Friday, April 27, 2007

A Fair to Middling Post from the V.O.L.

I have nothing of value to say today which is a good thing because I have lost my voice. Not my literary voice (although that is arguably correct) but because there appears to be an irritation in or on (such medical and prepositional niceties elude me) my vocal folds. Until 10 minutes ago, I didn't even know that I possessed vocal folds. I considered posting a photo of said folds, but - you'll have to trust me on this - they look uncomfortably like certain parts of the female reproductive system. Feeling particularly crappy already - with no voice and a bad case of razor-blade throat (I believe I am responsible for first coining the phrase "razor-blade throat") - I don't really need to incur the wrath of my mother when she downloads a photo of any bodily fold.

So my enfeebled brain grappled with a subject about which I might write a few lines. With April drawing to a close, this month's 8 verified hangings in the Islamic Republic of Iran would make for a good read - or I could talk about World Laboratory Animal Liberation Week which concludes tomorrow. Perhaps I could guesstimate how many female babies were exposed to the elements, strangled, or poisoned in India and China.

I feel a nap beckoning me and, to be truthful, I just don't have the physical or intellectual energy to tackle any weighty issues; instead, I offer you this. Digging through some notes I made in Portugal last December, I came across a sign (which I couldn't not jot down) from the door of the public restroom in Lisbon's downtown tourist information centre:

Help keep our washrooms clean.
Please don't pee on the floor.

Sort of makes you wonder what class of tourist Lisbon generally attracts.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

If You Were the King ...

... of Morocco, I asked, what law would you change? Such was the question I posed to half a dozen 20-and 30-somethings last night. Chairs were scraped repositioned into ersatz Conestoga wagon circles, heads met conspiratorially, voices dropped in hushed tones. I'm not certain what I expected (although the plight of the poor, environmental concerns, illiteracy rates & women's issues jumped to mind) but I certainly didn't anticipate a unanimous appeal to alter transportation laws.

Transportation laws? Like tougher penalties for drunk driving, (Remember, Muslims don't drink), r
epairing the roads, enforcing existing laws in a meaningful way, banning bribery?

No, no, no, my students chastised me (complete with wagging fingers). A more equitable system of fines. Wow. Didn't see that coming. Seeing the perplexed expression on my face, one student explained that police fines, i.e., the amount that one pays, should reflect one's income bracket. If you break the law and you are poor, then you shouldn't pay as much as someone who is wealthy. That's not fair, she concluded.

To be fair, I should have seen this coming. This past month, taxi drivers held a 2-day strike over a proposed new transportation bill which would allow "
the government to confiscate driving licenses, impound vehicles, levy hefty fines and even imprison drivers in the event of an accident." Different students offered different interpretations of the "hefty fines" but the number being bandied about is in the thousands of dirhams - to a maximum of $350 US. For many Moroccans, this would exceed their yearly incomes. My students were livid at the injustice of this.

Well, I suggested, wouldn't this be a moot point if drivers didn't break the rules of the road in the first place?


In light of the recent suicide bombings in Casa, a colleague recounted how she reassured her family that she was inestimably safer in Morocco than in the United States. Her case in point was the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech. I am far more likely to be shot & killed in the States, she said, than be blown up here. Perhaps that brought some measure of consolation to her family but I took her to task. I don't feel particularly safer in Morocco, I argued. Every day when I step outside my door, I feel like I'm taking my life into my hands - or rather, placing my life into the hands of complete strangers. Complete strangers in cars. In last week's 700+ road accidents, 8 people were killed and over 900 were injured. If I leave Morocco with all of my limbs in place and with complete use of each and every lobe in my cerebral cortex, I will count myself lucky.

Simply put, Moroccans are bad drivers. And when I say bad I really mean God-awful. I've railed waxed poetically on this point in previous blogs but I think it bears repeating when a proposed increase in fines levied against driving infractions creates more dialogue than making Moroccans better drivers and, hence, their roads safer. "
Traffic accidents killed 3,622 Moroccans last year, which constitutes a 4.17% increase over 2005. The total number of accidents rose by 5.22% to 56,426." Bear in mind that car ownership is not as prevalent here as in the West - just a couple of years ago it was estimated that just over 10% of families owned a car, although admittedly that number has increased.

