July 2008


A gutted house interior on Flood Street (I’m sure I’m not the first to pick up on the awful irony). The Ninth Ward is mostly empty, just green spaces, a few houses, most of them empty, here and there. I had not been down into this part of New Orleans post-storm until last Saturday; I’d been in a neighborhood to the west last year, doing some work with Habitat for Humanity, but had never ventured across the canal until last week.

One of the few houses on the street that looked fixed back up; Our Lady is still keeping watch, anyway.

The front lawn of a washed-out little Catholic church.

A little further west, towards the canal. This is the Deep South; the greenery is irrepressible, and devours everything in very little time if it’s given half the chance.

Not the Ninth Ward this, but close enough. The oil spill was being mopped up Saturday, but was still bad enough to keep most of the river traffic bottled up. I took this photo from the landing opposite Jackson Square.

1.

Gabriel flew
From the height on the wings of the wind
And brought an epistle from his Lord
To bring Mary the salutation.
He opened it and read it and said to her:
“My Lord is with you and rises from you;
I left him behind up above
And here with you I find him.”
Praise be to him, before whom in the height and in the depth
The angels sing praise.

2.

“Peace, peace
To the far and the near!”
The prophet in the Holy Spirit called out
To the whole race of the house of Adam.
The peace is God,
Who came to us and became flesh.
Praise to him, who humiliated so much
His majesty on our behalf.
And he rose from us after our likeness
And (yet) he did not leave his Father’s side.

3.

Grant, o our Lord,
Peace to your church in all four corners of the globe
And take from her the quarrels
And the divisions and the evil schisms
And gather her children in her fold
In the true faith
And appoint shepherds over her
Who put her to pasture after your will.
And may she rejoice with you in the kingdom
To the right of Him who sent you.

Simeon the Potter of Gesir, Potter Songs

Transportation in Morocco is frequently a real adventure in itself; in the out of the way places finding onward transport can be a somewhat hairy experience. My most vivid such ordeal came during an extended weekend from classes courtesy of the Prophet’s Birthday, which I spent, at first with friends but in the last leg solo, wandering around southern Morocco. It was a Sunday- a bad day for finding transport in the countryside- and I was quite by myself, my comrades having declined to accompany me on my somewhat ill-advised adventure into the hills. I had spent the night in the one-horse town of Anemetir, twenty plus something miles north of Ait Benhaddou, where I had stayed the night before. The distance between I covered by foot, one long Saturday, clogging over desert and dust and hills. I stumbled into Anemetir around eight thirty at night, the sun having set hours before. It was pitch black when I hailed a kid playing football under a solitary streetlight- ‘Is there a hotel here?’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘Where?’ He was somewhat non-committal, merely pointing down the road. Well. I had read in the guidebook that lodging was available here, but, like my football playing informer, the description was non-committal. I walked out of the streetlight, waved to some men standing in front of a little store, probably nearing closing. I smiled- I have always hated to look like a lost, clueless tourist. My goal is to beam confidence, a knowing surety, as if I have anything to lose by appearing a little flustered in front of people thousands of miles from my home who could really care less about my traveler’s pride.

I followed a series of signs that promised lodging. I was bone-tired, dreading each further step. I was beginning to loathe the town, the night, myself, my inept decisions of the day. In several of the little villages I had passed through people had offered me a place to stay for the night. One of the villages was a particularly beautiful oasis, the village running along the rim of the canyon, the desert above, green lush sward below down to the river; at the north end of the village a huge wall of stone dropped from the mountains down to the river, only a narrow notch allowing the river and a sliver of road to continue north to the Atlas. Across the valley from the road the village stretched on, and in the centre was a crisply painted white minaret, stark against the mud brick of the kasbahs. The cultivated part was glowing with fruit trees in bloom. It was paradise. I had passed a sort of pension where the proprietoress had hailed me and suggested I spend the night. No, no, I said, I’m heading for Anemetir. She looked incredulous. Too far- stay here! No, no, I said smiling, I must go on. She shook her head and said goodbye. Some kids followed me for a ways, laughing and talking. One little girl asked me if I was from Egypt, and I took it as a decent appraisal of my Arabic, or her lack of knowledge of things Egyptian.

