May 22, 2005

Couple On a Train

They were sitting in second class, against the window. I recognized her right away and would have found some place else to sit but the train was full so I entered the compartment. He was looking out at the station. He looked several years older than her. He wore a long black raincoat and a white shirt, black shoes and white socks. He didn't look Moroccan but later I saw that he was.

She noticed me right away but merely smiled. She wore her pink veil and I will always remember it because when she was trying out for the role of the mother in the play I'd written about the harragas, I tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to take it off. She wouldn't. I explained the scene again and again to her. She was to be undoing herself as her husband, a ghost, stood just behind her. I merely wanted to suggest sensuality. I told her we'd cut the light if she even began to undo it. Just the suggestion, I kept saying. Just the suggestion of sensuality. But she wouldn't do it. Once, I played the role of the ghost to show the actor the part and I got very close to her, close enough to catch her scent and almost touch her veil.

We all pleaded with her and the rest of the cast was much tougher on her than I was. Why do you let her try out for this, they would ask me. She wants to join the troupe, I said, how can I deny her? Oh, they said, but don't you see how hypocrtical this is: if she were a true Muslim she wouldn't try out for the drama club in the first place. We began to call her Diva.

For a while she kept coming, even after it was clear we would have to abandon the play for the semester. She claimed she'd been a drama star in high school. With us she was always a little over the top. She spoke in a loud, commanding voice, she moved clumsily around the stage. She reminded me of a Russian baboushka, thick and mother-looking. She was right for the part. But then she stopped coming and I didn't see her for several months.

Sitting on the train she reminded me of when I had first seen her. She has a beautiful face, and a charming smile. Now here she seemed even more beautiful and confident. It occurred to me that she was in love; I began to see it quite clearly as the trip unfolded.

I assumed they were going somewhere together, but he got off in Rabat. She moved to the window and waved. He stood stock still on the platform looking at her, his right hand spread out on his heart, in the Moroccan way. I couldn't see her, but you knew their eyes were locked to each other. The train began to move and she pressed closer and closer to the glass to see him disappear and stayed like that for several moments, long after he was out of sight.

Dreams of Sinking Ships

Originally uploaded by macnamband.

It all begins on a hot afternoon,
The president's come to town,
What a blue spangled day it is,
choppers hover, all eyes up,
But a world at right angles,
I'm afraid I'll fall out the window.

And now in some back brow, low
town in Canada, on Saturday night
in spring, perhaps, men at an
indoor country fair, along narrow
wood hallways, creaking and freshly
varnished, hawking a good time
old industrial machines and
mechanical butterflies circling above the floor.

From there to a shore, a storm,
and a sinking ship. It's just a model,
It'll be put back together, but right
now floating in brine, you can see
it was just glue, balsa wood, pretty
flimsy for such a reputation.... We,
I walk out, down the beach
in smog's light at night.

May 11, 2005

Quartier des Voleurs

The quartier des voleurs is on the edge of town, along the road to Azrou. It's called that because the absentee landlords are thought to be dons of drugs and prostitution. The streets are undone, potholed and rough. But the houses are new. All have the architectural signature of the town, the sloping red roof, the black rod iron bars on all windows. But already many houses are coming apart. Under sills, along the corners of buildings, around doors, you'll notice the paint is cracking. Here and there a cinderblock has collapsed in a wall under construction. Occasionally, a balcony falls off from an upper story. Or, so I'm told.

The other day I stopped in to see N. who lives in a second story apartment looking out toward the soccer stadium. Her sometime lover is a policeman in the town. Her lover is not educated, and certainly not respected. He has an obscure past, to match his sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. His smile is ghastly; there's no other word. But nobody knows the inside of the town like he does and N demands he tell her everything. They know all the scandals. This is why I visit them. Who is sleeping with whom; who accepts money under the table; the sexual harrassment charges against the vice president at the university. They know which rumors are true and which are false. They can tell you what the cleaning ladies say about the wretched conditions they work in at the local charity, which is supposed to help people like the maids.

"Everything here is fascade," N is always saying. She lectures on business subjects at the university.

When I arrive, she is reading Reading Lolita in Teheran. She lying on the couch. She's wearing shorts and a halter top and no bra. There's a movie on the television playing in the background. What's new? I ask.

Did you know the university is accused of being a hideout and a training ground for evangelicals?

I hadn't heard that.

It's true. There's a newspaper saying the university is a hotbed for evangelicas.


Of course, she says. But now the story is spreading. How hard will it be for them get students now?

Just then her guard arrives. He looks worn and his uniform is dirty. "You're late," N says, watching me closely. "I was expecting you an hour ago."

A. looks at us briefly and takes off his cap, undoes his white holster, which has no gun.

We had to put up a roadblock.

Why, asks N.

No one knows what is it.

Perhaps, the king is coming, N says to me and then to A: Makes us some mint tea, will you? The way you do....

The policeman disappears.

