Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Few Loose Threads

I am not so narcissistic as to believe that I have left any of my devoted readership hanging on tenterhooks waiting for conclusions to any unfinished blog entries (as that would suggest that I am a sloppy writer), but I have been recently reminded that there are 2 entries which beg for a conclusion gentle death (which confirms that I am indeed a sloppy writer). In any case, I warn you now that both endings will prove to be lacklustre and second-rate which is probably why I had forgotten about them in the first place. Nonetheless it's time to take out my scissors and snip away at a few loose threads:

The Cat de Sejour: Part the Last

Try as I might, I can offer no witty peroration to this epic tale of bureaucracy, frustration, and the love of a boy for his dog. Two weeks ago, Mr. Cat in Rabat and I returned to our favourite hangout, the Préfecture de Police, whose plethora of underemployed clerks and guards milling about confirms that these are indeed Morocco's plummiest of plum jobs.

Once again we passed through the security gate, setting off all manner of lights and bleepy noises, and went upstairs to the carte de sejour office where we once again meet the same Sullen Silent Automatons, still fumbling about the corridor in a deaf & dumb funk. We peer into the office and find to our surprise that the Dyspeptic Civil Servant is sitting in a different desk and that the library card drawer of completed cards is being jealously guarded by Scowling Woman. Not willing to duplicate our queue-cutting faux pas from our previous visit, we slip out the door but are then impatiently waved back in by Scowling Woman. Mr. CinR's temporary card is produced and Scowling Woman with great precision and expertise pulls his card out of the drawer.

Interestingly, his date of birth, which was recorded incorrectly on his temporary card, is correct on his permanent one. Go figure.

Da Veni Da Vidi Da Vinci Code

Yes, dear reader, I finally saw the film. Now I am the first to admit that rarely does viewing a film from the comfort of your living room, bereft of stadium seating, a THX sound system, and a massive screen, do a film justice. This is doubly and painfully so when your movie screen is a laptop balanced precariously on your lap. But I did make a humongous bowl of popcorn, so attempts were made to simulate the movie experience.

I quickly learned that in the film’s opening line “Arrêtez! Dites-moi où elle est!” or “Tell me, where is it!”, the “it” clearly referred to my good judgement. Where in fact was "it"? Having already seen the first 5 minutes of the French-dubbed version four times (or was it five?), I should have already clued into the fact that “Arrêtez! Dites-moi où elle est!” is code (hence solving the film’s profoundly erudite and complex puzzle in record time) for “have you nothing better to do?”.

I may have mentioned that we were not only fully prepared to hate it, but rapturously anticipated every cornball moment. Did the film disappoint? Reader, it did not.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Walking in a Moroccan Winter Wonderland

Ask a local and they will tell you that winter arrived in Rabat three months ago. Not winter as I know it: there’s obviously no snow and, depending on the day, the drop in outdoor temperature is either slight or barely appreciable. For the past several months, more Rabatians than I can shake a ski pole at have cocooned themselves in parkas, ski jackets with fur-lined hoods, pulled on stiletto-heeled leather boots or furry uggs (think Nanook of the North at his sexiest), donned pompom-ed toques, and wrapped their vulnerable necks in colourful scarves to ward off the "freezing" 13-19° Celsius temperatures.

For the past few months I've remained comfortable in t-shirts and flip-flops, although on the odd evening I have capitulated and worn a long sleeve shirt. I used to think that you could spot Westerners by their shortish hair styles, fair skin, and generally stunned expressions, but I now realize that our bare arms and toe-wriggling feet betray us – at least after mid-October. Walk down the street in a t-shirt, and a skirt with bare legs and sandals and the locals will look at you as if you were just released from the local mental health institution on a day-pass. Or off a plane.

But now as we head into February, I am willing to concede that it's winter - not so much because I have to wear a jacket when I go out (which I sometimes do) but because I have to carry an umbrella (which I always do). Because winter in Rabat means rain. And lots of it. However you wish to express it - whether it rains cats and dogs, or pitchforks, comes down in buckets, or rains like a pissing cow (a personal favourite) - it rains a lot here. I was not wholly prepared for that my first winter, but as the adage goes (or should go) "once drenched, really wet" so I consequently brought back from my last visit home a shiny yellow raincoat and a formidable umbrella that can withstand Rabat's torrential downpours, high winds and sour-faced Rabatians (it's plastered with bright yellow happy faces).

