Feb 24, 2006

Among books

No one goes to the library. There are few books worth reading, but that's not the reason. You'll find all the work of Daniel Steele and one book by William Styron. The Dean Koontz collection is complete, with spares; there is one copy of Hamlet. I keep telling the librarians, but they ignore me. The culture is what it is. The students who do come to the library regularly are ridiculed. In fact, there's a name for the person who goes around seeing who is in the library and then taunting them later.

But the place is always immaculate. The chairs are all in their places. The varnished tables glisten. The newspapers are perfectly laid out, the magazines are stacked, although in no particular order. Although the wifi connection often doesn't work the plugs do. There is no toilet paper in the bathrooms, but the librarians are friendly. The guards who watch everyone come and go are personable. Once I got locked in and thank god I had a cell phone. Half an hour later two guards came. They were apologetic. Why it took so long I can't say, although here you assume they are reminding you who is in power. That is how far the head game has gone with me.

Libraries have their mysteries. Recently, I found the draft of a letter in a book by Collette. I don't care for Collette but I was looking for short stories and I picked her out at random. The letter was to a student, presumably from her lover. There was the suggestion that the relationship was illicit. Perhaps the writer was a professor. This happens from time to time here. I told you about the Egyptian who promised one of his students a top grade if she went out with him. I told you about Mr. K. And of course you only have to attend one of the classes, nearly any class, to see how the girls display themselves. It's a fashion show; make-up is de rigeur; cleavage is encouraged; flirting is built into all smiles.

to be continued.....

Feb 22, 2006

Feb 21, 2006


Elbouaychi’s Pleasure

The perfect khadim displays two qualities: loyalty and discretion. Discretion means that as the king's subordinate, as his ‘personal servant’, he must not distinguish himself by doing heroic deeds, which might however briefly or accidentally dull the king’s shine. He must also not do anything that gives himself independent power or legitimacy. For example, he should never speak to the press or to the heads of ministries without permission. Even they better to refrain. He must not do anything to undermine a noble patriarchy and a rigorous hierarchy. He must always look up never down, and never court the loyalty of those below him. Of course he shouldn’t scandalize himself by amassing too much wealth or showing what he has in a flashy way. Let others do that if they must; in the end, they will not rise.

Lastly, a loyal and discrete servant is expected to engage in corruption, but without leaving a trace. No contracts, no fixed phones, everything laundered, nothing owned outright. These are the basic requirements, and a king's servant, from the highest to the lowest levels, is left to operate his parcel of the public domain like a personal fiefdom. Twenty five years ago Driss Elbouaychi was the perfect Kadim. He was also despicable and widely despised. The sound of his name was like the smell of shit in a good restaurant. People covered their noses — although not everyone, because some people can’t place that smell. And People always love to forget, don’t they? Now that the horrors are past, he’s desirable. Now everybody comes to kiss his cheeks, to feel the hide of power, to whisper into the ear of ‘someone from that time’. He makes people feel good. He makes people feel secure the way a snake charmer might when he shows you the secret of the snakes and lets you wear one the way he does. Transference, you see? These days, who is more pleasant than Mr. Elbouaychi? Bahir, bahir; Labaisse, Labaisse. Hamdullah.

In those days he was a colonel in the Ministry of the Interior, although no one remembers how he got to the rank of colonel since he was never in the army or the Navy. Now he’s a deputy in the Ministry of the Interior, and that’s a mystery because the last anybody knew he could neither read nor write. It’s also not clear whether he is more Berber or more Arab. Of course, he would like to be thought of as pure Arab, but he has told as many people he’s one as the other. He’s from the south, that’s all that anyone knows for sure. And of course, in some circles that’s a strike against you. But not him. People like to forget his past; it’s more interesting that way.

These days, if you have X-ray vision, you can see him behind tinted windows in a convoy of bureaucrats flying down the road to Casa. Or else you might see him standing in a corner at the opening of a new NGO, ever the voyeur, always in his midnight blue Sharkskin suit, with his perfect-man haircut, every hair in place like rifles stacked in the armory. But his face is another matter, pockmarked, littered with orifices in no particular order or proportion. But he always escapes his face and you see there, chatting away, holding his glass of Medallion cabernet, he’s become quite the wine connoisseur. And you’ll notice, while he’s talking people bend closer to hear him, that’s one of his tricks, and then he has that appearance of respect and also it gives him a chance to peruse the director of the NGO, a very beautiful woman, isn’t she, in the flame of 40, with thick red hair and the look of a woman that really wants to help kids living on glue down on the docks. Sexy and good has always been the specialist’s type.

In the old days he was less visible; he worked in the office of “special responsibilities”, which included cleansing socialists from the universities. But he had no interest in sorting through each department, finding out who was merely disloyal and who might be dangerous, he assumed all academics were dangerous, so he persuaded his boss to close every Departments of Humanity in the country and rename them Society Studies, which was staffed by loyal imams out of work. Now, of course, the names have been changed back because the Islamicists are the threat these days, not the socialists.

In the old days he was always consulting his lists. Short lists, long lists, his ‘mechanics’, the doctor, the hair dresser, his mistresses, ‘friends’ in various embassies, bosses in various ministries, his chums from America. His web. Hotel owners in Agadir. Spies in Casa. Certain restaurateurs in Marrakech, Celebrities in Tangier.

