Archive for January, 2009

Jan 31 2009

Doors in Morocco

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As promised, I’ve begun uploading more photos. In Islamic architecture, the good stuff is on the inside—ornate carvings, mosaics, beautiful Arabic script, etc. And in Morocco (unlike other Muslim countries), non-Muslims are not allowed to enter mosques, so we couldn’t see a lot of these interiors. But we did see a lot of fantastic doors and gateways! (And a few strikingly beautiful interiors—stay tuned.) Here they are, from Marrakech, Rabat, and Fes (use the Continue Reading… link)
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Jan 28 2009

Sacred and profane in the Jewish quarter of Fes

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(Jackie says I haven’t been blogging enough and that I spend too much time on posts when I do actually blog. So after this one I’ll be uploading lots more photos to Flickr and doing short, quick posts about them. Promise!)

The Jewish cemetery in Fes is just off the main road of the mellah, the old Jewish quarter. It is overlooked by crowded, multistory homes, once Jewish, now Muslim. Walking in the cemetery, you pass through rows of graves, some centuries old and others from the past few years. It is the resting place of important rabbis and small children. All graves are marked with lines of Hebrew, and below, many include French as well. The cemetery grew organically in a way; different sections from different periods forming a patchwork. The graves describe lives lived, and the shells of burnt out yahrtzeit candles commemorate these lives.

Jewish cemetery in FesJewish cemetery in Fes

Jewish cemetery in FesJewish cemetery in Fes
(click on the images for larger versions)

At one end of the cemetery stands a synagogue, which no longer functions. Instead, a complicated and unknown process converted the synagogue into what is officially a museum of the Jewish presence in Fes and Morocco. And officially, entry is free, but in a typically Moroccan way, we were charged 10 MD each to enter, and similarly, the museum wasn’t what you might expect.

Sanctuary in the Synagogue in Fes

The synagogue is more like the work of an amateur archaeologist: it is stuffed full of the obvious sacremental items—tallises, prayer books, etc.—but much more striking are objects of a different sort. On the main floor there are caches of discarded Barbie dolls, books of all sorts in English, French, and Hebrew, half-deflated basketballs and soccer balls, old calendars from Lubbavitch of Brooklyn, goofy old secular posters, on and on. And in the basement, which we entered in search of the mikvah (nowhere to be found): dingy pots and pans, ancient discarded household items.

Books and calendars
Balls of all sorts
Old calculators, posters, and signs

How the synagogue on the edge of the cemetery came to be the final resting place of the everyday items of the Jews of Fes remains a mystery: there was no one we could really ask to give us the full story. The Jews of Morocco didn’t leave in a hurry or en masse, like the Jews of Iraq or Yemen. Indeed, there is still a significant Jewish population in Casablanca, a working synagogue in the new part of Fes, and an aging population in Marrakech. Since the creation of the State of Israel, the Jews of Morocco have been a community slowly dwindling, with affluent members having left for France and North America, poorer members for Israel. They left behind centuries of family history in Morocco, most strikingly on display in the cemetery. But the feeling that the books and Barbies gave off was that of a slow departure, with those who left leaving many people behind. Perhaps these possessions were left for these people left behind—if only temporarily. But not enough members of the community remained to make use of these possessions, or perhaps the quantity was just overwhelming. Some way or another, they ended up stockpiled in the synagogue.


In Judaism there is a concept of the kodesh or sacred, and the chol or profane, and the utmost of importance is assigned to hamavdil, the separation of the two. Profane should not be taken literally—another translation might be simply non-sacred, or everyday. Indeed, the six days of the week are chol, while the Sabbath is kodesh. The end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week is marked by Havdalah, which has the same root as hamavdil. By some combination of chance and design, the synagogue in Fes was filled with both kodesh and chol, in equal measures.

A week ago, I happened to be at the Jewish museum in Paris, where a small, very classy display case holds Moroccan Jewish jewelry and other handiwork, no doubt brought by Moroccan Jews to France. All of it kodesh. What was missing was the chol. But what was missing in Morocco was any real sense of hamavdil. None of the sacremental items were being mistreated or anything, but the mismash of items was jarring. Our quest for the mikvah a failure, we didn’t linger for long.

1949 Basketball Team

[POSTSCRIPT 1: After a quick glance at the Wikipedia entry I see the astounding claim that there are a million Jews of Moroccan descent living in Israel, 15% of the population! No source on this claim, however. And the lede of the entry contradicts information later in the entry. Maybe I should fix that.

POSTSCRIPT 2: I’d appreciate corrections from the knowledgeable among you on the history or Jewish ideas I may have botched. What does chol literally mean?]