I lived a third of my life on the East Coast of Canada in a maritime city which boasts the second largest ice-free harbour in the world. I thought I knew rain, understood gales; I have lived through hurricanes that crippled my province for weeks. But because the Immortals have deemed that my hubris must be reined in on a regular basis, I can now say with no uncertainty that compared to Rabat's downpours, Halifax's storms don't hold water. This in spite of the fact that the annual rainfall is actually higher in the latter; it just seems worse in the former. Never before had I experienced such intense rainfalls - dense curtains of water these - the mood-altering duration of which compelled me to hide the razorblades and delete the Dr. Kevorkian urls from the Bookmarks on my laptop. And the thunder and lightening storms are - forgive the pun - a force of nature that I had never before encountered. They are bright, loud and very very scary. If my mother were forced to endure a Moroccan electrical storm, she would spend it sequestered in a closet.

I have been duly humbled.

Now don't get me wrong: I loathe snow and given an opportunity, I would throw my lot in with Morocco's walking sodden any day of the week. But rain exacts a high toll on people, notable drivers. Simply put, rain (often) turns drivers into assholes. The corollary to this is that rain turns Moroccans into inconsiderate cretins. Their obtuseness and/or complete disregard for pedestrians is vexing at best; during a rainstorm, it disheartens me to the core. Their driving "skills" are no match for wet road conditions nor are they able (either through sheer wilfulness or innate stunnedness) to see the wisdom (or kindness) of reducing their speeds as they pass pedestrians or take corners.

Streets in Rabat are not equipped with sewers that can receive the overflow of rainwater; consequently, streets swell with water which then congregates along the curbs. Generally that's where you'll find me. I've been soaked to the skin in my fair share of car-produced tsunamis; I have stood sopping wet, my umbrella no match for Rabat's horizontal rain, hopelessly marooned on street corners because I can't find a passage across the street that is less than 20 centimetres deep. I can only presume that it is Allah's will that my shoes squelch for 3 months of the year.

Rain in Rabat is a taunting thing. It can start without the sky offering the slightest intimation of incoming inclement weather, and when it does begin, it can go from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye. Then it stops. Then it's sunny. Then it starts. Then it stops. Then it's sunny. Then it hails. Then it starts to rain. Then it stops. Then it's sunny. Then it starts. See the pattern? It's insidious, isn't it? And the constant barrage of celestial water makes everything damp. Everything and everyone. Often it is warmer outside than in; it will take a solid week of warm weather to dry out most people's homes and that blessed event is still weeks away. Fortunately, my building is blessed with heat: somewhat inadequate (the heat isn't turned on until sunset and is turned off sometime after midnight) but satisfactory enough. My less fortunate friends and colleagues are forced to watch in horror as their portable electric heaters turn their hydro meters into whirling dervishes; it is some consolation that I haven't had to auction off a kidney on eBay to pay my electricity bill.

Still, I remind myself that if I were home right now I’d be whining about today’s -15° Celsius temperature, the skin-peeling wind chill factor, having to scrape the ice off the car windshield, and shovelling. Which brings us to the snow. Perhaps the drifts aren't as high as when I was a girl, but if there’s enough snow on the ground to compel me to wear winter boots, then I’d be complaining about it. For now, I'll stick with Rabat's moderate temperatures and alluvial precipitation and restrict my bitching to today's blog. Furthermore, I may even resist the temptation to hum a few bars of "rain, rain, go away" and instead hop about in a raindance or two to help thwart the threat of drought this summer. Should there be a third Moroccan Winter Wonderland in my future and if it doesn't fly in the face of Allah's hitheto soggy plans for my feet, I’ll have to bring back a pair of bright yellow rain boots from my next trip abroad. After all, cats don’t like to get their paws wet.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Cat in Rabat's Tongues & A Few Parenthetical Thoughts About the Spanish Inquisition**

