Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Some like It Hot (or Let Them Eat Cake)

... or bread. Or baguettes. Or croissants. It's all good.

Most likely I will be disinherited by my mother for the preamble of this blog, but the truth is, when I was growing up my friends and I - as well as the knife-wielding fishwives of 18th century France - were generally deprived of decent bread. This is by no means an indictment of my mother; she was a full-time working mother in a time when women like her were still seen as mavericks and the fact that we had hot sit-down meals every night of the week is a testament to the excellence of her time management skills and freakish indefatigability. For special occasions (and I suspect, when there was a sale at the grocery store), we got Pillsbury crescent rolls, apple danishes (with "frosting") and slice-and-bake chocolate chip cookies (mmmm, the cookie dough that requires no baking).

Pillsbury products - with all of their attendant preservatives, chemicals and hydrogenated oils - were considered a great treat. When else did we get bread (or a bread-like product) hot out of the oven? It wouldn't be until I reached adulthood that one could buy wholesome flavourful bread at the grocery store: my childhood was sadly bereft of 7-Grain bread, Molasses Brown bread, an
d Whole Wheat & Oats bread. We had Wonder bread or a reasonable (or unreasonable) facsimile. On the whole, bread sucked.

Had I grown up in Morocco - not a feasible alternative to southern Ontario since it would have made for a nasty work commute for both of my parents - the situation would have been patently different. The Whole Wheat & Oats bread may not have been the bread of choice for my peanut butter sandwiches, but we would (or could) have had fresh bread daily and lots of it. Most Moroccan families eat 6 to 8 loaves of bread (generally round flat bread) a day - enough to make the Doughboy giggle 'til the cows come home.

Thanks to the prophet Mohammed, bread is imbued with a sacredness that prohibits its leftovers from being discarded haphazardly; with a brief prayer it must be set out of the path of oncoming and disrespectful feet. It is therefore not uncommon to see bags of bread (in various states of consumption) hugging the edges of Rabat's walls and gardens.

Here, bread can be acquired at boulangeries (as upscale or not as one wishes), grocery stores, or home-made, baked in one’s own oven. If you don’t have a suitable bread oven in your home (I know I don’t) there is a third option. You can prepare your own dough, mark it with your own design or seal, and bring or send it to the neighbourhood public oven.

Even in Agdal, three doors down from where I live (somewhat anachronistically just past the surf shop) is one such oven. A woodburning one, no less. From dawn until dusk, my street is abuzz with women, children, and restaurant workers bearing cloth-covered trays of bread dough on their way to and from the furan. It took me several passings-by and a few impolite stares before I realized what the building was. Set deep within a paved courtyard – where customers stop to chat and a surprisingly nimble pet turtle does his laps – and behind a tall metal gate, the bright orange flames of the oven can be seen from the sidewalk, the baker a veritable Vulcan at work at his forge. Faggots of tree branches are stacked outside the walls of the bakery, while lining its inside walls are rough wooden shelves where dough patiently awaits its metamorphosis into khobz, bread.

Because I pass the communal oven several times a day, my olfactory senses are regaled – if not besieged – with the fragrance of baking bread, a heady and stomach-teasing aroma which hangs over the street. Except for that one brief period last summer when the oven emitted a disturbing and not least of all sickening odour which, in my mind’s nose, was reminiscent of the roasting sheep skulls which are raked over open fires during the Eid El Kebir's - or The Great Sheep Slaughter - festivities. I can only assume that a couple of neighbourhood kids were stuffed into the oven Hansel & Gretel-like and roasted for a few weeks. That I can live with – just not more dead sheep.

Nonetheless, that was an aberration.

Its existence in my fairly prosperous neighbourhood is a constant reminder that not only does Morocco exist on several levels but that it does so concomitantly. Poorly-shod children pass by the provocatively undressed pretty-young-things on their way to the oven; the bread of restaurants and cafes bake cheek-to-jowl with that of women whose caftans hide their flannel pyjamas and slippered feet. It is medieval and modern; convenient and importune. An antiquated blip on Morocco’s map towards modernity.

