Friday, April 28, 2006

He Shoots, She Scores!!

I'm so glad that I was sitting down when I came upon this news article, because I would have fallen over in a dead faint:

Imagine! For the 1st time since 1979, Iranian women will be allowed to attend sporting events in public, in front of men, in stadiums! Women had been barred from sporting events because (at least officially) of the "cramped nature of sporting events (c_i_r: elbows touching?) as well as the profanities shouted by male spectators" (c_i_r: because men don't swear at home?). President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has pointed out that "the lifting of the ban would 'promote chastity' among all Iranians". I don't quite understand how the two go hand in hand, unless Iranian women are particularly homely (which I know they're not) and would thus pose no temptation to men, or further protection will be taken to desexualize them - maybe by double burqa-ing them. I just don't get it. Anyway, yeah for the ladies. Hope they get complimentary big foam "we're #1" fingers at the gates.

The Physical Education Organization's security chief conceded that the new policy would "take time to implement ... we need time to furnish the stadiums with the necessary means to accommodate them. There is the issue of separate toilets and separate entrances and exits". I was actually smiling until I finished that last sentence. So in effect, allowing women to attend football matches will promote chastity but allowing them to share doorways with men will promote licentiousness. Go figure: Sodom & Gomorrah in the stands. This after President Ahmadinejad said "... unfortunately there are some who think the only solution is enforcement action and building walls in the streets" to separate the sexes. He might want to rethink the separate entrances plan. Seems to be an architectural conflict of interest there.

Still, I'm thrilled for the womenfolk - but I'll truly be happy when the FIFA Women's World Cup is held in Tehran. Or better yet, when Iran stops executing children. Oh well, one step at a time.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Cars & Coulrophobia

Just when I thought hoped that I had seen it all ....

The other day, as I was walking down Avenue Follow-the-Leader in Agdal, I passed a parked car - or rather, a car that had just pulled over to the curb. The car was one of those ubiquitous tiny white cars that you see careening about town - about the same size as a petit taxi and certainly smaller - for my non-Moroccan readers - than a 2-door Honda Civic hatchback, circa 1990. There seemed to be quite a bit of movement happening from within and then I realised that the tiny car's occupants were trying to extricate themselves from the vehicle. My curiosity was piqued so I looked closer.

There were 7 children and 3 adults in the car. Plus the driver. I counted. That makes 11, according to my reckoning. Eleven.

I stopped and stared. It is quite likely that my mouth gaped open. In fact, I would lay odds on it. Oddly, I had no compunction against such an open show of rudeness on my part, but then again, this morning I stole a magazine from my hairdresser's because I finally found a photo of a cut that I like. My standards are slipping shamelessly.

So, I watched as the adults and children indulged in some sort of vehicular limbo dance as bodies swerved, behinds slid over, and various body parts of several children were ejected from the windows. After a few minutes of this, a woman emerged and the tiny car went on its way.

Is it even worth my time to comment on the fact that I believe, even in Morocco, it is probably illegal for a car the size of Barbie's Mustang convertible to carry 11 individuals? Probably not. Childseats? Well, on the subject of the legality of installing (and using) childseats here, I haven't a clue: a cursory foray onto the web yielded no such legislation. If there is such a law (and I'd like to hope that there is), I haven't seen any safety seats in use, but then again, I don't tend to peer into cars unless I see 11 goddamn people intertwined within.

What really irked me is that it got me thinking about clowns. I don't like clowns. Well, not don't like exactly but really really hate them. Monkeys too but that's another post. So this freakish little car made me think about clowns and now I'm all in a dither because I really really hate clowns. And possibly afraid of them. There's even a name for it: an extreme fear (and I would add 'hatred') of clowns is known as coulrophobia. Try as I might, I can't make a connection to any childhood trauma that may have triggered such intense feelings in me, but I think it stems from the fact that I am an intelligent sentient human being and only really weird people like clowns.

Clowns are duplicitous by nature and generally maniacal in demeanour. In a word: creepy. What's lurking behind that greasy clown makeup besides big pores? - evil thoughts! And who the hell paints sad woebegone expressions and seeping tears on their faces? - people with deep-seated emotional problems. How will a weeping clown cheer me up? How is this entertaining? How, I ask you? I can't help but think of American serial killer extraordinaire John Gacy, who entertained children as a clown and spent many of his pre-execution hours drawing & painting said creatures. It is not surprising then that the evil clown motif is legion in Hollywood. So, imagine my delight to find that I am not alone (although my husband & brother share my fear/loathing): Ihate

Feel free to log onto the site and buy me a "Can't sleep, clowns will eat me" t-shirt. I'm a size small. Any colour but blue.

In the meantime, I can't seem to exorcise these clown visions from my febrile imagination. Evil evil clowns. All this because a couple of women with shit for brains had to risk their children's lives by cramming them into a car. And I had to see it. Jeeeeez.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Running the Gauntlet

I have recently been asked to address the issue of the Moroccan man in greater depth; apparently, my haiku a few months ago has proven unsatisfactory. I spent a lot of time on that haiku and I think it shows. Most of you will already have memorized it by now or have made preparations to tattoo it on your behinds, but for you lost souls who have not read it, I offer sit again here:

Men in café: No,
I don't want to have sex with you.
Problem must be mine.

As clever and insightful as most of us would concede this haiku is, I am now charged to extrapolate further on the finer points of my haiku. So I take it upon myself to speak for my western sisters. Cat in Rabat takes a deep breath, steels herself for the possible/probable negative responses of tsunami-like proportions. Exhale.

