Farewell Ramadan

Ramadan has left us for another year…so sad to see it go, although it was a tough one.  For all of us in Marrakesh, having day upon day of intense heat, hardly ever dipping under 45 degrees, well let’s just say it was a Ramadan to separate the men from the boys.  When we go outside in that heat, simply breathing becomes a laborious task, struggling to draw a breath like one struggles to draw water from a well.  It made most of us do as little as possible.  And that is hard too.  Not only do you give up your food and your water, but also your sense of pride in any accomplishment.  I barely walked this Ramadan, let alone worked out.  I had high hopes of reorganizing parts of my home, re-stacking the books in the bookshelf, clearing out the little storage room, but had to just let all that go. It was a “being” month, not a “doing” month.  I’d never thought of Ramadan that way, but this one took me to a new place, a difficult place.

With Ramadan coming 11 days earlier every year, I’ve fasted short days in winter, cool fall days where we all say to each other “I don’t feel thirsty or hungry at all, it’s like I’m barely fasting”, and more recently, the relentless summer heat.  Whereas Ramadans before this were like a cool stream running over me, cleansing and calming, this one was like being in the pounding surf, with nothing to do but hold on.  And yet, this Ramadan had the most potential for transformation.  When else do we get a chance for everything in our life and world to change?  When else do we get a chance to explore our limitations in such a painfully real way?  Our city, Marrakesh, had record high temperatures this year, and yet the feeling of all of us fasting together made it all the more wonderful.  When you go out, you see people with wet towels on their heads, you see someone with a hose offering the service of drenching anyone who needs it, you read it in people’s faces.  There is such a feeling of camaraderie under these circumstances of duress.    It’s not the month of spiritual devotion I imagined for myself, the heat made it difficult to do as many prayers and reading of the Quran as I’d hoped, and yet I found goodness and blessing in the intensity of it, the bending of my every desire and hope into this giving up and letting go.

Ramadan is a month where Muslims are content to be fully Muslims.  We are reminded everywhere of our aspirations towards God; charity increases, mosques overflow with worshipers, even the radio stations start to play devotional music of all kinds: Berber, Gnawa, Andalusian, Nasheed.  The instruments and melodies vary greatly, but the words don’t, “La ilaha illa Allah… Mohamed habibullah… There is no god but God…Muhammad is a beloved of God”.

When I am fasting my thought process slows down, although often my thoughts are clearer and deeper.  But I become incapable of multi-tasking, especially right around the time of breaking fast.  One day my husband and I broke our fast with a date and water, and then went inside a mosque to pray the sunset prayer (maghrib).  As I was praying I became aware that my purse was not by my side.  As soon as the prayer ended, I started to look for it, and realized that I had taken off my shoes at the door, but instead of leaving my shoes on the doorstep and taking my purse inside, I’d done the opposite.  Of course, I don’t expect anyone to steal my purse from a mosque doorstep in Ramadan, yet I was relieved to see it there, because I had stashed both my husband’s wallet and my own, our phones and the keys to the car in it.  Honestly…

As I said before, I don’t feel like I “did” enough this Ramadan, but still I hung my hopes on the saying “A moment of sincerity can purify the heart” or something to that effect.  Luckily I wasn’t left to my own devices in this respect.  So blessed that in Marrakesh people really turn out for Laylat al Qadr, the Night of Power, which is the best night of Ramadan, maybe of the whole year.  This is the night when Archangel Gabriel spoke the first words of the blessed Quran to Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.  The Quran says that prayer during this night is better than a thousand months of worship.  We don’t know when this night is exactly, only that it’s one of the last ten nights of Ramadan.  The only real way to know is to sense it, and to stay in a quiet enough state that if it were that night, you could feel something different and special about it.

In Moroccan Islamic culture, most people generally accept the 27th night as Laylat al Qadr, and so it’s celebrated with special food and whatnot, which I don’t particularly care about¸ because really, it’s a night for prayer and I don’t care if I’m eating couscous or beldi chicken or whatever.  If you must know, I made lasagna that night and I can assure you that’s not traditional Moroccan.  What’s really great about that night is that the mosques don’t stop prayers all night long.  So it wasn’t that unusual that a friend of mine picked us up, me and my daughter, at 1:30 a.m. and we headed for the Koutoubia mosque, where we joined a good 50 000 people in prayer.  Every mosque was the same, full inside and out onto the streets, all night long.

