Tuesday, October 31, 2006

My Foot Fetish (Or a Cat Navigates Rabat)

Behold my feet:

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder then, in my mind's eye, my feet are the Audrey Hepburn of extremities. So enamoured am I with my little piggies that I take great pains to protect them - and occasionally photograph them before sweeping backdrops of nature (say, the Mediterranean Sea), knowing that such vistas will not detract from the grandeur of my feet.

Just a handful of months before I moved to Rabat, both feet underwent rather intensive surgery which involved the breaking and realigning of several toes and the sawing off of the actual foot bone itself (both sides, both feet). After the anesthetic subsided, I woke up to the cruel daylight of ineffable pain and a scant week's worth of potent narcotics. After that and it was over-the-counter crap whose daily dosage I felt compelled to triple. Twice daily. I was unable to put weight on my heavily bandaged feet for 2 weeks (don't ask how I navigated my way to the bathroom), could not walk aided or unaided for 4 weeks, and could not walk without the use of a cane for another 3 weeks. But in the end, I got pretty feet (at least prettier than what I had) with 4 rather dainty scars . The fact that my feet would no longer bleed from the sides when I wore winter boots was a boon.

Yes, I am enamoured and I think, a little protective of them too. If they are tred upon or knocked against in any fashion, I still experience searing pain that runs from my feet to my eye sockets (a full recovery was estimated by my surgeon as being 1 year to never). North Africa is arguably an excellent location for one such as I because I can pad the earth in an assortment of flip-flops the year round as I'm still not quite ready for restrictive footwear. But Rabat isn't the best city in the world for a cat so highly protective of her paws. It is not a straight city. And by straight, I don't mean designed on a grid system. I mean that one can walk from Point A to Point B without great deviation of direction.

But if you've ever watched a cat then you know that it never walks in a straight line. It hugs the walls, it dips under cars, it (as one hockey commentator used to say) dipsy-doodles in its peregrinations. Rabat compels me to adopt the pedestrian behaviour of my namesake but I would be more amenable, more adaptable, if my feet weren't on their last life.

Why? you ask.

Sidewalks in Rabat are an obstacle course - it is a city in the constant state of feverish construction where sizeable bits of detritus from burgeoning apartment blocks litter the sidewalks - a steeplechase for humans in which the course always wins. It is nigh impossible to walk down a sidewalk in any of this city's neighbourhoods without risking a fractured ankle (or neck) from broken bits of pavement and sidewalk. It is surely impossible to walk down a sidewalk in any of this city's neighbourhoods without having to veer off the curb, circle the tropical plants installed in the centre of the sidewalk, repair to the street, step over a piece on concrete, circumvent the semi-submerged metal Redal manhole covers, duck under or around a tree, circumvent a parked car, play chicken with 5 Moroccans walking abreast (who will never yield to you), and avoid a gaping hole.

These nefarious maws in the sidewalk - out of which loom equally nefarious pieces of Rebar - lay in wait to swallow the unsuspecting pedestrian although, to be fair, not with the frequency and degree of menace as the sidewalk holes in Khartoum. But then again, this is Rabat not freaking Khartoum. You expect mortar holes in Sudan, not in Morocco's capital. The King lives here. But perhaps he never avails himself of the sidewalks. Perhaps he should.

Agdal has not been built on flat terrain: the sidewalks slope downwards as one travels north. Walking (physically) down or (geographically) up Follow the Leader is my personal Room 101, for the incline has been resolved by a rather schizophrenic decision to embed both ramps (worthy of a skateboarder) and short cockeyed steps (many of which are in a state of masonic disrepair) into the sidewalks. If ever there lived a crooked man who lived in a crooked house, then I can hazard a guess as to his street address.

Yes, no gentle descent on Follow the Leader - instead one walks for about 50 feet then takes 3 uneven steps down (or uses a steep ramp), walks for a bit, avoids a car, goes down a few steps, continues on, dashes out of the way of a parking car, manages a bit of sidewalk not usurped by an encroaching sidewalk café, continues on, crosses the street to avoid the exposed electrical bits protuding from an especially large hole at Place Abou Bakr Assadik only to find oneself in front of the mosque where one must go around the front step, avoid the beggars, continue on ... well, you get the picture. I live in terror of scraping my feet. This terror has a strong foothold in reality. Rabat is de-prettifying my feet.

