Thursday, June 28, 2007

Cat in Prison

No more taboos! More freedom!

There. I've said it. Now fine me. Throw me in prison.


Well those were some of the slogans on the placards carried by human rights activist Mohamed Bougrine and his colleagues last month during a sit-in. The reason for the protest? - the arrest and imprisonment of other activists who had staged a peaceful demonstration on May Day to mark International Workers' Day. This first group was charged with "undermining the monarchy" - which in Morocco is tantamount to attacking religious values - and not very surprisingly alleged that

... they were ill-treated during arrests and threatened during interrogations and defence lawyers were reportedly not able to call defence witnesses during the trials.

The activists from the sit-in were subsequently arrested and charged with the same heinous crime - pissing off Mohammed VI.

Tuesday, the septuagenarian Mohamed Bougrine was sentenced to one year in prison. His lawyer, Mohamed Sebbar rightly contends that his client "has been sentenced for his opinions."

But Bougrine is unlikely to curl up into a ball and suffer debilitating and liberating attacks of claustrophobia. Unlike Paris Hilton, Bougrine knows his way around a Moroccan prison - a dubious honour indeed - having been a much favoured guest of King Hassan II and before that the French protectorate for over 15 years.

I wonder if you can get a cup of coffee in prison for less than 4 dirhams...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Morocco for More

A handful of years ago - a handful being defined as less than eight but more than six - Mr. Cat in Rabat and I crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and set our paws on the Maghreb for the first time. This trip - a month of backpacking around Morocco and Andalucía - was a lifetime dream (and by lifetime I mean 2 months) during which we could put our relationship to the test and perhaps buy a carpet. Want to get married? - travel with someone and see if you're still talking to them on the return flight home.

To save for our trip
we went into debt lived somewhat frugally for a few months. In spite of our feeble best efforts to squirrel away money (we failed) we felt that we would still be in a pretty good position financially because the purchasing power of our ill-gotten debt hard-earned dollars would be significant in Morocco. And by significant I mean leviathan. Perhaps we would even buy two carpets.

In this we would be wrong. (Except for the carpets).

Morocco is not a cheap country. And not that it should be - although it would be nice if it were - but there is an expectation that, as a 3rd world country developing nation, it is. Or ought to be. In truth, some things are cheap: rent is cheap (although rents are on the rise), local transportation (with the exception of domestic airfares) is still cheap, and anything made of leather is risibly inexpensive, but it pretty much ends there. Between holiday housing developments sprouting like poisoned mushrooms along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines and the Western predilection for building guest houses and renovating derelict ryads in Morocco's medinas, real estate is starting to go through the roof. All this, in conjunction with the hoards of cash-carrying tourists disembarking from cut-throat European airlines, is serving to not only test the local infrastructure but to ensure that prices will go up up up.

Soon, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, nobody will come to Morocco because it's too crowded. And too polluted. And too expensive.

But I digress.

Eating at restaurants - even fairly modest ones - can add up quickly. It's impossible to find a cup of coffee in Rabat for less than 8 dirhams (= $1). A bottle of water costs more than a bus ride. Quite understandably, liquor and packaged food are expensive - prices for which are on par or higher than in parts of Europe and North America. And here I was a tad astonished: fresh fruits, vegetables (unless they are in season) and meat are often rather dear. And a 'sale' at Label Vie means that a tube of Koutoubia luncheon meat (a.k.a. Why I am a Vegetarian) costs 2 dirhams and 7 centimes less this week, so stock up now!

Of course, I'm speaking from the perspective of someone who lives here rather than someone who is visiting. But even when Mr. CinR and I visited those handful of years ago with those fistfuls of foreign currency, we didn't exactly find Morocco to be a bargain destination - in order to experience Morocco-on-the-cheap we stayed in fleabag hotels (nondescript rooms with shared squatty toilets) with large cockroaches the size of small rodents, small rodents the size of large cockroaches, and ate a lot of street food.

So imagine my surprise when I read that I could enjoy Morocco for Less ... that Morocco is still a budget destination for the impecunious. I liked the 'less'. I was intrigued.

" ... Take an escorted tour of Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains, and Dades Gorge ...”

Ooooh, tell me more ...

