Friday, March 30, 2007

Mulling Over the Mawlid

This morning, for the first time in over a week, I didn't awake to the sounds of splash splash beep beep splash splash, as Rabat was once again inundated with its mercurial rain patterns. Instead, I awoke to the not-so dulcet tones of a particularly enthusiastic allahu akbar, in concert with a chorus of barking dogs, which culminated in a crescendo of equally enthusiastic chirping birds. Knowing that I still had a few hours to go, I turned over and, rather frustratingly, remained awake for the better part of the early morning. At the point when Sleep finally did condescend to pay me a visit, the staccato of splash splash beep beep splash splash began to play out in the streets below, effectively nullifying any plans I had for further slumber.

During those wee hours, my thoughts turned to Mohammed - a winning point going to my pre-dawn muezzin who apparently did his job very thoroughly this morning. It was either that or the dogs. So my thoughts ran (or more accurately stumbled) like this: if the Prophet Mohammed (the PM) were alive now, he'd be turning 1437 (give or take a year) on Sunday, as this weekend marks the Mawlidu n-Nabiy, or the PM's birthday. Or roughly 205 in dog years. (The dogs got under my skin this morning).

So, you ask, how does one celebrate the PM's birthday? Well if you ask a number of our students, one does not assign homework as that pretty much defiles the sancity of the day. I suspect, that given the opportunity, the same students would trot out the same tripe on Groundhog Day and Secretary's Day, but who knows. One cannot help but think that if Allah hadn't wanted them to have homework, then I would not have handed out exercise sheets for them to do. After all, he is "the most powerful".

Now not all Muslim countries consider the Mawlid a bonafide custom - the fun-seekers in Saudi Arabia being a notable, but not sole, example. "Celebrating the Mawlid is an innovation introduced by the Shi’a Faatimids after the three best centuries in order to corrupt the religion of the Muslims". So yes, on the Islamic Dogmatic Metre, it doesn't fare very well. Nonetheless, the celebration entered the mainstream some eight hundred years ago and became a public observance. But I digress. So how is the day celebrated?

Processions are held, homes or mosques are decorated, charity and food is distributed, stories about the life of Prophet Muhammad are narrated, dhikr (the repetition of holy names & such) and poems are recited by children.

Okay, this isn't too bad, given that good Muslims are refrained from celebrating their own birthdays. It certainly doesn't sound like the police are going to be called in at 3 in the morning, but it could be worse. Now if I were the birthday boy, if I were the PM, how would I want my birthday to be celebrated?

1) Cake. There has to be cake. How can you have a birthday without cake? My preference is yellow cake with chocolate icing. And big pretty roses that I would get first choice of. Or better yet, a big cake slab decorated with my image - I can just hear a gazillion generations of God-fearing Muslims rolling over in their graves. (Thank you Mr. N for that party suggestion). And lots of candles too - afterall, I want to get a wish.

2) Champagne. Lots of it. No tea, no juice, no coffee - champagne. There should be so many corks popping that every cat in the Muslim world will be hiding under beds, cars, and chairs for a fortnight afterwards.

3) Fireworks. If, as many believe, I revealed the word of God to the world, then I should get a big freaking fireworks display. I want pyrotechnic engineers to work on this all year. If my believers don't develop accute tinnitus then I'd be majorly peeved.

4) A Party in which I would invite Buddha, Confucius and Jesus. Discussions of politics and religion would be verboten but many many rounds of "happy birthday" would be encouraged. Presents are optional (Jesus gets presents). I'd like themed parties too - something different every year. As the PM, I'd be tired of the same old, same-old. Maybe one year a Hawaiian luau, another year a Hello Kitty! theme. Perhaps a murder-weekend. There would definitely have to be a planning committee (perhaps Mr. N would be up for the challenge?).

5) Ponies and/or donkeys. For the kids. Okay, for the adults too.

5) No puppet shows. I hate puppets. They're just little clowns. Which leads us to ...

6) No clowns. Enough said. No animal balloons either.

7) No blasting of recitations - even those in my honour - from loudspeakers. I already know how great I am.

8) World Peace and Mutual Understanding. Just kidding. I hate when people waste a wish on that.

So there we go: a birthday party fit for a Prophet. When Sunday dawns and there are no pony rides and only the squawking of loudspeakers, good odds someone will be not a little disappointed. Of course, that someone will probably just be me. But chances are, that when Sunday dawns, all I'll probably hear is the splash splash beep beep splash splash, as Rabat is once again inundated with its mercurial rain patterns.

Happy Birthday PM! Hope you blow out all your candles!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Beggars' Banquet

In this city, in this country, I am a target. A walking bullseye which attracts - by virtue of my gender, fair skin, auburn hair (Garnier Belle-Color #550) and perceived wealth - a not inconsiderable amount of unsolicited attention. Attention which at best stirs the humanity in me, at worse repulses me beyond comprehension. Well into my second year in Rabat, the leers and comments and smacking of lips and the deep inhaling sucking sounds of the Not Very Nice Men still infuriate and sicken me - this in spite of the fact that the majority of people I spoke to told me that, in time, I would get used to it. Either they were wrong or by "in time" they meant the combined ages of a kennel of dogs calculated in human years. Times three.

It is the beggars who push my ethical pendulum to its fullest arc. There are those for whom I have no sympathy, those who elicit in me no sense of compassion. Does this make me a heartless cur? I don't know. Maybe. In all likelihood, these people are as poorly off as the ones who do give me pause and fumble for coins at the bottom of my purse, yet I almost never consider giving them my spare change. Why? I've given a lot of thought to what I thought was a haphazard inconsistency in my own approach to beggars, and came to the rather startling realisation that there was a pattern at work here, that I had inadvertantly established a personal criteria to deal with Morocco's estimated half million beggars - a pecking order, if you will, of who gets my dirhams and why.