My impediment of choice is the sidewalk pylon. No jaunty neon-orange cone this, but a fiendishly camouflaged chunk of squat concrete that may or may not have a faded red band but is usually the same colour as the sidewalk. I have yet to ascertain if they are to prevent cars from parking on the sidewalk (in which case they don't work) or to guide cars to available sidewalk parking. I trip over these and stub my feet on them frequently. This makes me cry and swear a great deal. (My mother will attest to an audible string of expletives which issued from my mouth when my foot knocked against a prayer kneeler in a church in Spain. So accute was the pain - and so profound was her guilt for dragging me into the church - that she disregarded my generous usage of the "F" word.) To compound the matter, many of these Pylons from Hell are moveable (and, not surprisingly, are frequently moved by the parking jockeys) so that I have no hope of memorising my trajectories.

One blissfully serene evening during Ramadan, Mr. Cat in Rabat commented that we could actually see to the end of our street without any obstruction (save one flowering shrub), and that was the next best thing to actually being able to walk a straight line. His standards have clearly dropped; either that or he shares the same foot fetish as me. That would put us on an even footing.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Requiem for Two Goldfish

"Scientists have discovered that a goldfish has a memory span of three seconds. I wondered how they found that out, so I asked my Goldfish. I said, ‘how long is your memory?’ and he said, ‘can you repeat the first part of the question?’” – Anonymous

Ken (r) and Gerard (l)
Princes Among Goldfish

Swim in Peace

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Allah's Alley Cats

The will of Allah is a mighty thing. So potent and capriciously unpredictable is Allah's pleasure, that the very phrase in sh'allah must be invoked after even the most mundane oral transaction that hints at any future activity, effectively quashing the possibility of human control or accountability. "See you tomorrow." "In sh'allah!" "What time does the train leave?" "Three o'clock - in sh'allah." Not surprising, those of us of a decidely more occidental ilk find this turn of phrase not so much quaint & colourful but infuriating & aggravating. So automatic (and probably hollow) is this response that a more enterprising individual (preferably with a prediliction for alcohol) might create a drinking game; for example, drink 1 whiskey shot every time you hear an in sh'allah ... 2 for alhamdulillah (Allah be praised!), 3 for bismellah (in the name of Allah!), etc.

For the past month, it was Allah's will that I not sleep through the night and that I should be interrupted anytime between 2 and 7 a.m., preferably more than once during any given evening. His agents of choice were the Ramadan Tambourine Man, the late-night revellers, the calls to prayer, and the various nocturnal wildlife in my neighbourhood. I do not know why He, who is considered merciful and compassionate, should wish to deprive me of my sleep, but He did.

I thought that Allah's will might change - relent a bit - at the conclusion of Ramadan. Surely sated with all the suffering and discomfort of the past month, He might grant me at least one night of perfect sleep. I understand now that I was guileless in the supposition that an insignificant mortal such as I can predict and discern Allah's will. It was arrogant & foolhardy of me, and I should be punished for it. And I was.

Last night, approaching the traditional witching hour of 3 a.m., one, then two cats decided to make their presence known to all the denizens of our neighbourhood. Where they were exactly I do not know but I am tempted to place the 2 animals somewhere near or at the foot of our bed - although logic dictates that this is very unlikely. Suffice to say, they were outside. As a cat person, I had been rather confident up until last night that I had heard pretty much every sound that a cat can emit. Not so!

The first cat howled. Well, not howled so much as screamed (think bamboo shoots under the claws) to such a feverish degree that my ears were on the verge of bleeding, the tides turning, the stars falling out of the sky, and the dead rising from their graves. It was so gut-wrenching & otherworldly that I felt compelled to share the moment with Mr. Cat in Rabat. Surely he wasn't sleeping during this infernal din? But what if it were Allah's will that he sleep soundly? Do I dare offer Allah yet another affront? Or perhaps I was Allah's agent that night, and He was expecting me to give Mr. CinR a quick poke in the ribs? "You awake?" "Yup." I am the instrument of God.

After about three-quarters of an hour, our second cat arrived. This interloper wasn't content to lend its voice in harmony; rather, it wished to enlist its predecessor in mortal combat. There then ensued a cat fight of apocalyptic proportions - surely the Gates of Hell had opened up to cheer on both combatants. Tucked inside our beds, we could hear the fur flying, visualise the cats charging at each other. After another 20 minutes or so of this pitched fighting and eardrum-shattering screams - again at decibels that only a familiar of Satan could produce - there was a grand crescendo of pain and anguish, one final, earth-moving, tympanic membrane-piercing caterwaul, and then .... silence.