I have a natural and possibly queer aversion to food that is named after parts of the body - especially animal parts. I think this eccentricity may stem from the acute guilt I experienced as a child whenever my mother gave me a box of animal crackers. Do I eat the head first or the feet? O the horror of it all! The idea of serving "finger" foods at a party makes my flesh crawl; hors d'oeuvres I can live with. Consider the langue de chat, or cat's tongue - a crisp buttery little confection whose consumption starts innocently enough: it begins to melt deliciously in my mouth until I visualize (which I inevitably do) the mastication & destruction of a tiny pink cat's tongue under my teeth which then triggers my pharyngeal reflex.

Historically, I have had more success with tongues of a different breed; last fall I decided to embark on a language course in an effort to prevent the complete mush-ification of my brain. My hope had been to start a programme in Spanish, but because of a scheduling conflict (thanks holy month of Ramadan), I registered for a course in Standard Arabic instead. The savvier of you are probably thinking what ho! where are you going to practice Standard Arabic in Morocco - why not study Darija, the Moroccan dialect? Excellent point. I probably should have, but I thought that I'd get more bang for my buck, more mileage out of Standard. Who knows when Mr. CinR and I might want fly off to Mecca for a romantic getaway?

It was less than stellar; or more precisely, I was less than stellar. Although I eventually grew comfortable with the Arabic script and could produce a fair hand, I butted heads with the language in a most pugnacious manner, and unjustly held my instructor accountable for the language's quirks and, in my mind, idiosyncrasies that bordered on the nonsensical. I am not a complete pinhead when it comes to languages: I am proficient (or at least was) in Latin, ancient Greek, ancient Egyptian (4 stages of the language, each in monumental and cursive scripts) and Coptic. If I could learn to differentiate between 50-some birds in Egyptian, then surely I could successfully plumb the mysteries of the "
ع", or ayn (which by the way, existed in ancient Egyptian).

I could never come to terms with the habit of dropping vowel markers in writing. If vowels exist, use them. If anyone has spent one moment listening to an Arab speaker then you know that vowels (some of which take a full 30 seconds to completely articulate) abound. This is not only a slap in the face to a vowel, but defies logic. When in the evolution of a written language is the decision made to stop using vowels - this in a language where the same group of consonants can be pronounced in a gazillion ways and each mean something completely different? Who was responsible for that decision? The result of this is that you must know the meaning of the word before you can pronounce it. At least in the Romance and Germanic languages (as an example), you can make a fair attempt at pronouncing a word correctly without knowing its meaning. Cat in
Rabat spent many a class with her head held mournfully in her hands after she had just demonstrated that her oral skills were those of a complete retard whose tongue had previously been removed by hot pincers.

Then there was the grammar. Oi vey - it was as inconstant as the moon, whose waxing and waning I believe, hold great sway over Arabic grammar. If it is a gibbous moon then you must add a taarmabuuta to the end of a noun, but only if the reader is a menstruating woman. But if the tides are high and the moon is full then you use a sukun. Omigod ... all I could see was a grammatical system based on exceptions and idiosyncrasies that, in my mind, were more idiotic than syncratic. Inanimate plural nouns are considered to be feminine singular; a verb in a verb-initial sentence is always marked as singular regardless of its semantic number. Get the picture?

We parted company.

Having bid a hearty masalama to Standard Arabic, Mr. Cat in
Rabat and I, with dark brooding Romance in our souls, turned to Spanish. In my mind, Spanish had much to recommend itself: its alphabet was already a known commodity to us and its grammar (especially its verbal system) is greatly akin to Latin (not a huge boon for Mr. CinR but it made me grin). And more importantly, we would be able to walk into class everyday and greet our instructor and fellow students with a sing-songy little ¡Hola! – so sing-songy that one might hear those quirky little inverted exclamation marks in our voices as we call out our greetings.

And we do.

