Archive for November, 2006

Small Victories in Language Learning

Posted by sue on 9th November 2006

One of the funny things about living in Morocco, as a native English speaker, is how familiar and comforting French is, and I don’t even speak French. Even if you know some formal Arabic, as I do, Moroccan Arabic is very different and unless you put in some effort to study Moroccan Arabic as such, it’s hard to communicate with people around town. However, Moroccans also speak French, and they automatically speak French to white folk, so I just roll with it, ordering “cafe creme” instead of “qehwa belhleeb,” for instance, because it’s just easier.

For this reason, Morocco strikes me as an excellent place to learn French (and many of my fellow students at ALIF–mostly Americans–do speak French also), but not quite as good for learning Arabic. I have to force myself to read the Arabic on street signs and ads and grocery items rather than the familiar Roman letters of the French that are also on most things. Even though I know practically no French, there are so many cognates that it’s not that hard to figure things out when you see them in print (understanding the spoken language is a whole other thing, of course).

I am making progress, however, because my Arabic knowledge is overtaking my limited knowledge of French, and more and more often I use my knowledge of Arabic to figure out the French, rather than the other way around. Words in print are almost always Modern Standard Arabic, so that’s where my particular knowledge comes in handy. I may just learn this language yet.

Posted in Fez, Morocco | 6 Comments »

Life in Morocco, thus far

Posted by sue on 8th November 2006

While it’s too soon to come to any definitive conclusions, right now I don’t see staying here very long. The plan right now is to finish out my current term at ALIF (which ends December 8th), take a week or two to travel to Marrakesh and some other Moroccan points south, then go to Spain for a week or so around Christmas/New Year. The new term at ALIF runs from January 4 to February 15, and after that, I think we’re going to go to Egypt– we’ll let you know when plans firm up.

The best thing so far is that I’ve very much enjoyed the opportunity to study Arabic full time. Having class every day really speeds up the learning of new words and grammar. It’s been a little disappointing, though, because my particular class has only two students in it. More personal attention, yes, but not a particularly dynamic environment, and less opportunity to get to know other students. I’m counting on next term being better, with a new crop of students coming in.

I am happy to be free of all the work on the house that hounded me for months, but perhaps we took too extreme a turn away from our spacious and rather luxurious house. Our apartment is big enough, but it’s drafty and there’s no hot tap water in the kitchen, and yesterday, during a rain shower, we discovered that water leaks from the roof into the kitchen through a hole in the ceiling where a bare bulb hangs from bare wire. Perhaps we just need to find a new apartment, but from what I’ve heard such “features” are not all that unusual.

I think about the things that we didn’t like about L.A., and some things that came to mind were the huge numbers of people, the fact that much of the city is frankly ugly, and the crush of cars and the resulting pollution. Unfortunately, Fes has all those things in spades. It has a picturesquely medieval medina, but the streets are so narrow and maze-like that once I’ve been in there an hour or so, I start looking for a way out. Even though there are no cars in there (the streets are not nearly wide enough in most places), there is an incredible amount of foot traffic and some mule and hand-cart traffic, enough that you’re often being yelled at to get out of the way.

The Ville Nouvelle is more like a European city, but the cars and scooters run with very dirty engines, to the point that I can’t stand to sit in a cafe along a big street for very long, because of the fumes. There are way more pedestrians along the Ville Nouvelle streets than you find on L.A. streets, and that’s a good thing, but walking can be hard because of big construction zones and sidewalks in poor condition, and very aggressive drivers.

Perhaps I’ll learn to love the energy of a Moroccan city as I become more a part of it, but I mostly want a beautiful place to live. Outside of the cities Morocco has some beautiful country, but I don’t know if I’m up to rustic village living, either.

More on this later as thoughts develop….