Your trip will include a mountain bike ride in the hills, with mountain bike rental included; a guided nine-hour hike through the mountains of the Tamatert Valley; a stop at the Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou; and a stay in a tent among the limestone cliffs and unusual rock formations of the area around the Dades Gorge ... Be sure you are in shape to handle treks of about four hours per day, long bike rides, or flat-water kayaking in humid conditions.

Hope bottled water is included.

So, sounds nice – how much is it? Covered in the price of $990 US (gasp!) is 8 nights' accommodation (including a stay at Marrakech's Hotel Ali - Morocco's quintessential budget hotel/hostel), transportation & entry fees, bike rentals, payments to local guides & nomads (don't get me going on the nomads), 8 breakfasts, 3 dinners and 2 lunches. You're on your own for those other 5 dinners and 6 lunches but hey! - breakfast is included and isn't that the cheapest most important meal of the day?

You can opt for other excursions at additional cost, such as a cooking demonstration of staple dishes, such as tajine and couscous, for about $17 per person.


Call me a tightwad, frugal, Spartan, tight, niggardly, parsimonious, penny-pinching, stingy, scrimping, sparing, abstemious, penny-wise, prudent thrifty cheap - but I just don't think that qualifies as a "budget" trip. But Budget Travel does and they should know ...

Why It's a Deal: Consider that the $990 rate (including the $140 local payment) breaks down to about $124 per person per night and covers accommodations and local transportation. An English-speaking tour leader is available (I should hope so, you're paying for him - CinR) throughout the trip, especially handy for learning local information on the best markets on this itinerary.

So there you go. Morocco for Less indeed. Is Morocco cheap? I would have to say no - at least not from my humble perspective. Can you still find deals? Yes, but they're quickly disappearing. The Hotel Continental in Tangier (still one of my favourite hotels but only because I can't afford the El Minzah) has more than doubled their rates in the last handful of years - a handful being defined as less eight but more than six. Is it cheaper than London or Istanbul or Paris? Obviously but, I would argue, they are not developing nations. Have I turned into a cheap bastard? Undeniably.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Very Brief Disquisition on Selected Roots: Words, Flowers and Idolatry

This much I know: it is summer. Or to be woefully imprecise, it will be in 5 hours and 47 minutes from this very moment. Or to be just precise - which is always preferable - it will at 6:06 p.m. GT this evening. Indeed today, much of the world will celebrate or at least acknowledge in some wonderfully pagan way, the summer solstice, that heliotropic moment when our planet's axis tilts the most toward the sun. And for those of you intrigued by etymologies (and I include myself foremost among you), the word 'solstice' comes from the Latin noun sol (or 'sun' for the linguistically-challenged) and the verb sistere ('to stand still') - for this day, the longest day of the year, marks the day that the sun's movement is minimal. Interesting, no?

Perhaps not.

In layman's terms, this is the first day of summer - or so my calendar says. But those in the know will tell you that the equinoxes in fact don't indicate the start of a season but rather the midpoint (i.e. midsummer), so today is actually week six of summer and doesn't really bear getting all trippy about.

But I'm not one to argue with a calendar. After all, we need a few red letter days to get us through the morass of black ones (mark your calendars: only 55 days left until the Feast of the Assumption - whoo hooo!) - so I do want to get all trippy about it - but how? Unfortunately, we have no barbecue over which to roast veggie weenies & gelatin-free marshmallows. Besides, there are no veggie weenies
& gelatin-free marshmallows in Rabat. There is no volleyball net set up in our backyard. We have no backyard. And to make matters worse, I work tonight and Mr. Cat in Rabat works this afternoon, so we are unable to head off to the beach - certainly a fitting way to inaugurate the first day (or week 6) of summer - and expose our pasty flaccid bits (Rabat's loss) to the sun's harmful carcinogenic rays. So what do people do in Morocco?

A little digging on the internet brought to light that
bonfires are lit on Midsummer Eve in both Algeria and Morocco and that the day is sometimes dedicated to the PM's daughter Fatima - she of the ubiquitous hand. The roots of both the midsummer festival and the finger-splayed hand are thought to be window-dressed remnants of a pre-Islamic mother-goddess cult which, I confess, intrigues me in no little way. So armed with this exciting piece of lore, I asked my class of adult students last night about these midsummer rituals. They blinked at me like deer in the headlights and then, regaining their composure, tried to reason with me (in a tone that clearly indicated that they thought I was a retard), professing no knowledge of moonlight dances around a burning pyre and reminding me that the khamsa hand of Fatima represented the 5 Pillars of Islam.