What I find newsworthy in these statistics is that the numbers aren't higher. In a country where drivers routinely:

1) create traffic lanes. Roads built to accommodate 2 lanes of traffic now hold up to 4. Add an additional lane or 2 for motorcyclists.
2) speed recklessly
3) run red lights
4) drive through stop signs
5) drive in the wrong direction on one-way streets
6) don't yield to pedestrians
7) tailgate
8) prefer their car horns over headlights (at night) and turn signals (day & night)
9) shamelessly cut off other drivers
10) not avail themselves of their side or rearview mirrors
11) drive up along and/or park on sidewalks.

So although I appreciate that a $350 fine for running a red light may be exorbidant, as a passenger in a petit taxi who watches in helpless horror as my driver boldly enters an intersection that the cautionary red traffic light has deemed inadvisable, I applaud it. Which made me a very unpopular person in the classroom last night. And yes, I realize that there is a trickle down affect associated with a hike in penalties. As fines increase, so do the attendant bribes that drivers must pay the ticket-wielding police officers who have pulled them over. If 100 or 200 dirhams made a traffic violation disappear under the previous system, what will it take to placate a cop now? 1000 dirhams? 2000?

Which leads me to wonder why my students responded to my original question as they did. Perhaps a more apt response would have been "If I were the King of Morocco, I would quash corruption for once and for all." *Sigh* Until then, I'll continue looking both ways as I walk along Rabat's sidewalks.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Catwoman in Rabat

A fairly accurate criticism long levied against me by my friends & family has been a decided absence of ambition in my genetic code. There is a reason why I am not Bill Gates: I am rather unfocused, too dismissive of the trappings of success, and I occasionally (sic) make harebrained decisions. Consider Catwoman. I could have aspired to becoming Eartha Kitt's Catwoman; instead there are excellent odds that I am on a fast track to becoming a crazy cat lady. We're all familiar with the stereotype: a dottering old crone who hoards dozens & dozens of cats in her apartment, only to be found dead by the UPS man weeks after her demise, her cats having used her as a scratching post. I have become her Moroccan counterpart: after the sun has set, I can be seen skulking about the streets feeding stray cats, muttering to myself and engaging in deep conversations with them all the while.

On that forked road of Catwoman archetypes I, like Bugs Bunny, 'shoulda taken that left turn at Alberquerque'. Sexy would have been far preferable to senescent.

But senescent won and yes, I carry cat food in my purse: little ziplock bags of hard food, tin foil pouches of the wet goop which are reserved for my two favourite strays. Even among street cats there is a pecking order. The cats in my neighbourhood know me now and trust me in varying degrees. Those whom I began to feed as kittens gallop towards me when I piss-wiss them, those I first encountered as adults maintain a 1- or 2-meter distance from me and wait until I am gone to approach their din-dins.

Their wateringhole as it were - and now their designated feeding station - is a street corner equidistant from my home near a butcher shop. There they compete with beggars fishing out the discarded bones and stringy bits from the butcher's garbage bin, and take refuge from the elements in an underground parking garage. At the appointed time, as I round the corner, my cats will invariably be waiting for me. Conversely, the young men from the butcher shop are less than thrilled to see me; often, after I have finished distributing my loaves and fishes and rounded the corner homeward, they'll shoo away the cats & kittens. Apparently the sight of a kitten eating a decent meal a few meters from their shop angers them. I hope they all burn in hellfire.

It has occured to me that I am contributing to the problem of stray cats in Rabat. Firstly, one of the kittens - now a young adult - that I have been feeding for the past few months is now heavy with her own progeny. Perhaps I should have adopted a more Darwinian prespective and let nature take its course. In some small way, I may be responsible for another half dozen cats on the street who will face an uncertain future of misery and suffering. Secondly, cat food isn't particularly cheap in Rabat; in fact, the price of kitty kibble - unlike my salary - is on par with North American brands. Thirdly, I confess that I have grown inordinantly attached to these footloose felines and have vacillated for months now regarding their futures: should I take one or two to the vet? get them cleaned up? take them home? I have even committed the greatest of crimes and started naming them, proof indeed that I have become a crazy cat lady.