Eight-thirty at night in mostly dark Anemetir I was severerly wishing I had stayed in the paradisical village. But no- I wanted to get transportation out on Sunday, make Marrakesh, and, dutiful student always, be back in class on Monday. Right now though I was contemplating sleeping under a rock, in the cold. I found the advertised hotel. There were no lights on. I knocked and knocked on the big, prison looking wooden door. Nothing. Place was closed as a tomb. I dithered back down the path, wondering what I was going to do next. I climbed down a little valley, past another late-night store, an oasis of warm, gentle light and domesticity, while the rest of the town seemed to have receded into the threatening desert, cold, dead, dark. I continued on the road north. I knew there was another town seven or eight miles on, with a couple of for-sure hotels. Or I could knock on someone’s door and take my chances.

I was passing the last streetlight in the village, the open road and open country stretching in front. My heart sank; I felt sick. Interiorily I was cursing myself for such an idiotic enterprise. I had neither tent nor sleeping bag, only my paltry pack with a little food and some extra clothes. It was getting cold out, the wind whipping down from the snowfields of the High Atlas. Then, as if my troubles couldn’t get any bleaker and more pathetic, a pack of dogs started barking at me and threatening with their barred teeth. I started to stoop for stones; it wasn’t the first time I had been forced to ward off angry dogs. But before I had to do anything else, a man with a flashlight- a headlamp at that, of all things- yelled at the foul creatures and they snarled away. I waved, and he asked- in English, if I recall correctly- if I needed help. Indeed I did- did he know of a hotel, gite, anything? Yes in fact- and he shined his light across to an odd-looking place: Chez Mohammed’s Gite Camping Berbere, the sign proclaimed. My anonymous guide knocked on the door of the little compound, and after a bit Si Mohammed appeared. My guide explained my predicament, and Si Mohammed agreed to put me up. He led me into a sort of dining room, with tables down the middle and couches around the sides, which I supposed were used to cater tourists during the on-season. He also had some big Berber style tents for use in warmer weather. That night however I was the sole customer.

I looked pretty horrible no doubt, and Si Mohammed seemed genuinely concerned. I tried to explain my adventure so far in a pidgin of Arabic and my meager stock of French. After making me a bed on one of the couches, and running his cat out of the room, he shuffled back to his kitchen and cooked me dinner. It was quite possibly the most wonderful meal I have ever eaten. After eating I laid down in my bed, my whole body shivering with exhausation, my legs aching like fire. I had a vision of myself waking up deathly ill, stuck in Anemetir, my money running precariously low, and no ATM in sight. My vision didn’t last long, however, as I quickly fell asleep.

I woke up and felt- al-hamdu’lillah– wonderful, completely refreshed. My aches and chills were gone. I groggily walked out to the bathroom, put in my contacts, washed up as best I could. After packing my things and eating a bit of breakfast from my pack, I knocked on Si Mohammed’s door and said good morning. He had explained to me the evening before that a grand taxi would be leaving from Anemetir in the morning, and I was going to make sure I made it out. We looked out but the taxi hadn’t pulled up yet; it waited at the edge of town, across the little valley from Si Mohammed’s. While I waited he invited me back to his little room to watch al-Jazeera. So for a while I took in the weekend’s news, or at least the bits I could comprehend from my limited vocabulary and the power of images. Eventually the taxi arrived, and I paid my bill, which was quite low. Not that I cared a lot- I would have paid considerably more, seldom having appreciated a roof and bed more.