The prayers were beautiful, as they always are there, and ended in a long, soulful supplication.  Among the words that stayed with me are these: “oh Lord here we are, among us are young and old, male and female, healthy and sick, obedient and transgressors, have mercy on us all…Don’t deny hands that are outstretched to You in supplication, don’t deny hearts that yearn for You”.  (Now I wish I had recorded it somehow to share with others that weren’t there but wanted to hear it).  At one point the Imam breaks down in tears and can barely speak, and I think, here is someone who has spent all of Ramadan leading thousands of people in prayer both at night and before dawn, he has spent his entire Ramadan in an amazing state, and here he is in tears imploring God to have mercy on his soul.  And what of me?  And that was the moment I had waited for all of Ramadan, the breaking point.  And I think that’s all I can say about that because my words aren’t sufficient.

And lastly, I’d like to thank all the new readers of this blog.  During Ramadan I had the honor of having this blog appear on the WordPress.com homepage.  This is referred to, among wordpress bloggers, as being “Freshly Pressed”: for a fleeting 24 hours or so, the blog is viewed by potentially thousands of other bloggers.  A lot of you “liked” the last post, commented on it and subscribed as new readers, and all I can say is, I’m humbled that you would take the time to read this blog.  On the internet, words are seemingly endless, and our time is limited, so I’m honored that you’d use precious minutes reading what I have to say.  I can only promise you that my intention is to bring sincerity and beauty to these pages.  And as a happy coincidence, one of my good friends and favorite bloggers got Freshly Pressed at the same time!  (It’s pretty rare to be FP, out of a good 400 000 blogs, only a handful are chosen, so it was doubly thrilling that it happened to both of us at the same time).  Her blog is called http://towardbeginnersmind.wordpress.com and she writes amazingly well.  Here she wrote about how the weather is changing irreversibly in her hometown, but does so in a very human, passionate and skilled way.  It struck a chord with me because we are both from hot, dry places and the trend is that they will continue to get hotter and drier.  Marrakesh certainly saw some record highs this summer (49C/ 122F).  Will this reverse the tide of people who are making Marrakesh their home?

Speaking of making Marrakesh your home, I was bemused to see that this article http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20120723-living-in-marrakesh/2 about moving to Marrakesh had linked to my blog as an additional reference.  Thank you, it’s nice to feel connected to others via my writing in this way.  Some of the article is devoted to buying land in Marrakesh¸ which is not something we have done, so sorry, I won’t be offering any help with that.  But I got a great idea for a BBC show: our family is given 100 000 pounds and tasked with buying land in Marrakesh…it’ll be quirky and human…will we buy land in the Ourika valley, the Palmeraie, the Medina?  Will we buy land and build on it, or restore an old ryad?  It will be so enlightening for viewers who have the same dilemma.   Where is best to raise kids?  What is land really worth in Marrakesh?  Don’t tell me you wouldn’t enjoy watching that show!

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Beyond blue jeans and plastic, journeys into traditional Morocco

I don’t blog often enough.  I’d like to.  I write a lot of things…in my head.  They are perfect little morsels, full of wit and truth, that seem to disintegrate by the time I am sitting at the computer.  I get bloggers block often.  Blogger’s blahs.  Since I write with my real name and make only very weak attempts at veiling my identity, blogging makes me vulnerable.  I think about all the people I know from the different spheres of my life reading this, good golly!  Instead of throwing caution to the wind, I wrap it closely around me.  The more people subscribe here or stop by, the more nervous I get about the next thing I am going to write.   (Then again, as my friend aptly pointed out, I’m not exactly Oprah Winfrey, when it comes to audience size).

What makes blogging even possible, sustainable and enjoyable is the feeling that the more I write, the more my true voice emerges.  (sounds so self-indulgent it makes me cringe).  It’s great practice anyway, even if “the voice” doesn’t always show up.  People respond well to true voice, it resonates with all of us.  I may not have a huge readership, but I always feel like you all who are reading this really engage with it and respond in ways that are deep, appreciative and real.  Just take a look at the comments you all leave.