All this came to a head last night as Mr. CinR & I fed a record number of cats on the way home from work. Perhaps word is out in the cat community that the dotty broad with Garnier Belle-Color #550 hair is good for a hand-out. The new cats got a little helping of dry food, while my scruffy little favourite with the sickly tail got a foil pouch of wet stuff. As we rounded the corner, an old woman approached us, her hand stretched out in supplication. We had just given all of our change to one of my regulars - a blind woman who sits on the sidewalk near my school - and a twisted boy in a wheelchair. We had nothing left, not even a 5-centime coin. As we passed her, I happened to look back and saw her approaching the cats. She bent down and grabbed a handful of dry cat food and crammed it into her mouth. I was aghast and quickly turned away. I didn't want her to know that I had seen her, nor did I want to know if she ate the food or spat it out. And I certainly didn't want to know what she was going to do when she approached the kitten with the tuna fish.

Quite frankly, I can't get the image of her out of my mind. I keep wondering if the beggar harboured any hostility, levied any indictment towards me - someone willing to feed stray animals rather than give her my spare change, which in her mind, I certainly would have had. Maybe she was too beaten, too street-worn to care. The whole episode has saddened me deeply.

I bet Eartha Kitt has never had this problem.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ex-Pat Blues

(A slightly self-indulgent retrospective)

On the epiphanic ladder of personal revelations, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that when you leave your home - your community of friends and family - and move far far away, people move on with their lives. And for the most part, you're no longer part of that. It's not that you're forgotten per se, but there is an element of 'out of sight, out of mind' that, although friends would readily deny, nonetheless exists. E-mails that were once exchanged daily become less frequent; I may not be completely out of the loop, but now the scraps that are thrown in my direction are headlines, rather than details, of their lives. Perhaps my life is viewed as unconventional and people don’t want to bore me with their quotidian.

Consequently, I don't fear that I am losing touch but that I am being released.

Such are the ex-pat blues.

So with the recent spate of suicide bombings in Casablanca (most recently on the weekend), Mr. Cat in Rabat and I both anticipated an inundation of e-mails (maybe even a few calls!) from concerned love ones inquiring about our state of mind, expressing concern about our well-being and safety. After all, this time the suicide bombers (SBs) had 'targeted' (or perhaps more accurately played blind man's bluff using TNT) American installations: they blew themselves into Kingdom Come near the US Consulate and an American English language school. As it turned out, our time waiting for our inbox to fill up & the phone to ring would have been better served watching paint dry. Finally, frustrated I began contacting people. Did you hear about the 2 SBs who blew themselves up this weekend? It was the third incident in a month! Five SBs dead in five days!

No one had heard about it. Not a one.

To be fair, Morocco’s incendiary enthusiasts pale in comparison to Israel and Iraq’s SBs who seem to know how to get the job done. And yes, perhaps if I were the individual in charge of deciding what gets aired on the CBC’s National news, I too would give a nod to the dozens dead in Iraq rather than the 2 nutjobs who only managed to blow themselves up and ruin their mother’s – oh yes, they were brothers – life. But since I'm here (rather then in Iraq) a not so tiny part of me thought - or more accurately hoped - that somehow, my friends & family might somehow still be in the know of what was going on in my world.

So for those of you who just haven't gotten around to asking how I feel about the bombings, let me tell you: I am not happy about them.

· Foremost, I am concerned by the Casa SBs’ inability to do much damage beyond charring some concrete and sending themselves into the welcoming arms of their celestial virgins. This situation will not remain this way for long.

· I don’t know who they’re targeting. Perhaps they don’t know either. SBs who are loose cannons are doubly troubling.