After saying a heartfelt thank-you and good-bye to Si Mohammed- who seemed to wish I could stay longer and hang out- I walked out to the taxi. I was the only person waiting at the moment. I said hello, talked for a minute to the driver, then sat down in the back seat. And I waited. I thought about going back to Si Mohammed’s place to catch some more al-Jazeera, but I feared a sudden influx of customers and the taxi leaving without me. Of course, no such thing was likely to happen, but I was eager to get on with my journey, and not wait around Anemetir for another night. Over the next hour passengers trickled in, and we were soon on our way. The engine of the old Mercedes Benz complained and coughed, but started after some encouragement, and we rolled through the barren salt wastes that line the dry riverbed of the appropriately named Nahr al-Mellah above Anemetir. After some elevation gain, however, the scenery changes, becoming gradually greener, pine trees appearing on the slopes, and soon the snowy peaks of the Atlas emerge. We ended our journey in Telouet, the former home of the infamous Glaoui chieftans. We drove past their massive, sprawling kasbah at the edge of Telouet, its rotting hulk looming against the mountains distant. The taxi driver asked if I wanted to stop at the ruins, but I said no, I need to keep going. We piled out in the dusty little main square of Telouet, and as soon as I stepped out the bitter cold wind hit. It seemed a world away from Anemetir. I made for another grand taxi, which was supposed to make for Marrakesh. I stuck my bag inside, then went by one of the little stores and bought some sweets, then walked up the street to snap a photo of the great Kasbah. The wind ate into my inadequate clothes, and I beat a quick retreat for the taxi. When I had arrived, several men were sitting inside. I assumed they were going to Marrakesh. They weren’t. After about thirty minutes, the driver informed me I was the only passenger, which meant a trip to Marrakesh would be in the hundreds of dirham. I balked; there was no way I would or even could pay that. I looked around; down the street was a blue van, its flat snout pointing down the road towards, roughly, my goal. I climbed out of the taxi and started walking for the van; my walk became a run when I saw the vehicle start moving. I ran up to the driver’s window and asked if he was going towards Marrakesh. He laughed but nodded; I took that as an affirmative, and climbed into the van, which was packed with local men heading for work higher up in the mountains. I salaamed to everyone and did my best to look calm and nonchalant, like this was something I did everyday.

We started off- or rather, one of the men jumped out, pushed the van down an incline until it started, then ran and climbed back in. The road wound its way higher and higher; we stopped from time to time to drop a man off at his field or herd. At last we rounded one last incline and reached the main highway between Ouarzazate and Marrakesh. And that was the end of the van’s route. We were deposited at a sort of café-garage. I went inside and had some mint tea, then went out and stood by the highway alongside a couple of young Moroccan men. We started work at hitching a ride. It was not fun work. The snowfields were only another thousand feet or so above us at this elevation, near the very top of the highway, and the cold was bitter. I took a break from hitching and joined a little group of mechanics warming their hands over a fire next to an old Volkswagen being disemboweled. After regaining a little warmth I returned to my task. No one stopped. The buses- which were frequent enough- simply frowned and motioned that they couldn’t stop. All the grand taxis were full. I was beginning to feel a little jazzed out, to say the least. I stood alongside the young Moroccan men and we shifted back and forth in the wind, extending our hands from time to time at passing cars.

Finally a lumbering grand taxi pulled up and stopped. I ran to the driver and asked if I could get a ride to Marrakesh. Yes, he said, and told me the price, which sounded about right. Not that my options were very great. I climbed- literally- into the hulking extended body Mercedes Benz, already packed with travelers. I squeezed in and we were off. I breathed a prayer of thanks. The taxi scooted around the curves, dodged tour buses, and spluttered and coughed up the pass, then down towards Marrakesh. A mile or so below the main pass the taxi suddenly died. We stopped, in the middle of the road. Behind us- blind curves, buses hurtling down the mountain, break-neck. I imagined what it would be like to be flung off the highway and down a thousand foot cliff. I wondered whether I would make CNN, and figured no, I was just one American, not a very big deal. Now a taxi-load of Americans… The driver was cursing and kicking at the car. I laughed and said, “Miskeena– the car’s sick!” My fellow travelers laughed with me. The driver climbed back in, turned the ignition, and the car mercifully woke back to life. We made it all the way down, past the Berber towns clinging to the valleys, down into the cedar forests, down onto the plains, almost to our destination in a town just outside of Marrakesh. But a mile from the taxi stand our poor vehicle died again. It was several minutes before she finally restarted, and we pulled up the taxi stand and piled out. Nobody could complain of being cold by then. A grand taxi stuffed with nine men hardly needs a heater.