Not to draw too fine a point on it, many many many (but not all) men in Morocco are not very nice towards women. There, I’ve said it. In print. Take my carte de sejour and rip it up. If you are an Enlightened Moroccan Man (can use the word 'respect' in a sentence and actually practice it in your dealings with both sexes) then you know this is true, so don’t write and accuse me of making broad stereotypical sexist sweeps against your gender with my cordless mouse. If you are a Not Very Nice Man, then you’ve linked to the wrong website – you wanted If you are a Moroccan woman, then you know it’s true; you live it too. My question to you is, why the hell are you allowing it to continue? – but that's for another blog.

Rabat – like most cities and towns in Morocco – is composed of an all-encompassing network of outdoor sidewalk cafés around which businesses, homes and roads (and life) are constructed. These cafés differ significantly from those back home. Coffee time tends to stretch out over a large chunk of the day and the concept of "coffee to go" is virtually unknown by non-Westerners. Patrons don’t sit around bistro tables to share a coffee; instead, chairs are set up against walls to afford their predominantly male patrons a prime view of the female flesh walking the catwalks sidewalks. There are no tête à têtes – only a long line of men looking outwards, sipping coffee and occasionally adjusting their crotches or having their shoes shined. It is a shooting gallery of testosterone-embued luridness. The Enlightened Ones will read their newspapers and chat with friends, the Not Very Nice Ones lay in wait. Asked once where all the women are, a passing acquaintance of mine (a Not Very Nice Man) said that they are at work. Don’t these men work? Yes, but they are on a break. Don’t women get breaks too? They are at home making lunch. That pretty much ended the conversation.

It is against this backdrop that we walk home, carry bags of groceries, go to work. For many of us, we have to pass half a dozen or so cafés which often line both sides of the busier streets. There is no escaping them. You see, it’s not enough that we have to avoid cars parked on the sidewalks and circumnavigate gaping holes. We must subject ourselves, expose ourselves to the unwanted attentions of these Not Very Nice Men. The mere act of walking from Point A to Point B can only be described as running the gauntlet – a gauntlet of sexual harassment that would make a construction crew blush. Leers, comments, whistles, breathless whispers, stares. Cat in Rabat shudders as she types.

When it comes to prurient behaviour, there is no class barrier, no age restriction:
Not Very Nice Men come in all shapes, sizes and colours; they wear suits and jellabas; they're bachelors and grandfathers. I have received risqué remarks from boys young enough to me my sons (did I just say that?); men shorter than me (and I’m short) have walked quickly by my side, stepped on tiptoes to murmur the vilest tripe into my ear and continued on. Yesterday I received a long low wolf whistle from an elderly gentleman driving a big-ass car who bore an uncanny resemblance to actor César Romero. Most of us have been followed blocks by slow-moving vehicles, the heads (and tongues) of their drivers lolling out the window. It is not unknown to be ogled in front of a mosque on Friday afternoon; in fact, there is no safe ground in the big outside world of Morocco. Even the lingerie sellers in the medina are men – the belief, perhaps, that women want to discuss their cup sizes with and buy frilly underthings fingered by a Methuselah-in-a-jellaba.

As western women, we are often regaled accosted in many of the world’s major languages including French, Spanish, Italian, English and German. These Not Very Nice Men may be loathsome creatures but they do display a knack for tongues languages. It doesn’t happen daily – it happens every time we walk outside. On a good day, we just get stared at. On those days, I am less inclined to go home and have a good scrub under a decontamination chemical shower with a steel wool pad. And unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t really understand it. You think you can, but you can’t.

What I have yet to figure out is why these Not Very Nice Men have adopted this particular mode of conduct. I mean, yes I know that Morocco (like the rest of the world) is inundated with video and celluloid images of western female promiscuity and licentiousness. Videos and film advertise our ready and willing fuckability. But do these men, in their heart of hearts, really think that if they call out to me, tell me that I’m beautiful, suck their teeth when I walk by (a real turn on, that), that I’ll drop my knickers right there and then? Alrighty Ahmed – let’s head back to my place because it’s Friday and your wife is probably busy making couscous for lunch.

And if we say no? Culture Shock! Morocco sums it up best: to most Moroccan men, a western woman who spurns his amorous attentions is clearly just having a bad day. A bad day. Who knows? – it must be working for some of them. Maybe we’re more than an urban myth. Maybe it just takes one western woman to take up with a Moroccan man to feed the hopes and phantasies of 2 million others. Christ knows that I’ve seen a handful of western women do things here that they would never do in a month of Sundays back home. We’re talking the lost footage from Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Maybe for some women, telling them that they’re très jolie (translatable as “my, what a pretty passport you have”) works. Quite frankly, it leaves me speechless.

Before I left Canada, I came upon a t-shirt that read, “I see you’ve met the girls” – and I was tempted to buy it because, at that time, I worked with an individual whose line of vision never ventured farther north than my “girls”. But I doubt that such subtleties would work here. Perhaps I’ll design my own line of t-shirts and emblazon them with slogans like: “I’m average-looking at home”, “Have you looked in the mirror?”, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you” or “Do you speak to your wife this way?” I can think of a few dozen women who would jump to invest.

Addendum: Not Very Nice Men is a euphenism. Feel free to substitute any word(s) of your choice. Vocabulary involving barnyard animals and bits of anatomy (something from the urogenital system would work nicely) is encouraged.

Partying with the Pachyderms

My how time flies in the realm of the unreal: Babar the Elephant is turning 75! Personally, I thought he was an octogenarian back when I was 6, but apparently not. Perhaps he just hasn’t aged well. And then there’s Queen Celeste. She’s been looking a little long in the tusk for quite some time now. But perhaps I should just refrain from applying my own warped standards of beauty and aging to these (fictional) elephants and accept their grey, creased & creviced hide as a thing of beauty. Although I bet Celeste would have benefited from using sunscreen.