In those days he introduced himself to people as a ‘specialist’. “I am a specialist when it comes to finding people,” he would say with a wry smile. Or, “I am a threat specialist,” which he learned from an American he used to go drinking with. “I am involved in all kinds of things,” he would tell his long standing mistress, Inass whose sister is now the infamous MP they call the ?, which means either the dancer or the prostitute, depending on context. And then to sound technical he would refer to the various kinds of intelligence, and he would say, “Elint”, in her ear and pinch her nipple, and say, “ Commint,” and tickle her crotch, and then say, “ Photint” and grab her foot and bite her ankle.

Or else he will say,” when I was at Fort Benning I became a specialist in deciphering codes. Or to his buddies in the surete he would say I am a specialist at finding the most beautiful whores.

If you were on a certain list, he would send his men out to find you and then he would arrive himself at your house, at any hour. You were always asleep. Or, you were naked with a woman’s breasts wrapped around your cock. He particularly enjoyed finding the married socialist with hotel whores. There are even stories that he is still up to his old tricks, but now with the Islamicists or their sympathizers, and that he will appear in your hotel room wanting proof that you have paid for 'extra company.' "Oh my dear sir," he was supposed to have said recently to an indiscreet imam caught with two women. "Perhaps, you have forgotten that you must pay the extra charge when you bring someone to your room." I was told the Imam was so humiliated that he jumped out of the 24th floor window — and missed the hotel pool entirely.

In the old days, his men would steal into your house and escort the specialist up the stairs, two ahead, two behind, machine pistols drawn. The Specialist never carried any kind of weapon. He disdained weapons, even lead sacks which were very popular of course in the department of the interior.

They would open your door and suddenly here is the "specialist" standing over you. In his sharkskin suit and for a moment you might think what is this bureaucrat doing in my bedroom. But he is so quiet and so curious to see you unawares that you would never hear him coming. No matter how light a sleeper. And so he might make himself at home, wander around your room, even in pitch black and look at what you have in the world, stop to catch a scent of something, and then perhaps find a place to sit and then just enjoy the sensation of being with you.

Sometimes, you might sense his presence. It’s heavy and light at the same time. He was part apparition. Of course he might also become impatient and light up a cigarette or a cigar although he doesn't like cigars, and even 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 humiliate you verbally for a moment. He might say, "Who is this whore?” 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 more about you than you.

Or, he might speak to you in Arabic and he would speak in a low voice and tell you that you were barely goat piss and enough was enough. He would stress the poing — with his left eye fluttering like a moth — that he was finished with your doubts and your Marxist fears, and whatever reservations you had about monarchy. He might occasionally also speak in English, if you thought 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. 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 like him then but he was the most feared.

Feb 20, 2006

short story

Vertically divided, blue-white-red

Your last afternoon unfolds. Beginning in that newly remodeled bistro across from Les Invalides. Will you have the onion soup or la crepe d’epinard? Gaz or eau naturel? You are always lost in the dialectic... ‘Monsieur,’ demands the waiter. Yes, alright then, you say pointing to the menu, this and that. While the waiter scratches it down, you scratch your head: if the city finally does something about air pollution next year and restricts parking, will I keep my car at home or at work? Will I visit my mother this weekend, although her dementia is so maddening, or my son whose failures are so tiring. And what to do about that young woman who came in this morning for an interview — wearing a veil.

Someone should tell these people: We separate church and state here. As a graduate of Science Po (1968), I can tell you what this country needs, and to the woman in her white veil, I can say, without a second’s thought, without any reservation or guilt, “no, I will not hire you. It has nothing to do with Islam, or your sex certainly — I prefer women — or where you come from. Or even if you are Salafiste. This is your delusion, have it. And if you insist that your religion is ‘scientific’ but you deny that Man descends from apes, then we respect your sensitivities and you should play the role of the ‘noble savage’. There is a part for every player in this society. Yes, but not in this company. It’s too distracting. I’m assuming by your accent you are at least second generation. One would think you must know better. Your religion, all your cultural paraphernalia, they have no place in an office. If you want to be part of this republic, you must play by the rules. It’s the same for everyone. Not like in America. This is a stew not fondu. And if you fail, no matter where you went to school, you’re out. You can believe me on this, the banks won’t touch you. Here, if you want something, you earn it.”

Nineteen hundred kilometers to the south, one hour ahead, 200 hundred years behind, completely out of mind shot, Mohammed is delivering his fare to the grand gare in Meknes. You have no connection, you could barely imagine each other. You drive your tusk white powerbook, he drives a pale blue petit taxi, an old 4-cylinder Uno. If he hustles, he can net 15 dhs an hour, times 10 hours. One hundred fifty dhs a day, what is that, almost 14 euros? Times 24/7. Times two parents, two brothers, a sister, and half a dozen cousins. Times the rest of his life — driving, driving, driving — past corner cafes, those smoky confabulatories, filled with whole generations of stilled men, waiting, weightless, sipping tea, watching the mint float like diseased anatomy in formaldehyde.