· Although I don’t work in Casa, I do work for an American English language school. If an SB wanted to make a whole lot of noise, Rabat would be an ideal location and there are a handful of American schools & installations here. Businesses in Rabat are scrambling to hire wand-wielding security guards and I for one certainly hope that they’ll be a notch above the ones that you often see napping against the walls of the doorways they 'guard'. I have set off the bells & whistles of many of Rabat's security scanners and no one has yet to ask me to step aside in order to search me. So while there is now a guard at Pizza Hut, nobody has actually seen him use his metal-detecting magic wand. Perhaps he’s on the watch for the Bearded SBs (BSBs).

· Saturday's SBs were not bearded. A very clever disguise, this. Isn’t there some code of conduct that states that SBs have to look like Islamic militants? This is a very dirty tactic on their part.

· The Casa slum of Sidi Moumen, where our SBs once called home, is a breeding ground for would-be SBs and BSBs. If anyone (assuming that this hasn’t already happened) decided to step in and mastermind a concerted war of terror against Western interests or Western sympathizers in Morocco, his work would already be half-done.

Do I personally feel threatened? Not really. A psychic once told me that I would live to a very ripe old age; however, he also said that Mr. CinR would become a masseuse in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. But, no, I'm okay. Really. And thanks for asking …

Thursday, April 12, 2007


I have just figured out what Morocco needs. Nuns. Singing nuns, flying nuns – it doesn’t really matter. Nuns and lots of them. Think of that iconic nun Sister Mary Fill-in-the-Blank marching up and down the aisles of a primary school classroom, slapping a lethal metal-edged ruler into her palm, that ruler itching to come thwacking down on some unsuspecting cheater’s desk? Hear the eardrum-cracking sound as wood hits wood! See her students jump out of their skins and two feet off of their chairs in terror!

Well, I need a few nuns.

It pains me to admit that I was woefully unprepared for the amount of cheating (and the contingent complete lack of accountability) that runs seemingly rampant and unchecked in Morocco Moroccan schools. A student who has plagiarized a text (a rather blatant and ham-fisted cut & paste job from the internet) will calmly deny his crime until you are blue in the face. When you finally produce the original text - a text which included a plethora of verbal forms, such as the past perfect simple & continuous, a few subjunctives, a smattering of 3rd conditionals, and the odd instance of reported speech which your Pre-Intermediate student has no chance of grasping - your reward, the public acknowledgement for your academic policing efforts will probably be a shrug. Or, if you're lucky, tears. Because there is always an excuse tucked up a sleeve and there is no shame in trying to cheat. Nothing ventured ...

In Morocco, exams (such as we know it) aren't so much a standardized means of determining what a student has learned and assimilated, what his or her strengths and weaknesses are, but a ritualistic and formulaic passing of time in a classroom environment in which test papers are distributed and varying degrees of effort and ingenuity are expended answering the questions. Or watching the clock. It would seem that many Moroccans aren’t goal-oriented, they’re results-oriented. Who cares if, after 10 weeks in my class, they still say "I must to go"? They have a paper to prove that they successfully completed their level.

Exams are a farce. Although a select cadre of keeners may study and genuinely put stock in their results, the majority won’t. They don’t need to. They can cheat. Kids cheat and adults cheat. Teens cheat and fifty-year old housewives cheat. Cheat cheat cheat cheat. They unabashedly look at each other’s papers, they speak to each other during the exam, they search through their textbooks for the correct answers when I’m not looking (at least they have the decency to wait until my back is turned) … it’s overwhelmingly disheartening to one accustomed to studying and living with the consequences of my preparation and performance. Recently, an adult student screamed like a banshee at a colleague of mine when the former tried to extricate the open textbook out of the latter's hands during an exam.

If, during a test, I tell my students to be quiet, they very considerately lower their voices and continue talking. Truly, it doesn’t matter that I scream, admonish, threaten to tear up test papers. They continue to cheat because they can, because if it's not exactly encouraged, it’s at least condoned. And when I hold a student accountable for their plagiarism, for their copying during an exam? The reaction? Horror? Embarrassment at their colleague's actions? En masse, his or her classmates will rally to the defence. Oh teacher, they plead as I hold the offending essay on high, my hands poised to tear it in two, be nice!