If the gates of the Underworld were once believed to be an innocuous hole in the ground, marked by the telltale stench of sulphur & brimstone, then this neighbourhood oven is its antithesis. Apart from the evident malodorous roasting of children last summer, its fiery maw is both benign and salubrious and, I believe, directly responsible for the 3 kilos I’ve put on since I arrived in Morocco. Ahhh, maybe there’s a little bit of hell in there after all.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Pulling the Plug

Does this photo look familiar? If it does, you are probably a female who entered adolescence in the late 60's or early 70's. This pamphlet (or one just like it) likely made its appearance during an excruciatingly uncomfortable private talk with your mother or distributed to a special girls-only "health class".

Did it get you all enthused and excited about your imminent crossing over the threshold of girlhood to womanhood? It scared the crap out of me and caused me endless worries - not least of which was the fact that there was no way on hell or earth that I could aspire to our young model's hairdo. Mary Tyler Moore Junior, I was not.

In light of this walk down menstruation memory lane, this week I had what must have been the strangest conversation with a Moroccan woman I've had since I arrived in this country. A colleague beckoned me into a private area, ensured that the cone of silence was in place, and asked if she could ask me a personal question. It was about tampons.

Wow. I can only suppose that since the unveiling of my Maghreb Maxi-Slipper - for there has been little else talked about in Morocco - I am now seen as a Menstruation Maven.

Her question it seemed was not hers but that of a male friend (hitherto known as the he-friend). Hmmm. The he-friend confided in her that his girlfriend (
hitherto known as the she-friend) had admitted to him that she routinely uses not one but two tampons at a time during her monthly pursuits. Thinking that this was strange (i.e., the notion that she double-dipped rather than the fact that she even broached the topic in the first place), he approached my colleague. Is this normal? he asked. Since my colleague does not avail herself of this method of personal hygiene, she came to me, the creator of the Maghreb Maxi-Slipper. I admitted that I had never heard of anyone doing such a thing (if my flow were that heavy, I'd be crawling to my gynaecologist on broken glass begging for a radical hysterectomy), and intimated that she was not telling me the whole story.

My colleague reluctantly admitted that the she-friend had instructed the he-friend that by routinely wearing 2 tampons at once (no doubt in conjunction with horseback riding, vigorous aerobics, and bungee jumping), she had probably inadvertently ruptured her hymen. The little dim light in my head finally clicked on. He wants to know, my colleague confessed, whether she's still a virgin or whether (and here I paraphrase) it's all a crock of poo? She then added, He wants to believe her. So, I said, Do everyone a favour and tell him what he wants to hear.

Insert flashback to my 16th year. My mother - having just been asked to pick me up a box of torpedoes, shakes her head and offers this little gem: In my day only married women wore tampons.

Resume story. At times it's hard to imagine that in Morocco's capital city, where young women routinely wear hip-hugging jeans so low that much of what makes a plumber a plumber can be seen at 20 paces, that virginity is still such a hot button.
Although recent reforms in family law have given Moroccan women more rights than those in most Arab countries, a woman's chastity as a prerequisite for marriage remains. This is especially true in Morocco's rural areas and city slums. The reality is that Moroccan women are under just as much pressure (from their boyfriends as well as the provocative images flashed across their television screens via their new satellite dishes) to engage in premarital sex as women everywhere else in the world. If they don't put out, their boyfriends will seek more willing fields to plough, procure the services of the city's prostitutes, or engage in "temporary" homosexual activities. Their options are simple: keep their legs crossed (and hope for the speedy approach of a proposal & wedding date); open their legs (and hope to Allah that there is no pregnancy); or offer up their nether region's other orifice. Needless to say, anal sex is a rather common alternative to its vaginal counterpart: there is no fear of pregnancy or a nasty post-coital "where's the blood" fiasco.

And what of that blood? I've spoken to many Moroccan men who are sexually active and they are uniform in their desire to bed a virgin. In other words, the girls they're schtupping now don't have a snowball's chance in hell of becoming Mrs. Ahmed Double-Standard. So what's a girl to do if she wants to have her cake & sleep with it too? - hymen reconstruction surgery.