Mohamed has such a tender, endearing face, doesn’t he? And the whitest teeth. No matter how old he becomes he will always look like a boy. And in 30 years, when he’s your age, he will still have that doe-eyed look of sadness. It’s mostly the country, the ‘culture of despair’, as the academics like to say. He would give anything to get out. He’s taken some law courses, he speaks French (he listens to all the French singers), and he can say in English, quite convincingly, “I have studied the Law” or, “would you date me?” The problem is he’s always dreaming. He’ll often say to his passenger, “Where do you want to go again?” And there aren’t that many places to go to in Meknes, between the two gares, the grand taxi stand, MacDonald’s, and Moulay Ismail’s version of Versailles, with the ghosts of 10,000 heads still droopy-eyed on the ramparts.

Mohammed goes right on, entranced, incanting to his private angel, to appear out of a magician’s mouth with his visa. And then to deliver him to a small cottage in Toronto or, as a distant second choice, to a basement apartment that opens out into the lemon yellow fragrance of Seville. He’ll be someone’s chauffeur. He’ll meet a beautiful and talented woman, like the blonde doctor from Toronto that appeared in the back seat one night, and this woman will have money and help him — he knows how to get women to help him. Maybe they’ll get married, they probably will, and he’ll go to law school, join a firm and represent immigrants and famous criminals, and one day he’ll be famous himself.

In the meantime, where does all his pittance go? To his family, of course, but most of it to his older brother, Salim. Salim, the crème Chantilly of the family, and not just because he’s the eldest. He doesn’t have Mohamed’s imagination but he has what Mohamed will never have, he has will power. And so four years ago he found a way to sneak into southern France, then down through a human manhole into the suburbs of Paris. The problem is that cost a lot of money, it was a huge risk, and now everyone is waiting the return on investment.

Salim’s success caused much resentment with Mohamed, who always considered his brother too mercurial, too much of a con man, too much an ass kisser. But Mohamed always does what’s required. He’s the catalyst for change in his family, the true caretaker.

Mohamed’s younger brother, Hicham, teaches in a noisy, dirty 3rd floor internet school in Casablanca. Nobody in the family understands what he does, but he’s the one who found a mafia lord that gets harrags into Europe. He has been the family’s operating system for hope.

Mohamed’s father minds two dozen sheep in the forests above Azrou, an old crossroads in the Middle Atlas. Once, caravan trains with 10,000 camels loaded with salt came plodding through the town, from morning until night. Now, Azrou is the dry cleaner for drug dealers in the Rif looking to get the spots out of their money. The new boulangerie, for example, is all drug money. Mohamed can tell you. He could have had that life too but it wasn’t him.

Mohamed’s mother is invisible, no more than a forgotten riddle. Still, her blood should not be doubted: it runs in torrents back to Kahena, the Veiled Queen of Jerawa, that most feared and fabled of Berber warriors. When Kahena vanquished the Arabs in 700, this was their lament:

More cruel than all the others combined,
She gave our virgins to her warriors.
She washed her feet in the blood of our children.

But let’s get back to you and women in veils. You haven’t forgotten your weekend in Fez, have you, or how you fell in love with the black, long-fingered masseuse in the hammam? What a touch she had. Not a part of your body she missed. And then what about Amzil, who appeared in the Sofitel bar so serendipitously. Actually, a referral, wasn’t she. But the most beautiful figure you’d ever seen, what skin, and spectacular nipples. ‘ I want to be a baby all over again,’ you told her. ‘ I want to be your baby, and hoard all your milk to myself.’ What a wild and exotic weekend that was. Spent tons of money, but it was worth it. And after being with her you finally understood the country, as though having gone to the University of Amzil at Nipples made you the next Bernard Lewis.

“But that said, I like the Maghreb,” you’d say, “I wish France had done a better job with it. Frankly I don’t know what the answer is. The truth is they’re where France was in 1794. There’s just no sense of community. That’s the problem, they always talk about ummah, but it’s all nonsense. Ummah, ummah, ummah. For them ummah is their immediate family and a cousin or two. Everyone else is not to be trusted. Everyone else is not in the ummah. I told that to a pharmacist one day in Fez. I have this awful gout I have to deal with and of course they don’t really speak French. He wouldn’t give me the right medicine and we got in this argument about humanity. About communitas. This little man was shouting, ranting on and on in front of all the customers: ‘Look at what you’ve done in the world, you have no humanity’. I said to him very calmly, ‘Monsieur, please tell me about humanity, I’m so thankful to learn. But what about the 15,000 homeless children living on glue in the streets of Casablanca? It’s worse than Sao Paulo.’ He had no idea what I was talking about. ‘Tell me about how you treat young women who are pregnant outside of marriage, how the police lay in wait outside hospitals, and what happens to orphans? And tell me, you are all Sunnah, no? What about the Shiites? How do you feel about them? And how is it you’ve turned this country into a whore house in the name of tourism? What are the women of Agadir if not the private stock of Saudi princes. Don’t tell me les annees noires are finished; it’s just a different shade of noire.”

Muhamed suffers from depression. It runs in the family. His mother has it, his brothers, his sister. They don’t even know they have it. But Mohamed knows, he found out a few years ago, through one of his fares, a doctor visiting from Canada.
His father doesn’t suffer from it, but if he did no doubt his Berber nature would overcome it. What strength that man has, what perseverance. And when he brings his sheep and goats to the marche during Eide he always gets the highest price. He’s meticulous the way he cares for them, forever standing along the road side, even in July August when nothing moves. You could blow on a blade of grass with all your might and it would not move. He’s the same, unmovable, immovable. You might think, ‘now that man must be a sun-baked idiot to do that.’ And still he’s there in the moor when it’s snowing horizontally, when the cold collects in your body like carcasses in the town dump. He reads skies and sheep, and jins, the way you once read Zola and Verlaine, and once — albeit, a long time ago — he knew how to conquer the world and he did.

