Jan 30, 2005

Salon piece


Jan 23, 2005

The Specialist

In those days the Colonel had other "responsibilities." One was to keep the opposition in line and if you were on his list, he would send his men out to find you. If you were in say, Khouribga, he would send the "specialist". The "specialist" was an anonymous looking little man with unsusually smooth skin. He would arrive at your house at any hour. You were always asleep. Or, you were naked and compromised in your bed. His men would steal into your house and escort him up the stairs right to your room. They would open the door and suddenly here is the "specialist" standing over you. If you didn't wake up by then, he might look at you for a long time and maybe even draw up a chair and sit down next to you and blow smoke at your face until you woke up. "Good evening," he would say in French or Arabic. If he spoke in French he would adopt that culture and he might humililate you verbally for a moment. He might say, "Who is this woman you are sleeping with? Is this your wife or your mistress?" You see and if it was your wife, then she would think you had a mistress. If it was your mistress then you would be on notice. He always knew. He was like a good lawyer, he always knew the answer to his question. Or, he might speak to you in Arabic and he would speak in a low voice and tell you that you were barely goat shit and enough was enough. He was, he said with his left eye fluttering sometimes, finished with your doubts and your fears and whatever reservations you had about the government. He might occasionally also speak in English, if you knew he could not speak it, or Spanish, as a way to test you and he might say, "I'm going to fuck your wife right now in front of you and all my men after me." And if you didn't react that would tell him something and he would go further to find out if you were either ignorant or clever. He would track you down, bring you to ground. Isn't that the expression? and then suddenly he might stand up and leave. He would go down to the car while you got dressed. Or else, if you were naked, he might sit there and watch you get dressed and comment on your body, on your fat or your muscles or lack of them and of course inevitably "your thing" as he called it. How is "your thing" doing these days. And he might even talk to it, and have the guards bring you close so that he could speak directly and at close range, as though it were another person. "I'll bet you know something; and I'll bet you'll talk won't you. You'll tell me what's been going on here. You never lie and I trust you. So don't worry, you'll be taken care of; you don't have to worry. But it's important that you get him to understand."

And then he might look at you. And depending on his mood he might have one his men lean down take you in his mouth. Anything was possible. He might pull out a pair of scissors and snap them open and shut. There were other specialists in those times, and they all used different methods. But the head of specialists, the most feared and the one the colonel handpicked, and some say, trained, for the job, was this one. I have never heard him called by name, only the "specialist." When I asked the colonel, he merely smiled and shook his head. "I never asked," the colonel said to me.

When he was finnished with you, in one way or another, he would go down to the car and wait for his men to bring you down and you would all drive back to Casa. Followed by a second car. He always went in two cars. If you were important he would have you sit in the front seat and he would never stop playing with your mind. He might show you a piece of piano wire he carried in his pocket. He would talk about the g string, and if you were sophistcated, he might make a joke about the double meaning of the G string. Or even the G spot. "I love the G spot," he would say. "I always find it. Women know I will." He would try to get you to relax and then he might slip the G string around you neck and let you ride with it like that for several hours. He could tighten it or not. And so you were always living in the moment. This was his plan, to get you to live in the moment, but of course always a moment of fear. And then at some point he would offer you Moroccan tea. With honey. That was his signature, the honey. That was sign to you; you were now in the hands of an icon, a myth. If you had questions until this moment, then you could relax if only because the truth was out. You are in the hands of the Specialist. And so he would take you to Casa to the colonel's home in the Laya quartier where your experience would begin in earnest....

Jan 16, 2005

Dialogue With Stone

Originally uploaded by macnamband.

