Where to now? by George Bajalia

Well, it’s a been a fall full of Fulbright fun, but not very many blog posts. In case you’re wondering what’s been going on, I have some links to point you in the right direction, plus a few recaps.

The biggest news is a new production I directed this fall. With fellow Northwestern Alum Tom Casserly, I received some funding from the American Language Center, Tangier, the American Cultural Association, and the U.S. Embassy, Morocco to adapt and direct a musical theatre piece in Tangier this past fall. The piece was an adaptation of the classic love story of Romeo and Juliet, and West Side Story to take place in Tangier. Two rival gangs, of Tangier, torn apart by regional differences and brought together by forbidden love (and musical theatre). We opened to packed houses in Tangier, played 4 shows with standing room only, then took it on the road to Fez, and the Fulbright 30th Anniversary Gala in Rabat. Right now we’re in the process of planning a few more dates, but you find all the information about the show, plus some podcasts, video, and press on our site: www.f7alif7alek.com

Personally, I returned back to the US for the holidays, and I’ll be heading up to Chicago, New York, and then back to Morocco for some research wrap-up, plus performances of our show, F7ali F7alek (the 7 is pronounced like an emphatic H- head over to www.f7alif7alek.com/2012/09/17/how-to-pronounce-a-7-and-casting-updates to read more…)

And finally, a bit of news about how I’ll be using this blog in the future. I’ve finally launched my website for my theatre work (www.georgebajalia.com), which means that I’ll be using this for academic musings, personal project posts, and the like. For major theatrical updates, and for photos, and information about my directing work, head on over to my site!

Stay tuned here, though for research updates as this round of my time in Morocco comes to a close. It’s a new year, and Northwestern’s football team won a bowl game, so I think I can manage to be better about blog updates!

I have no idea if this is an appropriate forum for this... by George Bajalia

However, it’s what I’m thinking about, and so I’m going to post it! It’s actually an excerpt of a letter I wrote recently to a former professor, but I’d like to consider it an open letter to the community who cares. That is, an open letter with the most stringent Creative Commons copyright attached to it- no ripping off these groundbreaking ideas, please. 

My project here is founded in studying contemporary theatre artists in Morocco in order to query how they are representing Moroccan culture, that is, how they are “performing” Morocco, in relation to the ways in which Morocco has been represented in the Western gaze. My hypothesis is that globalization is hardly a new phenomenon in this part of the Mediterranean, and especially in Tangier, and that by studying the ways in which centuries of global circulation has informed identity formation and social hierarchies, we may begin to suppose how globalization will impact future identity/social/national? developments in the rest of the globalizing world. At least, that was the initial project. . 

As of late, I’ve started to return to socio-historical studies of the Mediterranean at large in hopes of reacquainting myself with how previous eras of intense circulation have played out in this region. I returned to Braudel, and followed his trail to the contemporary studies that Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell have put together (The Corrupting Sea, and its sequel). In this, I’ve realized that I may have a different goal all together. If, as I believe, one of the best starting points for talking about globalization today may be Braudel’s longue durée, then perhaps we can begin thinking of the globalization of the late 20th century and our current times as a hyper speed version of the long term. That is, we can parallel the long-term social history of the Mediterranean with contemporary socio-political events. However, what seems to be lacking (at least to me), is a vocabulary for talking about the now. Which brings me back to Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea, and my current question. In the first two chapters of The Corrupting Sea, they outline how their framework, heavily based on Braudel’s own, for talking about the Mediterranean. The two most important terms, in their essay, are “geography” and “ecology.” They generally apply the terms in a more traditional sense; that is, they seek to investigate the geographic situation and subsequent developments of trade and mobility the Mediterranean, as well its ecosystems and the biodiversity (human included) that emerged within them. My question and, in turn perhaps my quest, is this: can we apply these same terms to globalization in order to construct a framework for talking about the cultural and social repercussions of high-speed connectivity and circulation?

That is to say, can we refer to transnational institutions (NATO, The UN, The Arab League, perhaps even Wikileaks), corporations, and capital markets (cultural, linguistic, and fiscal capital) as the geographic landscape of the globalized world, Web-based connectivity of Mare Nostrum? Accordingly, are the social groups/hiercharies we see emerging–the global managerial class, the “unemployed youth” of the so-called Arab Spring, the Islamists and Selafi movements, the anti-multiculturalist parties of Europe, the Occupy movement, and the urban slums that surround them all–the ecology of the Brave New World?

So, any thoughts? Like I said, I doubt this is the right forum for these sorts of things, but I felt the need to put it out there. Who knows, maybe Tumblr is the need breeding ground for open-source academia. 

Morocco's New Soundscape by George Bajalia

Morocco seems to be caught between two “revolutions.” There is the Arab Spring movement, characterized in some opinions by anti-monarchists and pro-democracy activism, and there is the Islamist movement, led by the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), the new majority holders in Parliament. At times, it’s difficult to tell exactly how these movements are progressing but, today, a good friend of mine prompted me to start thinking about things a bit differently. 

Much discussion has taken place regarding Tangier’s cityscape, urban development, and the destruction of its natural beauty. Foreign developers, in conjunction with the government, are redoing Tangier city’s harbor to create a tourist companion to the sprawling TangerMed industrial port a few kilometers down the bay. Naysayers argue that there will be no place for the fishing industry, one of the few remaining sea-going enterprises based out of Tangier proper, and the harbor will be given over to foreign yachter and tourist ferry boats. Advocates say that it has the potential to revitalize Tangier’s tourism industry, and the proposed ski lift from the port to the Kasbah will not be “Disney-fying” but electrifying. 

However, no matter which “revolution” takes hold of the people, it seems likely that these developments will continue regardless. As an alternative way of thinking about these movements, I propose not looking, but listening. The call to prayer is an immovable part of Morocco’s soundscape, and it seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. It adds an element of temporality to idle musings at the cafe, and it provides relief in the workday. During Ramadan, it unites millions across the country in a moment of pause, and brings them together for the first meal of the day. As of late, though, this peaceful reminder of something greater has lost dominance of the religious soundscape. Religiosity, packaged into CD form, spreads across the city through speakers taped to a push cart, and powered by a car battery. 