Posted in Musings | 4 Comments »

In Search Of: Hashish

Posted by len on 8th November 2006

One of the pieces of lore that got into my head before coming over to Morocco was that everyone smoked hashish nearly all the time and that like it or not I was going to be stoned out of my skull nearly every night as a result of my innocent and chaste cultural curiosity. I even think some of my friends back in LA still believe this to be true, with articles like the one you’re now reading being produced in the few cracks of time each day that I’m not dragging on an ornate iron pipe and smiling like the Chesire cat.
Well, this article is to serve as the definitive statement that hashish is so elusive that it has entered into the ‘in search of’ category here in Fez, Morocco. The following is a succinct account of our exposure thus far to what Moroccans call Kif.
Hookah, the Big Lie: Perhaps we just chose the wrong city but Fez appears to have virtually outlawed the hookah pipe. You see them in stores here and there but I’ve only seen one in use, once, deep in the medina, and it certainly smelled like the fruity light tobacco we remember from California. According to a guy in Meknes, a nearby city, restaurants need to get some kind of registration to allow hookah pipe smoking. Perhaps Morocco is experiencing a sort of cultural backlash from a hedonistic hookah-smoking era that ended a few days before we arrived.
The Smokescreen: Though positive sighting of hashish is rare, Moroccans smoke a lot. This could be part of the difficulty with my observational strategy. Just before dusk, men start filling the thousands of chairs spilling onto the sidewalks and corners all around the city. Most of them are smoking and drinking a cafe noire (straight espresso with sugar). Close by every cafe are one or two people peddling cigarettes, by the smoke, out of cases labeled Marlboro or Winston. I’ve strained to confirm that the cigarettes cradled between men’s fingers are in fact legal tobacco cigarettes. So far I have only seen what appears to be the tell-tale white-to-tan transition colors of typical cigs.
1st Sighting: The first actual positive sighting of hashish was about a week ago. We needed to telephone Sue’s parents so we walked down the street to a pay phone along the road (sad, huh?). Just a bit away from the road next to a cafe was a quieter area with a phone. While Sue gets her parents on the line I peek into the cafe to see what it’s like. A group of four men, most older than me by a large margin, notices me and makes the rare outreach and calls me over with “bon soire!”. I think the next bit, in English, was something like: “Hi. Join us. Have a smoke. Cannabis!” He hands me the cigarette he’s holding, which does look a lot like a typical manufactured cigarette though not that different than what I’ve heard marijuana cigarettes look like back home. [I hand it back to him and thank him for showing it to me]. We chat some and he even buys me a mint tea (a very typical Moroccan cafe item). Note: descriptions in brackets [ ] may or may not have actually occurred exactly as presented.
2nd Sighting: Just this past weekend found us on a train to Meknes, a city about a 50 minute train ride west of Fez. We were in a first class cabin with one other person, a rather lanky 20 something Moroccan man. Nearing the end of the trip he pulls something out of his luggage from the storage area above our heads. He then opens the door to the main corridor, where the conductor wanders, and with one furtive eye on the corridor starts measuring out dried plant matter onto some papers on his lap. Keep in mind that as this is happening we’re just glancing over wondering what the heck this guy is up to. After a few minutes he disappears, presumably to the bathroom or one of the standing sections between cars ( the only places you can go besides the corridor). Shortly after he leaves we notice a perfume-like scent wafting through our cabin that he just left. It was then that the whole picture came together, finishing with his trying to cover his tracks.

Posted in Fez, Morocco | 9 Comments »

