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So Far


Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Fez, Morocco

What I’ve learned so far: that rinsing your clothes in fresh cool water and wringing them out and putting them on damp is lovely, and that placing my hand on the top of the door jamb as I am entering the little bathroom reminds me to duck so I don’t bang my forehead, and how to crawl up the stairs: each step being anywhere from ten to twelve to fourteen inches, randomly changing height due to some nuance of need at the time of construction. I use all four appendages, bare feet, bare hands, slap slap slap up the stairs in a hunkered position. When carrying something, it becomes a three-point operation (cup of coffee, basket of writings, clothes), making each move methodically because to slip and fall would have disastrous consequences, the least of which would be broken bones. “Sobriety check!” Maggie promptly declares.

And on each step, a pattern of tiles that imitates no notion in nature except the rhythm of the heart, a diamond becoming a square as it flies on to another tile that is winking its eye at the fountain’s splash of water from the beard of the moss and the saint who lies under the archway, whose heart is immured in the wall, invites and descends, welcomes and turns his back, delights and absconds.

Here I am trying to undo language and find that I am undone instead.

I transit between places known and unknown: the sky with my name written in it, the water in the gutter with its mysterious chemical transience, the doll that peeks out of a window with a glass eye shut.

I come here with burdens, with sorrows, with fears and with fingers, with a throat and an arched foot and a wristwatch. I come here with a fragile paper ticket, something made out of the pulp of endangered trees, and stand in the fragrance of the perfumerie knowing I will not be able to invent this. This is why I am here. Because I cannot invent this and because I dreamed this.

From the outdoor roof terrace is a steep ladder to a higher terrace that gives a view over the rooftops to the Middle Atlas mountains. To the north, I often see tiny robed figures moving among the ruined arches that lead to the tombs, just shy of the luxury hotel where alcohol is served at enormous price—and that alone after you pay the taxi driver and mark your way home in the medina with strips of paper embedded with signals identifying monuments that will look the same whether seen under moonlight or shadow of noon.

Already at eight in the morning the railing of the terrace steps is too hot to invite the touch of the hand and the cat that looks like a chihuahua hunkers on a nearby rooftop and waits for some signal like food or stone, wary. The tombs on the hill represent north. It begins to make sense—the roofline, the satellite dishes pointing mostly in the same direction, away from the minaret’s bold creation of the story of the universe. Each day and several times the muezzin calls out to remind you where the sun rises is to be holding the gold coin purse of the dawn. Each night and before bathing cross yourself to gently uncover your nightmares and make for them a bed in which you will lie down and comfort your twenty reasons until they twin themselves and unmask the eroded bones of your own story, the one you lost interest in long ago but which now you see everyone is pinning on you with eyes of marble and lemon and shoe.

Already at eight, the day.

The Hotel des Merindes turns out to be rundown, vainglorious, an anachronism, complete with defunct glass elevator with the shaft full of weeds and the glass cloudy with dust, shabby window dressings. We went up there by taxi one day and did not stay for the requisite drink on the terrace. There was a clever, if faded, map bolted to the balcony with silhouettes of the prominent architectural and land features, keyed so you could identify the mosques, the peaks. We left after wandering through the lobby a bit, and walked partway back down the mountain road, and eventually caught a taxi driven by a nearly toothless man who kept up a hilarious conversation in French with Riantee about his time in Lyon and how he lost his teeth, nearly a point of pride if all you could read was his body language.

I borrow a book from the library of our host, Fez: City of Islam (by Titus Burckhardt, translated from the German to English by William Stoddart, published by The Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge 1992), noting details in my journal so that I may find it again and again, as needed. I read of the birth of Sufism in Morocco, of the arrival of the Merinides to Fez, one of a series of rival conquerors, either Berber or Arab Bedouin, who are always sweeping, as in “they swept down out of the Atlas Mountains,” or, “They swept across the north of Africa.” One imagines great brooms swabbing the milky way. This story leads to the pluralism of Sufism, but even so there is a drive toward purity that can at times leave not much room for the respect of other beings.

The festival we are attending is in large part a result of the original tenets of Sufism—a cultural event created from a desire on the part of the festival founders to promote tolerance as an antidote within a violently intolerant time, to underscore and revivify differences, and accomplishing this through the agency of music, bringing master musicians from all different cultures, speaking myriad language, to Fez, site of a university older than any in Europe, the largest living Medieval city. I read that Sufism and its approach to the divine through ecstasy is mistrusted by fundamentalist Muslims, and some of its practices (singing and dancing oneself into ecstatic union with god) are taboo in parts of the Muslim world. This endears me to Fez, and the Moorish culture that flowered in Spain, the great respect shown toward scholarship and literature. I note for Maggie that the word for “lawyer” in Arabic also means “scholar.”


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