As my friend tells it, and in my own memory, these carts cropped up in abundance earlier in 2012, around the time the PJD took power in Parliament. Perhaps it’s a stretch to say that the two are related but then again, perhaps it’s not. Either way, its effect is undeniable. Religion, and its sonic invocations, are being commercialized and packaged in jingle form the same as anything else. In consequence, these invocations are increasingly “religisizing” the public sphere in a way that seems at odds with the sacristy of the call to prayer. Religion, as it adapts to the global commercial age, may prove to be the most powerful force in the much talked about “Arab Spring.” Either way, it’s certainly catchy.

Hear for yourself here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swoGhKQUfp8

Excuse me, that's private. by George Bajalia

Privacy has many meanings here in Morocco. In the early weeks of my grant, while I was studying Darija, one of the first phrases we learned was essentially “excuse me, that’s private [information].” The exact phrase has long since departed my memory, but other ways to say the same thing have since come up. It’s not a phrase that I often say, and when I do, it doesn’t seem to quite register with my conversant. This past week, I moved into a new house. Asked by a spice seller in the central market what I was paying for my new house, I replied, “Hey man, that’s private, right?” In response, he started listing off prices I could be paying, in French and English, thinking I perhaps hadn’t understood his question. I told him what I was paying.

Living in the Fez medina, private had another meaning. For tourists, or foreigners in general, it often meant something closer to “closed.” Wandering the streets of the medina, I offered heard young men calling out “excuse me, excuse me, fermé, fermé”. This street is closed, this street is closed. Most times, the street was not closed. The schoolchildren following the young men repeating “fermé, fermé” eventually trailed off after it was clear I knew where I was going. In some cases, this was simply an attempt to solicit money from tourists who think that they are heading down a closed street. Other times, it’s meant to inform the pedestrians that this is a residential street, not one of the tourist-ridden throughways. 

In the home, privacy has another meaning. One of the defining features in Moroccan medina architecture, in my opinion, is the construction of the home for ultimate privacy. Windows are aimed outwards, at the street, but inwards, towards the other members of the family. Room doors are a newer insertion into the home, and often the most trafficked rooms of the house are covered simply by a curtain or by nothing at all. From the outside, Medina homes don’t seem like much. Small, slit-like windows pepper the walls, and heavy doors block the interior from view, even when opened. On the inside, however, rooms are located off a central courtyard, traditionally, and roofs are open to the air (though these days they are often covered by tarps and glass). Privacy in the home is a completely different affair.

These days, though, private has taken on a separate, more specifically economic, connotation. As Laila Lalami recently wrote for Newsweek (http://goo.gl/DOu02), Morocco is becoming an increasingly privatized country, from the power company to the garbage collection agency, “a French corporation that evidently didn’t have enough bins or enough employees to keep the streets clean.” In Morocco, the more power you use, the higher rate you pay. That is, it’s a sliding charge scale, all depending on your level of power usage. In its origin, this regulation was perhaps meant to encourage less power usage, and to solicit more money from more well off electricity users, who wouldn’t feel the need to change their habits. It’s a problematic regulation, though. Electricity is not a luxury good. It’s an essential part of daily life.

And the people are feeling the pressure of rising bills. Near the Mediterranean city of Al Hoceima, a man was recently arrested for raising the Israeli flag above his home. His crime was not related to his religious views, though. By all reports, he is a mosque-going Muslim. The flag was an act of protest. The power company had cut off his power due to lingering debt on unpaid bills, and he was likening Morocco’s utility policies to that of Israel towards to the Palestinians. Implicit in his protest, and explicit in the news coverage of it, was the statement that the power company was discriminating against members of the Amazight minority, a majority in the Rif area around Al Hoceima. 

Some weeks ago, Moroccan news agencies started reporting that the national telecom, Maroc Telecom, was limiting bandwidth for VoIP programs, such as Skype or Google Voice. Something funny was clearly going on, and still is. When I arrived in Rabat this past September, none of the Fulbrighters could seem to use Skype, at all. Once I moved to Fez, I was able to use Skype but it was extremely limited. In part, this was due to the nature of the medina. Thick walls and no space for telephone poles or cabling don’t make it easy to have a high-speed connection. Here in Tangier, my service improved but there are still lingering issues. According to the press, Maroc Telecom, owned by the French company Vivendi, has been reducing bandwidth for users of VoIP programs like Skype in order to encourage use of their own softwares (http://goo.gl/i24JX). My own bandwidth seems to have stabilized, but this is a story that has clearly yet to finish.  

In fact, none of these stories have an ending yet. Protests are ongoing in Al Hoceima, and spreading to other cities. Discontent with utility prices is widespread, and just might be what the February 20th movement needs to jumpstart their support. The intricacies of privacy in Morocco make its future hard to forecast, as if it were an easy task with any country. When does an issue stop becoming a private, personal issue and move into the public sphere? Privacy is centered around the home, yes, but as homes are becoming increasingly privatized themselves, perhaps the distinction between the public and private sphere is blurring into an osmotic zone. In this zone, whoever yells the loudest just might win. 

Ramallah! (plus the Regional Fulbright Conference in Amman) by George Bajalia

Well it’s been a while, but I have legitimate excuse this time. This past week, the Jordan American Commission for Educational Exchange hosted the regional enrichment seminar for Fulbright grantees in the Middle East and North Africa. Following the conference, I took a few days to travel to Jerusalem, and my grandparent’s old home town of Ramallah, Palestine. 