What is that? I asked, seeing something in the distance. Looks like someone. Or is it a shadow? A shadow, said Stone.
— No, it's a person. I can see them quite clearly now.
— Allah's shadow on earth.
— His what?
— caliph.
— How do you know?
No reply. He's like that. Just drifts off. Gets to the punchline and won't tell you. I went back to pushing. We were almost to the top.
— I don't understand these berbers, I said after another long time.
— What's to understand?
— You look in their eyes and.... And....
— Yes, and....
— I see pessemism.
— What did you hope for?
— Some sign of hope. But all I see is pessemism, as though their emotions were very far away, just a glimmer. You hold their faces in your hands and you are watching old ruins, you are looking into their dark tents in the middle of winter.
— They're warriors. Think of their empires. Imagine such a life.
— Yes, I understand and then after the battle, what is there? Only sorrow, for the dead and because the battle is over. Life is hope for another battle.... What was her name, Kareena? The amazon, who smeered her breasts with hennae the night before a great battle. Who drank the blood of her enmey's children....
— Think of the power that might give you.
I look at the stone.
— And what is their culture? I said. Nothing. They have none. They're thieves and cons. But I have this attraction for them.
— They're familiar.
I saw something far away just as we reached the top and the stone went rolling off toward the bottom.
What is that? Another Caliph, perhaps.

Jan 15, 2005



His undoings were never a mystery to us. We could follow the inevitability like the road to Merzouga, or better the N1, in fact just as he did last March, driving to Casablanca on a whim, obsessed with flash memory, down through the city’s smoggy liver to the under city souk known as the Derbghaleff. When he heard me describe it, he immediately asked for directions, and was insulted when I told him he’d never find it on his own. “I’ll find it,” he said in that awful way he had, as though he were the master of lost and found. This isn’t like God, I said. I will, he insisted, forever impervious to cynicism. Rather than make a game of it, I drew him the best map I could. Useless, of course. He spent hours trying to find the place and finally did what I suggested in the beginning: park, get a taxi.

Derbghaleff appears all of a sudden, in a well-dressed neighborhood. You could mistake it for a vest pocket slum: an unholy akimbo, behind a wall of people, corrugated roofing, wires every which way, flocks of satellite dishes, and the kind of parking attendants you find at the Meadow Lands before a Dallas game. But no, not a slum, it’s the city’s utility drawer. It’s also an economic engine. And if you ever wonder how people survive with 30 percent employment, go there and you’ll see a stage full of entrepreneurial sprites and free-market desperados. Every model of plug, screw, and drill ever made. Up to 10 years ago. Electronica, auto Kasbah, sneaker-rama, crazy Eddie’s jabilyas, from smoothies to roosters, you can find it here. Mile high stacks of old key boards, car stereos, old clothes, cloned copies of replicas, and the usual Berber bric a brac: sconces, rumplestilskin slippers and aluminum-death tea sets. Overhead, the sound of hawkers, hip hopsters, muezzins, and groaning generators. There are upscale shops there as well, the shoes carefully laid out or whatever it is, lingerie, carcasses, silks from West Africa, Quark 6.1 and Photo Shop all on one disk. Although when you get home, likely the registration number is missing or else the disk is no good. But you’re only out $2.

For Eli, Debraheff was a revelation. It was himself as place. You might find an artifact of your soul in Merzouga or in the mountains behind Ismil, even some misquided romantic notion, but not him. His link to eternity was in these cubicle-sized shops that go on and on, and inside the shops, little display cases and littler drawers and inside those ever smaller boxes, until you get down to storage places no bigger than thimbles with tiny hatches. But all places you could hide yourself, be fragmented and compartmentalized as he was. He loved it all, and never saw through it. He didn’t see this particular souk as faux exotic. “Just a lot of shops close together,” I would tell him. “Pickpockets and black market types.”

He smiled dismissively. He was Lawrence of Derbghaleff. This was his desert of melancholy monotony and tribes to drag off across the sun's anvil to Aqaba. Of course, the sensuousness appealed to him, the genuineness of strange strangers rubbing against each other like ants around the cutting board, butting thoraxes down paths wide enough for an eight inch drainage sewer, everyone doing the hopscotch along one side or the other.