Many many moons ago, the King was born to Jean De Brunhoff, but after his death (like many geniuses he died before he was 40), the elephant became the ward of son Laurent - which makes me green-as-Babar's-signature-suit with envy when I consider the some 8 million books which have sold over the years, not to mention the countless stuffed Babars, worldwide syndicated television shows and movies. Personally, I'd love to make a fortune off of my parents' bedtime ramblings because it saves me, as a writer, a lot of time & energy being clever & creative and, chances are, your parents won't sue you for copyright infringement or theft of intellectual property because they'll just be so thrilled that you're not a streetcleaner or working in a fish plant or teaching English in a sawed-off country. Not that there's anything wrong with those. But my bedtime legacy is populated with characters named Stinkball Coleman, and Art Reid & his Dog (boy and dog were always linked together and I don't want to know why) - probably not the sort of thing to make me fabulously rich.

But I digress. Horoscopically-speaking, Babar was born under the Chinese sign of the Metal Sheep (or Goat, depending on your source - hardly the same thing if you have ever spent time with either bovines or ovines). People & pachyderms born under this sign, "have good taste and are quite charming and elegant … and rich ... the center of attention at a stylish dinner party, ravishing all with incomparable wit and bon mots... Sometimes they prefer the quiet life at home with a good book, a roaring fire, and the joys of the palate... They are quite often deeply religious or spiritual and quite passionate about their work and their belief." Doesn't that sound like Babar? - remember that, orphaned, he leaves the jungle & finds his way to France where he is brought up by the Old Lady in Paris. Eventually Babar returns to the Elephant realm where he introduces a rather French form of western civilization (de Brunhoff's brother was the editor of French Vogue) to the elephants, and forces them to dress in Christian Dior suits.

Babar (the series, not the elephant) has received its share of criticism over the years. Babar (the elephant, not the series) has been accused of being a racist, a sexist & an elitist. Too my knowledge, he has not been accused of any sexual transgressions against a child (human or elephant) nor held responsible for global warming. His reign of Celesteville (lovingly named after his cousin-bride) appears to be somewhat autocratic and totally independent of any elected democratic body. It has been suggested that this kingdom works on many levels as a paradigm - and justification - for colonialism, i.e., French colonialism.
LIke it's a bad thing. Currently living in a country which shook off the yoke of said-French colonialism a few decades ago, I'd personally like to thank the French for teaching Moroccans how to make excellent coffee and pastries.

So delightful childhood phantasies or morally offensive propaganda, kindly father-figure or autocratic despot - you choose. I admit that I was besotted with him as a child and I am still rather envious of the King now. (And yes, I know that he's fictional - I can tell the difference.) He's globetrotted to such hotspots as
Rome, Paris, Barcelona and even Machu Picchu - places that, with the exception of Paris and a brief layover in the Leonardo da Vinci airport, I have yet to visit. Damn you Babar! He also practises yoga (which I do as well - a feeble point for me) because it "helps us all to relax and draw strength from our inner elephant", is a vegetarian (second point for me) - okay, he's actually a herbivore - and has built a museum (which I have yet to do - although I did set up an albeit short-lived & unsuccessful fundraising drive when I was 10 to pay for rhinoplasty surgery).

But I especially love the aesthetics of the books: the Ganesha-like rendering of Babar, the cursive font with its tight juvenile anally-perfect curly cues - it reminds me of the menus posted on chalkboards in front of Parisien bistros where I have yet to while away enough hours of my life. J'adore the oh-so-Frenchness of Babar (the series and the elephant) which makes me feel sophisticated and urbane but saves me the anxiety of actually dealing with anyone French. And if Babar (the series not the elephant) is politically incorrect, so be it. I'm actually happy now that I didn't get my nose clipped way back when. In his honour, I too shall embrace my inner elephant.

Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Rolling Heads and Falling Hosiery

The connection? Glad you asked:

Separate groups of gunmen entered two primary schools in Baghdad on Wednesday and beheaded two teachers in front of their students, the Ministry of State for National Security said.

My first reaction to reading this was, naturally, how horrible. And it is. Really. But then I began to think. When I was in primary school, were there any teachers whom I would have nominated for beheading? I mean, on the off chance that a terrorist group (undoubtedly Prots - maybe Calvinists) stormed St. Leo's Catholic School way back in 1742 when I was a student, who would I have chosen? Easy. Gary Mahn – my grade 8 teacher.

One dreary afternoon in midwinter (ahhhh, I remember it as if it were yesterday), our class stood to recite the Our Father. As I mumbled my prayer, I could feel my nylons (I believe the colour was "spice" – a not very natural hue for my pallid skintones) slipping down about my ankles. For those of you who have suffered the agony of improper-fitting hosiery, you are undoubtedly feeling my pain as you read this. Without drawing undo attention to myself, I tried to yank my nylons up but the blighters kept slipping. Yank yank yank, slip slip slip. Chances are, they were an ancient pair which had lost all of its elasticity months ago and were scarred with a hundred picks. My mother did not see the need for 13-year olds to wear nylons when we could wear leotards, or the need to replenish them regularly. Perhaps nylons were the domain – at least in her generation – of married women, like tampons and permanent waves. Anyway, prayers done, God placated, Mr. Mahn said to me (in a not very sotto voce), "It's okay Cat in Rabat, Jesus doesn't mind if you have wrinkly pantyhose."