N. has new stories. She tells me about the teacher who has been sexually harrassing one of his students, an exchange student from Italy. "In front of the whole class, he told she should wear hot pants." She loves to tell me these things. I love to hear it. " Another time he asked her what color bras she preferred. You can't imagine all the things he says to her. And listen to this. The other day a boy says, he's in the class, 'oh you should see her tits.' The professor wants more information. He wants to know all about it. In front of another professor he invited the girl over and said, "you see what I was talking about," and looked her up and down as though she were a slave for sale. "

N. lights another cigarette. She shakes her head and opens her mouth and lets the smoke ooze out like steam up out of a grate. " Incidentally, the professor is married to a close friend of the president's wife."

Well, what did you do? I asked, because N has connections on the "task force" created to look into charges like this.

I told them. She said. I even went to the dean. What am I saying? I even, I even went to the vice president for student affairs. And you know what he told me?

N. waited until she was sure I was sufficiently curious. "He said, 'yes, but if we said anything how would that make this man's wife feel?' So she is devalued twice. But that's the way they are here."

Is he still here, I ask.

"Yes, he's still here. Of course. What do you expect?"

The policeman arrives with the tea. Thank you sweety, says N. How was your day with surete?

The man shruggs his shoulders. whatever it's been he doesn't remember it as a good day now.

"I took the dog to the vet but you need to take her outside," N. went on adjusting her breasts. "Just around the block." The policeman looks at her longingly.

The policeman picks up a book on the floor, puts it on the table, and then without a word takes the dog out the door.

Here's another story, N went on, shaking her head as though she is upset.

What's the matter, I ask.

"This whole country is paresseuse.... Have you noticed that?"

I smile. This is her agreement with everyone: information for attention.

"But so," she said, "I've been doing role playing exercises in my class. You'll be interested in this. One of the students explained how a professor had invited her into his office one day and told her that she was an excellent student and even though she had missed some classes and not done terribly well on the quizzes, she was still going to get an A. The student was so thankfull. And then the professor asked if he could take her to dinner. The student replied that it would be better if they waited until the end of the term.

"The student went back to her room and told her roommate what had happened. The roommate, who was in the same class, wondered if the same was possible for her and so she went to the professor, dressed a little provacatively, and asked what grade she was going to get. The professor told her that because she'd missed classses and done poorly on quizzes that she was on the edge and would fail the course unless she did very well on the final exam. The girl was infuriated and told the professor what her roommate had said. Then he went into a rage and told the girl she would fail, there was no question, she was done. And then he threw her out of his office."

N. took a hit on her cigarette and opened her bass like mouth, her rolling.

"Here's the problem," she went on. "The problem is that girls in this culture are taught to seduce and are rewarded when they do. You use all you have. Well, that's true in any culture, but here you have no choice and now it's become nearly genetic. But people who tell you that Islam has served these women, it's not true. You can say, 'well, it's not the religion, it's the people that interpret it.' It's the same in Christianity. No, but there is something else here. There is so much fear already, and then you add the fear of God, and it's too much."

A. returned with the dog. I could hear him in the hall unclasping the leash.

N. turned to me. "You better run along. Your wife will be worried."

May 9, 2005


The other day, when a gay man was about to come into the room, the boy, about 17, said "But I don't want to shake his hand."
"Well, I don't know, it could come off his hand. I could get it."
"Get what?"
"You know."
"I could be gay like him."
"You're serious."
"I don't know. How does it happen?"

And then in the library, in the stacks. Talking with a student who had asked my help on her photojournalism project. She said there were no books in the library to help her, but there were. I showed her. There was one especially good book, with a forward by Paul Bowles. A photo album of a young man who perishes in Fez. And then somehow we got terrorism.

"So you don't believe he exists," I said.
She shook her head.
"You don't believe Osama bin Laden exists."
"No," she said definitively.
"Why not?"
She shrugged.
I tried to convince her briefly. I've heard this before. I said, so you don't think those planes hit the buildings?
She extremely sensitive. The very thought overwhelms her. She shook her head. It couldn't be, she was saying, it just couldn't be. To believe that would be too much. Then in this country so full of despair there is no illusion left.
I persisted.
"And what about the suicide bombers in Iraq. Who do you think they are?"
"Mexicans," she said with a straight face.
"They take them over there and they do it?"
I smiled. Of course, I said.
She smiled but ambiguously.
And what about George Bush, I asked. He doesn't exist either?
"He's a metaphor," she replied.
Now I agreed.
"But you believe in his father, that his father was real.
"And Bill Clinton, you trust that he was real."
Oh yes.
But George Bush is a metaphor.
She smiled. Yes, she said and walked away.

May 3, 2005



The question was, "is there anything in Moroccan history reminiscent of the events you're reading about in 1984?" These were 11th grade students. They'd been reading the opening pages. Winston is in a corner, writing in his diary and trying to keep out of sight from Big Brother. The teacher had suggested that many countries, including the U.S., have gone through such a period. The McCarthy era. The whole notion of Homeland Security. France before the revolution. Chile under Pinchot. Spain under Franco and so on. This is not a far fetched idea, the teacher was saying. But one student, a very bright student, 17, was genuinely worried. "Should we be discussing this? I'm not sure we're allowed to be talking about this."