The Successful Beggar

- the successful beggar has a visible tangible physical infirmity. Even within this category, there is a hierarchy; for example, the man in the medina whose face is held together with wires figures higher on the list than those unfortunates with open, superating wounds. A mother with a recumbent child - a child with a discernible malady, say hydrocephalia (not inertia) - will also likely be successful. Amputees with a missing limb (or, better, limbs) are more persuasive than, say, blindness - although I must say that the blind man who sits patiently outside of the main mosque on Follow the Leader in the brilliantly white and impeccably clean jellaba almost always draws a few coins from my pocket. I confess that I am sometimes hesitant to give to amputees as many - but not all - are maimed to become professional beggars, but I often give them the beneft of the doubt.

- the successful beggar does not get in my face. He or she may ask or sing (the medina's beggars seem to be a more decidedly melodious lot) for alms, hands may be outstretched, but s/he will never.

- the successful beggar is someone clearly out of work. Some are women (often from the country), stigmatized by divorce or wantonness, who have been rejected by their families. Unfortunately, I don't always have a clear sense of how to differentiate them from their more deviant counterparts.

- the successful beggar may be a sub-Saharan African who is marooned in Morocco, floating listlessly about in an existential & geographical no-man's land. Trying desperately to get to Europe, they have spent all they have getting this far and now have no resources to continue on or to return home. These people, quite frankly, break my heart.

- the successful beggar will offer thanks for my assistance. Okay: I'm not particularly proud of this one but I'm trying to be brutally honest. I know that one shouldn't give anything unless freely given, without strings attached, but who doesn't like to feel a little appreciated, to receive a blessing upon your head from a god that you may not even believe in? A little gratitude goes a long way to ensure repeat custom.

The Unsuccessful Beggar

- the unsuccessful beggar touches me. Plain and simple. You lay hands on me and you have just effectively quashed any chance of a handout.

- the unsuccessful beggar will try to weaken my resolve by showing me a prescription or an empty box of meds. These props are bought and sold for this very purpose. To weaken my resolve.

- the unsuccessful beggar travels in packs. Mostly these are kids goofing off, sometimes high on glue, sometimes having a lark to see how much they can fleece out of a tourist. Last week, Mr. Cat in Rabat and I were returning from Label Vie, walking along one of my least favourite routes (namely in front of Place Abou Bakr Assadik) when we were swarmed by a gaggle of girls. Hands out, asking for money, our refusal met with increased determination as one little girl hurled herself at me and, with her hands clasped around my neck, swung from my body. Her feet left the ground as she hung from me. Call me callous, but her actions did little to melt the ice which, at that moment, formed an involiable fortress around my heart. And wallet.

- the unsuccessful beggar possesses a shiny new (or in good working order) wheelchair or crutches. If the crutches are in fact a crutch (i.e., singular rather than plural), and is little more than a bit of tree, then there is still hope. But the wizzened beggar who roams my neighbourhood with a limp which varies markedly from one day to the next and a crutch that on any given day is nothing more than a stick but on others is a wobbly wooden crutch or a bright silver ergonomic forearm crutch gets squat. (Although I confess that I used to give him money until I saw the full range of his panhandling paraphenalia).

-the unsuccessful beggar names his price. Donne-moi un dirham will probably only earn them an uncharitable thought from me.

-the unsuccessful beggar is a child. I do not give money to children. Nor do I give candy or pens. I might add that of the professional beggars hired by mendicant syndicates, 15% are children below the age of seven who receive a weekly salary of 50-100 dirhams from their bosses, pimps, Fagans, or whatever you call them. When I worked in Egypt, I was routinely accosted by children. But there was a not so subtle difference between my experiences here and there: most adults who happened to be passing by would admonish the kids to cease and desist their activities forthwith (and by admonishing, I mean screaming at them and sometimes cuffing them about the head) and then turn to apologize to me. Seeing their children beg was a deeply humiliating experience and something they wanted to nip in the bud. Not so here. Mr CinR and I have yet to be assisted in extricating ourselves from the grips (often literal ones) of all too insistent "urchins" by passing adults. Well-dressed adults. Well-dressed adults who don't even have the courtesy to turn away in shame.

-the unsuccessful beggar should not be better dressed than I am. Rare though this is, it has happened.

-the unsuccessful beggar should not be a mother with her soporific child papoosed to her back. Often these children are drugged and they pass their day strapped to the backs of their mothers or other women (infants can be rented out), in a catatonic state bereft of stimuli, their heads lolling freakishly to one side.

- the unsuccessful beggar adopts a seige mentality when begging; this also known as begging by attrition. These are the beggars who will approach you at a sidewalk café or restaurant, shove their hands in your face and not leave until you give them something (or wait staff chases them off). Brilliant in design and simplicity, they know that guilt, sheer presistence, and the knowledge that a few dirhams will buy you the space to enjoy your café crème in peace will ultimately be your undoing.

- the unsuccessful beggar resorts to emotional blackmail, using his circumstances (financial or physical) to elicit from me both feelings of guilt and coinage. Chances are, if you are missing your arms I already feel badly for you, but hurling abuse at me won't likely make you win the day.

Really, it's a combination of delivery and presentation.

I appreciate the fact that begging is woven into the culture of Morocco, that allowances for the poor have been made in the Qu'ran, that giving alms to the poor is a tenant of Islam. Indeed, of Islam's Five Pillars, it is this required act of charity that I find to be its most redeeming feature.