For just a few thousand dirhams (about $300), a young woman of questionable morals (but enviable experience) can come to one of Rabat's private gyno-clinics and have a hymenoplasty, wherein biodegradable suture clips are surgically attached to what remains of her hymen. One wedding night poke and voila! blood. New Husband is happy. If the bride lives in an area of the country that still practises the Sabah ceremony (the very public raising of the flag of the sodden bedsheets) then Everyone is happy.

With the growth of a middle-class in Morocco and the continued embrace of western culture and mores, restrictions on premarital sex are slowly lifting. But for those in other regions and from other income brackets, the loss of virginity for a girl often leaves her no other option then to turn to prostitution. It comes as no surprise that sexual assaults are often unreported because of the stigma attached to the victim. She is no longer a virgin and therefore virtually un-marriable - although families sometimes offer her rapist the opportunity to marry her and make an honest woman of her. Lucky lucky girl.

Until then, I'm glad that my colleague's he-friend's she-friend has enjoyed a sexually active life before marriage. Chances are that all of her boyfriends and male relatives are doing the same - the problem, of course, is that as the Teflon Gender, they can indulge their passions with zero repercussions. Will using 2 tampons at once destroy a woman's virtue? Unless the tampons are 12 inches long, it's unlikely. Of course this is a moot point since she-friend isn't using 2 tampons at all, is she? But I admire her ingenuity and her reluctance to drop 3000 dirhams on a virginity restoration procedure. As the Menstruation Maven, I might suggest that she pick up a bar of Virginity Soap - I always keep one on hand in case of emergencies. As for their
fiancés, the Mr. Double Standards of Morocco, perhaps they can thank Allah for the women who have condescended to marry them and wait until they get to Paradise to despoil their 72 virgins.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Young Max: Soon to be a Moroccan Classic

Like most Cats Of Mystery, I take great pains to conceal my true identity so that I might wander the streets of Agdal anonymously and unhindered in order to distribute kitty food to the city's scrawnier felines. Nonetheless, there are a handful of you in the city who can place face to name, and one of you has broken your code of silence by asking me to blog about an incident which I had recently relayed to her. I normally don't accept "requests" but that has more to do with the fact that no one knows who I am rather than any sort of high blog-groundism on my part. I am, after all, a Cat of Mystery.

A colleague of mine teaches young children, pre-teens. A few weeks ago, in a class about emotions, one girl raised her hand to say that she had something to be happy about, that her parents had just given her a new puppy. She had named it Max - a pretty groovy name for a Moroccan pup.

*Sigh* Yes, this is a dog story and I bet you know already that it isn't going to have a happy ending. If, like me, you were traumatized by Old Yeller as a child, I suggest you stop reading now and go here. You have been warned.

To resume our story of horror. Last Saturday, my colleague noticed that the once ebullient little girl was rather glum and had not participated in class all morning. She asked the little girl if everything was okay, and the child responded with this tale of woe (I warned you):

Max was dead. (I warned you). The little girl's grandfather had visited the previous week and the Evil Grandfather (as he will now be known) doesn't like dogs. The fact that Evil Grandfather doesn't live with the family and visits sporadically is inconsequential. Evil Grandfather simply doesn't like dogs. So Evil Grandfather took Max and dragged him out into the street and anchored the pup's leash to the road with a rock. Evil Grandfather returned to the house and compelled the little girl to look out the window and watch as a passing car struck and killed the dog. (I warned you).

In the arcadian fairytale kingdom that I live in (where people are intrinsically good), I'd like to think that the driver of the car that ultimately hit Max swerved to avoid him. Of course, people like the Evil Grandfather would have long been banished from my realm, making this entire paragraph moot.

So as the little girl sobbed and heaved and convulsed to her story's conclusion (with the teacher generously matching her tear for tear), a classmate of hers broke out into peels of laughter. Perhaps the beastly boy thought that she was on the cusp of a punchline or perhaps he's as evil (albeit in a shortened condensed form) as the Evil Grandfather. The teacher erred on the side of caution by accepting the situation's most logical interpretation and tore the Mother of all Strips off the loathsome child for his callousness and insensitivity.

I don't mind telling you that I was bawling by the end of this tale. This was like Old Yeller and The Yearling all rolled into one horrible flashback in which, as a child, I realized that I would never understand a grown-up's world.