The silence was more terrifying than the screams. Was there a dead or dying cat outside our window? Was one now pregnant as a result of a sado-erotic tryst that would make a black widow spider recoil? Should we do something? Had the cats retired to their corners, only to start again once refreshed. Sleep eluded us; we were too tense with apprehension of what might come next to rest. In desperation, I decided to try the silicon-based neon-orange earplugs Mr. CinR had brought me from Canada. One breaks off a little plastic-y wad and, rolling it into a ball, flattens it against the opening of the ear canal. Theoretically, it should hermetically seal the ear. Nevertheless, not only did it allow the safe and unobstructed passage of all sounds into my ears but so convinced was I that the little balls of waxy goop would become permanently lodged inside my ears and eventually make their way into any of the 8 sinus cavities inside my head that I passed the rest of the night staring at the ceiling & composing this post.

To be fair, it was a much cleverer blog at 5:30 in the morning. Clearly, I must learn how to take notes when I am in that semi-zombie world of those cursed never to sleep again. Perhaps it is not Allah's will that I learn this skill but, in fact, I don't dare consider the possibility either way.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

It's Over ...

To quote Roy Orbison,

"It's over, it's over, it's oooooooooooooooooooover!"

Yes, the month of Ramadan has finally drawn to a close. At least in Morocco. It has already ended elsewhere. Unlike other Muslim nations, Morocco's religious and governmental authorities didn't actually see the crescent moon rising on Sunday (or Mohammed VI didn't see his shadow negating the need for another 6 weeks
of fasting), so today rather than yesterday is Eid el Fitr - the celebratory breaking of the fast. Confused? – don't be. It's over, and that's all that really matters.

And after bitching & complaining offering my readers curious Ramadanian anecdotes over the past month – now that it’s over – do I feel elated or disappointed? Am I experiencing euphoria or lunch-bag letdown? No, I’m quite ecstatic. No more Mr. Tambourine Man, no
more late night/early morning revellers, no more booming cannons jolting me from my sleep, no more pre-dawn high-decibel, warbling calls to prayer, no more nasty cranky fasters, no more late work nights, no more closed restaurants, no more draconian and unbelievably hypocritical liquor laws. No more! No more!

Today, as Muslims gather to renew bonds of friendship & family and devote themselves to prayer, as well as eat and reset their internal clocks (gastronomical and circadian), I too would like to reflect a little. Someone once said that even the flattest pancake has two sides (shortly before he or she moved on to a rewarding career at Hallmark cards), so let me pause and consider what my post-Ramadan world will be like:

  • Alcohol, which by law is sold only to foreigners (although I am normally the only westerner at any one time purchasing liquor at Label Vie and the majority of liquor sales are to Muslims) will become more readily available. No passports, no open sesame to open up the steel security gate that separates Humankind from Evil Intoxicants, no furtive looks of quiet desperation – I can walk right in! – except on Friday afternoons when the gate is again closed, presumably because we should all be at mosque. But technically, since all Muslims should be at mosque on Fridays anyway, and cannot be sold liquor on any day of the week, as a non-Muslim who is not allowed to cast her infidel shadow into a Moroccan mosque but can be legally sold alcohol, ergo, I should be able to buy a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc on a Friday afternoon even if the Prophet were descending from heaven in a chariot led by a dozen pigeons. Did I mention that liquor laws here were hypocritical or would you prefer that I draw a flow chart?
  • Perhaps the number of beggars, whose number magically swelled like the moon during the month of Ramadan (perhaps they are seasonal, like hop-pickers) will decrease,
  • The Not Very Nice Men will be back in full prurient force in the cafés, scratching & tugging at their crotches, and leering at women,
  • Not Very Nice Men aside, the cafés will be open: drinking coffee in daylight suddenly seems a little bit naughty now,
  • The blissful tranquility and calm of an early evening Rabat (when all good fasters were chowing down in relative silence) will be irrevocably shattered as normal traffic patterns (with their attendant aberrant horn honking) return,
  • My works hours will return to normalcy as my place of questionably gainful employment will no longer have to accommodate fasting Moroccans. Ramadan has had a serious impact on my blogging schedule. Sure was fun finishing work until 11:00 p.m. and starting again at 9:30 in the morning,
  • I will be sharing the streets of Morocco with 617 recently released convicts. As on other major holidays, M6 has pardoned a "handful" of (presumably) wrongly imprisoned felons. I feel so safe, so secure ... ,
  • The restaurants will re-open (in Agdal my dining activities had been restricted to Pizza Slut and McAwful’s for the last month) but my actual dining selections will not change since the only vegetarians acknowledged by Moroccans have horns, a tail and a multitude of stomachs,
  • The afternoon siesta will return, effectively wiping out afternoon shopping and reinstating thumb-twittling as my inter-prandial activity of choice,

… and of course, it’s a great time to be a cow or a goat because the clock has started ticking for this country’s sheep. Seventy days until the mass slaughter at Eid el Kebir – last year, over 6 million ovine throats were sliced with knives of varying sharpness and cleanliness, by hands of varying degrees of skill. Tick, tick, tick ... too bad I won't be here to enjoy it. Too bad I’ll be anywhere else in the world this time around.

