Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Street Life

Now that almost three weeks have passed since my arrival, I am beginning to settle into a routine. It is a quiet routine of studying, classes, family life and solitary walks, and apart from the few things I miss (number one being showers), I am enjoying it.

Breakfast is not something Moroccans eat together – at least not in my family – and when I wake up around 8.30 or 9, I am seated in the kitchen and given a plate for myself while those who are up are already busy preparing lunch (because the meal is always a stew that needs to cook for a few hours, the earlier you start the better). My breakfast varies – often it is bread with butter and honey, sometimes I get a plate of Moroccan cookies. There is always coffee, though, and I have started looking forward to those quiet breakfasts of me alone with my coffee (and it’s real coffee, not Nescafé, the instant variety). It’s a tiny thing, but when I sit there in that strange kitchen eating Moroccan bread with Moroccan honey, that coffee can really make me feel at home.

Then I wash my face, brush my teeth for at least 5 minutes as a way to wake up, and get dressed. I spend the mornings either working on my grant application at home, sending emails at a ‘cyber’, or I go to the NIMAR to work and email there for a few hours. At 1.30 it is time for lunch. Amma will have come home from school, and she, I, and whoever else is home and not fasting* gather in the kitchen around the common plate.

Amma leaves at two to go back to school – classes start at three, but her school is in Agdal, a neighborhood south of downtown, and so she has to take the bus. My class starts at three as well, so at about 2.45 I walk through the medina to the Center, and sit in their courtyard until Ilyas comes to tell me it’s time for class. We then spend two hours reading a play, a short article, or listening to songs, until he says ‘thank you, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Sometimes I go straight home after class, sometimes I like to walk through the medina, looking at shops and tourists. Though Ramadan is over, there is usually something to eat around 6 – even if it is just cookies and tea. Afterward, we sit around watching TV, Amma and I do our homework, or we go out to do some shopping and/or strolling around. Around 9.30 or later there is dinner – always something simple: a kind of oatmeal with lots of sugar, or an omelet with tomato sauce and bread – and an hour later, the house quiets down, the lights go out, and everyone retreats to their respective corners for a little more reading or TV watching before they go to sleep.

Although I love the time spent at home with the various members of the family, I think my favorite moments during the day are those when I walk around by myself, with my iPod, and observe the life going on in the street. Before lunch it is always busy. The shops on blvd. Mohammed V – mostly clothing stores** – are all open, and because all people who have things to do are at work or at home, the street is dominated by casual strollers and tourists. In the middle of the street, men sell bootlegged DVDs and bags, and here and there, there will be a man with a small selection of towels and other bathroom-ware. It is all displayed on plastic tarps, ready to be snatched up whenever a policeman comes by. Downtown, in the Ville Nouvelle, there are newsstands everywhere that display the large choice of Francophone and Arabic newspapers and magazines that constitute the Moroccan media. For a country whose freedom of press is relatively limited (compared to Western Europe and the US, at least), there is a very rich variety of publications to choose from, and many of these offer insightful critiques of Moroccan society.*** There are at least 5 or 6 daily newspapers with both national and international news, and weekly magazines feature articles on the most sensitive of topics – from ‘eating Ramadan’ to alcohol, to extramarital sex. Because Le Monde is kind of expensive, and because I want to know what’s going on in Morocco, I have decided to buy l’Opinion a few times a week. Sadly, though, its international section is at most a page long, and I am seriously deprived of news about the presidential race. I think that after more frequent showers, this is number two on the list of things I miss the most.

At one o’clock the street is equally crowded, but differently, more rushed – it’s when I and everyone else head home for lunch. Stores will be closing, and everywhere men, women, and groups of school children walk quickly, and with purpose. The tourists have all sat down at the small restaurants and bistros in the medina – the only places that remain open during these hours, and who set out plastic tables and chairs around this time to attract customers. The smells coming from the grills dominates the streets, and makes me walk home all the faster for lunch.

At 2.45, the medina is quiet. There are small groups of young men that hang out on their mopeds on street corners, and the occasional shop will be opening up again, but other than that it is an ocean of tranquility. At 5, however, an elementary school nearby the Center clearly closes for the day, and when I am walking back home, the ocean of tranquility has turned into a sea of little boys and girls running around, chasing each other, playing soccer, telling their mothers – who are dragging their children home – all about what they did at school. I pass a lot of bakeries on my way home, and all have rolled out counters with donuts and other sweets (‘gâteaux’) enticing the passer-by, as well as the stray cats that live in the street.

I think I like walking around so much in part because I get little attention on the street – compared to what it was like in Fes four years ago, at least. There, I could not walk a block without receiving at least five comments about my eyes, my figure, or my nationality. I’ve been followed in Fes, and even groped. Compared to that situation, Rabat is like a breath of innocent fresh air. I get attention here, too, but much less, and I don’t perceive it as invasive anymore. No one tries to touch me. I can ignore it, it slides off me, and mostly it just makes me laugh a little when I hear another young man simply saying – almost hissing – ‘yessss…’ as I walk by.

The days generally feel calm and pleasant. Sometimes it does seem, though, that there are not enough hours in a day. Between studying Arabic, trying to improve my French, getting my grant application done, getting my research started, and having the time to participate in Moroccan family life, sometimes I don’t know how to get it all done and I feel that all too familiar grip of stress emerging. There is so much exploring and observation I want to do, so many things I want to try, but I am stuck working on this grant, and I already feel like I am not spending enough time on the language training, which is officially my first priority. But when I realize I am working myself into a state like this, I try to tell myself that I have two more months here, that this grant will be finished soon, and that I will find a way to do it all. Eventually.

*The three daughters are still catching up on their missed days from Ramadan. They don’t fast every day, and so it is taking much longer than I had thought
** Some of these sell the ‘normal’ things worn by the younger generation, but many sell Caftans and Jellabas. The real epicenter for ‘western’ clothing is rue Souika, which crosses Moh. V.
*** I think the only serious limitation to the freedom of press concerns the King. Article one of the Moroccan constitution states that the King is holy. This is in part due to his status as a Charif, a descendant of the prophet Mohammed. In any case, it is not allowed to criticize the King in any way. Occasionally, a journalist will make a transgression, and a newspaper or magazine will be taken out of circulation for a week or so. I am not exactly sure what else is done, but the prohibition from criticism is certainly not always honored.

No comments: