollande welcomes multiculturalism and more progressive approaches to strengthening France's international relationships, Sarkozy has always preferred more traditional and exclusionary tactics. Towards the end of the program there was a clip of the cheering crowd outside the Bastille when out of nowhere a voice comes to the forefront and shouts, "Vive la France! Vive les Marocains!". It made me reflect on how French politics affect Moroccan (and North African, more generally) society. What do Moroccans have invested in having their presidential candidate win office in France? Will France's relationship with Morocco change now that Hollande is president?

In late April, the French Embassy in Morocco published the results of the French elections in Morocco. There is a large portion of the urban population in Morocco that hold dual citizenship, which gives them the ability to vote in the French elections. In Rabat, François Hollande took the lead with 43.5% and Nicolas Sarkozy was the runner up with a mere 26.9%. The rest of the votes were divided among the remaining three candidates.

While the results differed depending on the city (Sarkozy won the majority vote in Marrakech for instance), what is undeniable is that the French elections were considered an important issue for Moroccans. Throughout the election cycle I had several conversations with my English language students about their opinions on the candidates, the French electoral process, and their hopes for the future of France. Most of my students are professionals who work for companies or organizations with strong European ties. Even if they don't think that the outcome of France's election will greatly affect aspects of their personal life, they all agree that it would change the way they do business with their French clients and partners.

From the students "polled", it was unanimously stated that they felt that Sarkozy was a disappointing president, and certainly not the type of president that France needs now. While some felt that Sarkozy's "work more, earn more" mantra did good things for the French economy, his eccentric personality made him difficult to trust his judgement in times of hardship. They believe that the French are ready to trade in their hot-shot celebrity president for someone more humanistic and moderate.

Furthermore, Sarkozy's strong anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism stance weakened the country by dividing France into ethnic and cultural factions. He candidly identified certain groups as better than others, which led to a less united country. While he gained the support of the far-right through these actions, he lost the respect of everyone else. One student even said that Sarkozy was "France's George Bush": he managed to debase France's long history of high culture through his poor language and ignorant view point on immigration.

I see several paralells between Hollande's campaign and Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. The first similarity is in the type of candidate they are competing against. Sarkozy ran an incredibly conservative campaign whose foundation rested on the pillars of social conservativism and anti-multiculturalism. Ring any bells? The second similarity was in their progressive campaign slogans. Hollande's, "Le changement, c'est maintenant" (The change is now) begged for comparisons to Obama's 2008, "Change we can believe in" campaign slogan. Finally, the third similarity is in their voter demographic. While both Sarkozy and John McCain pushed for tighter immigration restrictions and paraded anti-multiculturalist values and bill proposals, both Hollande and Obama recognize the importance of the minority/immigrant vote. It will be interesting to see if these seemingly symbolic paralells seen between the two presidents' campaigns will manifest itself into anything significant as time progresses.

On a final note, I found out yesterday from one of my students that after the election results were announced, King Mohammed VI of Morocco coridally invited Nicolas Sarkozy to come to Morocco for a vacation. After François Hollande was officially sworn in yesterday as the President of the French Republic, Sarkozy boarded the King's private jet and set off to spend some time sunning himself at a resort in Marrakech. I asked my student if this gesture holds any greater political implications, since it seemed to me that the King still stands by Sarkozy. My student just shook his head and said, "No, I don't think so. The King did the same thing for Jacques Chirac."

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Saturday at Dar l'Kebira Orphanage

Throughout the semester, a common request we receive at the study abroad organization is to help students pursue volunteering in the Moroccan community, more specifically with the interest in doing work that would allow them to interact with Moroccan children. Together, a group of motivated students and I planned a cultural exchange/volunteering day at Dar l'Kebira that we called, "American Day". Dar l'Kebira is an orphanage/street children's association located in Kenitra, a mere 20 minute train ride from Rabat. It currently has about 40 children that live there, ranging anywhere from 6 to 16 years old.

We started the day with a tour of the facilities:

The lobby area. Behind the glass window is the arts and crafts room. During our visit, were told by staff members that usually the walls are filled with the children's art, however a lot of the artwork that students created was shipped to London for fundraising to benefit an international children's organization. 

An example of one of the girls' dormitory rooms. There are 8 children to each room.

The garden and sports field that we spent most of our day on.

The door leading into the kitchen and dining rooms.

After our tour, it was time to meet the children! We started by making name tags for everyone, helping the children write their names in English and Arabic script (and sometimes helping us!)...

...Others were more hesitant.

After name tags, it was playtime outside! We did a few games as a big group, some in darija and some in English. I was surprised by how many games had a Moroccan equivalent - duck duck goose, red light green light, monkey in the middle, and amoeba tag to name a few.

The games were not only a great way for the children to practice their English, but it was a fantastic opportunity for the students (myself included) to practice our darija! When a game requires you to recognize when your number in Arabic is selected, you better make sure you're staying attentive!