Oh the shame! The humiliation! I wanted to die. But now I see that I had another option. I could have forwarded his name for decapitation. If only someone had told me – just knowing that there might be a terrorist group out there looking for primary school teachers to butcher would have made my adolescence tolerable. Instead, I developed an ever-growing fear and loathing of hosiery. A 13-year old's mortification is long-lived cross to bear. The bastard.

A ministry official said he believed the attacks were aimed at: "intimidating pupils and disrupting learning."

Ya think?? Only, truth be told, if I had seen Mr. Mahn's head rolling down the hallway towards the boys' bathroom, I would have felt vindicated. Hurray! And I bet we would have gotten the rest of the week off too! In a perfect world, it would have happened on a Monday.


p.s. Before anyone starts sending comments condemning me for my insensitivity and callousness, stop and think. I bet there's at least one teacher in your past to whom, when the masked terrorists entered your grade 7 class, you would have surreptitiously pointed. Pssssst, take her!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Incredible Shrinking Pyjamas

… admittedly this sounds like a sci-fi film for 7-year olds, but it’s an all too accurate description of the state of my clothing. Everything is shrinking. Now before you accuse me of getting bigger, allow me to explain. When I first moved to Rabat, I did all of my laundry by hand – much the same way that Wilma Flintstone did – although no, come to think of it, she had a washing machine. Okay, it was actually a pelican but it was still semi-automatic.

Hand washing has two huge disadvantages over machine-washed. Firstly, nothing gets really clean and, to add insult to injury, my whites just weren’t coming out white. Secondly, I could never master the art of squeezing excess water out of my laundry so consequently, my jeans weighed about 71 kilograms sopping wet and my towels about half that. To compound the problem, I have limited space from which to hang my sodden leaden clothes. There is a makeshift clothesline suspended outside my bedroom window which, on a good day, may support the weight of a few swallows but never a full load of laundry. My response to this was to wash a few things at a time but this was becoming onerous – I was doing laundry every few days – and I am incredibly slothful by nature. It was also rather stressful as I felt compelled to keep a vigil over the laundry lest my black lace crotchless panties (just kidding Mom) fell below onto someone’s parked car. Laundry should never be this stressful.

After a few weeks of this, the pressure finally got to me and I decided to drop my laundry off at a service. For what constitutes one load, I pay about 45 dirhams (@ $6 Cdn) and if the nice girl is working there, she’ll fold my laundry in a reasonable facsimile of how I fold – but would definitely not live up to my mother’s military standards. If the nice but creepy man is working, he’ll leave everything in a small mound so that my clothes dry in a mass of elephantine wrinkles. But, at least he doesn’t fold my underthings so I take solace in that.

The problem with the laundry service is the dryers it uses. They are industrialized mofo’s that belong in a Texan prison, their velocity rivals that of a small jet’s turboprop engine. And everything is coming out slightly smaller. I first noticed this phenomenon when I put my freshly laundered jammies on the first night. Only a few months old, my yellow pyjamas decorated with Curious George were now ankle-length; hitherto, they had been gathering dust as the hem trailed along the floor. As the weeks passed, that cheeky little monkey was visibly climbing higher and higher up my leg. Yesterday, as I folded my laundry (nice but creepy man was working), I noticed that my pyjamas are now, in fact, capri’s. At this rate, by summer they’ll be shorts. Needless to say, it's not just my jammies that are being affected by this blast furnace: everything is shrinking and/or losing its elasticity, buttons, underwire and stitching. I find myself puzzling over my kitchen tea towels – once rectangular – they are now the size and shape of a hanky. This extraordinary dryer cannot only change size but shape – surely defying the laws of physics!

There are 2 possible remedies to this situation: find another laundry service (unlikely since I am incredibly slothful by nature) or take my clean wet clothes home and dry them there (unlikely since I am incredibly slothful by nature). *Sigh* At least my husband can look forward to the fact that by autumn, my Curious George pyjamas will be a thong.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The "Big Bill" Production

... but first won’t you join me for a Marrakech Moment:

The Djemaa el-Fna – Marrakech's tourist mecca extravaganza – is a huge slab of pavement (cleaned up almost beyond recognition since my last visit) and home to about a 100 braziers belching smoke into the evening sky (all with identical menus), snake charmers and storytellers (none of whom I've ever seen but the guide books swear they're there), a few wizened water sellers (decked out like Mexican donkeys in red pompoms & wide brimmed straw hats), gypsy-esque tribes of hypodermic needle-wielding henna whores (I hate those broads) and a gazillion tourists. Around the perimeter of the square are a few restaurants (boasting the same menu) where, for several dirhams more than the freestanding brazier stands, you can have the pleasure of sitting cheek to jowl with other patrons, being served by a surly waiter and choke down bland food under the ravenous gazes of a clan of semi-feral cats. Odds are, every time you cross your legs, you'll kick a cat, a diner or a waiter. Because my companion's Moroccan friend (see below Menara Meanderings) required tajine for 2 of his 3 daily meals, we forewent the braziers so that he could eat his stew in a pylon.