I like to read a variety of blogs.   Some are witty, self-deprecating and sardonic.  Others are excellently word-crafted, obviously written by someone with actual literary ability.  Some contain spiritual writings.  Others are gorgeously designed and well-photographed.  Some blogs have all the bells and whistles, twitter feeds, giveaways, buttons.  I didn’t use to get blogging.   Why would we put so much loving labor into something that, for the most part, we are not paid to do?  But I get it now, it’s about taking a little extra time to savor life and share it with all those who might resonate with our way of seeing.

Now I’ll show you what I actually came on here to blog about.  Believe it or not it wasn’t about blogger’s block.  It was about travelling in Morocco, and how every time I travel I really appreciate this country.  There’s so much I haven’t seen, there is a lot of natural beauty and there are people living the old traditional ways.  Blue jeans and plastic haven’t yet taken over every inch of this planet, and we need to witness as much of the old ways as we can, in my opinion.   A recent road trip took our family to Tafraout (about 5 hours south of Marrakesh).  It’s located right where the mountains meet the desert, and it contains elements of both.

In Tafraout, the houses are built on, under or around boulders.

The landscape is both desert and mountain. The color palette is pretty much earthy brown and sky blue.  The houses tend to blend into the rocks.

A couple of doors.  When I was a kid I remember a lot of doors being made of corrugated metal like this.

See the windows in this house?  We were told how in these type of houses, the two larger windows symbolize parents, while the smaller one underneath is the child.

More doors and windows, the textures are so gorgeous.

On our boulder climbing adventures we found a totally fun mushroom shaped rock.

And managed to climb into it and get a peak of the village below.

There’s not much green in the landscape, the Argane trees are the only prolific shrub.  We saw thousands of them.

Inside one of the houses, the passageways were dark and sinuous…the one below struck me as especially symbolic, full of portent.

Every house had its own storage room for secret stashes of argane nuts.

Waiting to be transformed into liquid gold.  Each family has claims to a certain number of the wild Argane trees on the hillside.  The villagers all respect this code, and the families go out and harvest the Argane seeds when they are ready.  I’d always heard that Argane seeds are collected after goats have eaten them and left them in their droppings.  It turns out that this is somewhat of an urban legend.  The locals we asked assured us that that they harvest the seeds themselves.  The goat way leaves a certain “smell” to the oil and a real connoisseur can tell by one sniff if the Argane has been through a goat or not.

This window is just beautiful.

Funny story about the owner of this shop.  Even though we were 5 hours from Marrakesh in this remote village, the shop owner recognized me, we’d been to the same junior high in Marrakesh.  It turned out to be a serendipitous encounter as he was a big help to us.  He showed us around the area and took us to see the traditional mosque he was in the process of restoring at his own expense.

At sunset we went out to see the famous Tafraout painted rocks.  It turned out that “painted rocks” wasn’t meant figuratively, like Arizona’s painted desert.  No, these were huge boulders painted garish blue and pink.  It hurt to look at them, and I refused to photograph them, except for whatever showed up in this photo.  Apparently some Belgian artist came along a while back and went out to the middle of nowhere and started this massive endeavor of painting boulders, you know, like a huge ugly art installation in the middle of God’s glorious creation.  This had the effect of drawing tourists to the area, and since that time, the locals have kept up the tradition by repainting the rocks when they fade.  My husband and I were speechless with dismay.  The rest of the landscape was really open, sandy, quiet, expansive, much like hubby’s native New Mexico.

After spending a few days in Tafraout, we went somewhere very different, Merlift beach.  Since it wasn’t tourist season, we had the town and the beach practically to ourselves.

Oh, and by the way, for those of you who read the Beirut post and this one, do you prefer to look at photos in a slideshow or just like this?

Copenhagen

Postulate: the activity on this blog is inversely proportional to the activity in my real life.

So if it’s been quiet in here, it’s been busy out there.