He still remembers things barely heard through the wall of illiteracy. The three kings, the colonial periods. Perhaps, you can imagine a desire for revenge against France and Spain, but he doesn’t have it. He wants little, he expects nothing. But his sons are another matter. Even 500 years later, in some generations, the blood is still too hot to touch. And why? Not because of what little history is offered in unheated school rooms. Seeds grow where they can. You understand it’s not for anything in this lifetime, it’s for what happened in 1492, when Queen Isabella threw out all the Moors and later when Ferdinand III stamped his approval on that chapel, that ‘little’ gothic profanity inside the Great Mosque of Cordova.

Crème Brule or the crumble? The one is more sugar; the other has fruit. The one has eggs, which is protein, which is bad. The other has whip cream, which is partly dairy, which is almost good. If it were lite, but it’s not... What to do. Alright, the crumble and a cafe au chocolat. Something for the chill. Do I really have to go Place Vendome this afternoon? Yes or no. You look at your watch. Yes, I suppose. You catch the waiter’s eye from across the room and write air on your hand.
For a moment the mind gathers around the cannons across the street, black iron order fabricated in the chaos of blowing snow. You think of Napoleon in Russia and in his tomb.

“But here is my point,” you are always saying lately, ever riding through dinners in the 7th arrondisement on your hobby horse. “You saw that slanderous story in the foreign press the other day about Ecole Normale Superieur — has any worthy president not gone to ENS? — and here it is under attack by these so-called ‘progressives’ insisting we’re obsessed with intellect. Of course, let’s enroll the minorities in ENS, regardless of ability — to soothe the childish sensibilities of these castratis in academe and Le Monde. Let’s put the country in the hands of gypsy mediums and Haitian babalaos. And all this because of a few burned cars. What those numbskulls should fear is that one day the highest point in Paris will be the top of a mosque, and the only way to stop that is hold on to reason. Without that no civilization — no life at all.”

You look around the table and all the eyes applaud, all the lips are curling. You are the only one who tells it the way it is.

Who would have guessed that Salim, the tall slender, ever smiling Salim, the family’s hero would find his way into the minds of the people he did. First, to the harrag lords from Siddi Moumen and Toma, and then, by one of the last peteras to make it into southern Spain; from there, to Marseilles, and finally to the gangsteres des catacombs.

Salim was never political, neither socialist nor islamicist. He knew little about Les annees de plomb. He never heard the late king say, and would not have cared, that "in the long term, in the course of a reign... there are often obligations which are incompatible with [people's] rights." He’d never heard of shadow ministers, the secret society of the ‘red flag’, or the notion of the markzen still ruling behind the curtains. And so it’s all the more odd. Who among his family and friends, those that knew him to be a promising soccer player, a good-natured, good-looking boy, and a particularly promising history student — who would have imagined he could end up in the city of light, that just as Mohamed was pulling up to the Grand Gare in Meknes for the fifth time today — Salim was passing the entrance to the Le Muse de Rodin, and slipping down into the metro, to blow himself up.

And where are you? Post crumble, standing on the quai on your way to Place Vendome, unaware of all the crusades around you. Across the tracks a young woman stands in a long dark blue over coat. She looks defiant. And what a beauty she is, God help me, and you wonder about her life and where she’s going and what her lover must be like, she looks too fresh to have a husband, and what it would be like to spend an afternoon with her, how you could show her a thing or two she doesn’t know about her body. You are transfixed by the thought of her life, by the distance from your quai to hers, by the tracks aimed at opposing destinations, by all the metaphors between you, and yet even as you go down all the possible roads with her, all the lives you could live with her, good and bad, you know what silliness it is, what an old man’s phallicy and fallacy it is. As always you can see the whole world, all the possibilities. Nothing could surprise you now, you have mastered the art of expectation, and yet here you are jumping back and forth between sentimentality and what, reality? brutality? Thoughts within thoughts within thoughts. What a shame, how natural, and how hopeful all at the same time.... Is Mariano a 34 C or D? Should I go down to Cabourg and visit my mother, the demented, or my son, the deluded?

Then, just as the train pulls in someone grabs your hand. Your first thought: this is a woman’s hand, small and warm, my ex-wife perhaps, an old girl friend, or Mariano out of nowhere, ‘thank god’, you think, and you turn expectantly, the whole afternoon is about to blossom. Oh, but it’s not her, what disappointment. Instead, a young brown man, black-eyed, thirties, pointed ears, a small red scar on under his mouth and the head-shaved look of a condemned man. Clearly from the Maghreb, and he’s smiling. Do I know him? Is this someone who works for me? He looks vaguely familiar. Your instinct is to withdraw your hand. But he’s a good looking young man and you wonder, why is he smiling like that? I must have given him something but what?’