The conference itself was full of presentations by grantees about their experiences in various countries and, while the 10 hour days got a bit tiresome by the end, it was indeed quite enriching to hear about contemporary issues in the MENA region. The region itself always occupies quite a bit of time in the News media, but what we heard here was different. We heard about the political situation in Bahrain, and the unnerving proximity of civil war. We heard about the fault lines present underneath Amman, and the potential devastation should an earthquake occur (a looming possibility, but one rarely talked about). We heard about graphic artists in Cairo, and one grantees search to develop a typeface wherein the Roman letters reflect Arabic Calligraphy, instead of Arabic fonts always seeking to look like Roman fonts.

Throughout the conference, each country became a much more real place to me, a place beyond the news articles that I peruse regularly. Except for the Emirates. The Emirates now seem even more like something out of a science fiction novel, but that’s another post entirely. Altogether, it was a great opportunity to meet colleagues from around the region, and to compare just what about these countries comprises a region we call “The Middle East and North Africa.”

And then I crossed the border. Crossing into Israel via Jordan was a surprisingly simple process. I, along with another Morocco grantee, took a bus to the King Hussein Bridge and crossed out of Jordan and into a no-man’s land. Jordan doesn’t officially recognize this crossing as a border, so that stamped a piece of paper and sent us across the bridge (a 4 foot crossing over the River Jordan) and into the Israeli station. After waiting in line, we eventually made it to the passport control. After a couple looks, it was clear that my friend would be crossing right away, but I would have to wait. I handed my passport over, and didn’t see it again for 2 hours. In the scheme of things, it could have been much worse. A young woman questioned me about my family and our heritage (they knew all the answers already), and about just why I was living in Morocco. Thankfully, I had brought along my Fulbright award letter and that seemed to be enough to explain it. Even so, I was sent to a waiting room. Along with about 20 other Palestinians, we awaited our clearance to cross. Most of the men were crossing for work reasons, and got their permission relatively quickly. I sat and watched the hordes of tourist buses cross while I waited in a room that was initially created for Palestinians to cross separately from tourists. Nearby, I could see a smaller “VIP” room with full of European and American travelers, and stocked with bottles of water and fresh fruit. 

Eventually, it was just me left in the room. About halfway through the waiting period, I discovered there was an unsecured WiFi connection nearby, so I sat around checking my email for a bit. Eventually, another young woman wandered into the VIP room looking around for me. When she didn’t see anyone, I waved to her from where I was told to sit. Slightly surprised that I was in that waiting room, she hurried over and handed me my passport. “How do I get out of this area?” I asked. “How should I know…” she responded and went on her way. I eventually figured it out and found my friend waiting for me on the other side. We had both expected that it would take much longer, and he was debating how to get in touch with me should night fall and the station close while I was still being held. Slightly frustrated, but thankful for the comparatively short waiting time and the free Wifi, we got in a shared taxi to Jerusalem. 

And then it started to rain. And it didn’t stop. Well, at least until it turned into snow. So our time in Jerusalem, as beautiful as it was, was full of finding indoor sites, and figuring out cafes to stop in as we walked the Stations of the Cross. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was incredible in its own right, and seemed even more amazing as the Orthodox Priests struck the bells and spread incense through the Christ’s tomb and the surrounding chambers. The most unbelievable thing though? Pretty much everyone we met assumed my friend and I were Moroccan. I guess Darija has pretty much irrevocably permeated throughout our Arabic. Honestly, I really tried not to use it, but I guess it’s time to just give up…

After a night in Jerusalem, we hopped on a bus and headed to Ramallah. As we passed through the borders of West Jerusalem, the difference was striking. The fertile farmlands of Israel gave way to borders and tin roofed huts. The joggers and cyclists became underfed livestock and pickup trucks full of goods. And as we arrived in Ramallah, the urban sprawl revealed just how much the city has become the one source of viable income in the West Bank. The city passed from village to town to city decades, if not centuries ago; now, however, it has emerged as the go-to place for anyone in the territories who can. From Stars & Bucks, a West Bank coffee chain based on the ubiquitous Seattle coffee chain, we looked out of the main square. Prominently located was a pavillion that said “Palestine’s Right” across the top. Below it saw a United Nations chair with the name “Palestine” written across it. Across town, the presidential palace is under construction, right next to Yassir Arafat’s mausoleum. 

From “Charlie Fried Chicken” to “Checker’s Fast Food” and “Stars & Bucks,” the city has a clear Western influence. The most interesting thing to me, however, was that many of these places seemed to be vital parts in the city’s cultural and social life, not to mention the numerous bars, restaurants, and cultural centers. For me, one of the most striking things was to walk into a cafe and see people who looked just like my uncles, aunts, and cousins. And most everyone seemed to have some family, extended as they be, in the US. Especially in Ramallah, where many of the old families had unique opportunities to emigrate. Now, as Palestinian Americans return, they are mixing with the city’s already vibrant culture to make it a world-class city. Free WiFi was everywhere, and Palestinian Investment companies seemed to be everywhere. It’s a city with the potential to make a difference, and the energy and will to do so. 

There’s much more to say, but to be quite honest, at this point it’s still too fresh. Stay tuned for more updates soon, with the story of the rest of my time in Ramallah and the long journey home. 

The February 20th Movement, or was it #Feb19... by George Bajalia

Today marks the one year anniversary of the protests in Morocco that spurred King Mohamed 6th’s decision to upend the constitution (sort of) and establish a democratically elected parliament (sort of). This time last year, the streets of Tangier were full of protests and, as I’ve come to learn, full of looters. The main street of town, known locally simply as Boulevard, faced massive looting and businesses were shut down for days. This year, the #Feb20 movement planned protests all across the country- some protesting the monarchy, some protesting the ever-pressing issue of youth unemployment, and some protesting the Islamist party that won the parliamentary elections this past fall. Though today is the anniversary, the movement made a decision to hold the protests yesterday, on the 19th. Why, you ask? Well, because people have work today, and the protesters wouldn’t want them to miss it. 