He was after Flash memory; another irony, for a man who felt he was losing his memory. One of those little lighter-sized gadgets you stick in a USB port and fill up with pictures, or in his case, articles about the early caliphates. He was fascinated by the work of the fifth-century historian Ibn Hazm, who compiled a list of “Those Among the Caliphs Who Died by Assassination and the Manner in Which They Were Killed.”

He took Fadwa with him. It was before I realized the extent of their relationship. Her parents lived in Casablanca; I thought he was merely giving her a ride. She, as it turned out, had never been to the Derbghaleff, and knew of it only through her maid.

They arrived and were overcome. There was almost too much to see, and too hard to find anything. They spent an entire afternoon drifting from section to section after having gone to every one of the booths in the electronics realm and narrowed the price down to 375 dirham they stopped at one more booth. An older man seemed to be the proprietor. Fadwa asked for flashmemory. The older man was instantly drawn to her and smiled. “So you are Moroccan, and you,” he said looking at Eli, “are….American.”

Eli was bending over watching the assistant who rummaged around, and down and behind and inside the out of sight, the assistant came back with a handful of flash memory containers.

“You’re English,” said the grey haired man. Colonel Chiron.
Eli looked up. “No.”
The colonel put out his hand. “Very glad to meet you. I know your country well.”
Eli was more interested in finding the particular color of flash memory, but the colonel persisted. “Where are you from?”
“The United States.”
“ I know that. But where?”
“I was in San Diego. My first wife. We lived in El Cajon.”
“Really.” Said Eli.
“I like blondes, Very beautiful. Always sunburned. Caramel breasted.”
“What did you do there? ” Eli said, not looking up.
“Military. Ft. Benning. Lackland. Camp Pendleton. I went to them all. “
Eli found a color he liked.
“I’m a colonel,” said the colonel. “Intelligence, special forces, ranger training.”
Eli looked up again. “You are a colonel.”
“Not now. Now, I’m a policeman. I am in charge of the inspectors in the city.”
Eli was suddenly interested. The shop owner suddenly appeared, said something to the colonel and took his place behind the display counter.
“Tu veux ca,” he said abruptly to Eli.
Eli was always annoyed to be addressed informally by strangers. “Peut Etre,” he said.
The colonel said something in Arabic’ the shop owner showed deference.
He will give you a good price, said the Colonel.
“How much?” Eli said.
“What do you want to pay?” asked the shop owner, rubbing his fingers together. “Leave a little something for me, and name your price.”
“200 dirham.”
The shop owner smiled and shook his head.
“The art of negotiation is that everyone must be happy,” said the colonel. “This is about friendship not about what you are buying.”
Eli looked at the little plastic totem in his hand. He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders. “Two hundred and fifty dirham.”
“Three hundred and fifty,” said the owner. “I cannot go lower. I need something for myself.
Eli looked at the colonel.
“What does this cost in the US?” said the colonel.
“Well, more.”
“Fifty dollars, maybe for this, sixty.”
“So pay $35 and you are ahead and the shop owner is ahead. What’s $10? Don’t let pride destroy the opportunity.”
Eli didn’t quite understand the opportunity but felt the upbraided student. He quickly agreed, paid and put the memory in his pocket.
“Why don’t you come with me?” said the colonel. “I will show you the real Casablanca. But first you come to my house. “
Fadwa frowned, but Eli ever interested in “penetrating the culture” reached over and smoothed her forehead with his thumb. “We’d like that,” he said watching Fadwa. “Wouldn’t we?”
Fadwa looked back and tried to object, told him with her eyes that this was not what she wanted to do, especially considering how little time they had together, and considering that this was not a man’s whose house she would have been interested for any reason.
They walked out of the souk and it was then that Eli realized the colonel, whoever he was, had powers. A man out of nowhere, dressed anonymously, with sunglasses and broad shoulders nodded to the colonel and set out to clear the crowds. The colonel kept looking back at Fadwa who was right behind him. Occasionally, he would take her by the arm and point out something or tell her some anecdote about this shop owner or that. She in turn looked back at Eli, sometimes shaking her head as though to say, why do you do this to me? Eli watched the procession from back, occasionally losing his position. It occurred to him that the colonel’s interest was in Fadwa not himself and he made an effort to get closer to her. Once, the colonel stopped and told Eli to be watch for pickpockets in this particular area, by the clothes thrown on a heap and a smoothie stand.
Eventually, they made their way to the street. The broad shouldered man ran over the median strip and disappeared into a dirt parking lot. A few minutes later, a black Mercedes appeared. The colonel, ever solicitously, guided Eli and Fadwa to the back seat and sat in the front with his man. The car was more run down on the inside than out. The leather was ripped. The windows had been poorly tinted and were so dark that Eli couldn’t see out. Bent cigarette stubs spilled out of the ? on the console between the streets and there was the colonel’s hand, ringed, carefully manicured.
The driver got out of the traffic and headed who know where. At one point the colonel pointed to a street, and then half way down, he knocked on the window with his rings. He got out and returned after five minutes behind bags of pastries.
We arrived at his house in the California district. The black office building of the minerals industry is the landmark...