The train doors open, passengers descend like a breaking wave, and suddenly this man’s grip is iron tight, you glance at him and then in the very next moment something has happened, hasn’t it? Something has happened — and why? A strand of psychopathology caught in the man’s teeth? Or is it this the ethno-centrifugal force of maddrass-induced memories people keep talking about, the addictive glory of Hasan-i Sabba’s holy killers of Islam, the Nizari Isma'ilis.

No matter, something has happened and you are still right where you were, but not in the space as you were, you are spread out is the only way to express it. Like Coltrane’s jazz or Coleman’s. Definitive is not the word, and yet.... And yet what a wonder it is, how you can cross through these panes of existence and non, and the truth is Mohamed in his little green Uno, rattling around Mekness in a dream, is closer to death than you are right now.

Feb 14, 2006


The Tides Above Agadir

Salim Bouhadi, who used to be the police chief in Tiznit until he left in disgrace, hurried up the dirt road away from the bluffs, waving his hands like a mad man. “Here, here,” he shouted at the black car coming up the coast road. The car saw him, turned and came down the narrow bumpy road slowly and deliberately. Finally, the car reached Mr. Bouhadi, the tinted window lowered and the general prosecutor’s face dropped down like an old projection screen. “Where are they?” the face asked. Salim couldn’t catch his breath. He saw that the prosecutor was alone. “Down there,” he said, pointing to the ocean. “The tide is coming in.”
“I’ll take care of it,” said the prosecutor and drove on. Salim had meant to mention the three boys perched on the sand dune that ends in the cliff above the cove. Salim had sent the boys away earlier but when they saw him running up the access road they returned. No matter. Having spent a lifetime in the interior ministry during les annees noirs, Salim made sure to find out where the boys lived and the names of their fathers.
The general prosecutor drove to the bluff and remained in his car. He had not been to this place in many years. To his left, he could just make out the dark smoke of the electricity plant on the outskirts of Agadir, from where he had come. In front of him a white fishing trawler pitched and rolled through the white caps. To his right he noticed three boys several hundred meters away. The boys sat on the cliffs, below a towering sand dune. They were looking down into a cove and now they were looking at him. He got out of the car and leaning into the wind walked toward them. After a moment two boys took off like egrets and flew up and over the dune.
The prosecutor passed a shallow gorge and noticed a narrow foot path winding down through the rock, presumably to the cove below. The path was steep and littered with old water bottles, yogurt containers and shredded black plastic bags. He could hear waves breaking in the cove, but he could not see them. He walked along the edge of the gorge toward the boy who had not run off. He looked to be 11 or 12 and held a shepherd’s stick. He was stringy and wall-eyed and didn’t seem intimidated by the prosecutor who was unusually tall and in his black sharkskin suit suggested an official to be feared.
“Water?” asked the boy, putting his thumb in his mouth and throwing back his head.
The prosecutor shook his head. “Is there someone down there?” he asked.
The boy nodded and held up two fingers.
“Have they been down there long?”
“All day,” said the boy who then held out his hand.
The prosecutor reached into his pocket and gave the boy two dihrams. “A man and a woman?”
The boy nodded.
“Are they trapped?”
The boy looked down into the cove but didn’t reply.
“Are they’re trapped?”
“They can’t come up.”
“They can’t reach the rope.”
“What rope?”
“There’s a rope.”
“Why can’t they reach the rope?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “They were yelling for someone to help them.”
“Not for a while.”
“I want you to go down and see where they are,” said the prosecutor. “Go.”
The boy jumped up, but then hesitated. “They’re not wearing any clothes,” he said.
“I don’t care,” said the prosecutor. “Go.”
The boy ran back 50 meters to where the gorge began and disappeared. The prosecutor moved closer to the cliff edge hoping to see more of the crescent shpaed cove, but much of it was tucked back under the rock and he could see only a sliver at the far end of the crescent. That was awash in breaking waves. He crouched down the way policeman do when they look for clues. He wondered when the tide would be highest and if there was another way out. Perhaps, they could swim out of the cove and around to the beach on either side. But then it occurred to him that his daughter could not swim.....

Feb 9, 2006

In the Minds of Atlas

(This is the orginal version of a piece playing today at Salon.com, about the 'Mohammed cartoons")