Three times a week we begin our morning with an ¡Hola! and then resign ourselves to 2 hours of learning with Moroccan students. Not that this is a bad thing in and of itself – our fellow students are a very amiable bunch. But Moroccans approach language acquisition slightly different that non-Moroccans. I am sad to say that I already had some experience on this front but with me on the other side of the desk. Now I am the student. For one thing, owning a text book is not considered de rigueur – after 2 weeks of class, our instructor was compelled to march those still sin sus libros over to the bookstore to make their purchases.

I haven’t yet decided whether Moroccan students are impatient or just naturally exuberant. Regardless of the answer, I want to strangle them all. I am beginning to harbour dark thoughts about the Spanish Inquisition and secretly wonder if Torquemada (“the hammer of heretics, the light of Spain”) had chatty Moroccans in mind when he began his persecution of the Moors in Spain. You see, it is completely irrelevant that the instructor has called upon Mr. CinR to answer a question because the entire class will answer it before he has a chance to. If you make a mistake and if you are lucky, the entire class will correct you; if you make a mistake and if you are unlucky, the entire class will correct you and then dissolve into gales of mocking derisive laughter at your expense. When asked to repeat a phrase after the instructor (thankfully a native speaker), they will recite with her rather than after, completely obliterating the sound of her native cadences. If I acquire an accent at all in this class, it will be a Moroccan-Spanish accent for I can seldom hear Ms. Gonzalez.

For some reason completely unknown to me, it takes them thirty times longer to complete 5 lines of gap-filled sentences although I suspect that this is because their seatwork is getting in the way of some serious chatting and catching-up since last class. Because chat they do. They never shut up. By the end of class I look like the image of the Grinch (the 1966 Chuck Jones version not Jim Carrey’s Pretender to the Throne) with little imaginary drumsticks beating the sides of his head in a sustained undulation of agony.

Nonetheless we tell ourselves that this is a good experience – that acquiring even a smattering of another language is good for our own personal and professional development. As we move on past our mastery of the sing-songy ¡Hola! we may even learn not to snigger as the French-speakers in our midst continue to mispronounce the Spanish es (in which the final “s” is articulated) like the French es (in which it is not). See – we don’t dissolve into gales of mocking derisive laughter, we just snigger. That sets us apart from our fellow initiates.

Until then, adiós Muchachos.

** Which, in fact, nobody expects.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Party Like It's 1428 (A.H.)!

It's the first day of Muharram, New Year’s Day in Islam. At least in Morocco. It was marked yesterday in pretty much everywhere else in the Muslim world so I may be a day late in wishing a Happy New Year to those who require another tool to watch the passage of time; for that I accept no responsibility and blame my adopted country. The New Year cannot be called until the new moon has been seen and in spite of the fact that there are tons of technologies which will allow one to accurately predict the rising of the moon, it requires the usage of human eyes. At least in Morocco. Last year, cloudy weather prevented that inconstant moon from being spotted and this year as well, the moon was sighted on the last possible day to conform to the prescribed number of days in the Islamic month.

Confused? Don't be. It's hardly worth it because I have a day off from work and in my world, that's all that really matters. If the ringing in of the New Year is incumbent on a pack of wild female hyenas viewing the total eclipse of Pluto as they run counter clockwise around a palm tree then so be it. I have a holiday.

And what was New Year's Eve like in this, the capital city of Morocco? Well, at the stroke of midnight, I was not awoken by an explosion of fireworks cascading over the Bouregreg river but rather by a sonorous sinusy snore from Mr. Cat in Rabat. Did drunken merrymakers wake me up at all hours of the night as they caroused in glee or serpentined their way home in a euphoric state of inebriation? No they did not. And what does Rabat look like, in this first flush of 1428 (A.H.)? Are the streets strewn with empty bottles of Veuve Clicquot, discarded paper party hats, noise makers and streamers? Sadly they are not.

In my grab-bag of adjectives, I am tempted to pull out the word "comatose" to describe the city’s demeanour on this auspicious morning but that wouldn't be accurate: a car just passed by outside my window. Perhaps I’ll try "sedate". And I could live with sedate if by sedate it meant "woefully hungover". But it does not. Sedate means just that.