Like several other countries in the world, Canada's largest province has banned panhandling, more specifically, begging which is (undoubtedly arbitrarily) deemed aggressive or abusive. In spite of the surfeit of street people I've encountered back home, I very seldom gave out change. When I did, it was once again to the same "type", another criteria that I had subconsciously established - to men who reminded me in some way of my deceased father. Freudian perhaps, but aged bearded men with great shocks of snowy white hair who walk the streets of Halifax are far more likely to earn a few dollars from me.

Of course, those in the know will tell you that giving alms to beggars doesn't solve anything. In a world of Band-Aid solutions, it probably doesn't even place above corn pads. Fortunately the Ministry of Social Development has recently instituted a 38 million dirham programme to combat begging by encouraging "the assimilation of beggars into the country's social fabric through family integration, institutional sponsorship and economic integration." Laudable though this is (and it really is), while I am here, a guest in this country, I hand out money. Perhaps it is my guilt, my overbearing sense of white man's burden that compells me to dig deep - dig deep when the person before me has met one or more of the criteria of my Successful Beggar list. This hierarchy has been my own crutch navigating a world replete with mafia-like organizations of professional beggars and the truly destitute who demand our sympathy. It is certainly not fool-proof, nor is it in any way politically correct. It just is.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Cat in Castile

I haven't slept in weeks, passing endless nights tossing & turning & stealing the covers in anticipation of those impending moments - moments of ineffable magic and delight - when I can once again:

* walk without my eyes fixed to the ground, secure in the knowledge that I won't fall & disappear into a hole in the sidewalk, break a foot on the stub of a cement parking pylon, or snap my ankles slipping on wet pavement.
* walk in a straight line without having to weave in and out of cars parked on the sidewalks, dodge trees planted in meandering patterns in said sidewalks, and avoid the aforesaid holes and stubs of cement parking pylons.
* walk down the street and not be stared at, not be the unwilling recipient of stares, wolf whistles, and lurid comments (today it was a police officer in uniform).
* walk (see the theme?) across a crosswalk and not get beaned by oncoming traffic (yesterday it was a police cruiser), where getting to the other side does not mean standing in the middle of a street on the yellow line and wait for an opportunity to dart across frogger-style, where pedestrian traffic lights exist and/or are in working order ... oh stop! stop! I'm becoming gitty!
* drink liquor outside. And by outside I mean not inside. In public. Where people (and Allah) can see you and not feel compelled to judge you. In a bad way.
* order a veggie burger - hell! - go to a vegetarian restaurant. A restaurant that doesn't consider anything not a cow or a sheep a bonafide vegetarian option. Eat so much tofu, tvp and seitan that I'll never want to eat a meat-substitute again, that I'll run towards the first abbatoir I see when I get back to Morocco, knife and fork in hand.
* browse in book & music stores where they sell books and music. Books and music! Books and music that don't begin by invoking any god, regardless of how merciful and compassionate he (or she) may be.
* gawk at breath-taking works of art. Guernica! My dream - first conceived in a grade 9 art class - of standing in front of Guernica and hearing - of feeling - the screams of Picasso's terror-stricken horse pierce my brain is but hours away from reaching fruition.
* drink liquor (it bears repeating) outside. And by outside I mean not inside. In public. Where people (and Allah) can see you and not feel compelled to judge you. In a bad way.
*greet people with a sing-songy hola. Truly hola is the world's cheeriest hello. How can anyone say hola and not be happy? There must be another greeting for cranky people resembling a grumble or a snarl or pretty much anything in German.

The German comment was uncalled for (although wholly accurate) which clearly bears out how desperately Cat in Rabat needs a holiday. Cat in Rabat needs a holiday ex Rabat. For four days I'll be a Madrileña in spirit (and hopefully in spirits) and then it's back to reality. Back to Rabat and its treacherous sidewalks. Four days ...

Adiós babies - hasta la jueves!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Morocco Wet n' Wild

You'll forgive the prurient Spring Break-esque title for this post (it is March after all), but I assure you that the marked absence of nubile wet t-shirted (wet) young things drunk on anemic American macrobrews (wild) does not make it any less wet and wild. Or wet n' wild, as the case may be.

My yesterday was wet and wild but in a very less R-rated way. More of a PG-13 with extensive some profanity, drug use (double-strength ibuprophen) and violence. (Sadly no nudity). Mr. Cat in Rabat and I were in search of a restaurant that offered a vegetarian option beyond the norm (i.e., cheese sandwiches and pizza) - perhaps a szechuan stirfry or a textured vegetarian protein chili - and then we woke up, slapped our foreheads in disbelief at our own silliness, had a good laugh, and went out for the same artery-busting, palate-numbing old-same same-old. As we rounded the corner onto Follow the Leader, in front of La Pause Gourmande (LPG) café, I slipped and fell. I fell hard because I slipped hard. I slipped hard because they had just sluiced the sidewalk with dirty wash water.

Water follows the dictum "out of sight out of mind" in Morocco. It is the norm here to dispose of water - in any quantity larger than a teacup - by tossing it into the ether and letting fall (in this case, water) what may (in this case, drenching anything in its trajectory). Drains, apparently, are not a viable option. Nor are those helpful cheery yellow plastic sandwich board signs (see above) that caution pedestrians in such situations. I confess that as much as I appreciated Mr. CinR's catching me (he was holding my hand at the time) and preventing my head from splitting open like an over-ripe papaya, I would have been more appreciative if any one of the under-employed waiters at LPG (it's normal to see a half dozen or so of them loitering by the doors) had rushed to my side and inquired about my condition. Maybe even offering me free pains au chocolat for the rest of my earthly existence. But why would they? The sidewalks are always in various stages of drying; clearly this was my fault. What was I doing walking with my eyes off of the sidewalk anyway? Where did I think I was? - in the capital city of a developing nation that receives a gazillion dollars in developmental aid annually? Pshaw! A pox on my hubris!