And therein lies the contradiction. Aren’t the majority of the protesters supposed to be un(der)employed and overeducated young people? If they have work on Monday, work so important that missing a few hours would ruin their career, then why exactly are they protesting in the first place? Furthermore, isn’t the point of a protest sacrifice? Sacrifices made in the name of the greater good, justice, and equality seem to be worth a few hours off work. From my brief perusal of the Boulevard, though, the problem is more than that. Even on a Sunday, few people showed up here in Tangier. In fact, the biggest protests here yesterday were related to the Islamist party, and even that was a trickling flow of people at best. No doubt there were larger protests elsewhere in the country, and maybe even in Tangier, but the most visible protests took play in absence. That is, by not showing up for the protests, the majority of Tangawi were–maybe inadvertently–sending a message: it’s not worth it. In many eyes, these protests are a farce. The “Arab Spring” is a media created sensation that froze over during Tangier’s unusually cold winter. 

Several evenings ago, I walked past the plaza where the protests were to be held. It was jam packed with people- the majority of them were just passing through and gazing out across the sea. The wall of the plaza, known as the “lazy wall,” is notorious for being a place for loitering and nothing-doing. As I passed through, a friend suggested we stop by a bar for a quick beer and tapas. The bar’s name is (in French) “The Heart of Tangier” and is situated on top of the notorious Cafe de Paris. As we sat relaxing over the Place de France, right in the center of downtown, I gazed out over the plaza. I had never seen the view from the height before, and I noticed the flag of France proudly flying over the consulate. At first glance, it appeared to be the highest point in the view. After another look through, I saw something bright yellow peaking out from behind the trees of the Consulate’s luscious grounds. 

There, just barely out-doing the French flag was a sign of the coming era. At one point, it was the epitome of American democratic capitalism. Here in Morocco, it’s a sign of Westernism, luxury, and modernity. In the distance, fluorescent and flickering, McDonald’s had made its mark on the Place de France. Move over 20th century colonialism- McArabia is here. 

Theatre Triangulation: Tangier, Tetouan, Fez by George Bajalia

My guest post is now up on the Tangier American Legation Blog, so check it out here 

Or scroll down for the full post below. Be sure to check out the TALIM blog too, as it’s regularly updated with great posts about the intersection of Tangier’s past and present.  

George Bajalia, Fulbright Scholar in Tangier, provides us this guest post on his adventures in theatre at the outset of his year-long research program in Morocco.  At TALIM, we believe in making the most of limited resources, and the semi-miraculous juxtaposition of Fulbright theatre scholar, American film festival in Tangier, and American Voices "Broadway in Morocco" workshop in nearby Tetouan was an opportunity to leverage cultural assets."

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Researching theatre in Morocco is often a contradictory affair. When I talk about my research with people, they often ask me why I came to Morocco to study theatre. Wouldn’t I have been better off somewhere in Europe, or perhaps in Egypt, they ask. Other times, I meet people involved in local improv groups, write plays for small troupes, or grew up reading classics of theatre translated into Arabic or French.

My first time in Tangier, I was waiting at Café de Paris waiting on a potential research contact to show up. I must have looked anxious because the man seated next to me asked if everything was all right. We struck up a conversation, and before I knew it the time for my meeting had come and gone. When I started lamenting that to my new friend, he stopped me and said, “a coincidence is worth a thousand appointments,” he said. How true.

Several weeks ago, I was at TALIM and ran into Jerry. As I explained what I was working on, his excitement grew. As it turned out, my move to Tangier from Fez came at the perfect time. Mrs. Karla Rais el Fenni, a longtime Tangier American, had recently received a grant from the US Embassy to organize an English language film festival and theatre performance. However, she still needed someone to help with the direction of the play. As a theatre director, that seemed to be something with which I could definitely help.

TALIM Theatre workshop ball

Jerry had also heard about another Embassy program run through the international cultural organization American Voices, who were running a series of workshops throughout Morocco on acting and theatre marketing.  I turned out to be in a perfect position to connect the two events. The workshop was heading to Tetouan for a three-day program in the North. So, I squeezed into a grand taxi to Tetouan, walked into a building full of artists young and old, and introduced myself to the American crew.  They appeared a bit surprised to meet a countryman who works in the same field! For the most part, I just sat in the back and watched.

At one point, I watched as a group of budding dancers moved in unison on the upbeat of a song, in the exact opposite rhythm of most dancers in the US. To an outsider, that might not seem remarkable, but Michael Parks Masterson (a director who works with American Voices) and I were intrigued. Most dancers have trouble finding the upbeat, but instinctively move on the downbeat. In all of his workshops, all over the world, Michael had never seen dancers immediately find the upbeat, but struggle to find the downbeat. After some reflection, he deduced that something in Moroccan music must focus on the upbeat. Several days later, at a Gnawa music session in a friend’s home, I realized he was exactly right. Traditional Moroccan dance emphasizes movement on the upbeat, not the downbeat.

In the marketing workshop, Joanie Pelzer, a New York actor and producer, related a story from her time in Rabat. A theatre had produced a play about women’s issues in Morocco, focusing on rape. The word “rape” was in the title, and featured prominently on the theatre’s signage. When she arrived, they told her how the theatre had trouble filling the house with their target audience - women. They changed the advertising, removed the word “rape,” and noticed an increase of women in the audience. Apparently many women hadn’t wanted to be seen entering a theatre that seemed to be featuring rape so prominently. They were interested in the play’s subject, but the advertising had actually prevented them from coming.

The team was working under a tight schedule and wasn’t able to take up our invitation to come to Tangier, but we agreed to meet up a few days later in Fez, where I had some business to take care of. I was able to introduce them to a good friend of mine who is working to start a non-profit organization,Zanqa Arts (literally, “Street Art”), dedicated to organizing workshops and performances for youth in the Old Fez Medina. Coincidentally, Zanqa Arts was hosting a dinner party that weekend for their own artists, and several of the people from the Embassy and American Voices, including artists from the theatre workshop that morning, were thus able to connect with this very active group of street artists from Fez.