Time for dessert! We prepared an easy yet beloved dessert: dirt cups (chocolate pudding, cookie crumbles, and a few gummy worms), and the staff at Dar l'Kebira provided a lovely spread of cookies, chips, and chocolate. After having our sweet snack, the Moroccan children sang a few nursery rhymes to us and we reciprocated.

Despite the fact that we began the day with completely dfferent cultural and linguistic backgrounds, we spent the day laughing, running around, and enjoying one another's company. I was amazed just how strong of a connection everyone was able to make despite the language barriers. At the end of the day, nobody wanted to leave.

Special thanks to Aoife, our official "photo historian" of our day at Dar l'Kebira for capturing these moments on film!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Another side of Moroccan Culture: Gnaoua and the Layla Rituals

Gnaoua (ga-na-wa) is a musical and cultural tradition that comes out of the West African slave trade. The sleepy beach town of Essaouira in southern Morocco is known for its Gnaouan culture, which came about because it once was a major (slave) trade port on the Western coast of Africa. Today, Essaouira hosts a huge Gnaoua music and culture festival every June to honor its heritage. Many Western musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens (now Youssef Islam) and Eric Clapton spent time in Essaouira and hung out with Gnaouan musicians.  The title of Eric Clapton's famous song "Layla" was inspired by observing one of these cermonies during his time spent in Essaouira. While Gnaouan's religious beliefs are rooted in Islam, it is a very spiritual interpretation - venerating spirits and martyrs during particular rituals. The Gnaoua tradition hold many paralells to Voodoo and Santeria, which makes sense, if you consider the Golden Triangle of trade and slavery between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Voodoo and Santeria are both practiced in the region of the Carribbean, but are considered to have come over from Africa by the slave trade.

The traditional costumes and instruments used in the Gnaoua tradition distinguish it from all other coexisting cultures in Morocco. The first thing you notice is how much the costumes are influenced aesthetically by sub-Saharan culture and tradition. Many of the musicians and performers have darker skin and long dreaded hair, their robes are made of brightly colored fabric (typically red, green, yellow, and/or white) and traditional hats are decorated with colored beads and cowrie shells.

The hat pictured below is an example of the style of hat that Gnaouis wear while performing. They bob their head around and manage to swing the tassle around their head as they play (I say 'manage' because it is harder than it looks - trust me!). Swinging the tassle around as their head sways from side to side gives the impression to the audience that they are being entranced by the music.

The Hajhouj
This instrument is an integral part of any Gnaoua music group. It is a three-stringed acoustic instrument with a deep haunting sound. The strings are made with animal intestines (usually goat or sheep), the base is made out of wood, and the front of the instrument is covered with animal hide (usually camel or goat). The hajhouj is played very similar to a guitar, except with its added ability of acting simultaneously as percussion. Instead of strumming or plucking across the strings as you would a guitar or bass, players of the hajhouj strum or pluck downwards so their fingertips tap the animal hide, creating a percussive sound.

An interesting fact about the hajhouj : if you turn it on its side it resembles a slave ship

Percussion - Karkabo

The Karkabo percussion used in Gnaoua music is played in a similar way to Spanish castanets, placing the two pieces between your thumb and pointer finger. The sound of the metal clacking together is meant to conjure up the sound of slave chains.

The Layla Rituals

The Layla rituals, literally meaning night rituals, take place during the month before Ramadan. Laylas are a spiritually cathartic ritual that begins when the sun sets and ends at sunrise. People who believe they are ill due to a spiritual imbalance come to the Layla to be healed. Every night, a woman hosts the ritual in her home and invites a maalem (master, teacher) of Gnaoua to come with his musicians and lead the ceremony. 

During the layla, participants go on a spiritual journey where each transition is marked by different colors, incense, music style, and spirits evoked. Every person feels that they have a personal connection to a particular color and/or spirit, and when that color/spirit is evoked, they respond in a particular way, which I will elaborate on below.

White:  The color to start off the Layla, open the doors into the spirit world, and invite the spirits in. The musicians sing about marabouts, or saints, who believed in human equality and who spread the word of Islam. Both of these qualities are fundamental to the Gnaoua tradition because of its roots in both the West African slave trade and the Islamic faith. 

Green: During the green color, the spirits have been invited but no activity has happened yet. One of the major spirits that the lyrics evoke during this color is Moulay Abdelkader Jilali, who is a descendant of the prophet Mohammed. 

Light Blue: Color of the water spirits. During this section, the music evokes Sidi Moussa, the master of the water. We sing to Sidi Moussa to acknowledge that he provides us with water, and to show our respect. During this color, those who believe to be possessed by this spirit do a dance that looks like they are swimming to the rhythm of the music. 