The Plight of the Pedestrian, about which I have already bitched about ad nauseam waxed so poetically, is perilous enough without the added complication of water. The sudden appearance of water - water from seemingly nowhere I might add - can dampen a day in a myriad of ways. Like me, the inattentive pedestrian may slip, and then snap, crackle and pop something. That's assuming that he or she hasn't already been hit by a car trying to park on the sidewalk, fallen into a hole in the pavement, or broken any one of several bones crashing into a concrete parking pylon. I was fortunate: I only sprained my hand. I would add however that it hurts a great deal (but thanks to Mr. N and to The United Kingdom for the mighty drugs) and I am compelled to type this post with one hand - such is my dedication to this craft (or kraft).

Water can also descend from above in a decidedly non-precipitation capacity. Pretty much anyone in Rabat who can afford to do so employs the services of a cleaning lady; indeed, the city is populated by a cadre of haggard blue smocked ladies, their hair tucked under winding turbans and headscarves. Among their duties is the onerous chore of washing floors. Since Rabat's air is a noxious cocktail of flying dust, grit and polar icecap melting-car exhaust, floors here need to be cleaned about every 6 hours. Pails of water are sloshed over freshly swept floors and the water is then squeegeed out onto the terrace or balcony, from where the only way out is down through a drain hole contrived for that very purpose. I confess that I have yet to be the victim of this not-quite celestial deluge but only through the grace of Allah (whose wrath I have probably just incurred). Twice I've escaped a stinking soaking of domestic acid rain by a meter or so; once it completely soused my companion. She was not a pretty site. And she smelled rather peculiar.

The moral of the story? Alas, there is none. Do I really expect a thousand and one cleaning ladies to change their routines? No, but maybe they could look over the balcony for passers-by or shout out the odd "heads up!" before they hurl (or push) bucketfuls of dirty water over the heads of unsuspecting pedestrians. And maybe - just maybe - Rabat's cafés & businesses might want to consider placing a few of those pretty little "Slippery When Wet" signs on the very sidewalks they have just made treacherous. After all, they're decorative and functional (the signs not the sidewalks). One of these days, someone will sue. And that lawsuit might even be able to extricate itself from the quagmire of Morocco's bureaucratic judicial system and actually see the light of day. I just hope that I'm here to witness it. On second thought, maybe not.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Call Me Sasheen Littlefeather

About a week or so ago, I became the unwitting recipient – although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was meritoriously tagged by fellow-blogger & maverick Go Go Bimbo – of an "a-ward", the Thinking Blogger Award. It's taken me this long to formulate a response that didn't begin with "It all started in a 5000-watt radio station in Fresno, California, a $65 paycheque and a crazy dream*"; I thought of tremendously witty and cheeky things to say (see previous comment), I very briefly considered humility, and then I decided upon the truth.

The rules of
acceptance are simple enough:

1) If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,

2) Link to this post (in this case, Go Go Bimbo's) so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.

I suddenly feel like I've been transported to the 70's and I'm Marlon Brando declining my Oscar but without the aid of an American Indian. My feelings about
the “treatment of American Indians today by the film industry… and on television in movie re-runs” aside, I don't feel comfortable accepting this a-ward. It's not that I am not flattered because I am. Inordinately so. (Go Go Bimbo, your place in heaven is assured). It's just that I am unable to fulfill 50% of those aforesaid “simple” rules – which, in the great scheme of things, makes me more of a George C. Scott (who declined his Oscar because of his refusal to compete with his peers) than a Marlon Brando.

I don’t necessarily read blogs to be intellectually challenged. It’s not that blogs don’t make me think because sometimes they do. But sometimes they make me laugh and sometimes they piss me off. And sometimes they provide excellent recipes for eggplant and suggest alternate ways to the airport. But today’s True Confession – this from a person who can spend hours surfing the internet – is that I hardly read any blogs at all, and those I do read are listed in a sidebar for the world to see. How can I pick 5 writers from a list that has grown beyond just that, a list? This is no longer just an online group of peers but in many cases, a community of faceless friends. Couldn’t I just share this a-ward with those on my sidebar? (Oh right, I declined it).

Over the course of my bloggings, I may have mentioned that I’m a book reader. I prefer the tactile and olfactory pleasures that books offer. The thought that paper fleas might be infesting my bed every night doesn’t freak me out. Much. I simply don’t enjoy reading texts of any great length on a screen. Nor do I quite understand how anyone has the patience to read them, or for that matter, any of my garrulous harangues & whinefests. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not overwhelmingly grateful for the support I’ve received over these past months from my visitors – both regular and serendipitous (note how I refrained from calling them “irregular”) – those who comment (for weal or woe) on my blog, and those who refrain from calling me an asshole because they couldn’t be bothered or their mothers had once told them that if they didn’t have anything nice to say to say nothing at all.

Jeez – another longwinded post. Just to say thanks but no thanks. Really, I shouldn’t have to decline this award it should be revoked.

*I shouldn't really have to explain this citation. If you don't recognize it, google it.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

More Pots & Kettles

(Or J'accuse this, Hosni)

It's been quite a while since I've indulged in a pot-calling-the-kettle-black post, but a headline I just read is making me see red, so off we go ...