Ramadan Mubarek! (unless you're a sheep)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Defending Titles

It's been a while since I've offered any updates from my favourite vacation spot, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and I think it's high time that we take a peek at the recent flagrant human rights violations shenanigans carried out there in the name of Allah. I could talk about the pair of brothers who were hanged 3 weeks ago for launching an attack on a local City Hall to avenge the previous execution of their 3rd brother (ensuring a not very Happy Mother's Day for Madame Z), or the recent sentencing of a man to a de-occulation, 74 lashes & prison time for blinding another man in a scuffle. Or the 18-year old boy who was hanged for a crime he committed as a child. Or the decision to arrest anyone found eating in public during Ramadan and sentencing them to digging graves, that they might have ample opportunity to reflect upon "the prospect of death and the afterlife".

Then there's the new "Youth Police" which has been established in schools across Tehran
to prevent any possible "crimes" - speaking of schools, did I mention that male teachers have just been banned from teaching in female institutions? (As an aside I might note that prior to President Ahmadinejad's ascendancy to national politics, as mayor of Tehran one of his first acts in office was to segregate the elevators in City Hall upon gender-lines. I bet the "his" elevator plays better muzak.)

But on second thought, maybe I don't want to limit myself to the 11 executions that were held in the last 4 weeks. Maybe it's high time I de-demonize the country & highlight something quirky, unconventional and - dare I say - positive? Let us consider 29-year old doctoral candidate Laleh Seddigh who has been raising eyebrows and making headlines as Iran's First Lady of car racing. I don't use the term First Lady lightly - not only is she the first Iranian female race car driver to compete against men, but she is also the first female athlete to compete against men in any sport since the days of the Shah.

Being breathtakingly beautiful probably doesn't hurt either. I know that it's helped me over the years.

Since her request was amazingly granted, she has seen many occasions to leave her chromosome-challenged competitors choking on her dust, and went on to win the National championship where,

"she received a reminder of her status in the form of an order from the Iranian motor-racing body that she behave 'appropriately' when on the winner's podium. 'I was told to wear my manteau [a long Iranian coat designed to conceal the outlines of the body] over my racing outfit and not to talk or laugh with the male competitors.'"

... which also satisifies the fatwa (yes, there is one) that declares that there is no religious prohibition against women racing against men provided that the former adhere to the Islamic dress code. Her talent on the racetrack has attracted the likes of Subaru who offered her a sponsorship deal. She declined because it would necessitate an overseas move. Cat in Rabat would have had her bags packed before the ink was dry. In a country where some 70% of the population is under 35, she is a breath of fresh air and an avatar for young women in Iran and the world over.

And she's pissed off a lot of others along the way.

Amazed and slightly perturbed that you should be reading such an uplifting posting? Don't be. She's been banned from competing.

This is what I get for trying to be quirky, unconventional and positive. Never again.

Dismissing the "security problems" that the racing federation cited for pulling her from a recent championship race (and effectively not allowing her to defend her national title), Ms. Seddigh contends that,

"Most of the federation members were not happy to have a female champion and would have preferred a man," she said. "Since I won, they have even eliminated the winner's podium. They were afraid that I would win again and they would be obliged to show me on the podium."

Racing federation VP, Hossein Shahryari said,

"Women are speaking highly of themselves and that causes men who sacrifice their lives in this sport disappointment. Women are not champions in this sport, they are only participants. If they observed Islamic regulations more they would not have such problems."

Phew! Now this is the Iran that I know. My faith in the Republic has been restored. Ms. Seddigh may not be able to defend her title but the Islamic Republic of Iran is back on top as the biggest spoil-sport on the planet.

Tune in again next week for an itemized list of Iran's hangings.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

If I Were a God.

If I were a god or goddess (apart from being one in my own mind), what would I expect from my believers? Would I expect a dogged and literal reading of any text I may have disseminated to a chosen prophet or two over the millennia? Unlikely. Would I insist on any dietary laws, construct bizarre prohibitions against consuming specific items at the same time? I doubt it. Would I drive my faithful to distraction over inconsistencies, contradictions, and definitions of what is clean or unclean by utilizing vague heavily contextualised language in those texts that I may have disseminated to a chosen prophet or two over the millennia? No, I tend to be pretty precise. Would I allow many many centuries to go by before I updated any of those texts that I may have disseminated to a chosen prophet or two over the millennia? I'm capricious by nature but not overtly cruel.

