Tag Archives: Muslims

“Africa Zina” – Beautiful Africa

2015-04-23 14.08.03

Africa Zina, Tamazight or Berber for Beautiful Africa became the byword of the two-week adventure my wife and I just had in Morocco. Maybe one day it will classify as a vacation, but right now, it’s still an adventure. We had a blast and enjoyed ourselves immensely, but by virtue of the itinerary we planned, and it wasn’t entirely a surprise, this was not a stress-free trip.

First, a few2015-04-23 10.12.48 things about Morocco. Because of the media and our propensity to make things identifiable and simple, we tend to classify all of North Africa and the non-European parts of the Mediterranean basin as “the Middle East”.  It isn’t so. Moroccans identify wholly as Africans – North Africans.  Mention the Middle East and the Moroccans we met will point vaguely east and tell you the Middle East is over that way, where the Lebanese, Syrians and Israelis are. It’s not a political writing off, just geo and ethnographic fact setting. Along with our geographic lumping together, we pretty much classify most of the 2015-04-25 10.17.39citizens of the North Africa / Middle East area as Arabs. While mostly true, it’s a matter of degrees. Forty to fifty percent of Moroccans are Berber or Amazigh, and they’re proud of that distinction. Berber is actually a shortened version of Barbarian, a term conferred on the Amazigh (and others, including the Corsicans) by Rome as the empire was collapsing. While Rome ruled the region, the Amazigh were never entirely subdued and didn’t wholly embrace the glory of Rome.

2015-04-28 10.43.12Morocco is a Moslem country, but by virtue of its history and location it’s also cosmopolitan. Historically Morocco hasn’t been insular and offers visitors a culture and history influenced by sub-Saharan Africans, Jews, Islam, the Berber-Arab mix, and a French (and Spanish) colonial past .

While we saw many people in traditionally modest dress, and guide books recommend that even men eschew shorts (except maybe in the desert,) and remain sensitive to local mores, our guides intimated that many Moroccans (like High Holiday Jews or Easter Christians) manage to find their mosques around Ramadan. Maybe in the bigger cities, but the villages certainly seemed more observant.

So, the stress. This experience was unlike anything either of us have experienced. Going into the medinah (old city) of Marrakech makes midtown Manhattan 2015-04-29 10.58.42seem almost sedate and Midwestern by comparison. Either the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet commented that a visit to Morocco’s historical cities would involve “sensory overload”, and they were absolutely correct.  The whole older city, whether Marrakech or Fes, are warrens of narrow, nameless alleys, and merchants in stalls selling every variety of good, food, spice, fabric and clothing.  Marrakech, more so than Fes is the living embodiment of commercial capitalism.  If you stop and make eye-contact for more than 3 seconds, you’ve effectively entered a contract to try and buy something through bargaining. If y2015-04-27 11.20.33ou stop to look at a map or read a non-existent street sign, you are inviting a score of helpful but not necessarily altruistic youth (boys, never girls) to show you where you want to go, or think you w
ant to go.  And, usually for a fee.  It can be unseemly and uncomfortable at times, but it’s normal.  We learned to look determined in the face of wrong turns, and to ask directions from vendors or shop owners, or men (again, never woman) in cafes.  As Chicago is less intense than NYC, so Fes is several degrees more manageable than Marrakech, and to a degree, more interesting historically.

We spent several days with some wonderful people learning to prepare Moroccan
dishes, gallivanting from butcher to baker to the spice man2015-04-22 13.21.37 with a delightful young woman in Fes. Her demeanor with the stall vendors was reminiscent of how our grandparents interacted with the neighborhood butcher and grocer before the coming of the supermarket. We also had a serendipitous encounter with a “healer” who beckoned us into his shop, but was fun to listen to and provided a relaxing reflexology massage to weary feet and strained shoulders, and a recommended selection of Argan Oil, musk and Amber.

Finally; despite geographic, social and cultural differences, we really are all human, and have more in common than we sometimes think. Even when there’s no snow.2015-04-21 12.43.36

– Richard

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Armchair Travel: The Middle East

One great way to recover from your first half-marathon is to sit on the couch and catch up on all the wonderful books you’ve got checked out on your library card. Lately I’ve been dabbling in non-Western literature, and–with the help of this wonderful list from the Tacoma Public Library–familiarizing myself with the diverse range of fiction produced in the Middle East. Here are just a few of the titles I’m sampling this month.

dakhmehDakhmeh, Naveed Noori. Arash’s family fled to the United States when he was just a boy. As a man, he has returned to Iran against his family’s wishes, to try to understand his birthplace and its complex political problems. Aresh’s one-way ticket to Tehran buys him not only a consciousness-raising, but also a stint in prison, which the novel chronicles in a series of journal entries. The title–which roughly translates to “towers of silence”–implies that things will not go well for Arash, but, more importantly, for Iran at large either. A complex tale about a man trying to understand his heritage, but, possibly, too Westernized to fully grasp it.

Women Without Men, Shahrnush Parsipur. Banned in Iran for its frank discussion of women’s sexual desire, Parsipur’s tale parsipurexplores the inner landscape of the feminine in the post-WWII period. Who is a woman without a man? Per Parsipur, she is a lover, a fighter, a creative being, and a creature seeking justice or vengeance (and sometimes both). Struggling to escape the narrow confines of their world, Parsipur’s women realize–frequently to their horror–that once you have liberated yourself, the landscape of freedom poses its own problematic challenges. Read it and find out why the author was jailed, and now lives in the U.S. as a political exile.

hillsofgodOn the Hills of God, Ibrahim Fawal. In the summer of 1947 Yousif’s two main goals in life are to become a lawyer after high school and win the heart of the beautiful Salwa. Completely unaware of the political chaos brewing around him, Yousif does not realize that by the summer of 1948, his life in Palestine–soon to become Israel–will be very different. Fawal paints a complex, layered portrait of a period in history the participants themselves have not been able to parse out peacefully, giving the reader a front-row seat at what everyday life must have been like at the time. What’s really striking here is the loving attention to detail: houses, food, and the landscape are described concretely, yet simply, pointing out the jarring contrast between the larger currents of history and the daily routines that, somehow, always go on.

The Liberated Bride, Abraham B. Yehoshua. Set in and around Haifa University in the mid-1990s, this novel explores Jewish and liberatedArab intellectual circles, and their uneasy relationship to each other. Professor Yohanan Rivlin can’t figure out why his son’s wife divorced him, and neither member of the former couple will explain, which makes him even more determined to find out. Meanwhile, Professor Rivlin’s brightest student, who has just recently gotten married herself, alternately irritates and intrigues him as they work together on an Algerian history project. A bittersweet comedy of manners, that explores our need to know the truth, even when we don’t really want to know the truth. And by the way, what is “truth” anyhow? Polite, but with bite.

Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih. A young man returns to Sudan after receiving a university education in England. When he arrives in his village, he meets and becomes obsessed with the mysterious Mustafa Sa’eed, a recent newcomer to the town. Over time the narrator learns the full truth of Sa’eed’s disturbing life story, but will it serve as a cautionary tale or a road map to ruin? Compared favorably by some critics to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this novel is a fascinating tale of colonialism and psychological horror.

I don’t know much about the Middle East, but these novels have me itching to pick up some decent history books. Fiction-wise, I’m also planning to devour the titles on the Muslim Journeys booklists the library staff has created as part of a grant project, which you can read more about here. Do you have any other recommendations? Have you read any of these, or other works from the Tacoma Public Library list? What parts of the world have you explored in fiction, and where should I go next?

–Leigh Anne

stamping her metaphorical passport


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