by Raju Peddada
(Swans - November 3, 2008) This past summer, I was in Morocco on an obligatory visit to be with my wife's family. Her father had passed away on the 13th of May 2008, twenty-four hours before we left for the airport in Chicago. Only one out of his eleven kids was near him when he breathed his last, reinforcing once again that life indeed is nothing but an irony. Her family resides in an apartment building in the most desirable part of the ancient capital Meknes, known as "Hamria." The apartment complex is on La Rue Fez built by the French for its Moroccan war veterans, particularly those who served in Vietnam. This solid white five-story edifice on pillars, with strong horizontal lines of connected balconies, is dotted decorously with grey satellite dishes; the geometric visual of the building through the date palms from the street is graphically striking. The rigid geometrical façade of the building with tall palm trees swaying back and forth in the foreground created a moving montage that became a dimensional metaphor for the life here in the kingdom of Morocco -- as a terse commentary on the rigidity of the ruling elite with their religious autocracy to which the ever adaptable populace swayed accordingly.
Her folks live on the fourth floor, up almost a hundred cardiac arresting stairs. The building inside was like a noisy chicken coop, full of life, with the families of veterans, in a relentless cacophony of chatter, banter, exchanges, visits, yelling after children, slamming doors of comings and goings, loud music and stakeouts by teenagers for the building's delectable femmes fatales. This box of decibels drove me everyday in the morning to my resort, the Mobil café across the street. Incidentally, this café became my haven and escape from the insanity, instead of sorrow that prevailed at the apartment over the dead man's estate. My boys and I would often trudge across to the café for a pizza and fresh-squeezed orange juice almost every day, as meals never showed up on time for us at the apartment. This state of affairs continued all through our forty-five day stay, unless broken up with relief by my travel to Fez, Rabat, and other places.
The scene on La Rue Fez was that of yesterday, a hazy lost yesterday, with white and cream colored buildings flanked by rows of green trees in compound leaves that were in full spring bloom of electric blue flowers. The contrast of the buildings with the trees in the blue and green and with an occasional decaying antique Coca-Cola sign was breathtaking for this visual and itinerant romanticist. The morning haze, the stray dogs, the street sweepers with their coconut branches as the tool of their trade, and the acrid smell of diesel mixed in with exhaust from the two-stroke engines that plied the streets formed the image of what a Third-World country is; but is this what defines a Third World country or a developing nation? That and the smell of roasting corn cobs, peanuts from the street vendors, grilling meats, ground coffee mingled with local perfumes of people passing by dialed my imagination to a world that is romantic, quaint, and informal, which, I believe, will soon give way to the plasticity of the West, where everything is sterilized, desensitized, and under perpetual litigious scrutiny.
I liked Morocco for its informality, for its adolescence and a bashful mischief, for the way people mingled by violating personal space, and for the way children were left to play in the open without any sort of micromanagement. The languorous, indolent, and unhurried disposition of the locals at the smoke filled cafés adorned with Fanta brand signs and those streets reminded me of the atmosphere that existed and had been longingly written up in the literature of the pre-war Havana, Beirut, Paris, Cairo, and Istanbul. La Rue Fez in Meknes is lined up with cafés that thronged with men, to whom going to a café is an indispensable ritual, for both the employed and the unemployed. A sea of men, sitting at tables with their keys, Marlboros, and Oakley glasses, lost in their newspapers, smoke, and thoughts, sipping their coffees with far away looks and sometimes with lustful stares at women walking by. I did the same thing; I experienced this Moroccan milieu at many of their cafés. It was my first experience and exposure to this café culture of Morocco, where you could sit for hours seeing life melt away by nursing a small cup of coffee or a Schweppes ginger ale.
My wife once described these men of the cafés with dread; she described how a man could strip a woman with his eyes and visualize every inch of her from head to toe and the possibilities that transpired with this imagination, and if a woman dared to reciprocate the look, it was construed by the man as an invitation. Women must walk with blinders on in a society where men can have their heads on swivel. If the lady looked distracted and was audacious enough to look into the café, every footstep on the sidewalk could precipitate a catcall from a would-be lover, a rapist, or a future husband. Women here are compressed to be stoic or become heroic provocateurs to the specter of constant harassment and male domination, as tacitly sanctioned by their tribal society despite all their modern appearance. According to my wife, the men here can be positively primitive.