Would I allow pictorial representations of me? Only if they were flattering.

Would I relegate women to subservient or even nonexistent roles, and turn a blind eye when their cries for freedom and equality and the right to self-expression are ignored and/or punished? Absolutely not. This god, you see, has a uterus.

Would I ask my believers to starve themselves during daylight hours, deny themselves water in spite of the fact that they may live in hot climates? I seriously doubt it. Furthermore, would I ask my faithful to seriously jeopardize their health by abjuring life-saving medication because it might conflict with this period of fasting when even a gobbet of partially swallowed toothpaste can send the devout into a paroxysm of self-reproach and dogmatic uncertainty? In a word, 'no'. So, if I'm such a benevolent and broadminded and generally flexible god (yoga helps), why would Allah - who is considered both compassionate and merciful by his followers - want his team to abstain from insulin during Ramadan? Well, it appears he doesn't. So, what's the problem?

The practice of fasting can be a matter of life or death during the holy month of Ramadan for diabetics. The practice, one of the five pillars of Islam, applies to all Muslims except those with certain illnesses. Some Algerian diabetics doggedly want to accomplish their religious duty even at the detriment of their own health, while others follow doctors' advice.

I think that Allah already has enough blood on his hands thanks to the over-zealous activities of many of his believers - clearly, he doesn't need any more dead bodies. Consider this Type I diabetic from Morocco:

"I feel an indescribable shame when I eat [during daylight hours], even though I am obeying my doctor's orders. Even though my religion allows me to refrain from fasting, as I am insulin-dependent, the remorse still haunts me. I assure you that I eat far away from the view of my family."

Hmmmm. Shame. I wonder, is it more shameful to be dead, to potentially leave your family bereft of financial support because you're too busy shagging a houri in paradise? That's a tough one.

It surprises me a bit that Allah and I (and probably every Muslim medical practitioner on the planet) are on the same page because we normally disagree about so much else. Although he has never solicited my advice on this or any other matter, I think that I would have to advise him to consider updating his material. Add a few appendices to the Koran. Toss in a concordance. Better yet, try a female prophet this time. You see, if we aren't clear on things or have any problems, for example ...

Strong drink and ... are only an infamy of Satan's handiwork. [5:90, also 2:219]. Yet on the other hand in Paradise are rivers of wine [47:15, also 83:22,25]. How does Satan's handiwork get into Paradise?

... we'd ask for clarification. Women are just better at asking for directions.

Addendum: Happy birthday Mom!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Oh Buoy!

There's an Arabic television commercial - or rather a set of commercials - doing the rounds for Lifebuoy Soap which has piqued my interest. In the first ad, a youngster returns from the soccer field dragging a host of germs & various bacteria behind him. His horrified mother, who greets him at the door of the house, is undecided as to whether she should allow her plague-stricken son (to be fair, no buboes are evident) into her sterile home but, wait - yeah! - a Scientific-Looking Lady (she is wearing a lab coat, proof of her deep-seated knowledge in science) magically appears out of the unhealthy ether with a cake of Lifebuoy Soap. As the boy takes his salubrious shower (which he clearly enjoys because he is grinning), his mother and this soap-bearing Scientific-Looking Lady share a discussion (on the other side of the curtain) about the miracle soap's cleansing and germ-killing properities.

Once clean, the youngster rushes out the door to the rough & tumble world of boys and drug-resistant bacteria while his mother shakes her head, with a June Cleaver boys-will-be-boys look plastered on her face.

The other commercial is identical save for the fact that both women are scarved. Both commercials are aired on the same network. Interesting? - maybe not, but I think it is.

Now in my miniscule mind, there's a fine line between identifying your audience and sending mixed messages. Lifebuoy Soap (or Unilever, its evil parent company) is clearly targeting the Muslim Family in 2 of its 4 manifestations. The other 2? - to my knowledge, they have yet to produce an ad with a burqa'd Mom & Scientific-Looking Lady, nor have they scripted a commercial for the woman in purdah - wherein only the son is shown lathering up to a soundtrack of the conversing (but invisible) women. Perhaps they're in the can (the 2 latter commercials, not the women).

Is the lesson to be drawn from this is that, in Islam, you can pick and choose your beliefs and interpretations? Unilever might agree but I doubt that the Islamic Republic of Iran would. Is it possible that Islam is just as schizophrenic, laissez-faire, hypocritical and/or enlightened (you choose) as the other Faiths of the Book, and that advertisers are just as eager to take advantage of it? Undoubtedly.