Killjoys! I screamed in my head I thought. I was crushed.

Nonetheless, I am inclined to do something to mark this, the first day of summer (or week 6) so I have decided to brew a thoroughly un-Moroccan batch of karkaday - the thirst-quenching tart tea made from hibisicus flowers which for me, many years ago, made sufferable many an afternoon in Upper Egypt. These grizzled and gnarly bits of purple twigs and petals were generously schlepped back from Cairo by friend and fellow gin & tonic poker-aficionado Mr. N and have been growing mouldy in my fridge waiting for that fateful day (today! - day 1 or week 6 of summer) when I would get off my ass and do something with them.

By late afternoon, I shall have iced hibiscus tea.

By late evening, I shall have iced hibiscus tea and gin.

In either case, I raise a glass of good cheer to summer. And to Morocco's glorious cherries which have just come into season, making both me and Mr. CinR - erstwhile cherry-haters - into prunus avium addicts.
And to Morocco's mosquitoes who are late arriving this season and are graciously allowing me a few extra nights of drone-free sleep. And to the eight people I saw this morning who are still wearing winter coats. And to the little crimson sparrows and snowy doves which are pecking at the bird seed from my living room window sill as I type. And to Rabat's cats who manage - sometimes with my help and more often without - to eke out an existence. And to the city of Assilah, where I found this fanciful mural on a winter's day and where you can quaff a bottle of Moroccan rosé and nibble a trozo of manchego cheese from Spain while sitting in a café. On the street. Outside. Where others can see you.

Cheers! Happy first day (or sixth week) of summer!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


I have grave reservations that this posting is in no way topical or timely - and for this I sincerely apologise - but last week the story once again raised its ugly head on, of all places, the Casa-Rabat train where Mr. Cat in Rabat and I were standing. Not sitting. Yes, in spite of the fact that we had purchased first-class tickets, we were compelled to stand in the (albeit first-class) aisle of our train because of l'Office national des chemins de fer (ONCF)'s apparent inability to count ticket sales - a thoroughly daunting task that, nonetheless, you might have thought that their computerized system could alleviate in some minor way. But you would be wrong.

So while straddling our luggage and being jostled back and forth as we sped northwards, I couldn't help but notice a magazine article that the gentleman who declined to yield his seat to a visibly fatigued and overburdened woman sitting next to me was reading: once again, there appears to be a movement afoot to extract an apology from Spain for its 'heinous' treatment of North African Moors (as opposed to those lesser known Antarctic Moors) which came to a head in the 15th century, and hinted - the full import of which was lost on me as the gentleman thoughtlessly turned the page before I could finish the article - at financial compensation.

Now apologies for past acts is not an unknown thing in this world. Hailing from a country of apologisers (not apologists), I have seen my fair share of maligned groups receive an official apology from the federal government, including - but not limited to - Chinese-Canadians who had suffered the indignities of legislated racism for over half a century and Japanese-Canadians who lost all (including their freedom) during the xenophobia of World War II. Fast on the heels of Queen Elizabeth who was first to express remorse for the 18th century deportation of the Acadians, the government of Canada also apologised to the descendants of these some 14,000 Canadians who were expelled from their homeland because they refused to swear an oath of fidelity to the British crown.

Now for the past half millennium, many many Muslims in Al-Andalus (known by the rest of the world as
Spain, or a variant thereof) have and continue to mark the mass exodus of their ancestors to North Africa during and after Spain's Reconquista. Osama Bin Laden considers Spain's brutal treatment of Moors one of the many injustices levied against Muslims that still demands redress and the loathsome dogs who bombed Madrid in 2004 larded their acts of cowardice in thick layers of Muslim nationalism, crying vengeance for the Reconquista.


Having said that, it's only logical that eventually this would manifest itself into a demand for an official apology from Spain which is exactly what happened a few years ago. Said Moroccan historian Bin Azouz Hakim,

They used to commemorate every year these painful memories to keep the agonies of their forebears vivid ... The descendants, many of whom still have Spanish surnames, mark the anniversary with symposiums, Andalusian music and shows portraying the sufferings of their ancestors.

Because that's healthy.