I came away from the experience with a network of contacts that I know will prove crucial in my research here, as well as quite a few new friends. Finding performance, and performers, in Morocco seems daunting at times and these workshops proved invaluable. In time, hopefully TALIM and foreigners such as myself will be able to participate in and contribute to a vibrant performance community that isn’t always the easiest to find. I’ll be sharing the lessons I learned from the workshops, and the presenters, with the young actors I’m working with this spring through Karla’s festival and we’ll certainly be inviting the artists I met in Tetouan. The key to my research here, I’m learning, is embracing coincidence and being ready to work at any time. I had walked into the TALIM library expecting to spend the day buried in books, and walked out energized by a new possibility, but incredulous that so much was happening – the trick is just learning about it.

As I had learned at Café de Paris, a coincidence may indeed be worth a thousand appointments, but the key to making these opportunities count is following up on them and pulling together ideas, resources, and people to create new possibilities out of them. In this case, Jerry connected groups of people who didn’t know about each other and events that were unrelated but extremely relevant to one another. The impact of the American Voices program will last beyond the workshops themselves, and the festival will be better because of the workshops. A community of people, active amongst themselves, now has the possibility to connect with other likeminded artists. In an age of social networking sites, connecting online is easier than ever. However, serendipitous occasions such as this prove that we still need to reach beyond the easy access of email and Facebook. Sometimes all it takes is a chance meeting and a cramped taxi ride to make the connection.

Coming Soon... (with a linguistic interlude) by George Bajalia

Earlier this week I was asked to write a guest post for the Tangier American Legation blog about my time with the theatre workshops in Tetouan and Fez. Now that I’ve finished it up, I’ll be posting it here as soon as it’s live at www.talimblog.org

In the mean time, here’s a brief post about linguistic variance and “code switching” here in Tangier, with special emphasis on centers of ex-pat life (bars and import stores):

On a daily basis, the most important thing I can do with my time here is focus on my language ability. Oftentimes, that means making sure that my interactions are predominantly in Darija (or, sometimes, Spanish) rather than the usual mix of Darija and French that figures prominently in most conversations between foreigners and Moroccans. Sometimes, this means quoting and negotiating prices in Arabic, as opposed to French. My usual response to a price of “quarante cinq" is a quick "Excuse me sir, but I actually speak Arabic much better than French."

Earlier this week, a fellow Fulbrighter came up from Fez with some college friends. To welcome my friend to the big city, I took him by some of Tangier’s import stores. One in particular has become my go to spot for tortillas and other random, reasonably priced, imported goods. By now, I’ve established a bit of a rapport with the owner and we joke good-naturally about my odd taste. 

When I arrived with my friend, we were chatting away in English and we naturally continued as we perused the store. When it came time to check out, the owner casually quoted us the price in English and asked us how we were doing. A bit surprised, we responded in English and then continued the conversation in Arabic. Later that evening, when we popped by one of my favorite bars in the Ville Nouvelle, the barkeep greeting me with a rousing “Nice to see you again- I see you’re back from Fez!” His demeanor is generally a friendly one, but this was a bit different. And so went the rest of the evening. In English.

It took me until quite recently to really accept that sometimes it’s OK to converse in English. Yes, it’s important to conduct my life in Darija as much as possible, but often times people want to practice their English just as much as I want to practice my Arabic. And, as limited as these relationships are, they aren’t one time experiences, so having a conversation in English every now and then is good for all parties involved. It’s not, as I felt at times previously, simply a way of stereotyping foreigners as French speaking tourists. Instead, there is a genuine element of wanting people to feel comfortable, and practicing an useful language at the same time. In fact, it’s very similar to my own inclination to speak in Darija as much as possible.

So, for now, I’m fine with speaking in English when Darija might be more practically beneficial, in terms of my time here. More than that, speaking in a language wanted and accepted by both parties is a more human way of conducting business, and even building cordial relationships. Just don’t quote the price of my tomatoes in French. 

Tan Lejos y Tan Cerca by George Bajalia

Listening to a song, the Spanish phrase “tan lejos y tan cerca” kept reoccurring in the chorus. As a rough equivalent to the colloquial phrase “so close, yet so far” the song referred to an unfulfilled dream. Jokingly, I asked, “how can something be tan lejos y tan cerca at the same time?” My friend pointed out the window and immediately answered: Spain is tan lejos y tan cerca.

It’s true. For most people here, Spain is the closest place, yet one of the most unreachable. A privilege of the American passport is the ability to walk to the port, purchase a ticket and half an hour later arrive into a part guarded by the welcoming, sword yielding arms of a statue of Christ. This ability presents an uncomfortable reality in my life here. Where do I get this right of ease? Many of my Moroccan friends speak much better Spanish than I do, without a doubt. They eat Spanish food more often, and cook it much better. There is really no comparison. 

Earlier this week I spent a day in Tetouan, a neighboring city, in order to observe a workshop held by American Voices and funded by the U.S. Embassy’s cultural affairs department. I’ve passed through Tetouan before–it’s less than an hour from Tangier and could easily be considered part of the same metropolitan are–but this was the first time I spent any real time there. Even entering the city borders, the Andalusian influences are astounding. I met up with a fellow Fulbrighter who lives there at a central plaza in the city. As I checked the time, it was 7:00 sharp, I caught myself realizing that something was very odd, though I couldn’t place what. Eventually I realized it: I was standing outside the courtyard of a church and the bell was striking 7 above me. The soundscape of the city, in my experience kept lively by the call to prayer, mingled naturally with the tolls of the Spanish bells.