With this in mind, I found it rather interesting that the Moroccan Education Ministry, under pressure from women's rights groups, recently decided to rip out a photograph of a veiled girl from textbooks, along with an inconvenient little hadith in the hopes of curbing fundamentalism among young people. The hadith in question is:

And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands' fathers, or their sons or their husbands' sons, or their brothers or their brothers' sons or sisters' sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour, or children who know naught of women's nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed (24:31).

I suppose this means that girls will now be encouraged to stamp their feet as well. Hopefully teachers will be equipped with earplugs. The article goes on to say that,

"Morocco approved in 2004 one of the most progressive laws on women's and family rights in the Arab world. It has also started promoting changes to school curricula - reportedly scrapping references to 'jihad' in Islamic textbooks, among other things - following the 9/11 attacks on the US."

Now, I'm not saying that this is a bad thing - quite the contrary. But all of this picking and choosing when it comes to what the Prophet said (because there appears to be no "may have said" in Islam) puzzles me. I thought there was little room for negotiation, especially on the state level. I understand an Islamic government turning a blind eye to certain things (like the sale of alcohol for instance) but when a hadith is removed from an existing school textbook - well, I think our Imam would be aghast!

Undoubtedly there will be a backlash from the Islamicist-Fundos who will use this as proof that the Moroccan government is going to hell in a handbasket. Removing the hadith from textbooks is a Band-aid solution to the problem - afterall, the hadith exists in other written forms. Like the Qur'an. Can the Moroccan government rewrite the Qu'ran? Hardly. What the government has to do is to find a way to encourage more moderate interpretations to this and other hadiths rather than pluck it out of one source (for example, revisiting the haram status of dogs - especially seeing-eye dogs). Or they could try to de-politicise terms like jihad (which is not a tool for conversion or mass-murder but rather every Muslim's obligation to defend religious freedom (!) & the oppressed, or to be used in self-defense). Or perhaps recontextualise the Qu'ran (the veil has more to do with the fashion trends of the Byzantine empire than Qu'ranic modesty- it's 2006 after all ...)?

How difficult can it be to disseminate a de-literalised, de-politicised & recontextualised Qu'ran without incurring a nice fat fatwa? Piece of cake.

Speaking of cake, I'm off to have a quick shower. Can anyone tell me why there's a Scientific-Looking Lady at my door?

Friday, October 6, 2006

A Cautionary Traveller's Tale Saga of Woe with Unchristian Themes in Three Parts with an Edifying Moral for a Conclusion

Caveat: I don't use the word saga lightly. If you are still desirous of reading this epic journey, put on the kettle. Or better yet, pour yourself a gin & tonic. If you are a Muslim, do not read this until after sunset when you can make yourself a nice cup of tea.


Alas, I am back.

It is a trusim of travel that more often that not, one bad day can effectively erase all the salubrious effects of your sun-drenched hours of general wantonness and inebriation. Not convinced? Permit me to give you an example.

Part the First: Spain

There is a seemingly well-kept secret in Spain that the schedules for all methods of public transportation change on October 1st of any given year. Indeed, so well-kept is this secret that the scheduling amanuenses of both paper and on-line timetables are themselves not apprised of these changes in a timely manner, nor do they feel it incumbent to add an informative little asterisk to their schedules with a footnote that says “dates & times effective until September 30th”. So should you check the online timetable for any of Spain’s major bus line on, say, the 4th of October, there is a good chance that there will be no bus waiting for you at what you thought was the appointed time. Combine this with the stultifying traffic that sits like a parking lot on the only 2 lanes into Malaga’s downtown core, and you might find 2 very disgruntled people realizing that their 11:00 connecting bus to Algeciras is nothing but some ephemeral illusion conjured up by those capricious transportation gods to taunt ill-advised travellers. Never trust a Spanish timetable outside of summer hours – never!

The subsequent bus to Algeciras was pleasingly without incident and we arrived in town just in time to watch the 2:00 ferry to Tangier give us its metaphorical finger as it slipped out of harbour. No worries, the bus station in Algeciras was now equipped with a ferry ticket office so should there be a 2:30 crossing, we could nab a ticket quickly. Nope, there was no ferry until 3:00 (and, grrrrrrr, it’s a slow boat) but that’s okay because, with tickets in hand, we could take our time getting to the port. Now at the port we are somewhar concerned at the dearth of passengers and employees in the debarkation lounge; indeed, there were none save us. We returned to the general ticket area and, knowing full well that unlike Spanish timetables, pixel boards never lie, we found that the boat on which we were booked didn't depart until 10:00. We will arrive in Tangier at 11 p.m and will have missed both connecting trains to Rabat. This made for a minor but effusive exchange of some rather blue language between me and Mr. Cat in Rabat.