Now I appreciate that the passing of a year means different things to different cultures, and that each has its own customs to ring out the old & ring in the new. I get that – I am not as ethnocentric as I might lead you to believe. But the fact that religion and culture are so inextricably entwined in Muslim societies doesn’t help matters much. Muharram is counted from the year of the Hegira – hence the suffix A.H. (anno Hegirae) used in dates – when Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina, and is generally observed with prayers and readings. For Shias, Muharram is a month of mourning because it marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Well, why not?

So, foolishly, I keep trying to find the joy here – the roll-up-your-trouser-cuffs-and-jump-in-a-fountain-and-dance-like-a-fool sort of joy – that I see elsewhere in the world. A joy that is not predicated on slicing the throat of a ruminant and bringing out the kids to watch as it thrashes about in the death throes of the dying. So perhaps I’ll just stop trying.

But there is hope: if you allow a brief indulgence in etymologies, we learn that the name of the month (Muharram ul haram in its entirety) is derived from the word “haram” (forbidden) and as such, it is illegal to fight during the holy month. No armed conflict for a month? No suicide bombers? No bickering? No sticks & stones?

That’s joy enough.


I am mindful that next month will usher in the Year of the Pig according to the Chinese calendar. We’ll have to see how the Muslim world fares under the auspices of this most generous and honourable but decidedly haram creature.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

da Veni, da Vidi, da Vinci Code

There's something decidedly dark & squirrelly about my character that compels me to seek out that which I despise - just so that I can despise it a little bit more.

Case in point: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

A few years ago, while I and every other skinflint I knew were anxiously awaiting its paperback release (which would still be long in coming to
Canada), a colleague of mine returned from a trip to India (of all places) with the coveted book in hand. This novel, this Holy Grail of books, which had set the church on its ear, was finally in my grasp. I was delighted.

Of course it stunk; I knew it would. But that didn’t prevent me from devouring it in a few hours. I scoffed at it, belittled its puzzles and codes, marvelled at the idiotic simplicity of its plot, sneered at its many palpable geographical mistakes, shook my head at the author’s “understanding” of Parisian street grids – even going so far as to wake Mr. Cat in Rabat up from a deep sleep to share my spiteful glee at the book’s mounting faux pas and puerile “conundrums”. “It’s Da Vinci’s goddamn mirror writing!” I shrieked. Literally. “And he’s going to sustain this bit of so-called arcana for another freaking chapter!” It was at that point that I threw the book across the room and turned out the light.

In truth, the seed of my anger was that I had not come up with the book’s concept myself (for none of the material was novel or unknown), not written the frigging book, not sold the movie rights, and not purchased an island in the Aegean. My curse in life (to quote Bugs Bunny) is to be “always the bridesmaid, never the bride”.

So when I heard that the film rights had been sold, my Cat pre-Rabat friends & I conferred deep into the night and shared notes over long liquid lunches about the casting. We all had our theories: some excellent (mine); some reasonable (theirs). In a world where truth is always more grotesque than fiction, I hear that Tom Hanks has been cast in the lead role. I am beside myself with merriment: how better to bury a mediocre book than with a mediocre actor (sorry, I’m not a Tom Spanks fan). The only fly in the ointment will be its release date: I will be in Morocco.

Tantalizing clips and stills are leaked, and then finally the trailer. I howl at the sight of Mr. Spanks’ transformation into “symbologist” (I still giggle at this) Robert Langdon festooned with a coiffure worthy of King Arthur’s Court; in fact, he looks more like a knight’s page grown long in the tooth. Oh, it is to laugh (to quote Daffy Duck). I eagerly await the appearance of the DVD in Rabat’s pirate shops. It is late in coming. I am concerned. Then, like the Holy Grail, it makes a fleeting but luminous appearance at Rabat's largest "independent" film distributor. I snatch it off the shelf and scurry home, not only fully prepared to hate it, but rapturously anticipate every cornball moment.