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Jan 18 2009

Here’s Looking at You, Morocco

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We are back in Europe, after our week-long visit to Morocco.  After a whirlwind not-quite-two-day stint in Switzerland, involving Seth going to the one laundromat we’ve found in Lausanne and repacking in about a half hour, we are now in Paris with my parents!  Unfortunately, while our stomachs made it through Morocco just fine, my lungs didn’t do as well.  I have one of my famously awful colds, though I had an exciting trip to the clean and orderly ER at the university hospital in Lausanne to make sure I didn’t have pneumonia.   Also, our pictures from Morocco didn’t make it with us to Paris, so you’ll have to see those later.

Since it is impossible to tell you all about Morocco in a post of a length which our average would be willing to read, I will just provide some highlights and general observations, and maybe Seth will add a bit more with photos later this week.

  • Morocco, like Israel, is cold in the winter.  It’s much more bearable to pass the day outside than say, in the Northeastern US or in Switzerland, but the problem is, a nice 50 degrees in the sun outside during the day is quite chilly at night indoors where there is no insulation to speak of, and only in rare instances, warm enough blankets and space heaters.  The first two nights Seth and I went for cheap hotels, which were not great in that weather, but warmed up a bit when we went to space-heated riads, which are old-city houses built around an inner courtyard, sometimes restored and used as the Moroccan equivalent to B&Bs.
  • The architecture in Morocco is beautiful, really really beautiful, but sadly, as non-muslims, there is much we cannot see.  Not only can we not go into all of the private riads, but we were not allowed into mosques, either.  So we saw some museums, went into a few gorgeous madrassas, peered through the open doors of mosques at prayer time, and made do with that.  What is most amazing about the architecture are the elaborate Arabic calligraphy and amazing geometric mosaics (which we went to a pottery center to see made!).  Also, the madrassas often have courtyard reflecting pools which provide a cool optical illusion as to their depth.
  • The streets in the cities are crazy.  Motorbikes are very popular, and seem to get the right of way over pedestrians.  Pedestrians step out of the way of mopeds and directly into car traffic, the cars swerving around the people.  Every one of the 3 cities we visited had a new town (somewhat orderly, built under the French, wide streets) and an old city (called a “medina,” and like a labyrinth from the middle ages with added motorbikes and junk from China).  In the medinas, the cars did not come in, but were replaced with donkeys, lots of donkeys, packing in all of the junk sold in the medinas.
  • Western tourists stand out, and there is no way of avoiding it.  As tourists, we got ripped off more times than we know and were hassled constantly.  As the week progressed, we got better at fending people off, setting prices beforehand, bargaining, catching taxis, etc., but we also just got better at not feeling so angry at being taken advantage of.  One thing we were completely unable to fend off on two occasions was the unwelcome attachment of unofficial guides.  Problem is, those two times, we were obviously headed to the one tourist site in the vicinity.  Every local knew exactly where we were headed.  We tried to say, “we’re fine, we’re not actually going there,” circle around, come back, but they were always there waiting for us.  No other way to get to the mosque in Sale or the synagogue in Marrakesh.  So they “took” us there (i.e. followed us there), told us we could go inside (thanks, we already knew that), answered our questions poorly, and then demanded large sums of money.  It was really irritating.
  • French served us surprisingly well.  Arabic would have been best, and Berber might have been sometimes useful, but we were happy our practice in Switzerland helped out in Morocco, too.  We would have been way worse off in the bargaining/getting ripped off arena if we didn’t know French.  Also, amusingly, the Moroccans were always telling us that we had French accents like people from France, only with an added other accent.  They had difficulty figuring out we were Americans.
  • Since there was relatively little in the way of architecture and monuments we could actually see, we spent a great deal of time wandering the narrow, twisty, garbagey, crowded streets of the medina, many of them market streets.  There are streets for buying fresh food (including really yummy looking veggies and dangling whole or large parts of dead animals), streets for sweets and baked goods, streets for buying Chinese junk (like a lot of shoe stores), and streets for buying crafts.  One cool thing about the crafts streets was that sometimes, there were people there actually making the really beautiful crafts.  It was pretty cool to see all these men in their little workshops, banging away at metals, painting, dying wools, and snipping leather.  Also, as previously mentioned, we visited a pottery place and also a traditional tannery.  It was definitely a good place to buy relatively cheap, beautiful crafts that I haven’t seen anywhere else.  A much better experience than the markets of Israel.
  • The food wasn’t quite what we expected.  There were a couple kinds of flatbreads which were absolutely delicious and readily available in Rabat and Fes, less in Marrakesh.  There were lots and lots and lots of baklava-esque sweets, packed full of honey and almonds, in varying proportions and shapes.  Speaking of sugar, strong gunpowder green tea with a spring of fresh mint was available everywhere, though it came with so much sugar, there was only so much we could down in a day.  Occasionally we were able to order it with less sugar.  Needless to say, I was always having the urge to brush my teeth.  There a couple of legume soups, our favorite of which was pureed fava been soup (or maybe it was split pea?  we kept getting different answers) with olive oil and paprika, which we ate a few times in Fes.  We are hoping to try making it at home.  Tajines and couscous was available everywhere, though not always in the vegetable variety.  We had it a couple of times, but we’re pretty sure that even without chunks of meat, there was some chicken or beef stock hiding out in there.  The most amazing restaurant, which was so so good and I wish there were such a good place in Switzerland, was the Earth Cafe, a vegetarian/vegan Moroccan restaurant run by a Moroccan man who has spent lots of time in Australia and the US and has a much more inspired and fresh menu than any other restaurant we went to (although when we ate dinner in the best riad we stayed in, that was pretty awesome, too).  If you go to Marrakesh, vegetarian or not, you must eat there.