The workshop itself was fascinating, and incredibly for more than one reason. In my time here, I’ve yet to see such a gathering of artists, young and old, all interesting in theatre and the performing arts. As I keep in touch with contacts I made there and attend performances held by various amateur troupes and associations represented there, I’ll have much to say in future posts here. However, this post is about something a little bit different. It’s about borders, both natural and imposed. Whether we realize it or not, borders determine a huge part of our daily lives. In Morocco, I’ve found this even more pronounced. From sitting in a police station in Oujda, on the Algerian border, while the police verified my identity so that I could stay in a hotel to the ever sensitive subject of what to call to vast portion of desert in the southwest of the region (Algeria? Western Sahara? Spanish Sahara? Moroccan Sahara?), borders are ever-present. Here in Tangier, it’s impossible to pass a day with gazing out across the Straits of Gibraltar. Last night, my taxi driver was tuned into Radio Gibraltar in the cab to catch the final minutes of the Madrid/Barcelona soccer game. On a clear day, I can distinguish the colors of the mountains of Algeciras and Tarifa.

Next month I’ll be traveling to Jordan for a Fulbright conference. When I arrive there, I’ve been instructed to purchase a $25 visa at the airport. And I can. To go to Spain, I can buy a $40 round trip ticket from Tangier to Madrid, on a whim, or I can simply hop on a ferry day of. At night, though, as I stare out across the sea my thoughts of its beauty are tainted by the barely visible shadows moving across the Straits. The images themselves don’t taint the beauty. This border is a natural one and, physically, is very easily crossed. The barely visible shapes, ships without lights, paddled by hand or with motors muffled represent the informal, underground, economy forced into existence by human borders. Smuggled goods, yes, but just as often a more precious, human, cargo. As someone just passing through, after all, no matter how long I stay, that’s all I am, it’s beautiful, and perhaps important, to look out across the border and see the lights of Algeciras, but it’s even more important to think about what I cannot see.  

Basic to the basics. Again. With more specifics this time. by George Bajalia

Inevitably, the question always comes up. “Why are you studying theatre in here?” Here being Tangier, being Morocco, being North Africa- really anything. It’s always asked in earnest, accompanied by another locale that might be better suited for young theatre folk. For a bit, it had me questioning myself and my choice. As I (thought I) learned during my time here last year, the best way to miss out on the essence of a culture is to impose your own research agenda upon it. 

So I started asking a follow-up question–”Why shouldn’t I be? What’s wrong with theatre here?”- and the answers started to get interesting. They ranged from responses about the lack of discipline, and the “amateur” nature, of much of the theatre in Morocco to very practical answers about funding, and everything in between. So, in response to these questions, I started thinking, what is the place of (the) play in Moroccan culture, and how does theatre factor into social order here?

Breaking theatre down to its essentials-performance, audience, often with a text but most importantly with an intention-the amount of theatre here really anywhere in the world is simply astounding. Fights on the street cause tourists to stop and stare, but more often than not it’s more of a performance, albeit an argumentative one, than a physical confrontation. Community values of honor and shame are commonplace and much more integral to public life, in general. For various reasons, however, these forms of performance are less directly interesting to me. Perhaps because they have been thoroughly written on and perhaps because it easily descends into the kind of Mediterraneanism I touched on in my previous post. That said, they are no less valid because of it. In fact, they still play into my research here quite specifically. 

In these forms of performance, people make daily decisions regarding their self-representation to their community, neighbors, co-workers, clients, etc… In a culture such as this, where the display of self is rooted in deep notions of public and private, these values are bound to transfer to the stage. What is truly comedic and truly dramatic in any given context is often what is most familiar, taken and represented in performance. My interest lies in how they are represented on stage; in any given performance, the actors, directors, and playwrights must make choices about how they will represent these well known and deeply held notions. As they do so, however, they must contend with the changing winds of globalization. These forces change rapidly, yes, but they also innately bring a form of change with them. Actors, in life and on stage, must reference signals in the shared cultural canon in order to connect with the audience around them and changes in this canon mean changes in the manifest representations. 

Do these winds actually change the values themselves, though, or simply their depictions? That is the crucial question of my research, right now. Framed as such, there is surely too much research than I could possibly do in my limited time here. Try as I might, the cultural canon is always changing and performance is changing just as quick. What I can try to do, though, and what I aim to do with my time is to build an understanding of how these changes occur and analyze the patterns within them.

So, yes. I am studying theatre. In Tangier. In Morocco. In general. But it’s must more nuanced than that. As much as I would love to see a play every night, there are performances around every corner, as well as performers. And there are surprises. Like a US embassy sponsored event, “Broadway in Morocco” that is taking place this week, where actors from New York are holding acting training sessions for Moroccans all over the country. Or, for example, in the import store. Yesterday afternoon, as I stopped in to grab something, the cashier asked me what on earth I was doing in Morocco. And why I spoke Moroccan Arabic. Inevitably, the question turned to the familiar. “You’re studying theatre? Here? In Tangier?” This time, though, he wasn’t done yet. “That’s amazing…” he continued, “I’m in an improv troupe at my university here! We’re small and just getting started, but we perform all the time!”. And you know makes this story even better? He had tortillas. 

On Stereotypes and Mediterraneanism... by George Bajalia

Much of the impetus for my research in Morocco began with a series of inquiries into the notion of the “Mediterranean character.” During my time at Northwestern, I devoted much of my time into a course of study I titled “Mediterranean Culture and History.” My goal was to discern exactly what it meant to be “Mediterranean,” where the borders of the sea’s influence started and ended, and how people in the historical Mediterranean region negotiated their identities today. 

For the past few months, while studying Darija in Fez, these goals slipped away a bit. They remained relevant in my thinking, but weren’t immediately present in my everyday encounters. Now I’ve arrived in Tangier to begin research in earnest and it’s all come rushing back. As I sit writing this, I look up out of my window and see lush foliage extending into the clear blue sky, with palm trees poking up at a distance. Yet, even as I contemplate the landscape I find myself wondering how much of my thinking is influenced by the stereotype of the Mediterranean, and if I’m succumbing to a Mediterraneanist perspective. I use this term, in reference to Edward Said’s seminal writings on “Orientalism,” to describe the tendency to lump my experiences and conversations into the label of “Mediterranean” without critical inquiry into their actual composition. That is to say, am I simply stereotyping Morocco and its peoples as simultaneously relaxed and hot tempered, sea-oriented, and prone to viewing daily life through an honor/shame perspective? 