Always in the Bad Part of Town

Posted by len on 8th November 2006

If you live in Los Angeles, or any large city for that matter, perhaps you’ve had this experience: You’re traveling somewhere in town, a ways from home, not sure exactly where you’re at, and the need arises to stop at a post office, or KFC for a bite, or perhaps Del Taco. No Problem. You can find one by sight as you pass the countless strip malls. Even though you don’t know this area, familiar signs and brands soothe the slight discomfort you feel being in a new part of town. You park the car and walk up to order your Gordita Meal Deal and see 2-inch-thick bullet-proof plexi-glass separating the workers from you, and everyone else standing next to you. “Hmm, that’s interesting,” you think to yourself. Over the next few seconds the experience begins to congeal with other semi-conscious observations you made shortly before: Pawn shops and bail bond signs that caught your eye as you passed in the car, a pile of garbage accumulating in a nearby gutter, a bizarre, unearthly absence of Starbucks. Some kind of calculation is happening in your brain which leads inevitably to the next thought: “Oh. I think I’m in the bad part of town.”
Luckily, this understanding tends to creep up relatively slowly. This is important since I’ve decided it’s absolutely crucial, once one has this realization, to play it cool. Otherwise you might find yourself sweating and gaping at the steel bars separating you from your KFC family bucket mumbling “Holy shit!” over and over.
If this experience is at all familiar to you then you have already experienced an aspect of what it has been like to live in Morocco these past three weeks. The cities are places from which there is no escape from the bad part of town.
However, this is only partially true, for some interesting reasons. Most importantly has to do with the feeling of threat. The bulletproof glass in a Del Taco in LA doesn’t create unease because of anything to do with your relationship with those behind the barrier but rather by its suggestion that the guy in line behind you could have a gun in his belt. In Fez, as well as other big cities in Morocco, though I’ve never seen either bulletproof glass or security bars in restaurants, there is a persistent, inescapable feeling of neglect: street renovation projects in a state of serious upheaval, sidewalks that are mostly broken concrete, buildings that look dilapidated and abandoned but aren’t. In LA and elsewhere I’ve lived in the U.S. these are the alert signs that heighten my personal surveillance and transform everyone around me, especially if I’m on foot at night, into a potential threat. I’ve found that in Morocco this rule needs to be softened or even abandoned. Most significantly, the people that surround us are difficult to realistically perceive as a threat. Just the other night, in a city called Meknes, Sue and I were walking home to our hotel in the old part of town. We took a shortcut that took us through a dark, seedy, enclosed alley. The dark sillouettes of some men loitering near the far end made me afraid, if just a bit. When we came to them, they were a familiar Moroccan sight: some mostly goofy-looking old men in tarbouches (similar to Fez hats) chit-chatting. And of course, everyone loiters in Morocco! That’s pretty much the national pastime once the sun goes down (which is shockingly early these days). Another aspect of our relationship with Moroccans is that everyone likes to look at us, especially Sue. Face after face passes us and quickly studies us with inscrutable expressions. I don’t know what they’re thinking but so far the few that we’ve started conversations with are very friendly and excited about our American-ness (There are so many French here, I think we’re a refreshing change for them). Ironically, it feels more comforting to have people overtly look at us than spying on us from around a corner, potentially planning something sinister. And of course, it allows me freedom to imagine what’s going through their minds; something like, “Wow! Americans. My god what a beautiful people.”

Posted in Fez, Morocco | 3 Comments »

Memories Invoked

Posted by len on 2nd November 2006

Hershey Kiss
I was reminded the other day of Hershey Park, in Hershey Pennsylvania.
God knows why that struck me here in Morocco.
Often random memories of my childhood do come into my mind.
The park featured streetlights that were shaped like chocolate kisses.
There was also a “How Hershey chocolates are made” kind of attraction.
Hotel-wise, the staff placed a Hershey’s chocolate bar on each bed pillow.
Every day the maids would put a new chocolate on the bed.
Ride-wise, they had the normal stuff you find at other amusement parks.
Unlike Disneyland, however, rides were not based on childhood characters but candy.
Nothing wrong with chocolate, I say.
Someday perhaps I’ll return to that place in my fading memories….

Posted in Fez | 8 Comments »

Learnin’ me some Arabic

Posted by sue on 1st November 2006

I’ve had about a week of Arabic study now, and, for those who are curious, I’ll give a bit of a description about what it’s been like here at the Arabic Language Institute in Fes.