I mentioned in a previous posting that when the last elections were held here, many primary school certificates (which a candidate must possess in order to stand for office) submitted by winning candidates were discovered to have been forged. There are those who believe that cheating is viewed as a basic tool to succeed, that individuals conduct their lives with the fundamental expectation that they can cheat. Although some cheaters will act on their own, others will rely on others for assistance. This form of symbiotic cheating is generally accepted because it is seen (by many) as a means of helping out “a brother or a sister”; at least this is how it’s been explained to me. I continue to be gobsmacked when a strong student, without hesitation, turns their test paper in the direction of a weaker student in order to facilitate their copying. Simply put: it's their duty to help each other out. Who am I to upset the pedagogical apple cart?

I used to stay up nights concocting scathingly brilliant ways to prevent cheating, but the only tangible results were the dark circles under my eyes. It's been noted that the western concept of guilt is sorely lacking in Morocco; instead, what exists is a deep-rooted sense of shame. In many situations, a well-timed shooma (shame on you) directed at the offending party - whether he be an unscrupulous shopkeeper or a Not Very Nice Man - will produce the necessary results: a reddened face, a hangdog expression. Some teachers have had success with this in the classroom - especially among young children. I have not. I confess that for me, humiliation is the last straw in my teaching bag of tricks (how's that for mixing metaphors?). If I have to publicly deride a student in front of his peers, then my days as a teacher are over.

Unless ...

… unless I can enlist a few Sister Mary Fatima Zahras. If a couple of ruler-wielding penguins can't fix this, nothing can. I say, send phalanxes of them into government ministries, the hanoots, the suqs, the taxi stands, the tourist shops, the phone company. Not only will they put an end to corruption and cheating, they can train people to stand in line at the same time! In fact, I bet even they can kick the butts of our incendiary-inclined friends in Casa. In a match against a suicide bomber and Nunzilla, there can only be one victor - and my money would be on the one with the rosary, not the one with the detonator.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

We Are The Champions ....

I am cravenly snatching this from Myrtus' blog but I'm doing so not from any admission of writer's block but to make this piece as risible visible as possible. I confess that I began questioning Gaddafi (not seen left)'s sanity when my application for a visitor's visa to Libya was denied back in '92, and my concerns were further strengthened when I heard that Lionel Richie is still a popular performer in Tripoli ("rocks Libya" to be precise), but now this?

Gaddafi Says Only Islam is a Universal Religion

Libyan leader
Muammar Gaddafi said on Friday that it was a mistake to believe that Christianity was a universal faith alongside Islam.

"There are serious mistakes -- among them the one saying that Jesus came as a messenger for other people other than the sons of Israel," he told a mass prayer meeting in Niger.

"Christianity is not a faith for people in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. Other people who are not sons of Israel have nothing to do with that religion," he said at the prayer meeting, held to mark the birth of the prophet Mohammed.

Gaddafi, who is seeking to expand his influence in Africa, said his arguments came from the Koran. He led similar prayers last year in Mali.

"It is a mistake that another religion exists alongside Islam. There is only one religion which is Islam after Mohammed," he said in the sermon, which was broadcast live on Libyan state television.

"All those believers who do not follow Islam are losers (CinR's italics)," he added. "We are here to correct the mistakes in the light of the teachings of the Koran."

Gaddafi also said it was a mistake to believe that Jesus had been crucified and killed. "It is not correct to say that. Another man resembling Jesus was crucified in his place."

Wow. What can I say? If he's basing these erudite insights on information found in the Q'uran, then he must be right. I hope he can dig up something in the Qu'ran on Jainism and Manichaeism too. Oh, and maybe how the Blue Jays are going to do this season. The Qu'ran is chock full of surprises. I had a student tell me once that the Qu'ran affirmed Morocco's right to have nuclear energy, so who knows?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Random Observations on the Prophet (his birthday specifically) and Poultry (in general)

Monday was the last day of the 2-day festivities marking the PM's birthday, and Agdal (not surprisingly) was pretty much a ghost town. In fact, it was pretty much a ghost town during the entire Mawlid extravaganza. It would seem that anyone who was anyone was in Marrakech. I was in Rabat.

