Apr 21, 2006

School for Scandal

There was a much needed scandal last month when Mr. J, a math teacher at the Ifrane School felt insulted by his 12th grade students, demanded they be punished, and threatened to quit even if they were. The punishment he wanted was forfeiture of their graduation ceremony. The head of school, Ms. W., a stick figured New Yorker, and a stick by any measure, readily agreed. Dr. O. the university's aging matinee idol and VP of student affairs agreed. For a moment, it looked as though Mr. J. who spent 20 years in the Canadian Navy, had won a great victory over 'the kids.' Actually, they didn't seem to care much but their parents did. Unfortunately, the problem was resolved. Mr. J. didn't quit. The graduation ceremony will go on. But there was a catty little post script, which was that one of the students who particpated in the insult, which was laughing through Mr. J.'s lecture, laughing behind his back, and laughing to his face, was accepted to Brown. This is the biggest thing to happen here since, as my father used to say, since 'night baseball.' Or, 'since Grandpa stopped drinking his bath water.' So the other day the girl's father, Mr. L., who is somehow connected to the palace, came to a teacher conference to talk to Barbara about his sacred daughter. He had just come from talking to sailor. J. who he had told off. "I don't think he realized," said O, "how close he came to destroying so much.' O went on to say that his daugther's glory was not just hers but his, and his family's, and the Ifrane school's, and even by extension the university's. "Everyone shares in my daughter's accomplishment," he said. "It's a shame it might have been all taken away by this idiot."

Which tells you something about the ummah, about how the poor girl that got into Brown has little claim to her success.

Apr 16, 2006


Third floor, just past 4, at the Palais cafe:
The scent of minted tea, and in the plasma,
Amateur men's basketball, from Casa;
Along with some empty glasses,
A chattering heel.... The waiter disappears below.
Over there three men huddle by a window,
Looking down on the street, pointing.
Otherwise, nobody, save a cleaning lady,
Seated by water bucket and mop.
Veiled and ageless. As though waiting
For a 19th Century English portrait painter,
Who will look around and note the fake tree with plastic boughs,
The old plaster rock, the silver yellow fish,
hanging dead in an algae-dark tank,
And the startling colours of a high-pitched laugh.

Apr 9, 2006


We had a birthday party for Dash on Saturday night. We invited three families, including the people next door. They never came. The mother is a doctor, and a politician, from a small town east of Malaga. Last fall, she rented a chalet here for two of her young children. They're in the 6th grade with Dash. The mother is getting a divorce. The children live with a Moroccan housekeeper. The mother appears every few weeks. The father appears when the mother doesn't. He drives a lemon yellow sports utility vehicle and likes to follow the road rallys from Europe to West Africa. He wears dark glassses, I've never seen his face. The eldest child, an 18-year-old boy, has Down Syndrome. He doesn't live here, but Dash tells me he was here over the weekend, playing with tiny trucks, laughing like a child. Once I asked the two children, Guillermo and Violetta, why they came here. They said they didn't know but at the other school they went to before there was a lot of violence. Apparently, they live in a Wild West part of the costa del sol.

The night of the party, when we reached dessert, I went to invite the mother once more. I saw her in her kitchen window that looks out of the back of her chalet at the valley of Ifrane and the forest beyond. The mother is tall, big boned, and strikingly beautiful but in this moment. just after dusk, looking out the window but not looking, as though staring life full in the face, she was a portrait of tremendous grief. I let her be.

The other guests included a lawyer from Azrou. He came alone; there was some medical problem with one of her children and his wife remained at home. She also speaks English, he doesn't. I wrote about him once before; he spent three years in prison here in Ifrane during les annees noires.

A couple from the university also came. He's Iraqi, she's Mexican. She teaches economics, he teaches finance.

All tolled, three men, two women. B and the woman from Mexico disappeared into the garden, the three men fell into conversation — which was interesting just for this. These two men, one a Moroccan lawyer, K., the other an Iraqi professor of finance, M., are perhaps typical of well educated people we have met here. The lawyer spent three years in jail during les annees noires yet he's very defensive of the monarchy, the son of the man who imprisoned him. He's also remarkably anti-American. For his part, the professor is more critical of the government here and is more pro American. He often tells the story of the letter he wrote to George Bush congratulating him on his decision to liberate Iraq.

But now that's changed. His family in Baghdad hasn't had electricity in more than a week. None at all. Before they had some, even if only for an hour a day. Now there is nothing. Food is hard to find. Water is erratic. They are terrified of using the phone for fear it's tapped They are Sunni. The mother recently went to Mosul to visit relatives and it was harrowing journey. As far as they are concerned it's not a question of whether there is a civil war but a question of survival. And so M. has now changed his mind on the war. He believes the Americans should install another dictator. "Isn't it so Mark? We agree. We always agree don't we. I'm telling you we are 500 years behind the West. What can you do? There is no other way to see it. Five hundred years, you cannot make that up over night. These people only understand power. It's survival of the fittest."