I slip it into my DVD player and sit back. I watch as the Louvre is revealed in the quickening shadows of a Parisian night, I hear footsteps ring out along its tiled galleries, I sit up in my seat as a nefarious voice penetrates the night, “Arrêtez! Dites-moi où elle est!

Damn! Damn! Damn! It’s a French copy, not the original English-language version. But I can be patient. I can wait.

A month later, I espy another copy in a different pirate shop. I snatch it off the shelf and scurry home, not only fully prepared to hate it, but rapturously anticipate every cornball moment.

I slip it into my DVD player and sit back. I watch as the Louvre is revealed in the quickening shadows of a Parisian night, I hear footsteps ring out along its tiled galleries, I sit up in my seat as a nefarious voice penetrates the night, “Arrêtez! Dites-moi où elle est!”

Damn! Damn! Damn! It’s a French copy, not the original English-language version. But I can be patient. I can wait. But can I? Under unrelenting Spanish pressure, Morocco has finally clamped down on its Mediterranean-Seafaring pirates. The shops which once offered Rabat the culture of the world for 10 dirhams a pop are now chained shut, leaving movie hounds no legal alternative to satisfy their appetites. (How I love a well thought out plan.) Rumours fly. It’s temporary. It’s permanent. It sucks.

A week or two goes by, and still the massive padlocks hang ponderously on the shop doors – but wait! Enterprising merchants begin selling movies from blankets thrown along the pathways of the medina. Every once in a while a warning call resonates down the alleys and the contraband and its dealers disappear in the wink of an eye. The police are coming. I am loath to buy from these sellers; at least at the pirate shops, the merchants will exchange any non-English movie for another film. As I argue with myself the niceties of possibly wasting the equivalent of a Euro, I espy The Da Vinci Code. I snatch it off the blanket and scurry home, not only fully prepared to hate it, but rapturously anticipate every cornball moment.

I slip it into my DVD player and sit back. I watch as the Louvre is revealed in the quickening shadows of a Parisian night, I hear footsteps ring out along its tiled galleries, I sit up in my seat as a nefarious voice penetrates the night, “Arrêtez! Dites-moi où elle est!

I capitulate. I have had enough. This is a sign from a greater being. Possibly Dan Brown himself.

Months pass, and my dear friend Mr. N (62% evil) and I are sitting in an Agdal café when we are approached by the new breed of DVD pirate: the itinerant buccaneer. He spreads his movies like a fan onto our small table; Mr. N and I look at each other. Is it worth it? We know that we’ll get burned. But we have been visibly weakened by months of no English movies; it has been a cultural drought of unspeakable horrors for the English community. Then I espy The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps three times is the charm. Between us we buy 10 films. Mr. N. has seen our pirate around Agdal; the latter promises to refund us if they are not in English.

I scurry home, not only fully prepared to hate it, but rapturously anticipate every cornball moment.

I slip it into my DVD player and sit back. I watch as the Louvre is revealed in the quickening shadows of a Parisian night, I hear footsteps ring out along its tiled galleries, I sit up in my seat as a nefarious voice penetrates the night, “Arrêtez! Dites-moi où elle est!”

Of the ten movies, only one is in English. It is Babel. It is a copy made with a Sony Handycam that had been mounted in front of a television (at least it wasn’t hand-held) screening a promotional copy of the film. The sound quality is abysmal, rising and falling at capricious and malevolent will. We watch it in its entirety, one hand on the volume control.

Mr. N. never sees the Agdal pirate again.

Weeks pass. The other day Mr. CinR & I are told that the new Chinese gift shop in town (more on that later) is selling DVDs and that some of the movies are in English. Huzzah! Like a drink of water to the parched lips of a thirsty man, we relent and go. Mr. CinR is the first to see The Da Vinci Code.

He snatches it off the table and we scurry home, not only fully prepared to hate it, but rapturously anticipate every cornball moment.

I slip it into my DVD player and sit back. I watch as the Louvre is revealed in the quickening shadows of a Parisian night, I hear footsteps ring out along its tiled galleries, I sit up in my seat as a nefarious voice penetrates the night, “Arrêtez! Dites-moi où elle est!”