... but before I vent, let me say that the BBC recently conducted a poll in which 28,000 were asked to rate a dozen nations as having a positive or negative influence in the world. Canada came out as number 1 (Israel was last). But it would seem that of these 28,000 people, none were Egyptian nationals. The source of my uncanny insight, you ask? Ahhhh .... here comes the rant (and the much anticipated headline):

Egypt cries racism after Canada football ban for wearing hijab

Yes, the fabled
Black Land, the Land of the Nile is pointing a rather menacing j'accuse-ing finger at the Great White North for its "mounting signs of racism and intolerance". The story of a young female soccer (not football) player who was recently expelled from a match because she refused to remove her hijab (a league rule which, I might add, she had been apprised of before the game), has made headlines in Canada and now around the world.

The referee who blew the whistle on 11-year old Asmahan Mansour is himself a Muslim and voiced his concerns that her hijab presented a safety issue. In fact, "t
he Quebec Soccer Association said the ban on hijabs is to protect children from being accidentally strangled." The scarved pre-adolescent vows to continue her crusade to allow Muslim soccer players to wear the hijab " even though the the world's top soccer association has refused to change its rules on the issue."

Do I have any sympathy for Ms. Mansour? I would certainly have a great deal of sympathy for her if she died because another pint-sized player stomped on her scarf and effectively garroted the girl. But I have a hard time seeing her as a victim of racism, especially in light of her deliberate flouting of a rule which she had foreknowledge of, but I do admire her tenacity and desire to effect change peacefully. She has every right to express her dissatisfaction with a rule, law, or regulation that she deems unfair. You see, in Canada you can do such things and not end up in prison or have your house burned.

But somehow this (i.e., the concern that Ms. Mansour's scarf might strangle her) makes Canada anti-Islamic. I find it curious that
Egypt has decided to make itself the Mouthpiece of Tolerance. Egypt's treatment of its indigenous Christian sect, the Copts (which the government estimates to be around 6% but is probably more than double that), has been less than laudatory. How less is less?

The government of Egypt enforces onerous Hamayouni restrictions on building or repairing churches, restrictions that do not apply to mosques.

The Copts’ ability to exercise their basic right to free worship is frustrated by Egypt’s complex, and frequently arbitrary, requirements for building and repairing churches or church-owned buildings. These culminate in the requirement that the State President must personally approve all building applications, and the Provincial Governors must approve all applications for repairs, even for something as small as repairing a toilet or a broken window. The government of
Egypt applies religiously-discriminatory laws and practices concerning conversion, marriage, parenthood, education, and clergy salaries. The government of Egypt has effectively restricted Christians from senior government, political, military, or educational positions, and there is increasing discrimination in the private sector.

That's a lot less. Yes, this is a country which made its own international headlines (thanks to Journalists Without Borders) for its continued harrassment ( including the arrest & censorship) of Coptic blogger
Hala Helmy Botros who, among other things, had

"accused the political authorities and police of complicity in the attacks against Copts on 19 January when they tried to restore their church in the village of Edyssat (near Luxor). Houses were burned and the church was destroyed in the course of this violence, in which two Copts were killed and several others injured."

I am a little disappointed that Egypt hasn't slung a few fistfuls of Nile silt at the FIFA since it said that "it would not alter the law dealing with items that a player is entitled to wear." I can't imagine why Egypt might be unwilling to offend the international football federation.

There is a strong temptation to make puerile and ham-fisted comments about those in glass pyramids not throwing stones but I'll graciously refrain. But not so gracious that I won't mention that according to the most recent United Nations report, Canada was ranked the 6th best place in the world to live. Is it perfect? Hardly. But where did Egypt - the Land of Tolerance - place? ... 111th. One hundred & eleventh makes for a very black pot.

Enough said. End of rant.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The Cell Phone

A Novel
by Franz Kafka

Imagine that you want to purchase a cell phone. You browse a few dealers, select the phone you want from among the glittering overpriced Prada phones and cell-Mp3 hybrids in the dusty display case (this is, after all, Morocco) and walk in. You sign a few papers, dole out your dirhams, and *poof* you have a phone. What could be easier?

Brokering world peace I suspect.

I needed a new cell phone. Last year I bought the cheapest phone possible on a pay-as-you-go plan and, to be fair, for a 200 dirham phone it has worked admirably. As cells go it is now long in the tooth, the keys are sticking, and the battery keeps falling out. Time to bid it a heartfelt ma’salaama. Then I got it into my head that I should get a camera phone. For one thing, it would be useful to document the paranormal activity that has marked my nights in Rabat - how much more credible interesting my blogs would be with photos of those annoying medieval monks chanting outside my bedroom window (see below). Also, my friends, it seems, have become peeved with my a) reluctance b) unwillingness c) refusal d) all of the above to have myself photographed while I am away from home. My stunning architectural studies, The Doors & Windows of Morocco, The Doors & Windows of Spain, and The Doors & Windows of Portugal, have left them oddly unsatisfied. A camera phone would be a milksop that has the added bonus of not wasting any film! Huzzah!

I decide to continue with the pay-as-you-go option. It's not that I have commitment issues but I have had a singularly ugly experience with a previous cell phone contract (amazingly not in Morocco) and don't particularly need to experience its Moroccan counterpart. So a few weeks ago, I see a lovely little camera phone at Méditel (one of the 2 major players in the phone business here) and decide that I must have it. Yes, today I will buy a phone! (Any student of Greek tragedy should by now see where this is going). Mr. CinR and I inspect it (i.e. look at it from different angles with a practised & knowing eye) and tell the Incredibly Rude Man behind the counter (whose ass & nose picking zen-meditation practice he has taken great pains to let us know we are interrupting) that we want it.

"C’est une abonnement,” he snarls. Or possibly un abonnement. I have no idea if abonnement is masculine or feminine (it's probably feminine) nor, I suspect, will the solution to this gender-based conundrum improve the quality of my life in any way.