Everyday in the morning I walked over to the familiar waiters at the café and ordered my regular glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a croissant. Service was great as they deduced I was a foreigner, but it was the same for the deep-pocketed locals who frequented there. The café, despite being a convenience attachment to the gas station, was deemed of higher standard with no riff-raff around. In fact, mostly businessmen used it and it was occasionally frequented by some Moroccan beauties vying for foreign companionship, especially from the local schools and colleges. This café had two flat panel TVs streaming in the Arab street news anchored by Al-Jazeera network. By the opposite entrance there was a counter with a shelf behind it, manned by the owlish manager; this little retail corner was a colorful display of all European and American snack brands. In fact the American brand display is a source of their pride even in the countryside.
We were invited to her aunt Fusia's village called "Ain Kerma," a sleepy hamlet twenty minutes out of Meknes. This drive on a two-lane highway was more exhilarating than watching a seventy-millimeter movie in theater, with a countryside that is similar to that of Tuscany, Italy, with copses of hazy teal green shrubs and tall cyprus around the whitewashed hamlets with minarets piercing the blue. The land itself is all rolling hills that feature various browns from ochre to light beige. This and the rows of olive, citrus, fig orchards hemming in the wheat and the maize fields in contrast and combination of the most pleasing colors that can transport us to the ethereal Elysian fields. The leaves of olive, fig, eucalyptus, and citrus are thick and have an aromatic and satiny texture. The small branches and with the leaves create dense foliage whose shade is almost magical; the temperature difference from being in sun to the shade is almost twenty degrees. On the highway I spied many a rural café with arched gates adorned with antique, weather-beaten and alluring Coke and Fanta signs, beckoning us with familiarity and prestige for the locals.
The meandering road to this village drew us into another time zone and a place far away from the cement and asphalt jungles. We did not announce that we were coming and just appeared at their doorstep; their welcome was warmer than the best I had have ever experienced -- it is the antithesis to what we face in the West at a sudden unannounced arrival. We were coddled, fed, and rescued from our city slickness. The farm occupied a hilltop with a thatched fence, chicken coops in the back, a mint patch by the door, eucalyptus trees shaded the dusty yard, and surrounded by all this organic beauty was an old, functioning John Deere tractor with a white hen on top of it was surreal indeed. It was a perfect ad for the American classic. Later, my boys and I were chaperoned all over their rolling farm, as we spotted a dead snake, picked cactus buds, drank water alongside of sheep, and ate wild figs off a tree we all climbed, all in all not a bad day. We were offered Coke after our dusty wanderings and at that point I was on to something.
And that something was this: the best ambassadors of goodwill representing the real interest of our capitalistic society in the West are its pervasive and ubiquitous multinational brands in Morocco. Brands from Coca-Cola to Motorola and from Nike to Xerox, offer up a colorful montage of the American and European marketing muscle on the shelves of the local stores and businesses. A visit to the local mall will open our eyes to the most coveted goods here; this is something very unexpected and surprising, in the most unlikely of places. They hate Washington, but love our main street and the culture sold through our products. In fact they cannot survive without our brands, Tide, Colgate, Crest, Tropicana, Lays, Scott, Kleenex, Hagen Daaz, and a plethora of them that cannot be accounted for here. Every time I went to the store I was amazed at the availability of these brands and the billboard I faced. The American image is prized above all else, as displayed in shops and on the T-shirts: Yankees, Bulls, Bears, Nike, Levi's, and others that sell America in ways that our politicians cannot. This craving of the West is in full fervor at their Medinas.
The twisting bazaars of the old towns are known as Medinas; there is a Medina in every city in Morocco. These places are ancient indeed with brick and tile paved lanes, peeling and patched walls, antique brand signs, open water runoffs, partially-open windows with folks gazing at the shoppers jostling and bantering before the vendors and store fronts. The visuals, the sounds, and the materials present make a fascinating tapestry of existence and culture. The place is where people shop, eat, talk, and walk away. I must admit, it is a place to gaze at the Moroccan feminine beauty afoot. A place for stealing glances and purses, rubbing shoulders, meeting and separating, pickup and dropoffs. More than anything else it is the bastion of plagiarism and infringements; that is, of Western ideas and materials. You can buy a pirated copy of a Levi's for 100DH or $11 bucks, or get more brazen and get a Prada or DG handbag for 200DH or $24 bucks. From Addidas through Marlboro and from Nike to Zippo, everything is available if you have the fortitude to haggle with relentless selling-machine who sells you the originality.