So in 2002, a special interest group led by Hakim formally asked King Juan Carlos (KJC) of
Spain for an apology, what they see as their 'inalienable right'; it was not forthcoming. Again they asked; again, they were ignored. This refusal was particularly galling as KJC had, while on a trip to Israel a decade earlier, apologized to Jews - or rather the descendants of Sephardi Jews and/or their co-religionists - who had also been expelled from Spain and treated rather shabbily by the Spaniards. Why did the Moroccans fail? Ask Hakim:

I think because we don’t have a powerful lobby like the Jews, who make the best use of the past to get financial gains.

KJC offered the Jews no financial compensation.

Now before we continue, let's get a little perspective; something I like to call ‘Reconquista 101’. Now did Spain, by force of arms – and with a little help from the Spanish Inquisition, which no one expected - persecute, torture, force to convert to Christianity, kill en masse, and generally encourage hightailing it back to North Africa thousands of Moors? Yes they did. But why were the Moors there in the first place? Because they themselves had conquered Spain.

Turn back the clock to 711 and we find ourselves witness to the Umayyad conquest of Hispania led by Arabs and Berbers from
North Africa. Or not so much a conquest as one writer prettily spins puts it, but as Muslims entering "Spain not as aggressors or oppressors, but as liberators." Initially, their spoils of war included much of Spain, Portugal, and parts of southern France – but, in the final days of Muslim rule would be restricted to the Kingdom of Granada. There is some conjecture about the treatment of non-Muslims by their foreign occupiers: it is somewhat fashionable now - especially among Muslim apologists - to adopt the stance that this was a halcyon age, a utopia of religious tolerance. But most scholars dismiss this as a revisionist myth. The reality is that Christians and Jews were treated harshly: they were persecuted, killed in huge numbers, and driven from their homes. Pretty much how the Spanish would come to treat the Moors while they were showing them the door.

So should KJC apologise for the liberation of Spain? Should there be financial compensation to the Moors’ descendants?

It’s a tricky question. (Not.) My pea-size brain – and I certainly stand to be corrected – is not familiar with any incident in which a Muslim spokesperson has apologised for an act of aggression or wrongdoing against a people they oppressed/conquered/converted/or just annoyed There is no allowance for this in the Qu'ran; in fact, one reads "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)" (9:5).

Has a Muslim spokesperson apologised, for example, to every indigenous group that either died under the sword or was forced to convert to Islam, as the tide of Islam swept across the Middle East, the Byzantine Empire, and North Africa - most recently in Sudan? To Middle Eastern Christians for conquering their lands and forcing upon them dhimmi status (in which a non-Muslim is subjected to Sharia law in a Muslim country)? To the descendants of the tens of thousands of men & women from Western Europe who were captured and sold as slaves in Morocco's slave markets? To Spain for invading her in the first place & subjecting her people to foreign domination for almost 800 years? Are any of these individuals demanding an apology?

So why the pressing need? Must an apology be politically motivated? Let me be the first: I apologise to my brother for breaking the needle-nose thingy on his model airplane when I was 5 years old. I was told not to touch it but I did. There! No political motivation. Does he feel better? I doubt it. Do I? Not really.

You see, this is what happens when I read over someone’s shoulder on a train: my brain unravels - for such is the price of my rudeness. So this post isn't so much a cautionary tale against invading your neighbours and seeking absurd retribution over 500 years later as a warning against being nosey inquisitive on a train.

Addendum: the above photograph was taken in Frigiliana, a diminutive Andalucian town with deep Moorish roots (over 7,000 Moors were killed there in the 1569 Rebellion of La Axarquía and the rest expelled) and marks the narrow street where the Spanish Inquisitor had set up shop. In spite of the fact that the town is as big as –my mother’s expression, not mine – a fart in a mitt (a turn of phrase I have never come to understand), it took us about 45 minutes to find it. Suddenly, as we veered around yet another cobbled corner which we both swore we had already passed several times, we found ourselves facing the Inquisidor's plaque.

Truly, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Karma of Feline Philanthropy

Or what goes around, comes around.

It's pretty much common knowledge for the half-dozen or so faithful readers of this blog that I am, what is commonly termed, a 'cat person'. The more insightful individual undoubtedly came to this conclusion from my blog moniker, although this would not be wholly accurate: the 'cat' in my name refers only to my initials. I confess that I have always regretted that the 'A' in my middle name doesn't stand for something fittingly freakish like 'aardvark' rather than the simple one-syllable colourless little name given to 99.3% of Catholic girls in the mid to late 20th century (apologies to my eponymous niece). But my parents, it would seem, nonetheless had inadvertently blessed me by giving me a trinity of names whose initials spelled an animal that I was destined to identity with on some unwholesome level and ultimately to love.