The first outing was a testament to mediocrity done right. Because I do not eat meat, my options were French fries, tomato salad and rice. All yummy & nutritious! My companion requested an omelette aux fines herbes, which ultimately got lost in the mêlée (as it turns out, a sign from the gourmand gods). Our waiter was adamant that she had not requested it and an altercation of the verbal sort arose. Someone could get rich here by giving customer service seminars – except for the fact that no one would attend. Unfortunately, the waiter did not lose my order of salad & rice. The rice was glutinous and tasteless - much how I would expect boiled larvae to taste. I would have pushed it to the side but our table was so small that I would have beaned a cat with the plate. The salad was passable but would have been much improved without the addition of an entire bunch of coriander but it was a far cry better than that tardy omelette whose fine herbs were a few leaves of iceberg lettuce. Kind of made my rice look good. Well, not really. The tajine, apparently was a hit, but truth to tell, the friend didn’t strike me as an epicurean; rather, the type who – as my family might say – could eat shit on a stick and ask for seconds. So lunch sucked, our waiter was a complete asshole, and continued to demand his tip as we left, falling over the chairs of our neighbours, sending cats flying.

The next day, as the day grew long and our stomachs rumbled, my companion suggested returning there for lunch. I looked at her incredulously, “Why, I asked, because the food was so good or was it because of the stellar service?” Honest to god. The friend, smelling a tajine a mile away, suggested the restaurant – identical in all respects – beside Café Crap. It was so crowded that we were relegated to the upper enclosed room where some patrons had a view of the Djemaa el-Fna (an arguable trade-off for the stifling air), while we had a view of the toilet. From the identical menu, I order fries (although sorely tempted to get the rice to see if it too resembles larvae), a salad & a juice. Companion orders the same, friend orders tajine. The tajine comes, the salad comes, the beverages come – no fries. Finally, after flagging down our waiter, we learn that it was so busy today at Café Crap Deux, that they ran out of fries. Hmmm, too bad nobody told us this, say 20 minutes ago when we ordered. He shrugs and walks away without asking if we’d like something else – say, the rice. My overpriced breakfast donut (see below Menara Meanderings) and my plate of cumin-soaked tomato salad (an “interesting” variation on the coriander salad of the previous day) will have to tide me over until supper.

We go downstairs to the kitchen to pay and I hand over a 100 dirham note – roughly 10 Euros or $12 Canadian. Granted, my “lunch” was only about 15 dirhams but I needed the bill broken. Small bills are a hot commodity & banks never seem to have them. The waiter asks for something smaller. I have nothing. He does not believe me. I am shaking my head in shame as I type this but I actually opened up my wallet to show him that I had nothing smaller – as if I had to justify it to him. He is intransigent. He looks at my companions, and tells them to pay for me, all the while holding my bank note as if it were a particularly smelly piece of poo. I am furious – I remind him that if business is so good that they ran out of food for my lunch then surely, they can break my bill. In response, the waiter slams my note down on the table and screams, “Your lunch is free!” I remonstrate (why you ask? good question), screaming back that I want to pay for my lunch but that he won’t let me. The Moroccan friend, because this is normal for him and I am being unreasonable, slips the waiter my 15 dirhams. And a tip. I am seething with rage.

This colourful little glimpse into my fabulous Marrakech junket is not atypical. In fact, this was just a variation of the Big Bill Production – an exhausting little farce played out throughout this country. The acquiring of change (anything from 10-centime coins to 20-dirhams notes) could be an Olympic event in Morocco, or perhaps in the Panafrican Games. I am always on the lookout for small bills and coin although, truth be told, I have never had any use for 10- or 20-centime coins – except to give to beggars, which I suspect even they disdain. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I fear the blind man runs away when he sees me coming. I might add that I felt very much put in my place when I saw a Belgian tourist in Marrakech give a beggar a 20-dirham bill. I am undoubtedly going to hell.

It is the pursuit of 5- and 10-dirham coins and the 20-dirham bill that consumes my every thought here. Frankly, a 50-dirham bill is pushing the envelope. If I am obsessed by this, it is because the obsession has been thrust upon me. Everyone – everyone – asks for exact change: store clerks, waiters, you name it. But the worst by far are taxi drivers. They’ll balk, pout, and stick their lower lips out so they look like members of the Botocudo tribe, all the while making a huge to-do (aka, the Big Bill Production) of searching every crevice of their vehicle to change a 50- and sometimes 20-dirham note. This for a 11-dirham fare. Surely the dozens and dozens of people who have preceded me in this taxi paid in cash? Why isn’t there change? Is there a barter system afoot in which no one has initiated me? But no, he either has no change or is unwilling to cough it up.

Yesterday I took a taxi out to Marjane – Morocco’s closest equivalent to a Walmart (you can’t buy guns there but you can buy a live sheep at Eid el Kebir to slaughter on your balcony). I was delighted that I had enough change to get out there without fear of the Big Bill Production. As I completed my shopping, I looked in horror at the total: 298 dirhams. There would be no change for the taxi – all I had were those massively huge 100 dirham notes (remember – 10 Euros). Should I ask the cashier to deduct a purchase from the total? – no, my French isn’t quite that evolved. Instead, I asked the her for change and she responded by slamming the register closed and saying “I have none”. Wow! – must be that nebulous barter system again. Perhaps the family in front of me paid with bushels of cactus pear or dates.

Desperately I zipped about the “mall” (picture the first shitty mall that opened in your neighbourhood in 1971), looking for any place where I could change a bill. A sale sign in the window of the Yves Rocher cosmetics store lured me in and I grabbed the cheapest thing I could find (30 dh). I handed the sales assistant the Fleur de Lotus de Laos shower gel and a 100-dirham note and she asked – I kid you not – do you have change? I shook my head. I briefly considered telling her about the taxi drivers and the Big Bill Production but she probably wouldn’t understand – this is her world and it’s probably just me who’s unnerved by this. She shrugged, turned away from her cash and, in full view, opened up a small safe (!) and removed my weighty and substantial change of about 7 Euros. I sighed in relief – that 20-dirham note would get me home production-free.