As a Cat of Mystery, I guess I'll have to keep one eye on Agdal's roads for condemned pups on my nightly rounds. As if I didn't have enough to worry about. This winter's kittens are just weeks away from going into heat themselves.

Alas, there is no happy ending to this story (I warned you) unless I can sell the movie rights for "Young Max" to Disney and finally make my fortune. Since that's rather unlikely, the only thing we can hope for is that Evil Grandfather will live to a long ripe age and when the little girl is all grown up, she'll drag Evil Grandfather out into the street and anchor his jellaba down with a rock. Then, behind the wheel of her Fiat, she'll gun the engine and just as she lets loose on grandpa cries out, "This one's for you Max!"

Monday, February 12, 2007

A Streetcar Named Bica*: an Addendum of Sorts

A week or so ago, I was handed a copy of Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua's "The Liberated Bride" and last night, quite by chance, a certain passage lept from the page and slapped me hard in the face. Not literally of course because that would be stretching the boundaries of literary license as well as be awfully painful (and reading should be pleasurable) whereas a papercut would be both plausible to my readership and still be pretty nasty. Nonetheless, it was a nonliteral bitch slap.

The novel's protagonist is a Professor of Near Eastern Studies (which I once aspired to be) with a specialty in modern Algerian history (which I never aspired to have). In the course of his quest to find a link between the country's very modern propensity for violence and civil war, and their not as modern colonial & post-colonial heritage, he notes:

When an entire people is linguistically confused, what hope is there for dialogue and communication?

Four languages mingle in Algerian life, leading to a chaotic identity:

First there is the Berber, the indigenous language of the Maghreb, spoken by close to a third of the population.

Second there is North African Arabic, known to every Algerian.

These two languages are oral media not used for writing, even though Berber once had a written form.

The two written languages of Algeria are French and classical literary Arabic. Neither, however, is a modern tongue. Both are in effect foreign languages. Classical Arabic comes with Islamization and French with Western colonialism. The first arrived as a sacred tongue, the second as a secular one.

It is obvious that, historically considered, reading and writing are forms of submission and penetration that create an intricate dialectic between the individual and the written language. To write in French is to betray. To write in Arabic is to profane.

... The complexity of the situation is problematic for every Algerian. Fully living an Algerian identity means knowing four languages, being at home in four cultures, and adapting to four different psychological standpoints.

Practically speaking, only 10 percent of the population of Algeria is proficient in all four languages. Such a small group is unable to bring about an integration of four different worlds. And even if such an integration were possible, it would be inaccessible to the majority of Algerians.

... and so we have a situation in which different sectors of social activity, having no common language, remain totally distinct. Classical Arabic is the language of religion. French is used for economic, administrative, and scientific purposes. North African Arabic and Berber are spoken in the street and in the family. This is the great curse of the Algerian identity. It's not that such an identity doesn't exist, but that it is linguistically fragmented beyond any possibility of synthesis.

I could comment on this further and hamfistedly draw parallels to Morocco (perhaps even throwing in a PowerPoint demonstration or two) for the benefit of any inordinantly obtuse readers lurking about in Cat in RabatWorld, but I know there aren't any. You're all a terribly clever lot.

Interesting, no?

*This time the photo isn't Bica but it is a streetcar. It would seem that I'm having a difficult time coordinating blog titles and photographs. If you're curious (and I doubt you are), this is Lisbon's #28 tram which meanders through the Baixa to the Alfama.

Friday, February 9, 2007

A Brief Disquisition into Gender Issues in Morocco

(or how I get the short end of the stick at my hair salon)

Because Mr. Cat in Rabat's French is less than stellar and since mine is a few degrees higher than non-existent, I normally accompany him to his barber so that he might avail himself of my interpretative skills. I confess that once acquited of my duties (i.e., advising the barber that Mr. CinR wanted "the same but shorter"), I 'd normally confine my attentions to the stack of Paris Match magazines in the waiting area (because one can never know enough about the Grimaldi Family), punctuated by furtive glances at my watch (because apparently one can).