I was invited by some Danish organizations (Danish PEN, KVINFO and DCCD) to attend another blogging workshop, in Copenhagen.  And let me just say that if the idea was to win over my heart and mind, then it was money well spent.  Copenhagen and its good people have left me highly impressed.  It’s one thing to know that there are whole countries in the world that are punctual, and it seems a small thing.   But then to experience it is quite another; to feel what it’s like on a cellular level to depend on the world to live up to its promise.  In Copenhagen Central Station the number 5 train to the airport arrived at precisely 10:01, and stayed in the station for some predetermined number of seconds.

But mostly I was impressed by the bikes.  That is one of the first things that struck me, how Danes have collectively settled on the bicycle as the cleanest, greenest, cheapest, quietest, healthiest mode of transportation.  Again, it seems small, but it’s its own revolution.  There are bike lanes on every street, making it safe and enjoyable.  I also bike in Marrakesh, but let me say that it takes a lot of care and wits to make it through the chaotic traffic here.

I didn’t know it was possible to live in noiseless city until I went to Copenhagen.  Between the bikes, the underground metro, the Danes’ natural inclination towards quietude and their great skill at double-glazing windows, there is a muted quality to the air, like living in a silent movie.  And the air, the light, it has a watery grayish hue to it, so that colors do not pop out.  Because of this Danes crave bright colors, at least in houses and flowers, to give life some visual contrast.

The Danes I interacted with were genuine, helpful, in that easy way that I most associate with Moroccans.  There did not seem to be so many degrees of estrangement (as I experienced at times in the US): scary stranger, neutral stranger, casual acquaintance, friend.  When I talked to people (mostly asking for of assistance in figuring out how to get from here to there) I felt like they addressed as they would a friend.  They were unperturbed by my outward foreignness (hijab).  I could go on and on, but I think you get how impressed I was with everything from the sidewalks (they are very important to me), to the Royal library, to the tulip-filled Tivoli gardens, to the myriad positive encounters with everyday Danes.

My impressions of the city of course were only a backdrop to the workshop.  This is the second workshop I attended with many of the same women from Amman.  I have to say that although I’ve lived in Morocco most of my life, I haven’t met many women from other Arab countries.  We are geographically and linguistically isolated here, and I didn’t realize the extent of it until I met women from Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Palestine.  And they seemed as “foreign” to me as the Danes that I met.   I was thankful for the opportunity to learn each woman’s name, to learn some small part of their stories, to share moments with them that will forever humanize those countries to me.   They always say that travelling broadens your view of the world, and whoever they are, they got that right.

A typical Danish parking lot:

Denmark parking lot Copenhagen bikes

Rush hour:Copenhagen street with bikes

The stock exchange:Copenhagen

Inception:

Low bridge:

A rather large photo of something small and lovely:flowers growing in old wood stove

To illustrate my point about color:Copenhagen old red buildingAnd:
Christiania Copenhagen

A week

This last week I was honored by a visit from Christina.  We had met in Amman where we were both attending the Danish-Arab women bloggers workshop.  Christina and I found that although we were from very different worlds, we both had similar curiosity about the world and each other which inspired many conversations.  Luckily, the wonderful Danish organizations that funded our workshop also funded the bloggers to spend a week in another city.  So Christina and I were able to continue our conversations, this time in Marrakesh.

Coming from sub-zero temperatures in Denmark, Christina appreciated many things in Marrakesh that I take for granted.  Birds singing in the morning, smells of lemon trees and the daily appearance of the sun.

We did a little site seeing too.  Made more interesting (in my opinion, and I think hers too) by the fact that we took between 1 and 3 of my kids with us wherever we went.  The children have a way of bringing a place to life and interacting with it in new and creative ways.

At Jardins Majorelle for example, the boys set up their playmobils in different places.  A few people spotted them and promptly took photos of them (the playmobils, not the boys).  It was like a happening.

jardin majorelle marrakesh blog
jardin majorelle marrakesh morocco blog

Group photo of the now famous playmobils:

marrakesh majorelle gardens

Group photo of Christina, Amin and Yousef:

marrakesh morocco majorelle jardinsThank you Christina for sharing this fun, chaotic, sunny week with us.   You can visit Christina’s blog here, she also blogged about her visit…in Danish.

PS: last day or so to vote for this blog over at www.moroccoblogs.com I also voted for Itto’s Living Faith under Best Culture Blog, and for The World is her Playground under Best Expat Blog.  Thank you for all your support.