As I returned home from a meeting this afternoon, I stopped by my hanoot and bought a 3-dirham package of Crax snacks (don’t ask). I sheepishly handed hanoot-man a 100-dirham note but remarkably, he thanked me as effusively as always and gave me my change without a fuss. Must have been the Laotian Lotus shower gel.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Menara Meanderings

This is the Menara - one of Marrakech's prime photo ops. Pretty isn't it? - a mini Taj Mahal, you might say. The photograph certainly suggests as much, but the photo isn't mine, although I do consider myself a competent enough photographer. Had I captured this oft-photographed pavilion on film, it would have looked decidely different. My peevishness would have been transferred through the camera by an osmosis of sorts. You see, I took zippo photos of the Menara because I didn't want to. I was pissed off at it, at myself, and at every Moroccan kid within arm's reach of me.

(The story thusfar: as you may know, I went to Marrakech this past long weekend as it was the birthday of Mohammed - i.e., the prophet, although there were probably a zillion other name-sharing celebrants as well. Happy birthday dear Mohaaaaaaaamed: you don't look a day over 379. But the celebrated Marrakech Express left Rabat 1 1/2 hours late and arrived 2 1/2 hours late. Not an ominous start.)

But in the end, after many adventures, I now possess a cocktail party assortment of spine-chilling anecdotes with which to amuse you gentle reader, but I haven't decided whether it is politic, sensitive, or prudent to share them in so open a forum. There were the two incidents with the police, the boy and the turkey, the individual who slipped into my bedroom at 2 in the morning, the illegal liquor run on a religious feast day.... no, no, I will confine my thoughts to the Menara. It was tame, only mildly annoying. I will leave the truly horrifying stuff for another day.

So … the remains of a 12th century garden, the Menara "is a peaceful place to escape the summer heat and bustle of the city" (shamelessly stolen from Lonely Planet Morocco). It is a must see, or so my travelling companion tells me. I am in Marrakech primarily to take photos of the spice souks for an upcoming publication but no, we'll go to the Menara. It is a must-see.

Quidquid id est, debete-videre timeo*

Getting there is no easy feat. We try to flag a petit taxi. Since Marrakech is currently playing host to ¾ of the country's entire population, finding an empty taxi is like winning the Irish Sweepstakes. I am travelling with a Westerner and her Moroccan - um, friend, who suggests that we should try a grand taxi instead. But it’s within city limits no? Yes. Then I’d rather go by petit taxi than share a taxi only marginally larger than a petit with 5 other adults. I finally flag a taxi but – alas! his meter does not appear to work. When I point this apparent malfunction out to him, he feigns surprise but kindly offers to take us there illegally for 30 dirhams. Swell. We get out of the taxi. A grand taxi is standing by so we all inhale deeply and squish in. The ride is mercifully short & we are let off by the entrance where a group of emaciated but gaily pompommed camels are offered for our riding pleasure. I fear that the bare hint of me on the bony back of the camel led towards me will send him straight into someone's tajine.

We walk the broad avenue towards the Menara, lined by more camels as well as Coke & lukewarm water vendors. I am told that if I turn around, I will find the site "breathtaking". I am not used to having to turn away from a tourist site to see something magnificent but I do. I see a long strip of street and, at its summit, the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque. Suffice to say that during this entire time, I experienced no interruptions in my breathing. I think, it’s not exactly the Champs Elysées. Aloud I say, “wow” (but with a decidedly minuscule and unenthusiastic “w”). By the steps leading to the pavilion, I purchase a donut because these wonderfully greasy sugary confections are the zenith of Moroccan cuisine. Couscous? Tajine? – nope, donuts. Not surprisingly, I am literally charged 5 times its regular price – DisneyWorld prices. We approach the pavilion, which it seems we cannot enter. The guidebook has lied – bad guidebook! Our only option is to saunter languidly about the reflecting pool in a suitably reflective manner. My reflections become rather foul. As it turns out – besides not being a terribly exciting activity – this walking reflectively by the reflecting pool is rather unpleasant, and not because of the 2 dozen Japanese tourists wearing jellabas who are embarking on their guided tour. The pool, it seems, is both stagnant and polluted. Groups of motley children are tossing into the oil-slicky water various bits of luncheon detritus so that the pool’s inhabitants – large silvery carp – can nosh; however, as the little blighters are mainly lobbing in the plastic caps from Pepsi bottles, I suspect that they are trying to kill the fish instead. God, I hate children sometimes. And their parents. And Pepsi. Sadly, I watch the carp swallow and alternately spit out chunks of inorganic material; I phantasize about impaling youngsters on dull pointy objects. That would liven up the Menara. I am momentarily happy.

We walk to the end of the pool where we come across a floating stage and paraphernalia for a sound and light show. I will withhold my usual diatribe on sons et lumières shows: rest assured that I hate them with an almost all-consuming passion. Hate hate hate hate them! Various "spectacles" are put on here in both spotlight and moonlight (which I'm certain display the pool's floating garbage to full advantage) and I decline to ask the nature of them. Apparantly admission is expensive. No doubt. I am advised to take advantage of my position at the far side of the pool for a photo op of the pavilion. But I have not brought my zoom lens (as I didn’t anticipate taking photos of spice stalls from 300 meters away), so I pass. The light isn’t great, and neither is the pavilion. And the water is whiffy. And I want to leave (and take the carp with me). Then I am told that the public toilets are "really quite" nice. Oh yahhh!! – a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy visit. Too bad that I don't have to go – perhaps it's worth checking them out, try squeezing out a drop or two. Nope, I don't have change for the loo attendant as I spent all of my dirhams on a freaking donut. We continue on, circling the pool but on its outside perimeter, alongside a grove of olive trees. I like olive trees – what’s not to like about them?– but I’m questioning the wisdom of losing 2 hours of my day & prime daylight to be admiring something which is as ubiquitous as a dandelion in this part of the world. We reach the back of the pavilion and skirt around it. Our Moroccan companion tells us that the pavilion is now a marabout – a shrine or tomb of a holy man – to which I comment that, in light of this, it seems sacrilegious that it should be literally plastered with multicoloured graffiti. My comment is ignored. I further confess to my companions that I am stymied by the appeal of the Menara yet apparently Marrakshis flock to the place in droves. It’s really rather dull. A lunch bag letdown. My Moroccan companion reminds me again of its sanctity for Moroccans (who include the hordes of spray-paint wielding Marrakshis) but my female friend agrees with me, saying “Yes, it is a huge disappointment but I thought you’d like to see it.” Wow, thanks for that!