Interestingly, here the selling is more original than the item itself, the pirated version becomes the original, and the original becomes unoriginal; we are the infringers, the original creators for throwing roadblocks on those who sell survival. We in the West live the unoriginal lives of borrowed living; our spirits have been mortgaged to finance our materialism. The Medina life is lived in the original way of cash transactions, free and clear. Manned selling takes on the fakeness of the fake and sold as the original. While we build originality into our products, they build unburdened lives around fake products. While we burden ourselves with debt to buy the original, they are free and clear with their fakes. It is a baffling conundrum and a mystifying equation. "You can buy whatever you want, as long as you can pay cash for it" should be the credo of a healthy capitalist society. But the $700 billion government bailout package of the financial markets on the table is evidence of our massive failure as a society based on "buy now, pay later" philosophy. If that is the case, then all the originals of the West have become fakes. In a convoluted sense, the piracy promotes and intensifies the craving of the West and acts as free advertising for the original. People become familiar with the brands and aspire to graduate to the originals when their station in life improves.
Despite the vehemence, vitriol, and derision dispensed by the Arab media towards the West, and regardless of their propaganda, they are not able to shake off the lure and the attraction for our main street and our brands. I guess the reverse phenomenon is that we also are addicted to the oil from the countries that we dread most. This brings me to another point, regardless of our and their politics and policies; the personal economic freedom of choice overrides all other considerations. They try to kill us with the money begotten from oil sold and we try to conquer them with money generated from our brands over there. It is the educated set versus the ignorant religious set, the women and younger folks, despite the Arab demagoguery and bashing of the West, who lean towards the West. They yearn for freedoms that we take for granted. One such aspirant was Badr Eddine Bibi, a young man from the apartment neighborhood who sought my help through my wife, to fill some travel forms in English for a trip to the U.S.
We had set up time to meet at the Mobil café, and there I waited for him. I did not know what he looked like and certainly had no idea what I was going to see. He came on time and joined me sitting in the corner facing the entrance. He could have been from anywhere in the U.S. It suddenly dawned on me, looking at him was a cognitive dissonance, a young Muslim man as a walking billboard for the American brands. A quick double-take of him revealed more than he could say in all his English; he walked in wearing a pair of Levi's jeans and T-shirt, Nike shoes with a Yankees baseball cap and kept time on a Timex. In his broken English he thanked me for being there with a genuine smile, sat down, and lit up his Marlboro with a Bic lighter. Then his head moved to the TV as he caught a scene of New York on Al-Jazeera. Following his gaze I asked him what he thought about America. I regretted this question immediately as soon as it escaped my lips, however I braced myself for his answer. A few days back I had asked the same question to my brother-in-law. His answer was, "Americans are shit people, they kill Muslim men," to which I should have retorted and laid down the fact that it is the Muslim men who kill most Muslim men. I guess I had a little more restraint than him or it would have been ugly. The mother and my wife rationalized his statement by saying that he is direct, very predictable.
Badr Eddine Bibi had no answer like that, but Arab media's influence was evident. He spoke of his professions as a barber, social worker, and currently as an electrician with the Ibis Hotel in Meknes, part of the Accor Hotel group, which again is American-owned. (He not only wore American stuff, but worked for an American company.) Out of all these avocations, he confessed to liking the barber profession most; as later, he would prove his skills beyond any doubt with our heads. He also got on his soapbox about Islam, and I had countered him by addressing all of the other religions of the world. He only paid credence to the Abrahamic faiths. To which I offered the irrefutable coincidence of the founders of all the faiths being shepherds starting with Krishna for the Hindus, Moses for Judaism, Jesus for Christianity, and Mohammed for Islam; after hearing this he was indeed befuddled, smiles broke out, and then we both clasped our hands to celebrate the similarities and forget the differences.
The most interesting paradox was that here is a man who harbors prejudices against the West and sure hatred for Israel, but no hesitation if given the opportunity to move to the U.S. Fortunately the Arab media has had no influence on him as far as his spending habits were concerned, once again reinforcing the interesting dichotomy of "hate your politics, but love your product." This paradox exists in both the regions of tensions. While American brands sell personal passions of life, the ruling elite and their religious fanatics engender fierce passions for death in the Muslim world; this duality of our existence needs reckoning, reflection and rectification.
The desire for our culture is stronger in the metro areas, while the ignorance and resistance to other religions and other cultures, especially in the rural areas, are pervasive. The dearth of exposure to multiple cultures and religions seems to breed intolerance. The presumptive statement of many people there is "there is no other god but Allah," an utterly intolerant and dismissive statement to say the least. This coming from a university student is far more baffling than from a rural person. However these kinds of sentiments and fervor will persist in that region as long as democracy's ascension is thwarted by the ruling elite in the name of their god. I really don't care as long as their fanaticism is kept off our shores and they keep buying our products and keep paying for them in cash.
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