I’m in the Modern Standard Arabic 300 class, which starts at the beginning of Part Two of the Brustad, Al-Batal, and Al-Tonsi Al-Kitaab fii Ta’allum al-Arabiya, which my UCLA Extension zumalaa’ wa zamiilaat also know and love. The first couple of days of class, however, we worked through some other materials, some of which were a bit daunting. A couple of them were worksheets that reviewed certain grammar relationships, and that stuff I feel confident about, thanks to Jihad’s THOROUGH grammar instruction. But the others were texts related to reading Arabic newspapers, and because I just haven’t spent any real time trying to read newspapers in Arabic, I had little of the requisite vocabulary.

And, I was embarrassed in class the other day because I didn’t know how to say what time it is! I mean, it was in the book (Part 1, p. 156), but I just never practiced it. It makes me appreciate one way in which English is simple. 1:40 is said “One-forty.” In Arabic, it’s “the hour the second less a third.”

I do have some time in the next couple of days to get caught up on some of the little things that I’m not clear on from Part One because I already did most of chapter one of Part Two at UCLA. And maybe some time to check out some newspapers!

Posted in Arabic | 6 Comments »

A Brief Overview

Posted by len on 1st November 2006

Here’s a super brief overview of life in Fez from Los Angeles perspective:
– Booze: not really a problem. Beer and wine are available in supermarkets and scattered liquor stores but virtually no restaurants.
– Laundry: No laundromats…AT ALL! And no cheapo laundry service. Over $1 per pair of pants or shirt. We’re forced to do laundry ourselves in a bucket! AHHHH!
– Cabs: You can get across town for 50 cents. I didn’t have enough small change once and the cabby actually smiled, waved, and drove off! I was willing to run to a shop but he just didn’t care enough. Compare with NYC.
– Telephone: Local calls are 35 cents/minute on our cell phone. Calls from our cell to the US are, supposedly, outrageous. The only cost effective way to call the US is from street pay phones using prepaid cards. Something like 35cents per minute.
– Cafe Scene: Lots of cafes all around the city. During the day they’re pretty empty and nice. At night, just around dusk, they fill with men. Only men. Women are nowhere to be seen so it feels strange going together as a couple.
– Cafe Creme: What would be called a small latte in the US. Cost is 50-80 dirham (75 cents). They give you a cup with a shot of espresso in it, then pour steamed milk in while you watch. I guess so you can confirm the quantity of espresso. Who knows.
– Night Life: In Fez, we have no idea. What we’ve heard is there is none. So far we go home around dusk and study, watch a DVD show (thanks Jim!) sometimes, then sleep.
– Games: Dusty cards in a back-alley room? No, I’m talking Playstation 2! We bought a tiny TV for the Playstation 2 that I lovingly hauled from Sony. Works great. No problem with TV signals, standards etc. We heard PS2’s go for about $400 here…STILL!
– Internet: There’s limitless free wireless at ALIF (Sue’s school – where I’m sitting right now) and there are alot internet “cafe’s” around town. We’ve only been to one but they are about $1.20/hour, fairly slow, and incredibly cramped.
– Language: Not alot of English. Most people know a bit. Cabbies know almost none. Most people speak French well. Hence I’m the main speaker for us so we are pretty much establishing our tard reputation fast. I’m starting french classes Thursday!

Let me know what else you might be curious about! Thanks for reading!

Posted in Fez | 5 Comments »

Moroccan Cell Phones Are Funny

Posted by len on 1st November 2006

Cell phones in Morocco are not super-fancy but nicely cheap. You can buy a cell phone for about $40 that includes a SIM card providing service. Minutes are then acquired by buying cards in about $10 increments that give you about $10 of minutes (if not more). So yesterday we bought a phone for Sue, then we needed to get some minutes. We heard that you buy the $10 card, read the code, call the operator and enter the code. Then your cell phone account is credited for $10 of minutes. So we go to a ‘teleboutique’ and ask the guy for a $10 phone card. He asks us for our phone number. Then he takes his phone, makes a weird little call and reads off our number to some mysterious ‘other’. A second later he tells us to check our messages on our phone which show about $20 worth of minutes. We pay him and we’re done. Weeeeiiiirrrd.

Posted in Fez | 1 Comment »