Yesterday was his third visit and things didn't bode well for me. I was perturbed (and I confessed a bit miffed) to find that the current selection of magazines was especially dreary: I had either read them already (or more accurately looked at the pictures), or they featured people I had never heard of before. Having no all-consuming desire to expand my knowledge of French film stars and politicians, I turned my attentions to Mr. CinR's haircut.

Reader: his haircut took 45 minutes. Forty-five minutes! To add insult to injury, despite the fact that his hair is a smidgen shorter than mine, his coupe eclipsed mine by a quarter of an hour. And what did this extra 15 minutes buy him? Allow me to recreate the process as established by The World's Most Meticulous Barber:

1) Round 1 haircut with electric razor (back & sides of head only)
2) Round 2 haircut with scissors

3) Brief inspection of Mr. CinR's head
4) Round 3 haircut with micro-serrated scissors
5) Round 4 haircut with electric razor
6) Round 5 haircut with straight razor
7) Ear hair trim with scissors
8) Eyebrow trim with scissors (Mr. CinR has a unibrow so this is a good thing)
9) Nose hair trim with scissors
10) Neck hair trim (lovingly referred to as 'wolf hairs' by Mr. CinR) with electric razor
11) Round 1 Goatee trim with electric scissor
12) Round 2 Goatee trim with straight razor
13) Shampoo & towelling
14) The presentation of a box of Q-tips that Mr. CinR may dry his ears
15) Blow-dry
16) Penultimate inspection of Mr. CinR's head
17) Final scissor trim (straight-edge and micro-serrated)
18) Final inspection of Mr. CinR's head
19) Judicious application of pomade
20) Thundering Round of Applause by Cat in Rabat

Looking over this prodigious list, I am amazed that the whole thing only took 45 minutes. It put the 28-minute haircut that I received this week to shame, especially since I watched in horror as my stylist dropped her comb and scissors, then picked them up and resumed the cut. I highly doubt that The World's Most Meticulous Barber would have done the same. He probably would have begun again from scratch.

Oh! - did I mention that his haircut costs 55 dirhams (5 €) while mine is 150 (13€)? There is an engrained gender bias in the haircutting industry in North America, which (as a short-coiffed female) has never tipped in my favour. Mr. CinR & I used to frequent the same salon in Canada and he would generally pay 50% less than me for a similar cut. This revelation isn't anything new; it is not even particularly revealing. With the plethora of chi-chi hair salons in Rabat (in which no self-respecting man would consider casting his shadow), I was somewhat perturbed that my experiences thus far pale in comparison to those of my husband. Don't get me wrong: I'm not looking for a free eyebrow plucking or a bikini wax - I don't need a quickie Brazilian between the shampoo and cut ... but still!

The moral of the story: Next time I'm shanghaied into providing interpretation services for Mr. CinR at his barbershop, I'm bringing a book. It's just too painful to watch. Better yet, it's high time he learn how to say "the same but shorter" in French.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Slippery Slope

I have a love affair (of sorts) with the slipper. I walk in the door and the first thing I do (depending on the demands of my bladder) is kick off my shoes (or more accurately flip-flops) and sink my feet into a pair of comfy slippers. It is my belief that the wearing of slippers is a hallmark of an advanced civilisation. Not surprisingly, I come from a long line of slipper-wearers; growing up in a town which actually had slipper manufacturers (note the plural), a Saturday trip to a slipper factory outlet was not unheard of. My mother (who keeps spare pairs of slippers on hand for unexpected guests) and I have long sung the praises of the humble slipper to Mr. Cat in Rabat (code for "after our constant badgering"), and finally last month were able to usher him into the Age of Enlightenment; he too now wears slippers.

In Morocco, you can buy 2 types of slippers: either local babouches or "western" slippers. Not surprisingly, babouches cost significantly less than their imported brethren and, because they are made of leather, are far more durable. Versatile creatures, they can be worn out of doors or utilized as house slippers, and come in a myriad of colours to match every jellaba and kaftan. In addition, it is considered de rigueur to select a size three times too big for your feet. Don't ask me why - perhaps Moroccans, even at the age of 90, possess an optimism that they'll eventually grow into them. The problem is, I don't wear leather (one of the many vagaries of a vegetarian lifestyle) and I'm not a huge fan of footwear that flap flap flaps when you walk. Ever look at the cracked, calloused heels of someone who wears a mule-style slipper for extended lengths of time? Not a pretty sight. My apathy - or rather antipathy - for the babouche has already been well documented on a highly respectable blog so I won't beat that mule horse to death.