It is safe to say that I go to bed every night thanking the members of every pantheon of every religious system that my middle names aren't Uma Naomi.

Banishing all thoughts of the acronym produced by the aforementioned middle names, why the photo of the donuts? Well, over the months, some of my detractors have lobbed venomous darts my way charging that I never say anything good about Morocco. And this being Couscous Friday - and since I hate couscous and cannot in good conscience praise its properties - I thought I would relate a little not negative, practically positive incident that transpired a few nights ago which involved the humble donut.

This is where I feebly attempt to redeem myself in the eyes of my critics ...

Let me
first say that Moroccan donuts - or sfenji - are quite simply manna from heaven. They can be purchased at greasy holes-in-the-wall in the medina - veritable fry-by's - and are cooked in trans-fat-happy vats of oil that could, in a single glance, clog the arteries of Jack LaLanne. As a vegetarian, if I came to learn that whole newborn calves were being deep-fried alive in the same oil, it would not dissuade me from eating them. (The donuts, not the calves. I do have some principles). Hot, greasy, and sugary, you can buy one for a few dirhams or a handful looped on piece of tied palm, creating an edible purse that could, in a heartbeat, out-vie a Hermès Birkin bag for my attention. The ones which I snapped in the above photo were awaiting my selection during a visit to the oft maligned Meknès last spring, and they did not disappoint. I went back for seconds. Quite frankly, how the innocuous little sfenji failed in their quest to become Morocco's iconic dish defies logic. Couscous! Pshaw! - cereal with gravy, it is.

Now the night before last was pretty much like every other night before last: I finished work at roughly the same time and, as is my habit, fed the neighbourhood cats on my walk home. But as I drew nearer to my apartment building, what did I see lying on the ground next to a shop wall but a plate of donuts! Just sitting there. Now I have no clue where you can buy fresh donuts in Agdal - if there is a sfenj-man here, I don't know of him (& I'd like to). Quite simply, I have never seen a plate of donuts left out on the street before: bread yes, couscous yes. But sfenji, never. Then I thought, it's really not unlike me feeding Rabat's cats. I routinely leave out little offerings of dry food to feed the city's felines, so maybe - just maybe - someone has left this plate of donuts out for me. Someone who knows that I love these sinfully celestial confections. Perhaps, in this unknowable cosmos of ours, I have my own me. (Which may or may not be a good thing.)

As I bent down to take a closer look I couldn't help but notice how warmly they glowed in the moonlight ... how fairy-sugary sparkly they were ... how absolutely tantalizing they were ... oh! how they beckoned ...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Nancy Drew & The Mystery of the Exploding Thong

A *New* Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys Mystery

It is the year 2007 and when Nancy Drew – intrepid Girl Detective - flies, she makes a concerted effort to wear nothing that hasn't been woven from a plant and isn't held together with bits of raffia or hemp. Gone is her perky flip hairdo (aerosols are banned from carry-on luggage) as are her leather buckled pumps (her shoes
are now made of metal-free man-made fibres). She even has to check her flashlight. No longer the teen fashion icon, she now looks like someone who, once firmly back on the terra firma, will make hugging a tree rather than solving a mystery her first order of business.

Why the change? A quick study, Nancy didn’t want to suffer the ignominies of travel that Cat in
Rabat did last autumn when she was unduly man-handled by the security staff at Montreal's Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport. Cat's crime? – her bra’s underwire bra had triggered the metal detectors. So in the face of rising international terrorism and what with transportation/aviation agencies doing their best to strip humankind of every jot of metal, Nancy has conceded defeat and now looks like a Druid when she travels. Or Druidess (if they make such fine distinctions). This is the Nancy Drew of the 21st century. Not a pretty sight.