We found the kiosk for our now-10:00 ferry and the attendant courteously assured us that we had been misinformed. A quick phone call confirmed that the ticket seller at the bus station had not been apprised of the changes to the summer schedule. (Repeat: Never trust a Spanish timetable outside of summer hours – never!). We noted that other ferry lines – as the pixel board assured us – had ferries running at 5:00 so we requested a refund and were told (surprisingly) that this was possible but that we wuld have to go back to the issuing agent. This made for yet another minor but effusive exchange of some rather blue language between me and Mr. Cat in Rabat. I decide It is decided that I should wait in the station with our prodigious number of bags of alcohol (& our 2 paltry knapsacks) while Mr. Cat in Rabat trudged back to the bus terminal. On his jubilant return we explored 2 options: a fast ferry at 5:30 that would get us in at 4:30 (Morocco time) and a ferry that departs from Tarifa (a geographical point closer to Morocco) at 5:00 that would get us in at 3:30. The latter option would necessitate taking a bus to Tarifa.

Confused? – don’t be.

We boarded the bus to Tarifa (movement, even on a bus, is always preferable to inertia) and spent our last hour in Spain watching, or rather listening, to the giant windmills that pepper the hills from Tarifa to Algeciras whisper to us “stay, don’t go back, stayyyyyyy.”. By 5:00 we were drinking the first of our last legal alcoholic beverages as we forlornly watched the coast of Andalucía slip away. To add insult to injury, the duty-free was poorly stocked. Could this day get any worse?

Part the Second: Morocco

Making fabulous time and not looking like the hashish-bearing mules that we really are, we passed easily through Customs. On the way out of the port, I suggested that we ignore the torrent of offers hurled from cabbies and check the bus times before engaging a taxi for the train station. The CTM office is at the port’s entrance and – yes! – a bus leaves at 4:45 so we reject the 5:30 train. I inwardly smile at the thought of arriving in Agdal before 10:00 but alas, I will be smited for my hubris. I always am. In front of us was a group of women buying their tickets from a gentleman seated behind the counter. Their conversation was the usual mixture of French and Arabic which meant that I could comprehend about 25% of it. At best. On a very good day. As we looked on, the gentleman behind the desk doled out the Alpha female’s change in coin. She looked at it and quite calmly advised him that he owed her more for she had paid with a 200 dirham note which I readily corroborated. The gentleman slammed his fist down on the desk, screamed something in some obscene dialect of Arabic, got up, heaved his chair into the counter and left the vestibule. We all looked at each other in disbelief, not quite knowing what the problem was. Had his cash drawer jammed, had his computer crashed, was he just an asshole, was he having a less than karim Ramadan?

We heard his foul utterances before he reappeared, this time with another gentleman in tow. They both looked at whatever is hidden away from our view under the counter: a computer, a ticket printer, a cash drawer, an image of Mohammed (pbuh) that had mysteriously appeared on a post-it note. The new gentleman shrugged, our gentleman responded by screaming again. For good measure, he got up and kicked the counter. He wore nasty shoes. Not only were we taken aback, but we stepped back. Perhaps this gentleman needed his dates and glass of milk now. Ramadan does bring out the worst in some people. Gesticulating hysterically, he disappeared again. When he finally returned, he had with him our second gentleman and a third who, if he were an actor would be condemned to play the role of Village Idiot in every performance of his career. As he was
clearly not a thespian, I suspected that he was in fact the Village Idiot, or possibly the janitor. Either way, he appeared to have lacked any technical skills. He drooled and his few teeth were brown & spotty (not that you can't be an electrical engineer with less than stellar oral hygiene skills). All three peered at whatever was under the counter as if some previously unknown life form had just materialised before their eyes, sprouted wings from its head and took a huge crap. Gentleman #1 continued his obscene invectives while the other two looked on blankly and scratched their heads in unison. Gentleman #1 eventually broke ranks and began to pound the counter again and then gave it one more rather thunderous kick with his nasty shoe and disappeared.

“Right,” I said. “Off to the train station”

With that, we left the CTM office (with not a few burning thoughts about Gentleman #1’s next performance appraisal and whether the ladies ever got their tickets and correct change) and entered Tangier proper in search of a taxi. Did I say taxi? – I meant an elusive taxi. As it was slowly approaching fitr (the breaking of the fast), the port city’s ubiquitous taxis were, well, decidedly less ubiquitous. One might even say nonexistent. Perched on a street corner, we watched despondently as fewer and fewer taxis (all full) sped by in their rush for a bowl of harira soup. Finally a grand taxi stopped and offered to take us to the train station for the unbelievably low fare of 20 dirhams (for the two of us!!) – so unbelievably that I was a little surprised and a bit disappointed that he hadn’t robbed us and slit our throats on the way.