*Crap*. The phone is on a 2-year contract system. Pay an exorbitant fee for a phone and then pay hundreds of dirhams a month for the privilege of calling or texting the three people in my life I call or text. My personal pay-as-I go history sees me spending an average of 100 dirhams a month. I look at Mr. CinR in frustration – why didn’t the price card indicate that? They usually do. Are all of these camera phones on an abonnement? It would seem so unless I want to pay about 3000 dirhams for one outright. I really don’t want to pay 3000 dirhams for one outright, so we decide to rethink things.

We bid him a frosty ma’salaama and leave.

Two weeks pass. I linger past the windows of Méditel and Maroc Telecom with my nose pressed up against the glass. The phones are so shiny and pretty. I vacillate. What’s the harm in a contract? But I don’t want a contract. What’s the harm in choosing Maroc Telecom? But my three regular phone contacts use Méditel cells, which keeps my rates low.

Repeat previous paragraph as much as humanly possible with special emphasis on the flip-flopping of resolve.

Last week, Mr CinR and I are led into one of the newer Méditel stores on Follow the Leader by our cell phone hierophant, Mr. N who, for my sake, is clearly embarrassed whenever he sees my crappy 200-dirham phone with its peeling keys & escape-artist battery, and is also probably finding my inability to make a decision both vexing and exasperatingly
annoying. Mr. N gets things done; under his influence, I have no doubt that I will walk out with a phone. But I am resolved to this: yes, today I will buy a phone! And we do see a phone – a nice little Sony Ericsson. We inquire about the monthly rate –@ 300 dirhams a month on top of the semi-extortionate cost of the phone – which I can almost live with. Mr. CinR and I inspect the phone (i.e. look at it from different angles with a practised & knowing eye) and tell the Incredibly Bored Woman behind the counter (whose gossiping session customer service seminar with her Silent Co-Worker she has taken great pains to let us know we are interrupting) that we want it. She tries to upsell it – I can add a handful of friends for a gazillion more dirhams a month, but then I would have unlimited calls with them. Imagine the late night chats! I try to explain that I only call or text 3 people in my entire life and, as I fumble in my fumbling French, I can see from the expression of disdain in her eyes that I have effectively become a nonentity.

In order to sign up for an abonnement at Méditel, the Incredibly Bored Woman tells us, one needs valid identification, a blank cheque, and a form endorsed by one’s bank. I’m pretty clear on the first two points, but if I have a cheque, why do I need my bank to approve my application? Never mind, just give us (for Mr. N has decided to buy a phone as well;
apparently owning more than one phone in Morocco is de rigueur) the forms.

She shakes her head. She has no forms. Could you look? She makes a perfunctory move at opening a drawer but fails to look inside. She shakes her head. Again. We stand our ground, appealing to the dictum that one never allows a sale to walk out of the door. With a heavy sigh, she (presumably) asks her Silent Co-Worker (who has been hiding in a corner) about the forms, and the Silent Co-Worker shrugs. Silently. We are incredulous. Perhaps, she suggests, we could go to one of the many Méditel shops along the street and get a form from them, then bring it back. Perhaps, I think, we could bring her a coffee while we’re at it.

We bid her a tepid ma’salaama and leave in search of the Elusive Form. Or to formulate a Plan B. We are not sure which.

We decide to stop by the Méditel shop near our place of employment, a smallish shop that has taken to, above selling and recharging phones, flogging porcelain tableware and silverplate gifts. The connection between these is completely lost on me. We see a phone – a very nice but slightly more expensive Sony Ericsson. We inquire about the monthly rate –@ 300 dirhams a month on top of the now-extortionate cost of the phone – which I can almost live with. Mr. CinR and I inspect the phone (i.e. look at it from different angles with a practised & knowing eye) and tell the Very Nice Woman behind the counter that we want it. In truth, we are not sure that we want it but we do want the Elusive Forms.

The Very Nice Woman shakes her head. No forms? we ask. Yes, she has forms but she isn’t giving them out until we sign our contracts. We confer. While we confer, the phone rings, and customers walk in to recharge their phones. We feel slighted. Are our feelings justified? Probably not but we’re getting a little tetchy. Tetchy bordering on cantakerous. We tell her that we will return, knowing that we never will.

We bid her a frustrated ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan C.

Mr. CinR suggests that we visit Wana, the newest (and curiously lime-green) phone store to open on Follow the Leader. We leave within moments when we realise that their their pay-as-you-go picture phones (huzzah!) don’t sync with the standard SIM-card system, and that is what we want. At least we think we do. At least we have been told we do.

We bid Wana a hurried ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan D.

Mr. CinR suggests that we continue along Follow the Leader and check out the Incredibly Rude Man’s Méditel; perhaps he won’t be working now and more importantly, perhaps they will have some new models. He is right on both counts. There is a pay-as-you-go LG that costs significantly less than 3000 dirhams. I am delighted. Mr N intercedes, curbing our enthusiasm; he has a host of LG horror stories. Would we like him to share them? No, we wouldn't.

We bid the Incredibly Rude Man’s Méditel a disappointed ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan E.

Mr. N suggests that we visit Maroc Telecom. Of the 3 people I call or text, 2 have Maroc Telecom phones, so perhaps this is the way I should go. We enter the flagship store on Follow the Leader and see two phones flirting with us from behind their glass showcases. They are sporty & rather jaunty. We take a number and wait. Our number is called and the 3 of us approach the Incredibly Peevish Woman who deigns not to greet us. Mr. N apprises her of the purpose of our visit and she says and does nothing.