I capitulate. I have had enough. This is a sign from a greater being. Possibly Tom Spanks himself.

I feel like I am at the centre of some unearthly enchantment from which I can never break free. Moments later, Mr. C in R turns from his computer and announces that he’s downloading the film from the internet. O brave new world – is this “sharing” of files just as unethical as pirating?
I don’t care. Tonight we will watch The Da Vinci Code. We are not only fully prepared to hate it, but rapturously anticipate every cornball moment. I don’t think it will disappoint.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Ruminations on a Tangerine or Two

Alas I am back.

In a rather apparent & possibly sophomoric attempt to bridge one of my final postings of 2006 (the modest Clementine) with my inaugural blog of 2007, I offer you a not very brief dissertation on the tangerine. Or more accurately The Tangerine, for I have washed my hands of citrus fruit for the time being and wish to consider the man rather than the mandarine.

But first, a minor digression ...

I have returned from my winter solstice peregrinations and, although I have accumulated a few anecdotes here and there (remind me later to mention the lunatic and the chicken), I'd like to start the year and the blog ass-backwards by beginning with the end. For some reason, my
return journeys always seem to negate any restorative value that holidays are supposed to produce. Go figure.

Once again, Mr. Cat in
Rabat & I are in Spain awaiting a ferry to Tangier. We have just missed not one but two fast ferries in the last 10 minutes, and are now resigned to crossing Gibraltar on their velocity-challenged sister, the Ibn Battuta, which leaves in about 45 minutes. This is eminently doable. We buy our tickets, pass through the check-in area, and take a seat. The ferry leaves in 30 minutes, and oddly, security has not shown up to scan our luggage for any incendiary devices. Through the window we see the ferry, but we see no security. This is a little frustrating. I cannot but help feeling that the ferry is taunting us.

There are only 6 of us in the waiting area. We feel neglected, if not altogether forgotten. We watch as a woman enters the hall labouring heavily with an inordinately large suitcase and a bigger-than-life goofah-bag, as overstuffed and on the verge of bursting as a week-old corpse. I have a hate-on for these plastic eyesores. They are the suitcase of choice for much of the world’s Great Unwashed and as such, often travel as I do: by bus, train, ferry and on various crap-hole budget airlines. They are ubiquitous. If my co-travellers are not lugging
goofahs then they are hauling humongous acrylic bedspreads and comforters ensconced in plastic carrying bags. I have never travelled into Morocco without counting at least 12 comforters making the journey with me. I have tripped over my share of bedspreads and goofahs over the years as I have brazenly asserted my right to walk down an aisle; I have nearly lost 5 eyes to them; I have had one fall on my head during a Sudan Air flight; and I have heard chickens clucking from the dark recesses of them (the goofahs not the bedspreads) on bus trips throughout Egypt. Goofahs are treated terribly by their owners: they are packed beyond capacity, dragged & scraped along the ground, “mended” with string and duct tape, and not retired after an appropriate period of time. If a goofah were an animal, it would be a donkey.

Although tempted to predict Goofah-lady’s actions or provide a running commentary, we refrain because her course of action is too obvious. She presents no challenge. She will (and does) kick her prodigious baggage to the side of the check-in counter, effectively skirting the 4 people who have been waiting patiently in line, and, amidst much sighing and repositioning of her veil, attain her boarding pass ahead of everyone else. She will then (and does) lug her bags to the police area, depositing them in front of the bags that are already holding their owners' places in line, motions to me to keep an eye on them, and heads off to the loo. No one bothers to say anything. We're practically back in
Morocco, so what's the point? I watch as her suitcase falls over. It must have been Allah’s will. (Okay, Mr. Cat in Rabat does reposition it – we’re not completely evil).