The ‘Mohammed cartoons’ have been the talk of Ifrane, a town of 10,000 one hour’s drive from Fez up into the Middle Atlas Mountains. In the marche, where Berbers and Arabs, academics and shepherds, veiled women and not, all come to shop and chat; In side walk cafes, where TVs look down with soccer matches and burning embassies; in small apartments in back streets, where women stand at the stove and men mull over the many rumors; and in mosques, where Friday prayers also serve as a community gathering — everywhere, the talk is the same.
“You can insult me, my mother, my father, but not the Prophet,” my friend, Abdelghanni, tells me and he goes on to explain the heart of the matter. He’s 45, an Arabic teacher in an English language high school.
“If you draw a picture of the prophet, you will make a mistake. It will be false. We already have his description from the Koran: his eyes, his nose, his face, his hair, and so we don’t draw him because we don’t need to and because we don’t want...” He searched for the word. “... To pollute our image.”
If nothing else the ‘Mohammed cartoons’ have highlighted a great mystery about the Muslim world: how the mere depiction of Mohammed — much less cartons portraying him as a terrorist, a pedophile, and fornicating with pigs — could be such an invasion of privacy, such a violation of one’s contact and contract with God. Perhaps, one revelation to come out of all this may be that by drawing Mohammed down to such an earthy plane, you’re fooling with the hope mechanism of millions of believers, just at a time when modernity has never seemed more oppressive and, in many places, the pain of feeling backward has never been stronger.
In Morocco, the reaction to the cartoons has been muted, which is the nature of the country, and some would say, its distance from Israel and Palestine. Still, with this incident you can hear all the old cacophonies, all the old questions about why such a once glorious civilization isn’t more advanced, and can the state ever be separated from faith in an Islamic society.
And will the fear ever go away.
In the last few days I’ve talked to a range of people. The consensus is that the cartoons were highly disrespectful and that consensus has been a unifying force. But on the question of who should apologize and how much and whether other measures should be taken, such as drawing the UN into the matter, the answers are more diverse. I didn’t speak to anyone who advocated burning buildings or flags, but many people are convinced that there is a cold war between east and west and they are not afraid of it.
I asked Mohammed, a young taxi driver I’ve gotten to know in the last year and a half what he thought about these cartoons. He’s studied law, his father is shepherd. Like a lot of other people Mohammed can’t find a better paying job. “It shows great disrespect,” he replied and then shook his head. “but better not to make too much out of it. And anyway history is not going to change.”

Ifrane lies at on the edge of a forest and at the foot of an ancient volcano. The town is atypical of Morocco, not least because of its red tile, chalet-style architecture, a legacy of the colonial period when in the 1930s the French fashioned a reminder of home in the Alps, with tree-lined streets, lakes and elaborate parks. The town is also atypical because it rides along on a tourist economy, winter and summer, and because it is home to Al Akhawayn University of Ifrane (AUI), a small, select, American-style school of 1200 students. Last Friday, the imam at the university gave his Friday alkhutba and addressed the issue of the cartoons.
“I was afraid he might put more gas on the fire and trigger protests,” noted Bouziane Zaid, an associate professor of communications, “but he didn’t do that at all. He gave a message of love and peace and said simply that the best way to defend the prophet is to obey him, follow his example and be kind to others.”
Zaid added that the imam also mentioned something Zaid and many people he knows have come to believe — that these cartoons are all part of a war against Islam, which has greatly intensified since 9/11.
In Morocco, the Friday sermons are orchestrated. This is in keeping with the patriarchal nature of the country. Each week every imam receives the same talking points from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and these points form the basis of the Friday alkhubta. This is not only a way to influence public opinion on worldly matters but also a way to tune the country theologically to what the highest religious leaders think most significant. This may seem more oppressive than it is; in fact, imams can invite guest imams who can say what they please.
The official line in Morocco regarding the Mohammed cartoons was delivered last weekend by Le Conseil Superieur des Oulemas, the supreme council of imams, which is presided over by King Mohammed VI, himself. That the king is revered to be a direct descene Prophet — in a country so family centered — suggests the double dagger in the cartoons. A council statement condemned the cartoons and exhorted les sages et les decideurs, to protect liberty and moral values from the menaces of irresponsibility, hatred, rancor, perfidy and bad taste.
The notion of ‘wise ones’ and ‘decision-makers’ no doubt reflects a diplomatic effort to run the divide between a democratic government and the press. There is no real divide in Morocco.
Ali Bouzerda, a spokesperson for the government station TVM, put it another way. He was speaking for himself. “The government is saying, ‘we cannot accept this and we want to send a signal to the western media that freedom of the press is okay, and we understand that the Danish government can’t dictate to newspapers, but people in authority need to consider the effects of irresponsibility and hatred.’ Bouzerda went on to say, “at the heart of this discussion is the feeling that America is tying to divide the world into two parts, Christian and Islamic, and now mythologies are being spread, so that everything that is part of Islam is bad, and every Muslim is a terrorist. This is the west’s caricature of the middle east.”

Earlier this week I spoke to several men from Ifrane and the surrounding area, all professionals. One is an architect; another, a contractor; and a third is a former mukaddim, that odd civic player, first developed by the French as an informer, who serves as an intermediary between local government and the people. His job is to know everyone in a town or district, resolve small problems and report suspicious activities to the governor who may then make a report to the ministry of the interior in the capital. In recent years, the mukaddim has been, in some cities, a valuable source of information about the activities of Islamicists. Twenty years ago the socialists were considered the enemies of state; now it’s the Islamicsts.
The men were all agreed. It is critical for Muslims to react to this insult, they said, so that in the future the West might think more in terms of responsibilities than rights. They wouldn’t go so far as the Lebanese cleric who suggested that had Salmon Rushdie's fatwa been carried out this would all never have happened. But “a warning shot is required.”
Moreover, they said, the only way to resolve the situation is for the Danish government to apologize, along with the governments of Norway and Sweden, where the men said the cartoons had also appeared. (true?> check) As for the separation between government and the press, one of the men replied, “It is like you have a family with four children and one of them is bad and one day he does some damage to a neighbor. The only way to resolve that is for the father and the three good children to go and apologize. You see the father is like the government and the press is like the errant boy.”
One man went on to explain that in the Sunnah (metatag), the second most authoritative document after the Koran, the hadith says that if the prophet is profaned the perpetrator must apologize or be killed. (ch) “It’s like this,” he said. “It can’t be changed.”
The men asked not to be identified. That’s typical. At the university students are reluctant to respond to even the most pedestrian articles in the school newspaper. There is a fear of being noticed and identified with a position, and perhaps questioned by police, a legacy of Les Annees de Plomb, between1956 and 1999, when some 50,000 people were imprisoned, detained, murdered, raped, or else they disappeared. Even with a truth commission old habits of fear linger. It is a country in which control is always at issue, the underlying fear is that things will get out of hand, that chaos will ensue. You can’t drive for half an hour on any primary, or even a secondary road, without passing a police check point. Even in Ifrane, there is always the presence of police and soldiers, although that’s partly because the king has a home there.
Even now you learn from an early age not to oppose or criticize teachers, not to question, and above all, never to criticize the king.
Recently, I heard a story about the king’s critics, this king sometimes referred to as the ‘king of the poor.’ He is a good father if you will, and he’s backed many progressive programs, although genuine reform has been painfully slow. But the criticism is that he’s too soft. And this is ever the odd thing: some Moroccans would seem to prefer the authoritarian rule of Hassan II rather than his gentler and more progressive son.
Meanwhile, Mohammed VI’s portrait hangs everywhere, in every room of every public place and in many private places as well, and sometimes you will see his face on billboards. But often the expression is troubled, not just serious or pensive, but as though worried and very tired, Atlas holding up the sky in the middle of eternity, never knowing if and when he’ll be relieved of his crushing burden, ever wondering why he was betrayed.