From there it was an easy municipal bus ride to Marrakesh, and then a petit taxi to the train station. I was in and out of Marrakesh, not having time to see the famed Djama’ al-Fana or anything. I got my train ticket, which expended nearly all the dirham I had left in my pocket, then wandered down to a food stall on the street, walked to the National Theatre and back to the station. Once I boarded my train the journey was straight-forward. I sat next to a pretty British girl who had been on a two-week holiday in Morocco; we talked for a while about our different experiences of the country, which she had visited once before. She got off at Casa, and after that I chatted with a Moroccan couple and picked up some new Arabic words; after they got off an elderly lady sat opposite me. She was thrilled by my Arabic, and shared her basket of fresh fruit with me. I went to sleep, and woke up outside of Meknes; while coming back from the bathroom I happened across some English-speaking German students who were staying in Fes and seemed rather worried about getting to their hotel. I tried to help them out, gave them my cell phone number in case they needed help, and felt very proud indeed at my local knowledge. When we pulled up to Fes I got off the train with them and negotiated a decent price at the taxi stand and waved them good luck. It was one or two o’clock in the morning, and I was more than a little tired as I dragged my feet back across the Ville Nouvelle to my little room, where I collapsed and slept soundly, but woke in time for- ever the dutiful student- my morning class.

Distance from You is death and nearness to You is life; were You absent for a breath we would die.

Far from you we die and in nearness to You we live, and if good tidings of reunion reach us from You we revive.

We remain alive in remembrance of You when we do not see You, for only remembrance of the Beloved enlivens us.

Abū Madyar, The Qusīda in Nūn

These are rosaries for sell outside of the shrine of Moulay Idriss II, the founder and (current) patron saint of Fes. The haram-precinct surrounding the shrine is filled with small shops selling rosaries, incense, candles, and other devotional aids, as well as sweet-meats (Idriss being the patron of sweet meats as well as the city, apparently).

The Millenium Falcon in miniature showed up at a flea-market at the edge of the Andalusian Quarter, along with a host of other wonderful items, including stacks of used Heinenkin bottles…

The rose-petal and rose-water vendor down Tella Kabira, just below the meat-sellers quarter. The olfactory contrast is intense.

Zellij tile and calligraphy in a medrasa in the Andalusian quarter.

Potatoes and herbs on or near Zanqa Romain.

An interesting piece of decoration of the exterior of the Moulay Idriss shrine. I’m afraid I have no idea of its symbolic import- assuming it has some- so if perchance anyone out there knows, I’d love to be filled in.

I was changing trains on the Madrid Metro when I noticed a large advertisement splashed across the tiled walls of the subway tube. There are, of course, numerous ads of all sorts on the Madrid Metro, but this particular one caught my eye: it portrayed a European- Spanish perhaps- woman reclining on a couch, with a look of contented pleasure on her face. Well she would be- her couch was set in an airy-looking room of a vaguely oriental feel, with a view of the ocean out the windows, palm trees and sand dunes leading out to the azure sea. Coming from under the rug, behind the furnishings, and from the edge of the scene were brown hands, holding food, a telephone, clothes, and so on- all the comforts, I suppose, a well-heeled person needs whilst on vacation. The sign was advertising tourism to Morocco, the country I had only recently departed from. While I’ve forgotten the exact words that were splayed across the top of the picture, their gist was to describe an enchanting, comfortable Morocco- that is, not only exotic, but accessible, unlikely to jar or in any way disturb the average Western visitor. Finally, the ad was produced by a Moroccan tourism board- a government agency, if I remember correctly.

I reflected further on the ad’s message as I made my way south from the airport to the bus station, passing several more copies along the way. Perhaps my conclusion reads too much into the ad, but I don’t think so- rather, as so often happens, advertising and art (which seem to merge into one these days anyway) reflect the popular image, by defining and re-offering it in order to sell a product- in this case, a whole country. But here’s what I saw in the image:

There were Moroccans in the picture, to be sure- they were vital to the ad’s message- but they were utterly invisible, at least as real people. Each of the Moroccans depicted in the ad was nothing but an extended arm, offering a service to the wealthy tourist- services that merely existed as services, delivered by ‘natives’ hovering out of sight, who need not interfere with their particular personalities- all that was swept under the exotic-looking rug. Their existence is necessary, the ad implied, for without them Morocco would merely be exotic and not comfortable- but only so far as the natives both existed and were faceless, unobtrusive, offering whatever was needed. They were not even allowed to be a part of the scenery- not even as quaint natives in turbans or head scarves, dancing and playing music. Even this stereotyped role was denied the nameless, faceless servants. Not even bodies were allowed- only arms protruding from the dark. The message was clear: come to Morocco, and no native will disturb your experience. No threatening Other need disrupt your exotic vacation by intruding his presence. Our natives are only here to please, and only in a very particular and completely non-threatening, comfortable way. There is no room for, say, sexual tension, for cultural tension, of any sort- bodies, souls, all, are removed from the scene.