Recently I been reading a collection of essays entitled Rethinking the Mediterranean, edited by W.V. Harris, and I think I’ve stumbled upon a solution to this question. Sort of… Dr. Michael Herzeld, of the Harvard Anthropology department, poses a similar question, but from a different perspective. In his writings, he posits that it is critical to recognize that this sort of Mediterraneanism is not simply an outsider view of the “other.” Rather, it is a type of stereotype used by peoples themselves in their daily identity negotiation. The interesting thing lies in how people in the Mediterranean region use these stereotypes in describing themselves, and why. These stereotypes play an integral part of identity construction, just as much as clothing, language, or any other form of capital. It is ok to think in terms of stereotypes, as long as we recognize it and are willing to critique them. They offer a handle on the everyday, something seemingly solid to build upon.

**EDIT** Somehow about half of this post was deleted, so I’ll do my best to rewrite it, or at least the sentiment of it…

Herein lies the trickery of globalization. As the influx of mediated images increases, via TV, online, etc…, so does the potential to both remonstrate and reinforce these stereotypes. As we’ve seen recently in the “Arab Spring” movement, as forms of governance changes the new governments must find a way to legitimize themselves in the eyes of their peoples. This must come in the form of capital, albeit it fiscal or otherwise. In order to do this, they can grab onto preexisting social ideals, or play upon new ones. For example, a large component of the protests in Egypt today are building upon the ideology espoused as far back as the French Revolution, and as recently as the #Occupy movements in the US and abroad (and everything in between, including the US Civil Rights Movement). In these cases, protesters are seizing upon circulated stereotypes to charger their own movements. In other cases, governments are using stereotypes of the Mediterranean character for political gain and attempted reconciliation (http://www.europolitics.info/external-policies/potential-vehicle-for-strengthened-north-south-cooperation-art319007-44.html). In either case, a preexisting stereotype becomes the vehicle for social capital and, potentially, change. 

All of this is to say that stereotypes, like all notions, exist in a neutral place. They may be appropriated for positive or negative purposes, all depending on the context. Am I simply attempting to justify sitting by the sea, drinking red wine, and eating fresh sardines? Perhaps. However, with my research I hope to show how peoples in the region of this rapidly changing are negotiating their identities in, and with respect to, an increasingly accesible, even larger sea. There are hot-blooded types everywhere, and people in Ohio enjoy fish just as much as Sicilians. Furthermore, people are no longer limited to the objects and ideas present in their local areas. This hasn’t been the cases for quite a while now, but access to global goods and notions is almost immediate now. All I can hope to do is to sit here, by the sea, and see what happens next. 

Purchasing Power and Christmas Shopping by George Bajalia

As I prepare for my trip to the US for the holidays, I’ve been dutifully stopping in the stores I always avoided before, hoping to find the perfect Christmas gifts. It turns out that I was avoiding these shops for good reason. Several times now I have been quoted a “real Moroccan price” I know to be more than triple the price any Moroccan would pay. For the most part, I’m looking for gifts a bit different than the normal tourist trinket. Thankfully, I have some made friends with a few store owners a long time ago who have been giving me some very helpful advice about prices and quality. 

Today, however, I encountered a situation that really gave me pause. Without getting into too many specifics (and ruining the surprise for the gift recipient), I stopped into a craftsman’s shop today near my house. I’ve never been in before, but I saw through the door that makes a certain item out of leather. He didn’t have exactly what I wanted, but after I described he said he certainly could make one. He inquired as to where I am from, and I told him I was from the US. He then asked me what I would pay for such an item in there. Dodging the question, I told him how much I wanted to pay here. It’s a fair price here, but it’s certainly much cheaper than in the States. 

In response, he proceeded to lecture me as to he knew it was worth much more in the US and thus I should pay him that price. Now, if I had offered him an unreasonably low price, I wouldn’t have thought twice about this lecture. However, the price I offered was a bit more than I had been told a Moroccan would pay. Since he was offering to make it specifically for me, an increase in price is obviously logical. 

After bidding him goodbye, I started wrestling with the argument he presented. In truth, the item in question would undoubtably cost roughly three times the price I offered in any store in the US. However, simply because I am American, am I obliged to pay American prices anywhere in the world? Surely not, but I don’t think I can blame the man for arguing thus. His shop is off the tourist track, and really more of a workshop than a shop. Within his shop, I would venture to guess that his transactions with tourists are rather limited. However, he simply stated outright what many other store keepers had been factoring into their prices. 

Among the Fulbrighters here, several of us have been experiencing a weird feeling that comes from living somewhere in between tourist and permanent resident. After all, I’m technically in Fez to study language exclusively, and my “real” research begins come January in Tangier. Even so, I don’t want to pay tourist prices for my shopping, whether it is Christmas shopping or grocery shopping. If a tourist buys something from a bazaar here, though, and pays double the “Moroccan price,” but leaves the store and the city happy, does it matter? If they never know any different, but they are happy with their souvenir that is handmade (or not) and still cheaper than in the US, who am I to criticize these shop owners for inflating their prices? 

I don’t have an easy answer to this question, but as I continue my Christmas shopping this week it will certainly be in the back of my mind. 

A Week of Flags by George Bajalia

As one flag goes up, another goes down. 

This week, Mahmoud Abbas led the raising of the Palestinian flag at UNESCO, a ceremonial gesture, yes, but hugely important in the Palestinian people’s quest for UN recognized statehood. 


At the same time, President Barack Obama commemorated the retiring of the US Armed Forces flag in Iraq. The US, he said, has left a “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq.” 


Naturally, the timing of these two events is pure coincidence. Nonetheless, it’s important to view them in the larger context of a shifting global perspective on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). As the “Arab Spring” brought unemployed youth and movements toward democratic self-governance, these events bring into focus the changing question of modern Arab nationhood. 