So yesterday, while Nancy and co-teen super sleuth Frank Hardy are awaiting their turn to pass through the metal detectors at Madrid Barajas International Airport, they watch in hubris-imbued amusement as a Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk passes through the gates, setting off every bell & whistle (and raising a few eyebrows), and is ordered back through again and again in various stages of undress. She is instructed to remove her fashionable silver lamé belt but again - poor thing - she sets off the alarms. Then she is compelled to remove her canary-yellow pumps which - because they have perilously high 6-inch stiletto heels - instantly renders her a dwarf. As she stoops to remove her shoes, her already spectacularly low-waisted thong-revealing jeans ventures further south and reveals to all who have the stomach to see her prodigious Continental Divide. This time though she passes through effortlessly - which in truth isn't very effortless since, bereft of her stilts, she has to regain her land legs - and teeters precariously through the gate into the arms of her awaiting boyfriend.

Then it's Nancy’s turn through the gate.

Smugly confident that her cotton Thai fisherman pant-ensemble will see her effortlessly through to The Other Side, she too sets off the security gate. Ordered to remove her metal-free buckle-less non-leather sandals, she passes through the gate in a sulky silence. Frank, who never seems to aggravate the metal detector gates in any of the world's airports, is secretly disappointed that there will be no sighting of Nancy's thong. Which he knows has been woven from a plant and is held together with bits of raffia or hemp.

As she retrieves her sandals from the conveyor belt, Nancy turns t
o see the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk sitting astride (astride being the operative word) while her doting boyfriend, or more accurately Her Handler, draws her belt through the loops of her spectacularly low-waisted thong-revealing jeans and then fastens it for her. Then he bends down on one knee and not only places each sluttish precious foot into a canary-yellow pump with a perilously high 6-inch stiletto heel, but fastens the buckle of each shoe. It is, quite simply, a disturbingly astonishing sight. And equally astonishingly disturbing.

An hour later and Nancy and Frank find themselves at the Departures Gate. So too are the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk and Her Handler. In his practised hand is a camera and – look! – the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk is posing for him, laughing her deep-throated lusty laugh, tossing back her abundant mane of hair, but nonetheless a little unsure of how to maintain her vertical stance as her legs are clearly accustomed to being spread open wide in front of a camera. The other passengers watch on in a state of horror, amusement, or arousal. Or all three.

nally, they are requested to board the plane. If the Reader has ever flown EasyJet into or out of Morocco, s/he will know that the announcement to prepare for boarding is not unlike throwing a porterhouse steak into a den of Christian- starved lions but that's for another Nancy Drew-Hardy Boy novel (‘The Case of the Passengers Who Cannot Read Their Boarding Passes'). Each passenger’s boarding pass has a letter imprinted upon it which determines the bearer's order in boarding the plane. No matter, the desk is swarmed by all.

They board. Because the flight is rather full, and they are among the last to board, Frank a
nd Nancy are only able to find seats together three rows from the back. As they settle into their seats, they watch with hubris-imbued amusement as the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk negotiates the aisle on her perilously high 6-inch stiletto heels, dragging an uncooperative carry-on suitcase. Why so slow? She is checking the seat numbers against the numbers on her boarding pass but - alas - her search is for naught for there is no assigned seating on EasyJet flights and therefore, there are no seat numbers printed on boarding passes, only the flight number. Her frustration is palpable.

When she realizes that
she won't find flight number seat number 7881 without boring a hole through the plane's tail, she decides to take a seat in the last row. But where to put her suitcase? All the overhead bins are full. No worries, she decides to leave it out in the middle of the aisle. But where is Her Handler in all of this? Why is she consigned to carrying aboard her own hand luggage when there is one among them who clearly wants to serve her in every conceivable manner?

Puzzled by this anomaly, Nancy and Frank nonetheless titter at her discomfiture. In all likelihood, it is at this point that The Aviation Gods decide to punish the detective duo for their hubris.

Suddenly they see The Handler. He is at the front of the plane and is trying to get his charge's attention but there are still passengers in the aisles looking for seats. He is calling her and waving his arms about wildly and finally she sees hi
m – mere moments after every other person on the flight does. He mimes to her that he has a phone call to make and disappears. She looks at him confusedly, effectively raising her stockpile of expressions to two - the other being complete vacuousness. Admittedly his gesture of raising an invisible telephone to his ear and speaking into it was awfully cryptic.

Time passes. They are not moving. Frank’s keen eye notices that the senior cabin crew is speaking with the Captain at the door of the cockpit. There is some animation in the manner that they converse.

Time passes. They hear the Captain's voice tell them that there has been a breach in security and that there is an unaccounted passenger. They must retrieve their luggage and deboard; the Captain is very sorry for their inconvenience and Frank and Nancy do not doubt his sincerity.