That leaves me the western slipper - manufactured God knows where (probably in some country that grinds tigers' testicles into an aphrodisiac so they can add to their already swelling population) - and with an eye to quality that rivals my ability to colour within the lines when I was three. Plus, by Moroccan standards (and since my paycheque is inconveniently not issued in Euros or dollars, this is a concern for me), they are rather expensive. Very expensive when you consider that they last for about 3 months before they are rendered unwearable.

What can you do?

Glad you asked. Just the other day, I received my
Journey Woman newsletter and it seems that a particularly crafty individual has created a renewable slipper resource. Since I cannot do justice to the description, I quote directly:

You need four maxipads to make a pair of slippers. Two of them get laid out flat, one for the right foot, the other for the left. Then the other two pads wrap around the toe area to form the tops. Tape or glue each side of the top pieces to the bottom of each of the foot parts. Decorate the tops with whatever you desire.

P.S. These slippers are not only soft and hygenic (sic), they have non-slip grip strips on the soles.

Now why the hell didn't I think of that? - hygienic and non-grip! Always looking for a supplementary source of income and wanting nothing more than world peace and to become a business tycoon, I'm going to design a co
uple of prototypes but with a marked Moroccan flair: perhaps sew on a few beads & sequins, add a jaunty tassel or two, stencil on a couple of Moroccan arches, maybe even henna on a khamsa hand. This is definitely going to make me rich. This is far more viable than my scheme to market camel milk to impotent Moroccans: for one thing, the start-up costs are far lower and I won't have to regularly lay fresh straw down on my living room floor. These slippers will sell themselves to fashion-conscious Moroccans, tourists (always searching for that quintessential but inexpensive souvenir), menstruating women caught short, and Morocco's six other vegetarians.

Imagine that a guest arrives unexpectedly at your home and the unthinkable has happened: they have forgotten their slippers! How embarrassing for everyone! Out comes one of my fabulous one-of-a-kind (at least until they're mass-produced) creations and your sticky situation is solved! They're self-adjustable so one-size fits all! But make sure that your guests peel back the adhesive strip themselves so they'll have the peace of mind knowing that, although their slippers may be loaners, they have never been used. When they leave, simply flush the slippers away. No mess, no fuss!

I know that a few of you are reading this post with some degree of scepticism but the rest of you – those who possess keen business acumen like myself – recognize my venture as a thing of profound insight and guaranteed through-the-roof profits. To invest in the Maghreb Maxi-Slipper Company, kindly e-mail cat_is_a_freaking_genius@yahoo.ca.

Monday, February 5, 2007

A Streetcar Named Bica*

A few weeks ago, Mr. Cat in Rabat and I found ourselves leaning against a railing in a subway train in Madrid when I suddenly had one of those rare (for me) epiphanic moments wherein the obvious is suddenly charged with great import.

"Look!" I cried (and probably possibly pointed rather rudely). "Everyone is reading!"

And they were; for the most part, all of our fellow metro passengers were reading books, newspapers and to a lesser degree, magazines.

"So?" Mr. CinR responded. "That's normal."

Lisbon was much the same. On trams, buses, subways and funiculars (like Bica above) alike, commuters were reading. I tried (unsuccessfully) not to gawk at this alien race of people intently staring at the wads of bound paper in their hands. In every city we visited, bookstores successfully competed with clothing stores and cafés, each boasting its own speciality, each with multilingual sections, each packed with browsing & paying customers. Such bliss!

"Is it?” I wondered. Cripes, it is. Where have I been?


Official statistics indicate that Morocco has a 38% illiteracy rate although those in the know (and not on the government payroll) suggest that this number is too low. Nevertheless, Morocco has made great strides in recent years to combat illiteracy. In 2005, UNESCO ranked Morocco 124th out of 177 for its overall literacy. Less than 50 years ago, the rate was a staggering 80%. The “March Towards Light" campaign was inaugurated in 2003 with the objective of keeping kids in school and eradicating illiteracy by the year 2015. At that time, a staggering 3 out of 5 women could not read or write; their numbers swell to 2 out of 3 in rural parts of the country.