Here is a clip from a Gnaoua group playing the song for Sidi Moussa:

Dark Blue: Color of the sky spirits, particularly Bou Yandi, the master of the sky spirits.  Those who are possessed by sky spirits begin to jump up into the air as if they are flying to the rhythm of the music.

Red: This color is known for its violent behavior, and logically it represents blood. Sidi Hamou is the major spirit of blood. When the music begins for this color, those that feel they are possessed by this color do a full bow facing into the circle in front of the musicians and then proceed by taking out knives and begin slashing themselves and dancing to the rhythm of the music. Oddly enough, it is believed that even though they are cutting themselves and they are bleeding, there will be no sign of it ever happening once the layla is over and the sun comes up.

Green: The color green returns for a second time, but with a different significance. This section of the layla ceremony is used as a way for everyone to relax after the intensity of the red color and to honor certain people/spirits who have or continue to do good in the world. Two popular venerated saints for this color are Moulay Abdellah and Moulay Abdelrahim. 

Black: This color is the spirit of the forests, which contains so many spirits that they split the color into two sections. The first section is for "big" spirits and the second is for "small" spirits. The first "big" spirit that is mentioned is Lalla Mimouna, who is the guardian of the door. We must appeal to her first if we want the door opened to the forest spirit world. Dancers who feel they are connected with the spirit Sidi Mimoun hold lit candles and dance around while brushing their skin with the flames. After the "big" spirits, the music moves onto the "small" spirits, which are numerous. One aspect that separates this color from the others is the way the music is played. During Black, the musicians follow the lead of the dancers, speeding up the rhythm as the dancing accelerates. The music doesn't stop until the dancers cannot dance anymore and collapse on the ground. 

Lalla Aicha: While she is associated with the Black/Forest spirits, her importance lets her stand alone. Lalla Aicha was a beautiful woman who lived in Morocco during the 15th century when the Portugese expansion led to their occupation of the country. It is believed that Lalla Aicha only left the house at night, when she would seduce and then kill Portugese soldiers. 

Here is a clip of a Gnaoua group playing the song for Lalla Aicha:

Yellow: As the sun starts to make its first light on the horizon it is time to begin Yellow, which is the color for feminine spirits, such as Lalla Mira and Lalla Maliki. 

Finally, as dawn approaches, all the guests, participants, and musicians come together for a large prayer, where they ask God to continue to protect them and their country. When morning comes, everyone packs up, says their goodbyes, and goes home to catch up on sleep.

The information in this blog post about Layla ceremonies was taken from a presentation on Gnaoua culture done at my work. Fareed, an incredibly talented Gnaoua and jazz musician, came to talk to our students about his culture and perform a few songs. He is the singer and bassist of a gnaoua/rock/jazz fusion band called "Mayara". You really can hear the blend of cultural influences in their sound - African, Carribbean, Arab...

Here is a music video of one of their songs, "Haly Gnaoui": 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Our Trip to Merzouga

For our last Moroccan adventure before he leaves for home, we decided to go big and head to the Sahara desert. On Friday evening we boarded a train to Meknes (standing room only) and then caught an overnight bus to Merzouga, a small town in the Sahara near the Algerian border. 

We stayed in a small little hotel called Auberge du Sahara, where we were treated somewhere between royalty and family. Everything we did was met with a marhaba, or "you are welcome" from hotel staff.  We arrived during a strong wind storm, which gave us the morning to recuperate from our long journey. When the weather settled down, this was the view we enjoyed from the back patio:

On Sunday morning, we grabbed a grand taxi from the nearby village and headed to the town of Rissani, which has a large bustling souk on Sundays. On the way, we passed the ancient town of Sijilmassa, a site embedded in historical significance. It dates back to the 8th century and was once a major destination of caravans coming from Sub-Saharan Africa to trade gold in exchange for Saharan salt. 

While most of the commodities being sold and traded in the marketplace was familiar to us, the product pictured below was new to us: buckets and baskets made out of recycled tires. 

A view of the center of Rissani from the rooftop café where we had lunch:

In the afternoon, we returned to our hotel in Merzouga eager to explore the sand dunes.

Sand for miles and miles...

Camels waiting patiently in the dunes to take a French family on a sunset camel ride

We decided to hike up one of the largest dunes in Merzouga. Above is a photo from about 3/4 of the way up (35 minute hike)

View from the top! 

Though not fully visible in the photo, just beyond the horizon is a mountain range on the Algerian border.

We ran all the way down. 

When we told our English students that we were heading to the desert for the weekend, they told us that the sand is very good for one's health, and that it is customary to bury yourself in it as a way of healing whatever ails you. If this is true, then we must be in very good health. Even after a thorough showering I am still finding sand on my body. The surreality of our environment made the weekend feel dream like. Maybe it's the sand, or maybe something a little less tangible, but it is undeniable that there is something very therapeutic about being in such a beautiful and remote environment. B'sahah!