Up until the 1980s and perhaps beyond, Pan Arab nationalism was the rallying cry throughout MENA. Today, though, this has subsided to a large extent. To some, the Palestinian Question is the new focal point. To others, though, the modern “Arab” nation is a question of democratic equality and global economic partnership. 

As the US moves out of Iraq and Palestine pushes for UN recognized statehood, what will the post-revolution Arab statehood look like? If the primary avenue for nation-statehood is through multinational, bilateral organizations, and will pan-Arabism reemerge through bodies such as the Arab League? We have already seen the actions of the Arab League take a prominent international stance recently in their sanctions against Syria and this fall against Ghaddafi. Or, on the other hand, has pan-Arabism faded away and democratic sovereignty taken its place? Stay tuned for updates from Morocco as the new constitution starts to come into place…

by George Bajalia

As a quick update, I thought I’d post a few photos of the dar where I live!

In the first photo, the doors to my room are shut. It took about 2 months of living here before I finally realized that those doors shut. As you can see, there is a small door within the large doors. This has proved particularly useful in the cold Fez Medina! As people say here, Morocco is a cold country with a hot sun. In our dar, we don’t have any particularly good methods of heating, and sometimes it’s actually colder inside than out.

The second photo is of one of the small portals carved into the sides of the courtyard. From what I know, it’s actually a remarkably well preserved example of traditional Fessi style. Over the past few years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been renovating its Islamic Art wing. In doing so, they brought in artists from the Fez Medina to create a traditional style Moroccan courtyard. Check out the virtual tour here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/10/30/arts/design/20111030-met-islamic-wing.html?ref=design 

It’s a truly impressive collection with a beautiful space to match. Seeing the intricacy of the Met’s new wing, and the amount of time, money, and artistry that went into its creation, really makes our own home all the more awe inspiring. Restoration and preservation are tricky, often controversial, businesses here in Fez, but the results are astounding. I can think of one advantage to the Met’s new wing though… Central heating. 

Marhababikum by George Bajalia

So, it’s been a good number of weeks since I’ve been around on here, and surely I could spend quite a few posts catching up. Doing that, though, would require spending all my time on here recollecting moments past and letting the stories of today pass me by. So instead, I’ve come up with a new plan for the future:

I’m going to upload two posts a week, as small or large as they be, and I’m going to stick to it with aid of the wonderful Dani Baurer, who I’m hoping with hold me accountable all the way from Chicago. 

So for now, a quick update on what’s going on here in Fez. Later this month, I’ll be heading home for the holidays (and to buy tortillas) with stops in Jacksonville and Chicago. When I return, I’ll be heading from Fez to Tangier, where I’ll begin my research in earnest. Thus far, I’ve been focusing on learning Darija and finding my way here.

With the help of some great friends here, I’ve been able to help put on a concert in a brand new arts center in the Fez Medina, and I’ve made some great contacts in the arts scene here. 

Along with another Fulbrighter, Joe Lukawksi, I’m working on a short film script that we hope to shoot in beautiful garden here in this coming Winter/Spring… More on this soon, but for now you can check out his Fulbright project on the old water systems of Fez here (http://fezfilm.wordpress.com/).

- George

'Twas the night before Eid... by George Bajalia

…when all through the land,

not a creature was stirring, not even a ram. 

The jellabas were hung by doors with care,

in hopes that Sidi Abraham would soon be there. 

As winter descendes upon Fez, and in case my weak slant rhyme didn’t quite do the trick, here is a quick Eid story to warm your bones!

Earlier this week, one of the kids who lives down the street asked me if I had a sheep yet. I responded no, we haven’t bought one and she invited me to her house to celebrate the Eid on Monday. On Eid Kbeer, Muslims celebrate when God gave Abraham a sheep to slaughter instead of Ishmael (or instead of Isaac, according to the Juedo-Christian tradition). In remembrance of this, each family slaughters a sheep or a ram, depending on what they can afford.

As poor researchers, the members of our dar decided that a ram carved into a pumpkin was probably all we could afford on our budgets. Also, 2/3 of us are vegetarians, so squash soup fit in a little more with out diets. However, when I told our young neighbor that we didn’t have a sheep, her first instinct was not to ask us why, but to react with generous Moroccan hospitality. Her mother should be so proud! 

Hospitality is not a one way street, though. As a guest, there are important ways to show your appreciation and gratitude. After a particularly delightful meal, for example, a guest may belch to show the depth of his or her enjoyment. For me, that hasn’t been the easiest thing to master. Perhaps not surprisingly, I can’t shake the feeling that if I burp at the table someone will shoot me glares and perhaps whoever is sitting closest will smack me upside the head. 

Later that same day, I was walking home around dinner time, I heard a belch coming from my neighbors’ kitchen. Ah, I thought, this guy knows how to do it. As I got closer, I heard another long burp, and then another. As I began to imagine what sort delicious feast could inspire this deep of appreciation, the belches started to grow longer and more pronounced. 

Then it hit me. This neither a belch, nor a human guest. This was a sheep. And I may be wrong, but I don’t think it was expressing its gratitude. As tomorrow’s feast grows more and more near, I’m seeing less and less sheep in the streets and hearing more and more “guests” on my street. Pretty soon, human guests will start to join them as Moroccans from all over head home for the biggest Eid of the year. We still haven’t decided exactly how we will celebrate in our house, but we’ve ruled out trying to save all the sheep by housing them in our courtyard. 

More later this week on Eid festivities, but for now check out this awesome photojournal from The View From Fez on buying sheep for Eid. 

by George Bajalia

  Eid Mubarak!   In celebration of both Halloween and Eid l’Kbeer, I decided to carve an Eid Jack’o’lantern. In case it’s not clear, it’s a ram. Stayed tuned for more on rams, Eid l’Kbeer, and the Fez medina…

Eid Mubarak! In celebration of both Halloween and Eid l’Kbeer, I decided to carve an Eid Jack’o’lantern. In case it’s not clear, it’s a ram. Stayed tuned for more on rams, Eid l’Kbeer, and the Fez medina…