It is a laudable but ambitious goal (projected numbers have proved a little over optimistic) considering that the inability to read isn’t the only problem facing campaign organizers: Morocco is not a nation of readers. With the exception of Koranic tracts, newspapers (of which there are 700 in the country with a total readership of a scant 300,000) and the odd Paris Match magazine, I (emphasis on "I") have never seen a soul in Rabat read a book at a café, on a train, or waiting at a bus stop. Simply put, this is not an exaggeration on my part. I wish it were.

And if a nonreading population isn't bad enough, consider this:

“… illiteracy is leading to a split between these people and the elite …But the political elite are not all literate either. Moroccan law requires that members of parliament and municipality leaders must have at least a primary school certificate. After the last elections in 2002 and 2003, many such certificates presented by winning candidates were found to have been forged.” (CinR's emphasis)

This is so antithetical to the way I was raised that I simply cannot comprehend a world without books. Our parents read to my brother and I before bedtime; we were encouraged to read for ourselves when we became a certain age; our bookshelves were routinely replenished with fresh Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys volumes; weekend trips to the public library were considered a natural way to spend a Saturday; used book stores acquired an importance early in our lives that has never diminished. Like my father, I never go anywhere without a book – you just never know when you’ll have a spare moment to read a few pages. And what else do you do on a bus?

But is this a world without books? Are there bookstores in Rabat? Some; for the most part, they carry French and Arabic titles. Who’s reading them? Obviously some people – I’m not suggesting that no one reads in Morocco, only that I haven’t seen any of them yet. Possibly the ex-pat community keeps the librairies alive, who knows? I routinely ask students “What do you like to read?” and the answer I invariably receive is “I don’t like to read” or, for those with a greater command of English, “I hate reading”. I should really just stop posing the question but I keep hoping that one day, a student will raise her hand and say “I just love the luxuriance of Michael Ondaatje's writing”. Or more likely, "Harry Potter is okay".

Are literacy programmes enough? Surely they're a start (some 640,000 Moroccans attended literacy classes last year - 30% lower than their projection) but how will this alone instill a love of reading when television is still considered a preferable alternative to passing one's time? Surely a parent's greatest legacy to their child is a love of books just as it's a government's moral duty to the advancement of its people. But I cannot help but wonder if one of the problems beleaguering both the push to literacy and to reading-for-pleasure is Morocco’s linguistic heritage. Is it possible that this seemingly alternate world of literary appreciation is guarded by a tongue-tied Cerberus, whose 3 heads speak French, standard Arabic and Derija? Most Moroccans I talk to will admit that they aren’t fluent in any one of Morocco’s languages; instead they muddle (with varying degrees of proficiency) in one or two of the three. Amazingly, Morocco’s indigenous dialect is not rendered as a written script. Perhaps it should. Perhaps I too would take exception to not having a literary tradition transposed in my mother tongue.

A few months ago, a colleague of mine forced (and I don’t choose the word lightly) a class of 20-somethings to read a very abridged version of “Treasure Island” as part of a university prep course we were teaching. Not her first choice in fiction, it was the only title she could lay her hands on in large quantities for next to nothing. Not surprisingly, this decision was met with a formidable amount of resistance. Most balked, some refused, and after sensing that it just might feel better to stop hitting her head against this self-made brick wall, she conceded defeat. Unbeknownst to us, one young woman persevered and amazingly completed this tale, a tale made more difficult by its archaic language and nautical terms. When Basma went on to take her TOEFL exam – the English language exam that all non-English speaking university applicants must take – she was thrilled to find that her oral examination question was “What is your favourite book, and why?” She told us afterwards that she spoke about “Treasure Island”, that it was her favourite book because it was the first book she had ever read, and that it made her want to continue reading.

Needless to say, we both bawled like babies upon hearing this, but I bet Basma's story would have squeezed a few tears out of Robert Louis Stevenson himself.

*with apologies to Tennessee Williams who did not write "A Streetcar Named Bica" and to Bica who is not really a streetcar.