“We’d like to see the phones,” Mr N helpfully prompts her.

“You want to see the phones?” she asks incredulously and rather – well – peevishly.

We show uniform support with her conclusion. She sighs and shakes her head. She raises herself from her desk with great effort. She walks towards the showcase muttering to herself then changes tack and goes upstairs. Mr. N is all-knowing; he has been upstairs. Nothing much happens up there. No good can come from this. She eventually returns to tell us that there are no phones. She will not even allow us to see the display models although I believe we can still buy one if we wish.

We bid her a decidedly nasty ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan F.

This involves coffee. We regroup. Consider our options. Although we all liked the cell phone at the Incredibly Bored Woman’s Méditel the best, clearly we are not in possession of the Elusive Form, nor do we feel that it is incumbent on us to procure one. The exchange at Maroc Telecom (you want to see the phones?) is still ringing in our ears and to totally mix up metaphors has left a bad taste in our mouths. That leaves the Very Nice Woman. Perhaps her reluctance to hand over the Elusive Forms is not born of spite; perhaps she has had enough of the Incredibly Bored Woman sending clients down to pick up forms and then promptly leave. Why should Very Nice Woman facilitate Incredibly Bored Woman’s sales? They are both independent dealers. We decide that we cannot blame her.

Very Nice Woman is pleased to see us return. She really is a very nice woman. We tell her that we are ready to sign 2 contracts. She shakes her head. The phones are not in stock. Mr. CinR heatedly questions the wisdom of displaying items that are not in stock but this is a moot point. Amazingly, Very Nice Woman picks up her phone and makes a phone call. She is checking stock at other locations, earning for her the coveted Excellence in Customer Service Citation never before awarded in Agdal. The first place she calls has no stock. Apparently there is a promotion on Sony Ericsson phones (involving free phones or free flights overseas; we are not sure nor do we care) and Méditels country-wide are scrambling to fill orders. She asks us to come back later when she will have had a chance to check other dealerships.

We bid her a very appreciative ma’salaama.

I return the next day. She looks at me sheepishly as I walk through the door. There are no phones. Maybe in a few weeks. In sh’allah. I bristle at the word and force myself to smile in return.

I bid her a dejected ma’salaama and leave to formulate a Plan G.

There is no Plan G. I am ready to concede defeat. Once again, this country has beaten me to the ground over something inanely simple. Like all of Kafka's novellas, I fear that this one too will have no conclusion.

Yesterday, masochists that we are, Mr, CinR and I walked into the downtown location of Méditel, again to see if there are any new models on display. The LG is there and Mr CinR tells me that he has checked product reviews for the phone and they are very favourable. LG, it would seem, has made great strides in improving their phones. I don’t know if I can go through with this, if I can withstand any more surly salespeople, if I can cope with Elusive Forms, if I can bear the disappointment of depleted stock.

Five minutes later we bid the Efficient Salesperson a very appreciative ma’salaama and walked out with a new phone.

The moral of the story: nothing is easy in Morocco except when it is.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Curious Incident of the Gregorian Monks in the Night*

About a year ago (give or take a few months), I blogged about a singularly curious incident that befell me in the dead of the night; namely an otherworldly voice that eerily whispered "kerchief" over and over from outside my bedroom window. I am sad to say that the mystery was never solved.

I am even sadder to say that another singularly curious incident occurred last night, or more precisely, in the early hours of the morning: I was woken by a male choir intoning Gregorian chants from, once again, outside my bedroom window.

The more skeptical of you may not believe me. Why should I lie? For the record, I was not intoxicated nor was I tripping out. I was also most definitely awake. And for the record, I do know a Gregorian chant when I hear one. In his younger days, my father used to plainchant with the best of them and, although his attempts to initiate me into the mysteries of its eight modes and square notation can best be compared to casting (square) pearls before swine, his weighty red songbook remains one of my most treasured possessions which I open up on occasion to rub the onion skin paper between my fingers and to breathe in my father's presence (even if my attempts to "hum a few bars" invariably ends up sounding like "Row, row row your boat").

I might add that, in conjunction with my father's influence, a rather famous Gregorian chant inspired me to open a Latin grammar book with purpose; namely the flagellating monks of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I was hellbent to find out what "pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (thud!) meant. That doesn't in any way explain what the hell a group of wandering choristers were doing at 5:08 outside my apartment building. Besides singing. (I don't know if they were smacking their heads with their songbooks as they boogied down the street).

Now I confess that I have had a little trouble sleeping over the past 18 months. Between howling dogs, rutting cats, screeching cars, honking cars, careening cars, amorous neighbours, tinny muezzins, the Ramadan Pre-Dawn Marching Band, and kerchief-whispering ghouls, my sleep pattern can best be described as fucked erratic. Not only does this latest addition do nothing to reduce my nocturnal burdens but it has taxed my already weakened powers of deduction and reason. Why were they there? To celebrate the birth of the Princess Khadija? Did it have something to do with the green laser light beam that dissected the night sky last evening? (Don't know what that was about either but I definitely didn't hear any chanting or Pink Floyd for that matter). Perhaps these itinerant chanters were also learned skywatchers and were inspired to sing praise to the glowing mulberry orb created by yesterday's eclipse of the moon. All I know is that these sleep-depriving monks woke me up around 5:00 and continued until they were challenged by the warbling invocations of the 5:28 Call to Prayer (or maybe it was the 6:46 Call to Prayer; by then I had lost all sense of time). Not to be outdone by the vocal gymnastics of Agdal's muezzin (think The Crash Test Dummies vs. Mariah Carey), the monks bravely entered the fray, fought gallantly but eventually ceded victory, disappearing into the night, their faces hidden deep within their cowls. At least I think their faces were hidden deep within their cowls. They must have been.