At they make their way up the aisle,
Nancy turns to Frank and confides her suspicions to him, that the culprit is none other than the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk 's Handler. And the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk may be in on it.

Frank says, "You're right
Nancy! I bet he left the plane!"

"Joe," Nancy asks, "we have to tell the ground crew our suspicions!"

"Nancy," he says, "That's a swell idea but first let's make sure that he's not waiting with the others at the Departures Gate."

So when our sleuthing teens re-enter the airport, they quickly confirm that The Handler is indeed absent. Nancy approaches the first EasyJet employee she sees and tells her that the cause of the security breach is none other than the boyfriend of the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk (whom Nancy helpfully points out since she is directly behind them). The employee sighs and nods her head, "We know". Clearly, all of the now deboarded passengers who were staring at the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk with death rays shooting out of their collective eyes have already imparted their likeminded suspicions to the ground crew.

The Handler's charge is taken aside and asked about his whereabouts. She avows no knowledge of his identity. Her display of recalcitrant attitude is formidable. Nancy and Frank stand by in mute helplessness - why won’t EasyJet avail themselves of the teens' expertise? Have they not read “The Secret of the Old Clock?”

"She's lying!" whispers Nancy vehemently. Frank nods his head in agreement and mutters a one-syllable word that Nancy doesn’t know but conscientiously jots down in her notepad to look up later. The Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk is asked to write something on a piece of paper and is then released into the Mob who receives her with open arms jeers and deprecating terms of abuse. Nancy jots down a few more new terms. The Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk returns with her own sally of presumably foul language and, turning her back to them, pulls out her cell phone.

Time passes and presumably the plane is swept for explosives. Mindful that the ETA has recently reasserted their commitment to blowing Spain up into a million little pieces, the passengers are compliant, understanding and patient. Except for one Moroccan gentleman who, in protest, rips his boarding pass up into a million little pieces.

Time passes and security staff appear and look for the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk. The Mob obligingly points her out to the authorities ("there she is!" in seven different languages) and propels her in their general direction. She is taken aside and questioned. Then she is removed from sight, hopefully, Frank muses, to be strip searched.

Finally, they are requested to board the plane. The one Moroccan gentleman who, in protest, has ripped his boarding pass up into a million little pieces, is given Scotch tape to repair the pass. If the Reader has ever flown EasyJet into or out of Morocco, s/he will know that
the announcement to prepare for boarding is not unlike throwing prime rib into a den of Christian- starved lions but that's for another Nancy Drew-Hardy Boy novel (‘The Mystery of the Passengers Who Are Unable to Line Up in Orderly Queues’). Each passenger’s boarding pass has a letter imprinted upon it which determines the bearer’s order in boarding the plane. No matter, the desk is swarmed by all.

Aboard the plane, everyone takes their original seats – such are we all creatures of habit.

Time passes. They are not moving. Frank’s keen eye notices that the senior cabin crew is speaking with the Captain at the door of the cockpit. There is some animation in the manner that they converse.

Time passes. They hear the senior flight attendant’s voice tell them that take-off has been delayed because they are waiting for one last passenger to board. Nancy and Frank look at each other. Surely it won’t be her? Surely the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk won’t be allowed to reboard the plane?

Time passes. Nancy and Frank are jolted from their reminiscing of how Nancy solved ‘The Clue of the Whispering Bagpipes’ by a series of random then growing jeers and boos. The Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk has entered the plane and is running – as fast as her uncooperative carry-on suitcase will allow – to her former seat. She is crying. She is crying presumably because the security staff at Madrid Barajas International Airport ran out of Vaseline during her several deep and thorough cavity searches. The Mob hoots and hisses her progress down the aisle.

The plane leaves over two hours late and arrives over two hours late. Frank and
Nancy arrive in Casa too late to catch their train for Rabat, too late for work. Fortunately, their supervisor Mr. N is a super neat guy. The silver lining is that the Young Moroccan Woman of a Decidedly Sluttish Ilk is still being given a hard time by Moroccan police as Frank and Nancy breeze through security.

“Well,” said Frank. “I don’t what happened to The Handler but I guess there was no bomb on board.”

“I’m not so sure Frank,” puzzled Nancy. “Did they check her thong? Sometimes the answer is right under your nose."