Is this image ‘true’? That is, does it represent the actual experience of the Western tourist to Morocco? I don’t know, to be honest- my traveling in Morocco was of the ‘budget’ sort, which meant I traveled and stayed, as a general rule, with Moroccans. Even if I had wanted to, I could not escape experiencing Morocco and its people, on some level, on the terms of the place and its inhabitants. I was- thankfully- hard up against the ‘real’ Morocco quite often, which was, as in any country, at times deeply satisfying and enriching, and at other times frustrating and wearisome. But Morocco never appeared faceless to me; the ‘natives’ were not background filler- and nor would I desire (or be able to afford!) such a thing. But perhaps for the tourist with greater financial leeway, the image has a good deal of truth: from the vantage point of the tour bus and the five star hotel behind walls and gates, Morocco- the flesh-and-blood Morocco- becomes a mere backdrop, a barely existent thing, that flashes by in a two-week tour of tourist sites and fancy hotels, flitting from airport to beach to Marrakech to Fez and back to the airport. The goal, perhaps, is to avoid unnecessary contact with ‘natives,’ except those few who are ‘presentable.’ Whether or not the individual tourist wants this, it is the pre-packaged experience, no doubt genuinely desired by many.

Perhaps this is an inevitable process for all places that are so deluged with the tourist industry: the ‘local’ is squeezed further and further into a proper role, or, as in the ad- and I daresay in all to many tourists’ actual experience in Morocco, and elsewhere- out of the picture altogether, except as a completely anonymous provider of services, and a blur out the window or at the edge of the tour group in the Medina. And if tourism tends to begin by making the native a part of the scenery, perhaps its culmination is to push him out of the scenery altogether. This has been the process in the creation of many a game preserve or national park, here in the United States and across the planet: the local must in the end be reduced to the background, non-existent at the centre, relegated- if at all- to the edge of the preserve, selling handicrafts and t-shirts, lest he spoil the view we pay to come and see.

That brings up one final, disturbing aspect of the ad in question: it was produced by Moroccans, albeit from an official agency of some sort. Indeed, all over the world, the imaginative and often times literal marginalization and exclusion of the ‘native’ is carried out, not by foreign conquerors or even business interests, but by the compatriots of the ‘natives.’ Why is this? Part of it, no doubt, is in fact a reflection of the ‘colonization of the mind’ spoken of by post-colonial theorists: the assimilation and application of European stereotypes and mentalities by the colonized themselves. But perhaps more often, it is simply an outworking of the realization by the powerful that this sort of marginalization can work to the benefit of pre-existing powerful interests, both in business and in the State. And it is defensible, particularly to the very Westerners one is courting: the guilty Western’s conscience can be salved by telling him that his tourism is somehow aiding the poor, developing the economy (lining tax coffers and supporting the bureaucracies as well, of course). Sure, the government ran poor farmers off of their land to build a national park for rich Westerners to admire endangered species in, but in so doing they’re protecting the Earth, preventing global warming no doubt. And besides, there is plenty of land elsewhere- what are a few disenfranchised poor people? With time they will disappear from the scenery anyway. If the State, as it does in Fez, seizes common ground in the Medina and uses its citizens money to host high-brow ‘cultural events,’ well, the common ‘native’ can’t appreciate such things anyway. And for many States, they would prefer that foreign visitors not pay much attention to the locals anyway, and certainly not listen to them- they might hear too much. Adopting and reinforcing the stereotypes of the West can be quite beneficial for the powerful few.

But coming back to the ad in the Metro: I think the faceless servers are ultimately indicative of the whole sweep of our globalized world. We managed to avoid so many faces: the worker who puts together our cheap goods, the high-school kid taking our order at Wendy’s, the telemarketer trying to sell us insurance, the commuter in the car next to us on the way home. It’s easier that way, Lord knows- less messy, as dealing with people to their face, even in our own comfortable cultural space, is difficult. How much more difficult in those exotic countries that we’d like to vacation in, if only the natives would be unobtrusive. Our neighbor at home is nearly invisible- it only follows that we would truly reduce our neighbor across the sea to invisibility. We avoid, mostly unconsciously, the faces of our neighbors, whether at home or abroad: and if do not even see our neighbor’s face, how are we to fulfill the command to love our neighbor?