Must be a vibe I emit.

*Whatever it is, I fear the must-see!

Saturday, April 8, 2006

Whoopa, Hey Mesa, Hooba Huffa, Hey Meshy Goosh Goosh

It leaves tomorrow at 6:20 p.m. and arrives at 11:40. Not very express in my book. Back on Tuesday. Peace babies.

The Trojan War Trilogy

Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis*

The Trojan Horse - remember it? Helen of Troy? Beware Greeks bearing gifts? That "steed of monstrous height", packed to the withers with sword-wielding Greeks, hauled upon the shores of Ilios (modern Turkey), and effectively ended the Trojan War? If not, grab your Virgil & re-read the Aenead. Or swallow a handful of Wake Ups and rent Troy.

The Trojans lost that one: the men were all killed, the women and children sold into slavery. But I wonder to what extent the archetype of the evil equine has survived into the collective unconscious of the modern Turk. Do they skulk about, giving the evil eye to any old nag they see, on the off chance that Greek soldiers are secreted in its innards? Then this afternoon, as I was munching on a Turkish crispy-salty-snacky thing and having a thoroughly civilised discussion on blended scotches, I chanced upon an story (warning: graphic photos & I can only imagine what the video is like) which leads me to suspect that the memory of the Trojan Horse has not only survived but that it's payback time. It's the 2nd Trojan War (the Trojans Strikes Back) and this time the Horse has no chance. The new field of battle is the government-run Refik Saydam Hygiene Center (RSHC) where a recently obtained video shows

"... shocking images of struggling horses who are violently dragged to the ground with ropes so that their necks can be slashed with a scalpel while they are completely conscious. Workers bind the horses' legs closely to their bodies for restraint and sit on top of the struggling animals to hold them down. Moans of agony and shudders of pain reveal the horses to be fully conscious during the procedure, which sometimes lasts for hours (my italics). The horses are left to bleed to death and their bloodied bodies are dragged outside and dumped on the side of the street.

Because it is easy to obtain and inexpensive, blood serum from horses is commonly used in medical products. At one time, horse serum was used in the U.S. in the production of antitoxins (including rabies shots) until it was discovered that 16% of patients treated with the serum developed a dangerous condition called "serum sickness". Since then, the need and demand for horse blood has decreased markedly in the West and when it is required, it is drawn from horses much the same way as it is from humans: with an intravenous needle. The bloodletting is humane and the horses are calm during the procedure. Possibly, they are rewarded with apple juice and a cookie afterwards. At the very least, they get to see another day.

The video reveals RSHC technicians who cannot or will not make a proper needle insertion and who instead slash the horses' necks in order to expose the jugular vein. There is no excuse for this shoddy and cruel technique.

I must confess that I despair for our planet when I read accounts of such barbarity (a word that, interestingly, comes to us from the Greeks, so used to describe anyone who didn't speak Greek). Apparently the fate of Australian sheep in Egypt wasn't horrific enough. It feels like our world has become an amalgam of gruesome out-takes from Babe. It doesn't help that, in recent weeks, I've been mulling over the idea of visiting Turkey. Recently a friend of mine returned from a business trip there singing its praises: people were great, food was amazing (which included a sighting of the elusive veggie burger - nonexistent in my part of the world) and so on. I don't doubt any of this, but ...

... but it got me thinking - how high is Turkey on my list? (- although, in truth, I have 2 lists: the Must-See list and the Only If I Had a Free Ticket list). Some places in the world haven't earned a spot on either list (rhymes with Shina) but Turkey has been fence-sitting, jumping from one list to the other, for a number of years. I am admittedly beguiled by its architecture and its schitzophrenic east-meets-west dualism, its is-it-Asia-or-is-it-Europe identity crisis. But its track record in playing nicely with others is appalling. Human rights (or the lack thereof) in Turkey have long attracted international attention and, although sufficient progress has been made to allow the start of accession negotiations into the European Union, concerns remain. Add crimes against horses to their list.

I can only hope that the 3rd installment of the Trojan War Trilogy will be subtitled "The Return of the Gelding".

* So nice to be quoting Virgil for a change rather than the Q'uran.

Addendum: feel free to e-mail RSHC President Dr. Turan Aslan and ask him to stop these neanderthal procedures immediately ( and while you're at it, drop Mr. Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the president of Turkey, a line too (; perhaps he isn't aware that the Turkish government is failing to meet European animal protection standards.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

"The Lord Thunderin' Jesus Live-Fire Exercises"

Over and over again, I am told that Islam is a religion of compassion - Allah is hailed as the compassionate one. This sounds rather nice. So can somebody please tell me why there exists such an animal as Holy Prophet (PBUH) war games? Because today, during the Holy Prophet war games, Iran let rip what they purport to be the fastest underwater missile ever. I can't deal with the missile question - my head is still stuck on the Holy Prophet war games. Is it just me? Is this sending a mixed message of sorts - or is it sending the wrong message altogether?