With train tickets in hand, we sat on the floor of the train station and waited. It had been an aggravating and rather long day but this wasn’t so awful – we’d get into Agdal by 10:00. As it turned out, we only had to share our compartment with one other traveller – a consummate snorer who insisted on displaying his talents to us the moment the train left the station. The train sped off into a gorgeous sunset when the lights & air conditioning went out. And on. And out. And on. And out. At one point, the lights flickered on & off 6 times while I was reading the same sentence. In a brief moment of light, an attendant came by offering us dates to break our fast, which we accepted knowing that we wouldn't touch them. A food cart whizzed by our door and we began to entertain the hope of real food being served in the not so distant future. We would not see the food trolley again for several hours.

For the next 45 minutes of this exceptional sound & light show (on, off, on, off), the periods of darkness were punctuated with shadowy figures racing down the corridors with flashlights, hoping to fix the malfunction. Alas, the only engineer who proved to be on board was the one driving the train and our conductors were clearly not up to the challenge of changing a fuse. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Our hunger got the best of us and Mr. Cat in Rabat broke open the dates. Finally, the train was hurled into complete darkness – oh, but no so complete. We learned that – what an educational experience this has been – nothing is truly darker than an unlit train hurtling through an equally unlit tunnel at night. Would one of the travellers in our car be found dead when we exited the tunnel? Was Hercule Poirot on board? We hoped so.

On we sped into an African night bereft of light – pitch dark except for the full-ish moon which was intense enough to illuminate my book but not so bright as to render it legible. O heartless moon! As we passed village after village I could not help thinking back to the overnight train I had taken many years ago from Cairo to Aswan – what the locals sardonically called the hawaga train, as it was the only train that (at least in the early 90’s) a foreigner (or hawaga) was allowed to take non-stop from one end of the country to the other. This was in response to the growing unrest and terrorist activities emanating from extremist groups in Middle Egypt. The Egyptian government, in its infinite wisdom, thought that foreigners would be safer if they were all grouped together on one train and in the same first-class cars as they passed through these hotbeds of violence. Before you contradict their omniscience, they added an extra degree of safety by turning out the lights as the train hurled through Middle Egypt – because apparently, that would have fooled those brainless terrorist cells.

I was scared shitless.

But not on this night. I was just annoyed, not least of all because the food trolley has not returned but the darkness and the gentle swaying of the train was lulling me to sleep – oh! the gentle swaying had stopped. We were not moving. We were sitting on a siding. In the dark. Waiting for another, more important train, to pass by. But no need to get exasperated – 35 minutes just whizzes by when you can’t read and you’re starving and you know that the food trolley can’t be far away.

Suddenly the lights turned back on and the train chugged tentatively forward. Within 20 minutes we were at Sidi Kacem, a connection for passengers bound for Fes. We sat. We were plunged once again in darkness. For a reason not apparent to us at the time (or any time for that matter), our train chose to make Sidi Kacem its home for the next 45 minutes. Trains came and went, we sat patiently off to the side, forgotten, in darkness, unloved. Finally our train erupted with a not very assuring fart, the lights flickered on, and we’re off to Rabat. Perhaps because we were now about 1 ½ hours late, our engineer set the train to Warp Factor 5 and we flew through the night, arriving in Agdal and only 45 minutes late
(although a pessimist might say a full 16 hours after leaving our hotel in Spain).

A sign at the station advised passengers waiting in Agdal that our train was late, which in French is en retard. More accurately, our train was just retarded.

I would have kissed the ground had it not been strewn with garbage.

Part the Third: the Moral of the Story

Gentle reader, it is my intention that this humble travelogue should serve as a cautionary tale to those escaping the sin-laden wiles and unreliable timetables of Spain in the pursuit of spiritual succour in a Ramadan-imbued Morocco. The careful reader will see that it is, in fact, a how-not-to. The more astute reader will surmise that it is more prudent to just stay in Spain. But the truth is that I’ll make the same crossing and the same inane series of connections & misconnections again. And again. For in reality, there are only 3 buses, 1 ferry, 1 taxi and 1 train that separate me from the sand, sun, and sangria of Spain.


Monday, October 2, 2006

An Andalucían Haiku

Sun, sand, sangria:
I find no Ramandan here.
Topless on the beach.

(Cat in Rabat blushes; Mr. Cat in Rabat grins)