Jan 14, 2005

Much Worse Than What You've Heard

This is mostly true. He lives in Rabat. I see him occasionally. The other evening I went up to his apartment early. “You don’t mind if I’m wearing my PJs,” he said. They were beige with yellow dots. He also wore an ascot.
“I was ready to hit the silk, myself,” I said. He went out of the room to get beer.
His wife was sitting at her computer. “He’s so glad to have someone to talk to,” she said.
He returned and I told him my need. Election news in the Iraqi newspapers. He nodded but told me his story first. He left the country at 21, returned last year for the first time at 42. There were mortars most nights, explosions from time to time, but he never saw anybody get killed. “It wasn’t bad,” he said. “Not like now.”
He documented the now. “Much worse than you realize. The other day my brother told me that for every incident reported in the press there are ten more. You can’t keep track. It’s happening all the time. We went to the Iraqi embassy yesterday in Rabat. I went to pick up my passport, which I hadn’t had 20 years. They gave my approval in 15 minutes. Anyway, they said, “don’t go. You’d be a fool to step foot in the country. No one is going.”
He went on with his story, how he went to Baghdad a year ago, through Jordan. How the man at the border couldn’t read. “I gave him my passport. He said, what country are you from? This is a Mexican passport, I said.”
“Ah, so you’re from Canada.”
“No, Mexico”
“Mexico-Canada; Canada-Mexico. Same.”
“But they’re not.”
"Finally, he signed the document with a date stamp. That was all. And you wonder how people are coming across the border. Anyway, now the minute you step across, there are people watching. Kidnapping is the most lucrative profession.”
We talked some more and sat down at the computer. We went to Iraq4allnews.com. He went through the headlines, as of 1/14/05.
A scandal involving journalists.
A telecommunications company cheated customers.
Iraqis in Israel will not be allowed to vote.
28 prisoners escaped from Abu Graib prison today.

Few of these stories have bylines or sources or quotes or names.

Iraqis can file absentee ballots in 14 countries. Morocco is not one.
The Patriotic Group of Iraqi tribes asks all tribes in the country to boycott the elections.
American soldiers are selling weapons to insurgents. There is a photograph of a man, supposedly an American soldier about to kneel in a mosque.

“It’s crazy,” says my friend. “All chaos. No one knows anything. How can you know anything from these crazy things? “

One story says there are 700 Muslims in the American army in Iraq.
Fallujans will boycott.
Iraqis in Israel WILL be able to vote.

“You see the contradictions,” my friend said. He read on.