Edited: Ok I guess the voting is closed.  Thanks for trying.

If you like this blog…

…then puh-lease vote for it!   This blog is in the running for the Best of Morocco Blogs awards, otherwise know as the Bombies. Voting starts on New Year’s day January 7th over at www.moroccoblogs.com

The main reason I want to win is: it would be nice to keep that bling-y badge over on the right.  Just kidding.  Sort of.

This blog has been such a wonderful way to share my little insights about life in Marrakesh that I already feel like I’ve gotten an immense amount of reward out of it. When I started blogging, my voice was tentative and faltering, not really sure what to say or who was listening.  One of my favorite quotes kept ringing in my ears.  Don’t be paralyzed by your fear of imperfection. So I started, knowing that my blog wouldn’t be the funniest, the deepest or the most gorgeous blog out there.  It would just be the way I filter the world, and that filter has gotten a lot of fine-tuning from blogging.  I started blogging because I found that although there are many English language blogs about Morocco, hardly any of them are written by Moroccans.  I realized that I had the benefit of access to this culture.

And I have stumbled on a real supportive and thoughtful group of readers.  With you listening, I found my voice.  Thank you so much.  I cherish each comment.  I even reply to every 11th one.

This blog has taught me that everyone has a story.   There is never nothing going on. And every story is worth telling, worth considering.  So I wrote about Nezha, el gardien and Chaima’s mom.

This blog…has made a lot of people hungry.  One of my friends says she makes sure she is full before she opens up this page.  You never know when you might find pictures of Seffa, couscous, or all that yummy food I had in Jordan.

When I first started blogging, I did not mention anything explicit about my spiritual path, Islam.  I gave myself a number of good reasons: I’m no expert, I don’t want to limit my audience, religion makes people uncomfortable, and so on.  I actually thought my blog was just going to be funny (humor and cussing seem to be two of the ingredients of blogging success).  But two things happened that made me change my mind.  One was the whole mosque controversy which made me realize how little is known about Islam, and how much hatred and poison there is coming from certain sources.  My own experience as a Muslim has just been so positive, so healing, that I just can’t see the connection between the Islam that I know and have experienced all my life, and this other totally distorted image that I see on certain news channels.

The other thing that gave me the courage to speak was spending two months in the United States this summer (although I’ve spent time and lived in the States before).  This time seemed different.  Maybe it’s just that when you turn 30 you start to be a lot less awkward (which has been just awesome).  I was so comfortable being myself, a Muslim woman, answering various questions that came up.  I even gave a talk/slide-show about this blog  and its various topics, and it went well.  I realized that all the reasons I’d given myself for being quiet were not true: I’m not an expert, but I know enough…my audience will determine itself so no need to try and please everyone…and religion distilled to its essence does not make people uncomfortable, in fact quite the opposite.  So I wrote about the altered state of fasting in Ramadan (my most popular post), praying in the Koutoubia mosque, and the transformative power of charity, which are three of the five pillars of Islam.  (I have not made the pilgrimage, yet!).

What else?  This blog is not really about my kids, but they have slipped in here once in a while.  Karima’s birthday trip to El Jadida, or the letter I wrote to Amin on his fifth birthday.

I wrote about how not make a complete fool of yourself when you’re invited to a Moroccan home.

And my plans to 2011?  I hope to write the famous American women married to Moroccan men article I’ve mulled over so much.  I hope to be a tourist in my own city, and take my kids to all the famous spots: Jardin Majorelle, Medrasa ben Yousef, Bahia palace, etc.  They’ve never been!  In fact I can’t remember the last time I’ve been.  For shame.  I hope to post my secret recipe for how to make cheesecake in Morocco.  I hope to write an article on Moroccan proverbs and what they reveal about the culture, like this one: entering the hammam is not the same as leaving it.  I hope to slip in an article about Yousef, my little 3 year old, just to be fair.  And I hope that my readers (sounds so pretentious, sorry) will send me awesome suggestions for what to write about!

To recap: vote for this blog in www.moroccoblogs.com starting January 1st.  Spread the word.  I’ll remind you on January 1st, oh don’t you worry.

Also, let’s hear your New Year’s resolutions.  Here’s one of mine: Spend more time cloud-watching.