I feel equally conflicted when I hear about Black achievement awards. If I were black, I'm not so certain how I would feel being deemed the best in my colour category. It's kind of like winning the swimsuit competition in a beauty contest. It's 2006: I would argue that racially-motivated awards have outlived their purpose, they smack (hard) of tokenism. I certainly wouldn't like there to be a series of achievement awards targeted towards whites - although the National Hockey League awards might come close. For the same reasons, I wouldn't want to see "The Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Kriegspiel" or "Laughing Buddha Simulated Military Operations". Some things don't (or shouldn't) mix - although a notable exception might be the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. But I digress .... back to the fun in the Gulf:

Some 17,000 combatants have taken part in the wargame, spokesman of the wargame Vice-Rear Admiral Mohammad Ibrahimi Dehghani said on Friday. One unit of Shahab 2 missile is to be launched to resemble peace and friendship among littoral states of the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman, he said.

Cat in Rabat hits her head repeatedly on her desk in bewilderment. Peace & friendship .... Kapoweeeee!!!

If I were an immortal omniscient being watching over this fucked-up world (and as immortal, unable to take a gun to my head and blow my humungus brains out), I wouldn't want the great unwashed blowing things up (be they fish, other Believers or even infidels) in my name. I would probably consult a lawyer about copyright infringement, or the illegal use of my name (or My Name). Ahh, but you argue, the Prophet is not a god. Like hell he isn't. Can't his name be used for something decidedly more benign - like a spelling bee?

Dromedaries & Dental Hygiene

As I perused the vacation snaps last night, I grudgingly reminded myself - no doubt prompted by this camel whom I met in my travels - to make an appointment to see a dentist. *Sigh* - I hate dentists probably more than I hate doctors. I believe I developed my first cavity in my mother's womb whereas my brother has never had a speck of mercury in his mouth. In any case, since this is a Sunday morning and I haven't a useful or productive thought it my head, I will use this time effectively by drinking more tea, further contributing to the antique ivory patina which my teeth have acquired since my arrival in Morocco.

My connection of camels and cuspids isn't gratuitous (my photo alone should be gurgling, belching & farting at a 1,000 words a minute). A few years ago, a judge in an Islamic court in the north-eastern Nigerian state of Sokoto ordered a man to pay 50 camels as compensation to his wife, who lost 10 of her teeth after he pummelled her to unconsciousness. The sentence was staggering as the value of one camel (@ $200) is more than the entire annual income for most people in the defendant's area. More recently, Iranian student leader Akbar Atri was beaten so badly by plainclothes religious police that his jaw was broken and he lost two teeth. In court, a judge ruled that Mr. Atri owed his attackers money for assaulting them - the price of a camel. Presumably this was the straw that broke the camel's back as he has since fled Iran.

An aside on retaliation in Islam - scroll down 3 paragraphs if you don't give a tinker's dam. Hadiths are the reports of Muhammad’s words and actions outside of the Quran. In conjunction with the Quran, these reports are the foundations for later legal rulings. One "reliable" hadith collector and editor is Abu Da'ud, who walked the earth in the 9th century, and wrote the 3rd of the 6 canonical hadith collections recognized by Sunni Muslims. "True" Islam, (as taught by Muhammad) adheres to lex talionis, or the law of retaliation. In this century, eyes of the guilty are being surgically removed as compensation to the injured party (it's okay Knarf: I promise, no gruesome photos disguised as fluffy kittens). I would add that the victim can select 3 options: retaliation, forgiveness, or compensation. I wonder how often option 2 is invoked? - I'll just keep my thoughts to myself. Now, based on Abu Da'ud's reckoning and allowing for inflation, the following chart of compensation has been drawn up:

(1) All fingers are of equal value, so the victim gets 10 camels per finger.
(2) Teeth carry the same value as fingers, whether the teeth are molars or incisors, so the victim gets ten camels per tooth.
(3) This is also true of toes and fingers.
(4) Completely cutting off the nose requires 100 camels
(5) Cutting off the tip of the nose requires 50 camels, or the equivalent in gold or silver, or a 100 cows, or a 1,000 sheep.
(6) Cutting off half a hand requires half the payment of 100 camels.
(7) For one foot, the payment is half of 100 camels.
(8) For a wound in the head, 33 1/3 camels must be paid.
(9) "For a head thrust that reaches the body, the same blood-wit must be paid" as the previous injury.

Based on these calculations, our Nigerian battered wife received short shrift: she was owed 100 not 50 camels. Anyway, later jurists offered a monetary alternative based on the value of a camel. This was considered progressive.

(Jeez, to think this all started by looking at a few holiday photos - bet you can't wait for me to go through the rest).

For those who are less interested in the going rate of their forefinger and more interested in cross-species dental arcana (and who isn't?), the adult camel has 34 permanent teeth. The adult human has 32 teeth, while Cat in Rabat has 27 adult teeth (less 4 wisdoms) and 1 remaining baby tooth - surely her fountain of youth, or at least her personal Portrait of Dorian Gray. Should said baby tooth get the heave-ho (as I suspect will happen sooner than later, hence my reluctance to visit a dentist), she will quickly age and wither away, a Cassandra-like creature who will be reduced to little more than a voice that no one heeds. Hell, she's halfway there already.

Addendum: Is it my imagination, or does this camel bear an uncanny resemblance to the late actor Don Knotts?