50. Rebuke hatred by your deeds rather than by your words.

51. Honour peace more than anything else. But strive first of all to be at peace in yourself: in this way you will find it easy to be at peace with others. How can someone whose eyes are blind heal others?

56. Be a proclaimer of the Gospel at all times. You will become a proclaimer of the Gospel when you lay upon yourself the Gospel’s way of life.

St. John of Apamea, Letter to Hesychius

We live in a world- as did St. John of Apamea, and all the other saints who have come before us- that does not value peace, is filled with various hatreds and all sorts of strife, and in which the Gospel is, if proclaimed at all, often muted by the very actions of we who proclaim it. It is very tempting to face such a situation with nothing but righteous polemical rage- and there is plenty to get angry about. I do not have to go far to find war and hatred, racism and oppression. In fact, I don’t have to leave my house. For, as St. John implies, the root of war and hatred lies, not in some other person or system or State, but in each one of our hearts. In my heart- that is where the violence and hatred, the spurning of the Gospel begins, and unless I deal with it, I cannot do anything about the outside world.

If I desire peace in the world, then I must cultivate peace in my own life, in my own heart. St. James writes in his epistle that the root of our fighting and sparing is that we are, first of all, greedy, wanting this and that, and when we don’t get it, we go to war, sometimes literally. And when we do get what we want, we spend it all on ourselves, having set ourselves off against other persons, as if we each had our own little fortress set up against our neighbors. It is a fundamental lack of peace- of contentment with our own state- within the heart that spurs on strife and violence. If we were at peace with ourselves and at peace with God- fully cognizant of the true nature of our own selves and of God and His love- we would hardly be concerned with whatever it was that drove us to hatred and violence in the first place. When we recognize the love and grace of Christ, we find peace, and once in Christ we recognize the true nature of our brother and sister- and hatred must die.

Once we ourselves have begun to acquire peace and remove the hatreds that have built up in us- as the Gospel becomes active in us- if we want to resist the hatreds and wars on the outside, we must labour with love, and not the easy path of mere polemic. I can spend all day telling anyone who comes within earshot how bad it is to hate your brother. I can preach against the evils of war and racism, and bemoan the oppression and injustice of the world. But unless I am actively loving people, unless I am going to the oppressed- and the oppressor- and showing, in concrete terms, the love of God, all my polemic does no good, and can be easily dismissed by those meant to hear it. We rebuke hatred- against ourselves and against others- by countering it with love, as Jesus commanded. We counter war and violence with the peace of Christ, lived out in our love for all the combatants in a given battle. It is not enough for me to spout slogans, no matter how noble, unless I am putting actions behind them- indeed, much of the time it’s best to leave the slogans and preaching behind entirely.

To bring it closer to my own experience, living in the American South I encounter the old racial hatreds with considerable regularity. The old intercommunal tensions of blacks and whites has expanded with the addition of Latino people to our society; I don’t have to go far to find strife and hatred. It would be easy enough- and I’ve done it- to lash out in anger and disgust at the attitudes I encounter in my community, in my own family. But does my anger and indignation really achieve anything? Do I even remove the latent racism and hatred in my own heart? Instead, the right- and so much harder- path is one of engagement with all sides of the strife, of active love towards all those involved. By my love I can show an alternative to hatred; by active, involved love I can give some small evidence of the Gospel and its impact on human relations.

‘When you lay upon yourself the Gospel’s way of life’: this is a task so much harder and more involved than shouting slogans or pushing fliers. The call is for a fundamental shift in the way we live, in the way we exist in the world. To live in love, to live in peace, requires not merely intellectual assent or adoption of some new political or social principles, but an entire restructuring of life. I must leave behind entirely the war and violence and hatred of the old life, and embrace a way of life that runs in an entirely different direction, from a whole different perspective, with an entirely different goal. This is the Resurrected Life, a life that incarnates peace and love. And when we live such a life, the world around is transformed, just as the Resurrected Christ so vividly transformed those around Him. What the world needs now is not merely the idea of love, but the love of Christ, the Prince of Peace, incarnated in flesh-and-blood people, people willing to embrace His life, and live it in the world. Only then can we rebuke hatred, embody peace, and truly proclaim the Gospel.

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