Perhaps my story would have more credence if I had actually looked out of the window. But why are my eyes any more trustworthy than my ears? Did I not mention the fact that I know a Gregorian chant when I hear it? And why did no one hear them except me? In a rare display of uxorious affection, I stupidly refrained from waking Mr. CinR (an individual who will undoubtedly sleep through the Second Coming of Christ), but guess what? - I don't think he believes me. Imagine! Why should I make something like this up? Why? Why? I fear that doubt has crept into our marriage. Mr. Cat Doubting Thomas in Rabat.

This week I'm definitely going to buy a camera phone.

*Sigh*. On a totally unrelated topic, two weeks from today, I'll be on vacation. Not that I need a vacation because I'm a-okay. Right as rain. My mind is as sharp as a tack. Just a little vacation. A vacation in a land bereft of howling dogs, rutting cats, screeching cars, honking cars, careening cars, amorous neighbours, tinny muezzins, the Ramadan Pre-Dawn Marching Band, "kerchief"-whispering ghouls and Gregorian-chanting monks - or if not bereft, then rendered inaudible by our hotel's thick double-glazed windows (and a bottle of rioja Gran Reserva).

I have nothing more to say.

Ite, missa est.

*With apologies to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but not to Mark Haddon.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

On Cannons and Princesses

The day before yesterday, I received a rather alarming phone call - this in a world where I routinely receive phone calls from a grand total of 3 people: Mr. Cat in Rabat, my supervisor, and a colleague who has the largest collection of telephones (cellular & ground) on the continent. To quote REM, "3 people have my number, the other 2 were with me" (which is wholly inaccurate as only 1 was with me), so at first I was perplexed and then taken aback when Mr. CinR walked into the living room proferring the phone, saying:

"It's the Embassy."

He said "it's the Embassy" like this is a routine occurrence. Like it happens all the time. Like the Ambassador was calling to set up our weekly euchre game.

He threw me an anxious look. Had there been an accident? Hence my sense of alarm - that and the fact that no one ever calls me.

"Hello ..."

It turns out that the Canadian Embassy, in a fit of backslapping efficiency, has decided to update its database of foreign nationals in Morocco, and, presumably abroad.

"After the muck-up in Lebanon, " cooed the heavily British-accented voice on the phone, "We want to make sure that we know where everyone is."

Muck up? Muck-up?

Now I have yet to visit my embassy in Rabat; its hours of operation never seemed to jive with mine so I registered my presence in Morocco online. Upon sending my particulars through their website, I was promptly advised that I would shortly receive an e-mail confirming my registration. That was 17 months ago. Had they used the same computer programmer as Royal Air Maroc? Needless to say, I am still waiting for that e-mail. Truth be told, I had forgotten all about it; I really didn't expect to be invited to any embassy garden parties and I suspect that Canada's new Governor General was not totally distraught at my absence at her recent reception in Rabat. As it turns out, I had been registered but beyond that, no one gave a rat's ass about me. I made a mental note to abstain from using the Government of Canada's online S.O.S. form, for "Canadians who require emergency assistance."

I asked the cooing heavily British-accented voice if she wanted to update Mr. CinR's information while she had me on the phone, for he too had taken advantage of the Canadian Embassy's efficient on-line registration service. She clicked away. "How do you spell it again?" "M-r. C-a-t i-n R-a-b-a-t." Nope, no record of him. Of course, it's only been 6 months so there's still hope that he'll be invited to this summer's Canada Day celebrations at the Embassy. He has already purchased sparklers in anticipation of the festivities.

Back to the cooing heavily British-accented voice:

"In the event of an evacuation, we need to know where everyone is."

Good plan! I know for a fact that I'd like to be among the first to be airlifted out. I lost no time in conveying my desire to her, to which she said nothing. Not even a conspiratorial giggle. Not even a snort of derision.

Basking in the knowledge that my Government is not only aware of my existence but is now overtly exhibiting avuncular concern for my well-being (at least in the case of an emergency), I continued on with my day. But as I was about to leave work last night, I was jarred out of my patriotic reverie by a blast - a blast from what? A car backfiring? Or had it happened? Had Islamic extremists finally let loose their hellish mandate against infidel-embracing countries like Morocco? I stopped on the stairway. Boom! I knew what to do in case of an earthquake, in case of a fire, in case of a nuclear attack (most of which involved hiding under things or rolling on the ground), but - Boom! - I had not been trained for heavy mortar. Boom! Damn!

Where in god's name was my cooing heavily British-accented voice now? Now when I needed her? Why had she not called me? The booming finally subsided; I went home, preferring to think that I had only been subjected to another tirade of crappy Moroccan catalytic converters farting en masse.

As it happened, it was cannon fire that I heard last night, a veritable 21-gun salute. Princess Leia Lalla Khadija was born to "The wife of Moroccan King Mohamed VI " (god almighty!) who, in fact, does have a name: Princess Lalla Salma. I needn't tell you that I was mightily relieved that Rabat hadn't been bombarded by terrorists last night, or that what I heard wasn't the sound of Kenitra's oil refineries exploding ... although, should that happen, I have full confidence that my Government will come quickly to my rescue. Hopefully I'll have my laptop handy so I can submit an emergency S.O.S. online form.

Addendum: congrats to the Royal Family and especially to the Dauphine. My gift to her are these pearls of wisdom: don't take any crap from your brother Crown Prince Moulay Hassan. Sure he's going to be king some day but you'll get to wear much nicer clothes. And please don't wear your hair like 2 bagels on either side of your head. It's been done. And it isn't a very pretty look.