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Dirt Poor

Does poverty have a uniform? And not to be indelicate, but do poor people smell? Sometimes it seems that way although I've known my fair share of The Quality who can make the hair on your chest curl (not that I have any.) Knarf in the City blogged today about being marooned on a poorly ventilated/non air-conditioned bus which was made decidedly rank and more unbearable by the presence of a visibly impoverished family who - well - stank. He observed that just because you can't afford to buy new clothes first-hand doesn't mean that you can't buy a bar of soap. Is this always the case? Is this true for all cultures?

Now for the last 8 months, Mr. Cat in Rabat and I each taught 2 classes of impoverished children who were selected to study English on a scholarship-basis; needless to say, these students - who came from Rabat's & Salé's slums and poorer neighbourhoods - would otherwise never have had such an opportunity to invest in their own futures. And as onerous as it sometimes was to haul our asses into school for 6 hours of tuition on Sundays (and it was), it was also the most meaningful and profoundly positive experience both of us have had in Morocco. The kids were polite and sweet to the point of rotting our teeth and they were pathologically eager to learn as much as humanly possible in the short time that they were there. Their enthusiasm was boundless; their thirst for knowledge inspiring. In short, they put every rich-kid that we taught to shame.

But they also stank.

Not all of them but a lot of them. In truth, most of them. On the coldest of winter days (which aren't very cold by our Canuck standards) Mr. CinR and I were compelled to throw open windows and let the salvific fresh air waft through our lungs classrooms. It probably didn't help that our students seldom removed their winter coats until May (their own regular school rooms are seldom heated) so each student was a freestanding self-contained incubation chamber of some decidedly unpleasant odours. Re-entering a class room after break often triggered our gag reflexes. Having said that, the children and their clothes were, at least, superficially clean and always wore their 'Sunday best'; in fact, they often wore the same outfit every class probably because they only owned one set of decent clothes.

Why did they smell? Many of Morocco's poor rely on a weekly trip to the hammam (public bath) to get scrubbed and scoured and splashed clean and our classes fell on the afternoons of bath night. Interestingly, the intrepid writer at The Morocco Report - herself an English teacher - recently polled her students in order to find out what they perceived to be the worst job in Morocco. The unanimous answer: a hamman attendant. As she points out:

Imagine scrubbing the dead skin off human bodies all day long, sitting in wet clothes and sweat, pausing only for a sip of water or an orange, because for every body you scrub, you might get ten or twenty dirhams. Such is the life of a hammam worker.

Funny how going to a hammam is always touted as a must-do for the Western visitor to Morocco; this almost makes me proud of refusing to frequent these establishments. But imagine, if you will, earning possibly less than that and not scraping the backs of the Great Unwashed but rather working as a public toilet attendant. Now imagine that you are so poor - your meagre savings have been completely exhausted recovering your kidnapped daughter - that you have no alternative but to move your family of 5 into the public toilets. A temporary fix you say, and suddenly seven years have flown by. Seven years of hardship and public ridicule and ineffable frustration from not getting any satisfaction from the government.

A family living in a public toilet in Morocco have spent seven years requesting more hygienic accommodation. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, and Aze Adine Ould Baja has had to endure the ignominy of having "Sidi toilets" as the official address on his identity papers.

... such was yesterday's BBC report about a family of toilet squatters who were barricaded from their 'home' (a home replete with a noxious zoo of various vermin and god-knows what airborne distempers) with cement and concrete. Why such draconian measures? What was their crime? - Mr. Baja had had the effrontery to go to the press seeking assistance in raising public awareness to their plight. Blocking access to the toilets was a bit of a double whammy: not only is a family now out on the street, but Mr. Baja no longer has the means to earn his bread - a living which had hitherto been less than $30.00 a month.

And Mr. Baja? - he just wants to get the hell out of Dodge. Of course, he has no money and no way of acquiring the legal means to emigrate so, instead, he's considering crossing the Straits of Gibraltar in the rusty hull of a freighter (which will probably be apprehended) or in a rickety fishing boat (which will probably capsize). He has run out of alternatives.

So kudos to the pinhead government bureaucrat who came up with that flash of genius. Ramadan starts in roughly 3 1/2 months - I'm sure he'll be doling out his fair share of alms to the poor with a totally clean conscience. Your Mother Theresa Humanitarian Award is waiting for you at the door.