A few minutes before the ferry leaves, an employee of the ferry terminal happens to notice that we are not on the ferry and sends a security officer to scan our luggage. Clearly confused about his job description, he opens the gate and waves us through, and Mr. Cat in
Rabat & I file pass the x-ray machine as well as the goofah-woman who has lost her position because of her bags. This is not the first time in my travels that the x-ray machine has not been used in the Algeciras ferry terminal: why terrorists haven’t targeted the ferries that ply the Straits of Gibraltar eludes me. Moments later we are on the outside boarding ramp but still there is no employee to take our boarding passes and let us on. It is well after 11:00 and it seems to me an inauspicious sign that the ticket office is still issuing tickets to passengers. Finally we see people in uniform. Perhaps they will let us on the ferry – but no! – they appear to be escorting 3 Moroccans to the front of our line, two of whom are handcuffed together and holding between them a plastic garbage bag that presumably contains their few possessions. I should feel sympathy for them (I assume that they are being deported) but only feel relief that they aren’t carrying a goofah-bag. The woman demurely keeps her handcuffed hands under her robes; she may or may not have a goofah bag concealed beneath their voluminous folds.

Watching them proves far less taxing than counting the dozens of new arrivals joining us on the ramp.

Finally, ferry personnel arrive! Yeah! We board the Ibn Battuta and find, much to our disgust, what a hulking piece of poo it is. We change our seats three times in the – as it turns out – quite futile hopes of finding a seat that is not ripped, stained, struggling to confine its nomadic springs & coils within the fabric, and/or not ripped out of something that died a horrible death crossing the Black Sea during the Stalin-era. Mr. CinR quickly surmises that the bar is open (even though we have not left port) and goes off in search of beer. I head towards the ladies’ room to wash up, only to find that of its four stalls, only one has a toilet paper dispenser. It is also blessed with a toilet that can cause spontaneous long-term constipation on sight so I move along. There is a sign on the wall indicating that we are not to discard our paper in the toilet but to use the receptacle provided. There is no receptacle provided. A tetanus-bearing ash can has been wedged in the doorway of the washroom in which clearly used toilet paper has been deposited. By deposited, I mean heaped. In defiance of Maritime Law, I flush away all evidence of my urinatory proceedings. I go to wash my hands and in the transparent soap dispenser take note of the dead cockroach floating tits-up in its green viscous soap.

Mr. Cat in Rabat and I are very disappointed. We had expectations. As our stinking hulk slowly chugs out of Algeciras (only 45 minutes late) we consider the namesake of our ferry. Ibn Battuta was one of the greatest travellers of the medieval world. A native of Tangier, the scholar-lawyer headed east one day and the next thing he knew he had travelled 120,000 kilometres (effectively leaving Marco Polo in the dust), passed through what are now 44 countries, including Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Ethiopia, India, and Zanzibar (to name but a few), and fallen in and out of royal favour a few times. He is the world’s most celebrated Tangerine – not least of all by himself, as Ibn Battuta penned his own travel memoires, or Rihla. So influential was he that over 6 centuries after his death a shopping mall was named after him in Dubai. I bet he would have been impressed by the 21 screens of its Cineplex.

Our ferry does not do Ibn Battuta justice. Our rusting scow is filthy with its greasy windows, battered and multicoloured (not in a nice way) carpets and overflowing ash cans; it is in a chronic state of disrepair and disarray. Never before have I been tempted to count the number of lifeboats. And I do. As well as the lifesavers (see above photo). I feel a little embarrassed for him – or at least as much as can be expected for someone who’s been dead for half of eternity, had a pretty nice life, and who travelled in far less seaworthy vessels.

Our reverie is broken by a ferry official who announces that the Moroccan police are now collecting landing cards and stamping passports. I go ahead only to find that the office is quite empty. I will have to wait another 20 minutes until someone shows up. I briefly consider asking the officer if he has somehow missed the announcement that the rest of the ferry heard but think better of it. I consider instead the ferry’s eponymous Travelling Tangerine and his misadventures with the border police of his day, all the while keeping my ears and eyes open for the goofa-lugging gate-crasher.

I don't have to wait long.

Addendum: As a writer who won't find fame for another couple of hundred years, I have a very soft spot in my heart for Ibn Battuta. If you can lay your hands on a copy of Ian Mackintosh-Smith’s Travels with a Tangerine (excellent) and the next (but not last) in the series The Hall of a Thousand Columns (could have been more excellent), do so.