Yes, in Morocco's fabled Red City, birthday celebrations were in full force. On Saturday the king chaired a ceremony celebrating his ancestor's (M6 is no less a direct descendant of the Prophet than I am of Puss in Boots) birthday during which "Koranic verses and panegyrics of the Prophet Sidna Mohammed were read out. " Fun fun fun. On Sunday, his duties as chairperson of National Mosque Day (which coincided with the Prophet's fête) included distributing "health insurance cards to several Imams and .... royal decorations to 5 benefactors in recognition of their contribution to building, revamping and upgrading mosques in 2006." Will the birthday madness never end?

Apparently not - for this weekend M6 also took the opportunity to pardon 710 convicted felons. It's the custom in Morocco to release scads & scads of criminals into the welcoming & forgiving arms of the general public in order to relieve the overcrowding of Morocco's notoriously overcrowded and shamefully substandard prisons to mark various holy days and special events. One can only hope that lurking among the hundreds of newly released prisoners, there isn't another potential terrorist waiting to go boom. True, the king strongly condemned the actions of Abdelftah Raidi, the suicide bomber who detonated himself and an internet café (killing himself and injuring 4 others) last month in Casa, but he was also the one who pardoned Raidi (convicted of suspected terrorist links) and released him from prison 2 years ago.

I just thought that for the PM's birthday, there would have been more bang for the buck. There were fireworks displays in Algiers - and of course, in the Iraqi city Kirkuk on Monday, a truck bomber killed eight Iraqi schoolgirls ... well never mind. Maybe we can do without the pyrotechnics.

Agdal was eerily quiet. Our neighbourhood muezzin couldn't even be bothered to crank the volume on his sound system - a usual tactic to remind the more lethargic Believers at 4:41 a.m. that there really is no God but Allah, and yes, Mohammed is his prophet. Day 6 into an almost weeklong dry (booze) spell (the sale of alcohol presumably being anathema to the Birthday Boy) and day 1 into an almost 12-hour dry (weather) spell, Mr. Cat in Rabat and I ventured forth to see what, if anything, was open yesterday. And by anything I mean a restaurant that would serve beer to a couple of Westerners. Meandering through Agdal's warren of side streets towards one of our neighbourhood's few licenced restaurants*, our progress suddenly came to an abrupt standstill as we found ourselves in front of a pet store.

A pet store. And it was open.

Now, I'm not suggesting that pet stores don't exist in Rabat but this is the first one that I've ever seen on the streets of Agdal. A craphole side street no less where no one would think of buying their bags of Science Diet Large Breed dog food. Tucked deep within a lightless basement, an employee was mercifully arranging cages of animals out onto the sidewalk lest their eyes grow useless from lack of light. Or more likely to stimulate sales.

And what of the animals that weren't given the opportunity to exercise the rods and cones of their retinas? I don't know - I was more than a little hesitant to descend into the bowels of the pet shop for fear of what might be awaiting me. And what of the animals that the shop's employee did feel disposed to display for the world to see? They were chickens. And not cute little canary yellow fluffy chicks but full-fledged adult chickens.

Now I have to ask myself - who keeps chickens as pets in Agdal? Admittedly, there is a rooster that I hear from time to time (and by time I mean pre-dawn, dawn, and post-dawn), but I suspect that this particular Foghorn Leghorn is a bit of an abberation. Are adult chickens a traditional pet among Agdal's children? Do kids here rush home from school every day to tend to their poultry-husbandry chores - chores that include changing Chicken Little's straw, scattering feed, and checking for eggs? Do pet-chickens wear flea collars? Do toys for pet-chicken exist? According to our friends at the Islamic Invitation Centre, although it is prohibited for Muslims to keep dogs as pets, they can keep any other animal (except pigs). Are chickens thus included? Well, they aren't excluded so it would appear so.

I confess that I am not a little relieved at reading this. For the briefest of moments, as Mr. CinR & I stood on the sidewalk blinking in disbelief at the pairs of chickens crammed into those wire cages, I succumbed to darker thoughts. Darker thoughts that included a casserole dish and a handful of rosemary. But I was wrong - right? Right?

*One of our neighbourhood's few licenced restaurants that, in the end, refused to sell us alcohol.