That about covers the basics.  We had a pretty good time, though it would have been even nicer if we were not always being pressured by the locals.  We loved Fes in particular, and were glad we made the 7 hour train ride to get there.  We got to spend 3 days out of the week with other people (a Moroccan friend of a Harvard friend and then a couple I know from school in Switzerland), which was really nice.  I like vacation.

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Jan 07 2009

One Night ‘Til Morocco

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Hey, did you know that we leave for vacation in Morocco tomorrow?!

We have been very busy preparing for the trip.  Not in the sense that we’ve actually prepared for the details of the trip, but in the sense of getting everything else out of the way.  I had two serious papers to turn in in Geneva today, Seth has an application to send in before we leave…also laundry, etc. etc.  Plus, Emily visited us this week on her whirlwind tour of Europe on her way home from NILI.  As Seth put it, we do a very good job of showing our guests how frustrating this place is, however unintentionally.  But, let me highlight this exciting point: after several nights in a row of very little sleep, I am finished with my semester officially!!!!

Seth has done a bit of planning for the actual trip while I’ve been papering.  Fortunately for us, Morocco seems to be a cheap enough place that we can stay in fairly nice hotels at not too great a cost.  Our plan is to get into Marrakesh, spend the night, then head to the city of Rabat, followed by the city of Fes.  We’ve got a guidebook and recommendations from a couple friends who have spent significant chunks of time there.  We plan to take many pictures, but you might not get a chance to seem them or read about our journey for a little while.  After our week in Morocco, we only have a day before we head to Paris to meet my parents!

All that stands between us and above-freezing weather are dinner, Seth’s application, paying bills, packing, some cleaning, sleeping, and then the very early morning voyage! Hmm, it’s going to be a long night.

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Jan 02 2009

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Seth made challah today!  I’m looking forward to the motzi.  Gut shabes!

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Jan 01 2009

In This New Year of ’09

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According to me, my new year started in September, when school started, when we arrived in Switzerland, and when Rosh Hashanah was.  Nevertheless, it is nice to celebrate the “secular” New Year (though Seth always talks about how Israelis refused to celebrate with us a couple years ago when we were in Tsfat because they think of it as “St Sylvester”), to, you know, get in on the action of the holiday season.

My friend, Aviva, from school came over from her home in Basel to celebrate with us.  We cooked a yummy meal that was most definitely not Swiss (roasted red bell peppers stuffed with quinoa, black beans, and cheddar cheese with a side of cajun-seasoned sweet potato chunks and chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies for dessert).  Aviva had never really had cookies before, and was mystified by baking soda, though she explained that she had Christmas cookies in December and tea biscuits all year round, neither item qualifying as “real cookie” to my American sensibilities.  We nearly set the oven on fire, our other expected guests could not come due to a twisted ankle, and the cork broke into the wine bottle so we had to strain it into a pitcher with our tea infuser ball, but other than those mishaps, things went fine.

Then we headed into Lausanne to see the cathedral, um, get lit on fire, or at least that’s how it appeared.  We had expected fireworks as per Lausanne’s web site, but instead, the cathedral looked like it was going up in flames (that’s a link to a video of it with the churchbells clanging).  I guess they were actually just red torches that created a lot of smoke or something.  Everyone around us (not that many people) popped bottles of bubbly goodness and drank the contents, in public, and there were no belligerent people or shattered bottles all over the ground.  Although, a drunk elderly woman did try very hard to convince us to help finish her champagne.  Aviva caved and accepted.  A few unofficial, but impressively fancy, fireworks were set off nearby, right over the center of the city (how was this allowed?!).  Then, since there were no more buses after midnight (thanks, early-to-bed Switzerland), we took a taxi back.  Awesome.

Also, Aviva informed me that televisions and New Year’s celebrations are in no way connected here.  I mean, in the US, that’s what people DO at New Year’s parties: gather around the TV, to watch the ball drop or some such ceremony in their own time zones.  But nope, nothing unusual on TV here last night.

My resolutions for the year are to not fail any part of school and to not lose my mind worrying about school and my future.  And to get used to Switzerland enough that I no longer buy the wrong food or miss my trains, but not so much that I start thinking evenings like the one described above are normal.

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