In Ifrane, in the cafes, those confabulatories the world over, rumor and conviction, ash and truth are all entwined in layers of cigarette smoke. You hear things like this: the cartoons are part of the war in Iraq. This is all related to Israel and Palestine. You can’t see this event by itself. And speaking of Iraq, don’t the Americans realize they cannot trust their media, that there are many more Americans killed than reported. The Pentagon has recruited many single men, without families who would come to claim their bodies, and they also recruit many old soldiers who are assigned secret missions and when they’re killed they’re counted as civilians because they don’t wear uniforms. And how can it be that when a humvee is blown up only one person is killed? There are three or four people in these vehicles; you see this is how they undercount. And of course there are all these ‘accidents’. Tanks rolling over into rivers; Everyone knows what really happened. And the suicide bombers? Perhaps there are some misguided Arabs, but they are not true Muslims. There are Mexicans hired by the US to blow themselves up, and their families are compensated with villas in Texas. We all know this. And isn’t it strange how Osama Bin Laden appears and disappears. He existed before 9/11, but maybe not afterward. Are you telling me the Americans really don’t know where he is? I don’t believe it. Whatever he was, he is now an agent of the Mossad or some American spy agency. Maybe a double agent. Like Saddam Hussein. After all, how could Bin Laden plan that attack on the trade center from wherever he is? And how could 19 people do this when America has the world’s largest army, with all their technology and power. It’s not possible; if they were Muslims who did this, Americans trained them. This is a holy war. You know that Bush talked to Chirac for two hours in an effort to get him to join in the war and (Bush) told him that God told him to do this. He used the word ‘crusade’ didn’t he?
“Yes,” says the foreigner, “but what about May 16 (in 2003 when extremists from an impoverished district of Casablanca blew themselves up in hotels and restaurants killing 45 people). Do you think the American government is behind that?”
These things are not in our culture. It’s not part of our religion, not in our degree of belief. Not in our nature. If Muslims do these things in England or Spain it’s because of that environment. That’s what happens to people who live there. Spain accepts these things. Look at the Basques. Here, no. These people on May 16 were not martyrs. I’ll tell you how it happens. These are drug dealers and they get these kids to go to the hotels and get money in exchange for drugs. They do this three times and then the fourth time they make them wear a bomb vest, and the boy thinks it’s just drugs, and then he goes into the hotel and they blow him up by remote control.... Henry Kissinger once said this is how America operates, it creates these, what do you call it? Pretexts, these reasons, like the cartoons to manipulate support for whatever war it is. This is how I feel. And here’s what I’m trying to say, Americans do all these things but they never apologize. ‘Okay, There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’. So what. ‘Okay, Iraq is destroyed.’ So what. The Taliban have left, but the Americans stay. Saddan Hussein is gone but the American stay. And who opposes these things in America? People sitting in salons and arm chairs. That doesn’t suffice.

In Rabat, the capital, a friend who travels in diplomatic circles commented that in the last few days Arabic language newspapers were reporting that more and more cell phone text messages were carrying the product codes of Danish products. Meanwhile, there have been two large demonstrations, one of about 1,000 people in Rabat last weekend and one smaller demonstration Tuesday night in Casablanca outside the honorary Danish consulate. By all accounts these demonstration have included a wide variety of people, and have been, unlike demonstrations at the other end of the Mediterranean, quiet.
Diplomats in Rabat express amazement that things have gone so far and the general feeling is that there’s not going to be an easy way out of this. That view is based on the notion that extremists all over the region seem intent upon one upping each other. At the same time, there’s a sense that the real damage from this may be that not only will negative stereotypes of Arab be reinforced but that the West will lose heart. Said a friend, “There comes a point when you’ve got to handle your problems yourself, you can't go on forever blaming poverty and colonialism. You have to put all that aside and stop relying on your image as a victim.”