K., the lawyer, agrees, although he is more thoughtful and more refined in his expression. He speaks in Arabic, which M translates. "If I were Bush I wouldn't defend what America is doing in Iraq with a policy. I would just say, 'we have the power, we need the oil, and we are going to take it.' There is no reason to create this fascade."

K. also believes the trial of Saddam Hussein is nonsense. "Everyone knows what he did. There is no point to documenting the crimes, it just gives hope to those who hope he will return."

It was a strange thing for a defense attorney to say. M. agreed. "This is what I am telling you. These people only understand force. This trial is a nuance of democracy no one cares about."

Asked whether America should withdraw from Iraq, M shook his head, K shook his shoulders. And if America pulls up its draw bridge I said, will the world be better for it?

"America is always threatening the world with its isolation," said K, "but it never happens."

* * * * *

You can make the argument these days, the evidence is becoming a mountain, that the clash of these two civilizations, which happens every century, has rarely been more thunderous, that the war in Iraq is lost and democratic reform from here to the Tigris with it. Everywhere you look, everything you read, everyone you speak to, all the most subtle stories suggest that things are turning sour, even here, on the fringes. Power is in; the populace is out. The US is increasingly seen as impotent, Bush as lame. There are no incentives left for democratic reform, no possibility of carrot and stick. Iran's raised nuclear fist is proof of that. And so the Arab awakening seems to have gone as far as it can for the moment. Now back to sleep, to a nap at least, to a forgetting. The light has been too much, too unbelievable, too untrustworthy. Now the only option for the West is to withdraw, wait, and resist the extremists until the ummah awakens again. The danger of fundamentalism will pass. Materialism is already undermining it, and if you say, 'well yes but materialism has been undermining it for centuries,' that's true, but this last burst, which seems to some like an effort to take over the world is a death rattle.

"No one believes anymore." People are always telling me that. Middle class people to be sure, but even poor taxi drivers and maids will tell you. The reason Islam prevails is because it provides basic services, which the government doesn't. It offers refuge from globalization which no other structure can do. But the message is being lost. It's becoming like so many other organized religions, a sentimental hope in fearful times, a source of order amidst chaos.

And so all that can be done if you are in this sea is to make the smallest gesture. Pick up a hitchhiker, put an extra dihram in an old woman's palm, complement the policeman on his uniform, stop for people crossing the road, and assure people you are leaving, but that they live in a rich and beautiful country and you wish you could stay but home is home, and your family needs you. Better to fall back on gentle deceptions and the white lies that keep appearances up because hope is on hold.

Apr 4, 2006


I have kept my 'office' in the library, on the 3rd floor, among the stacks. I was given a regular office to share but I have never seen it. I understand there's a desk and a chair, a shelf for books and a computer. I don't even know the name of the secret sharer. So I am on the third floor of the library, seated along a darkly varnished table built into the steep sloping roof. At my end of this crucifix-shaped room is a view of three tennis courts and a soccer field beyond. At the other end of the cross, where say His left hand is nailed, there's a dramatic view of the university's mosque, perhaps 30 yards away. Close enough to see the paint peeling around the high windows. After just ten years the university is showing signs of wear and tear.

Students visit me, we whisper or not, depending upon whether others are studying nearly. Usually, there are not many other students on the 3rd floor, if any. The library is solitude and refuge, and as I wrote once before those who spend time here regularly are singled out and singed in various social circles. There is a derogatory word for both those that often work in the library and those who expose.

This afternoon a student from my public speaking class came to talk about her 'informative' speech. She wears a veil. She is an odd mixture of conservative and liberal. She confided in me that her family is connected to the palace, through her mother, but her family has fallen on hard times. Her father was in the military for many years, he was stationed in the Sahara, but he receives almost no pension. He is now 68 and ill. About a year ago she started wearing the veil, against her family's wishes. Her family, particularly an uncle, were not treated well during les annees noires, and this progressive spirit continues. But at 21 she was tired of being regarded for her looks. "I am quite beautiful under this, and everyone was telling me how I looked but I wanted to see if anyone would see me just for my mind."

Her hypothesis was verified. Not as many people talk to her now as before.

"Also," she went on, smiling with braces gleaming, "I want to marry a man who will want me for my mind and I want only him to see the shape of my body."

Then she asked me to listen to Islamic rock, particlarly the songs of a young man from Azerbaijan. The music sounds remarkably like Christian rock. The songs are in both English and Arabic. She particularly wanted me to hear a song about Ummah, because I had asked her why that concept doesn't exist, although it is so central to Islam.

"Yes, but you can't have a community if you can't apologize," she said, "and we can't do that, we can't apologize, it's too hard. I don't know. Pride. But this is also why we can't love. We don't really have that capacity."

She went on to say that it's best not to have deep feelings, to show vulernability. There is too much risk and then if you don't practice what ability there is, disappears.

I've heard all this before, but I am forever trying to confirm it, becuase if true it would explain so much.

"But I want to play you another song," she said, If you hear these really good Islamic singers you will understand how we can find a way around what we don't feel...." And then she played a folky plaintive song whose sentimentality, I suppose, is what she meant.