The Iraqi defense minister tells an Egyptian newspaper, Arab Struggle, that the list of candidates is really an Iranian list.
Another poll worker assassinated in Baghdad.
A pundit comments, “The situation now is like a bell signaling the beginning of civil war.”

“My brother tells me there is no electricity, except for perhaps one or two hours a day. And no petrol. Can you imagine in a country with such reserves, no petrol.”

And then a rough translation. “On a diet of strange occurrences every day, one marvels at the mystery itself.”
What does that mean, I asked.
He shook his head and went on. The stories suggest complete chaos. And of course there is no conventional election coverage because few candidates advertise their candidacy. Otherwise they would be killed. On election day you will go to the poll, and be given two pieces of paper. In one, you will find a list of parties that will send members to the general assembly. Pick one party. In the other, you get a list of parties representing your province. In the north, you get 3 pieces of paper, the third for the Kurdish assembly.


Ambassador Negroponte met with the leaders of the Committee of Islamic Scientists. They are Sunni. Their message was ‘give us your timetable for withdrawal and we will vote.” Negroponte filed his report to Washington and apparently the condition was rejected.
The Shiite Counsel of Islamic Revolution, Abdel Azziz Al Hakim (these spellings are on the fly), was quoted to say that even if the Sunnis didn’t vote he would leave seats open for them.
The election counsel would like to make people aware those candidates promising heaven in return for votes should be ignored.
Kurd leader Masood Barazani met with a sheik from one of the Arab tribes in Tikrit. (Which is significant, if true)
Hosni Mubarrek and the Sheik of the Al-Azhar, mosque (founded in 970 AD as an Islamic university and still the fount of Sunni orthodoxy) have been pushing for Iraqis to vote in the election.

He found several other stories. This person killed. Those persons blownup. One after another, stories of chaos.
“And remember for everyone reported, 10,” he said.
“Crazy, huh?”
I had to leave. We went to the door. He said he'd been offered a job in the new government, a financial advisor to the Iraqi president. "I called my brother, I was all happy. He said, if you take it we'll all be killed. That's what they're doing now, they're going after the families...."

Jan 13, 2005

Ballad of a Coco Girl

"He calls us coco girls," she said. She's late 20s, just married, enrapt in Hermes scarves, frankincence and Murr.
What's that mean, I asked.
"Well, you know." She speaks French like a native but her English is patched together. "What you call them? Like call girls."
I was startled.
"They say it. They say we are the president's harem." She shrugged her shoulders. "Can you believe it."
She's smoking furiously.
I can't believe it.
"I told the president I'm leaving, but it's not because they're going to pay me more. I'm leaving because what can I do here? This is... what do you call it? A mad house."
And then she told me many stories from the mad house, about who is the most hypocritical and who is most sexist.

The worst is Dr. X. He came into the communication office one day. A stocky face like a knotted piece of wood. He walked in, hunched over in an overcoat like a character in a Dostoevsky novel. He had an odd bandage on his left nostril. He told one of the cocoa girls that he was in the midst of love making and his "tigress" bit him.

He's in charge of finance. He taught high school chemistry in the Royal school. This is his background in finance. So they say, He came with the president; this is his real background. It is said that he saved the university from financial ruin, which is a trick because under the university's charter the national assembly has the power, and the responsibility, to pay off the university's overages.

Dr. X is well known around campus. He has had a series of affairs with women in the university staff. He is always on the prowl. Several women have considered filing sexual harrassment charges, but they always change their minds. There is just one who may follow through.

Meanwhile, the university is in chaos. Falling enrollment. Teachers stay on average just two semesters. Morale is bad everywhere. The number of students who go on cocaine binges out in the country is rising. Many teachers are teaching outside their area of discipline. The school counsellor seems inept and overwhelmed. Academic pressure is high, expecially for students who are not used to it and who have been pampered. Students write the newspaper regularly complaining about the professors, which could be a reflection either way. Technical people are leaving. Allegations of wasted and misspent monies. The unanimous consensus: very bad management.