In Morocco, the press appears to be free but it is at best, restricted. Several years ago a journalist drew a cartoon of the king and was imprisoned for ? as a result. On Tuesday, TelQuel, one of the country’s only publications that does in-depth reporting, was found guilty in a libel case. It was the second guilty verdict in a libel case in the last four months (metatag). The cases themselves are doubtful but the two judgments, amounting to 1.3 million mad ,are beyond excessive by Moroccan standards, and have drawn the attention of Journalists Without Borders. “Of course, there is no question that there are people in the government, if you can call it that, who are trying to stop publication of this magazine.” explained the publisher, Ahmed Réda Benshemsi. “But it’s impossible to say who.”
I asked Driss Ksikes, the editor in chief of TelQuel, and a well respected journalist in Morocco, his notion of the cartoons.
“I have no red line as a liberal person but there is a question of politics, particularly the way this (issue) has been used by fundamentalists to say ’we shouldn’t talk about certain things’. This also comes at a particular moment, the Hamas victory, the situations in Iran and Egypt. It makes you wonder. islamicists are getting more and more power around the world and they’re trying to use whatever weapon they can against liberal thinking. Above all, they want to show that Islam is victim of the West. But we should not yield to this type of lobbying.
“I hope this type of incident may help people who think that there is no war of civilizations to reconsider. It has dramatized what could become a reality, if more and more extremists determine the political agenda.”

At Al Akhawayn University, and at the high school associated with it, the cartoons are a hot topic. Most of these students, particularly at the high school come from wealthy, if not well educated families. As you might expect their opinions are much more moderate and reflect a class sensibility.
“If their faith was strong enough,” said Sarah, 17, referring to the violent protestors in Iran and Lebanon, “an image wouldn’t bother them. But these are uneducated mobs. They need justification for feeling put down, so this gives them a concrete image of being put down.”
“I was pleased and deceived at the same time,” said a 21-year-old woman, “because I believe in the freedom of speech, I believe in any form of freedom, but freedom means respect. I only saw provocation... But this shows how much these (Danes) are afraid. Maybe they're just becoming aware of what crimes they've supported.”
Alia Lahlou, 17, said, “ one of our neighbors says every Muslim should be demonstrating because western papers print these cartoons but they don’t’ talk about the Palestinians dying every day. I disagree. I think these demonstrations feed the image of violent Arabs. You see these signs at the demonstration: “Europe, your 9/11 is coming”. The West accuses Arabs of being terrorists and then they act like it.”
Professors are equally caught up. I sat with two political scientists, each with opposing views. They share the same office and were so angry at the other’s position that each walked out while the other was speaking. One, a Muslim who graduated from UC Santa Cruz, said the cartoons raise the ‘big’ question, “what are the inherent contradictions of a liberal democracy, and what are the limits?”
The other, an Armenian American educated at ? scowled. The jyllen posten may be a right wing rag — locals call it the “pest of the jylens”, it’s Howard Stern minus — and the material is clearly offensive, but the problem is if we restrict its right to demonize then we’re going in totally the wrong direction. the only solution is to have more free speech.”

One professor I spoke with asked that we go off the record and offered some advice. He gave it with urgency. The great danger, he said, is that journalists keep referring to the Clash of Civilizations. “It’s true,” he said. “There is a clash, of course there is, but every time you say it, every time people hear it, it becomes more of a reality.” And once the mold is set the more people act from that perception. Stereotypes harden. Fear increases. Possibilities narrow.
Another academic I spoke with is Nancy Hottel, ??, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who grew up in Virginia, graduated from the University of Texas with a PhD, married a Moroccan, and has converted to Islam. She has twin daughters, wears a veil but not across her face, and teaches comparative rhetoric.
She remembered the time 30 years ago, during a cross-cultural workshop for teachers of Southeast Asians when an American told a joke as an analogy to show how offensive jokes about religion could be. The joke was, “Do you know why they crucified Jesus?” No... “Because an electric chair wouldn’t look good at the top of a steeple.”
“Not funny is it.” said Nancy. “I was deeply offended just to hear it cast an example. Well that’s roughly the effect on Muslims of these cartoons. And can you imagine if the situation were reversed, if this had been someone out side the religion making jokes about Judaism. You better bet there would have been the same reaction....”
Hottle went on to say how happy she was that no one in America had published the cartoons. “Bravo to Americans that we have political correctness, that we understand that to those in a religion, whatever it is, that religion is sacred.”
“It’s like what Houston Smith said”, she added, “ the basic mistake most people make in comparing religions is that they compare the ideal of their own to the actual of another. If you look just at the actual of the Muslim world you have no idea of the religion and Americans and many Europeans just don’t know what the ideal is. That’s a shame.”

Feb 1, 2006

The Faculty Note Read Simply:

Dear all,
Our colleague Abdelmounim O (I have used only an initial), Hall Director, and his wife lost a new-born baby on Monday morning as they were traveling to Ifrane in a Grand Taxi. Mr O informed me that the death was not related to the harsh weather conditions in the region over the past few days.

(A grand taxi is an old Mercedes four door coup. Six passengers is standard. That means four adults in the back seat. Usually one person leans forward. There are no handles on the windows, for fear of theft, and often not on the doors as well. The cars travel at high speed, produce much exhaust and are notoriously unsafe.)