Someone told me this is the best university in Africa, which is not true, of course. There are any number of better schools in Egypt and South Africa and probably 3 or 4 other places. But if it is one of the better schools in Morocco, at least, what can one say about higher education? Especially since the graduates of this school are all heading out of the country.

Jan 9, 2005

Dramas, larger and small

These images, the shooting by the GI and the beheading of Margaret Hassan, appeared on the day the drama club meets. There are a dozen in the troop who appear regularly. Maybe six more appear when they damn well feel like it. I’m always after them to let me know if they’re coming and when I meet one of the missing walking to class they will be so gracious. I’m thinking of Loubna and Libna here. They come to the first meeting every semester and then they come now and then. You can never count on them. Loubna actually has talent. She’s the face with acne. Libna is one of the little breath takers. Thneyu’re the same height. They wear the same clothes. They finish each other’s sentences. I suppose they’re lesbians, which of course here would mean strung up and skinned. The two nicest girls you’ll ever meet, but not reliable. I never see one without the other. As for the troop, it's a mixture of students and faculty. We meet in the university auditorium. A cold, dank place, but new as fresh spit. It’s used mostly for the rock n roll bands and the Moroccan musicians. And at the end of each semester there’s a variety show. Moroccans are natural born performers as you well know. Give them a song, a dance routine, a character, a line and, whether experienced or not, they stand right up and do. Which is the only time they do. off stage, there is no do. There is talk about do. There is dream of do. There is almost do. But then no do. So then suddenly, with no warning, one night nobody shows up. They scatter like pigeons. It could be cold or heat or some forgotten holiday. They don’t email or call, God forbid. They just don’t show up. And every semester begins again with the same promise. “This is what we want to do more than anything,” they always say and there is this intense interest for a few weeks and then they fall away, one by one. Although there is always one or two left. Ayesha was one of those.

Jan 4, 2005

Two Thieves

He's the IT man, the infrastruture artist. Part of his job is to download all the unregistered programs that otherwise would cost tens of thousands of dollars. I don't ask him how he does it. He does it. He goes to an ether house and gets the stuff. "Come back in a couple of days," he says when you need something. " I'll have it then."

"But it's bad," he said when I went to see him today. He's 28. Smart. Good looking. Intense, and always optmistic, even if he can't solve the problem.

"Why it is bad?" I said.

"It's stealing. We're learning to be thieves. That's all we are."

"Derbghalef," I said. His face lightened up.

"Exactly, you can go to the souk in Casablanca and get a disk full of programs for $2 that retail outside Morocco for $2,000. What does that tell you? It's acceptable. People would never think of paying the full price for these things now. I know millionaires. They could afford to pay the real price, but they don't because they know they can get it for less. This whole country is like that. Did you ever wonder how so many people could have satellite television? They can because they can pay 20D for a card that gets them access. How can we have Silicon Valley if we don't respect copywrite laws?"

He paused, looked back to the screen to see how my request was coming. I'd brought some disks from the souk in Casa. They were no good. No matter, he was going direct.

"Sometimes people come to me: what's the latest thing? What do you need, I say. They don't care. Whatever is need. They might use the program once. But they have it. They've acquired something new. They have the feeling they are up to date, they are ahead of someone else."

The conversation drifted. He'd just returned from Paris. Everyone running around like crazy. "How can you live like that? What's so important? And then they have a room 15 meters, and they pay 700 euros. For what? What is that? And we're working as fast as we can to be just like that."

"Come back in 2 or 3 days," he said finally. "i'll have it then."

But he wasn't finished. "You wonder what's going to happen to the software writers. They'll become like artists and musicians are now. In 50, 100 years, there'll be nothing. No one will create anything. Who will pay them? There'll be a tiny number of poeple doing all the creative work. The rest like slugs."

"We're all thieves," he said. "Not good."

"I'll come back," I said.