Friday, October 6, 2017

hello autumn

It's my favourite time of the year. Leaves turn colours, their dry scent carried on cool breezes. Except that I am in Rabat and it's in the high thirties, and I am a sweaty, stinky mess. Nevertheless, it's autumn, and there's the botanical garden with some leaves to crunch through— plus the streets near the Peace Corps building have nice, big piles of yellow. No sweaters, no scarves, no hygge— yet.

I wait for the weather to turn.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

part one: belly

I thought I'd share with you some of the drawings I drew during the last few months. Stay tuned—more on the way...

Saturday, September 16, 2017

the bilmawn

We spent Eid al-Adha in Imlil last year, where an old Amazigh tradition still carries on during the days following the Eid. Thunderous drumming echoes through the valleys of the Atlas, and high on a hill one morning, we spied a group of young men dressed in various masks (and some fake beards) preparing to rampage through the village below, led by a fellow dressed in goat skins. This is what I was hoping to find on our trip, the mysterious Bilmawn.

The Bilmawn (or Boujloud) appears to be something out of Pagan times, something ancient— not unlike the Krampus or Portugal's Caretos, who chase young women through the streets whilst wielding sticks and cow bells. With twisting horns and dark human eyes peering through the eye-holes of a flattened goat's head, the animal smell still strong on the fur, the Bilmawn thrills and terrorizes young children by chasing them with a stick, collecting the discarded skins of the sheep sacrificed during the Eid. I have read that the Bilmawn and his cohort also collect alms for the local mosque, though I wasn't able to get much information on the tradition whenever I asked about it, and people seemed genuinely amused that I would even want to know.

Hoping to grab a sketch with this wild character, we approached him with our clumsy French. The Bilmawn, who either did not understand us or was so into his role, stared at us blankly through puffs of smoke from his cigarette, which dangled grotesquely out from under his goat face. One of his companions, wearing shades and a powdered face with a fake beard haphazardly glued to his chin, did understand. Of course we could sketch and photograph everyone, but we needed to offer a donation. Normally I would balk over paying to draw, but this was such a great opportunity and one that might not come my way in some time, so I placed a few dirhams into his powdered palm. The goat man extinguished his cigarette, and struck a pose.

As we drove off down the hill, I looked up to where we had met the bizarre cast of characters and watched them begin their descent into the village. The pounding of drums echoed as I imagined a group of children scurrying away in that wonderful mix of delight and fright.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

eid mubarak

Friday was Eid al-Adha, one of the most important holy days for Muslim Moroccans. It is the feast of sacrifice, when families get together and slaughter a sheep in honour of Ibrahim (or Abraham) and his test of faith. When I was in Istanbul, I would occasionally see the sheep and sometimes cattle being taken outside the city where makeshift abbatoirs were set up for the holiday. Sheep would be carried on the backs of trucks and in car trunks, looking rather bewildered to say the least. I have a vivid memory of the gutters running red with blood in Cairo, the scent of animal and iron in the hot air, the rusty handprints of the devout dripping on the walls of houses.

Here in Rabat, the musty smell of livestock permeates the air a few days before the Eid, and the bleating of sheep echoes from basements and rooftops alike. Our neighbours had four on their roof, and though I am a meat eater and respect that people have their traditions and beliefs, I must admit that I felt unsettled by the sight of those sheep on that roof. A roof, like a basement, is no place for an animal, and I knew that within a couple of hours, their lives would end on that roof. The only comfort was that they would be eaten and appreciated by families who came together in celebration, the meat shared with neighbours, friends, and the less fortunate— there would be little waste. A far better fate than for those poor creatures of feedlots and mass manufacturing in the West.

Many of my students love this Eid— they tell me it's like Christmas, and look forward to spending precious time with their loved ones. Some admit that they feel bad for the sheep, but value the holiday, and their beliefs. A friend of mine in Turkey once divulged her childhood Eid memories (Eid al-Adha is called Kurban Bayram in Turkish), which typically involved her mother calling over the girls to help her wash out the entrails for making sausages. The smell haunted her into adulthood, but it was a happy and cherished time that she spent with her mother, sisters, and aunts. It reminds me of Thanksgiving with my mother— only far removed from the killing and processing of the turkey (though there was that one time my mum had to pluck one of the birds).

So Eid Mubarak to my Muslim friends! I hope you are having a wonderful time with your loved ones, and wish you many more dear memories with them.

Friday, September 1, 2017

lines in the sand

from himalaya to sahara

We woke just before dawn, after a night of drumming under a bright moon. The air was cool and damp, and it seemed like our little camp was home to the only people in the world, and the world was silent, except for the occasional snort of a camel or raven's chuckle. I watched Tsewang follow the edge of a dune in his socks, marvelling at the softness of the orange sand.

I wondered what was running through his head, this boy from the Himalaya, sifting the Sahara through his fingers.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

orange and pink

How lucky we were to have arrived just before sunset! The sky took turns between pink and purple, while the orange sand blushed. Though every photo I tried to take from the back of my loping camel blurred, you can still get a sense of the colours and the calm.

Pedro somehow managed to snap this not-so-blurry photo of me, secretly carrying a lentil-sized Baby within— followed by Tsewang wrapped in a brilliant blue turban.

erg chebbi

The soft orange dunes on the horizon appeared like something out of a dream— a smooth line of colour in a greying landscape that suddenly grew into waves. Here lies the edge of the Sahara: Erg Chebbi, where we were to spend the night.

First, we needed to find our camels.


It came upon us all of a sudden: the Oasis of Tafilalt, Morocco's biggest oasis. Like the spine of a great green serpent, thousands of date palms meandered through the orange earth in curves.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

the red earth

The drive from Rabat to the nearest Saharan dunes in Merzouga is about eight and a half hours— if there aren't any slow trucks, accidents, or anything else that can pop up unexpectedly. Moroccan highways are smooth and quick, but the winding roads through the Middle Atlas can take quite some time, and it's always best to expect to add a minimum of two extra hours to your roadtrip.

Last October, Pedro and I were lucky to have one of our dear students from Nepal visit us. Tsewang was studying abroad on a scholarship to finish up high school and his hosts kindly offered to send him our way for a holiday. We had a week to show him his first glimpse of an ocean, a desert, and of course, as much of Morocco as possible. We plotted our route to the Sahara through the mountains of Ifrane, the high plateau of Zaïda and the oasis of Tafilalt.

The rain fell on the red earth of Zaïda, forming pools of pale blue sky. We spied our first houbara hiding among the clumps of thirsty vegetation, an ancient-looking bird that seemed just as surprised to see us as we were to see her.

leaving fès

And now we leave the twisted alleys and sun-bleached rooftops of Fès for the most beautiful orange. Let's run our fingers through the finest sand and watch the sun rise over the Sahara...

Thursday, August 10, 2017

mint and leather

With a bouquet of fresh mint under my nose, I squinted my eyes at the vats of dye below, the sun reflecting off the quicklime and pigeon guano used in making soft leather out of tough hides. The scent of the guano, bovine urine, and other assorted nasties was overwhelming— even more so for the pregnant olfactory system— however, having been told how wretched it would be, I was expecting worse.

The drying hides below are getting ready to be transformed into the traditional babouche, a pointed leather slipper, typically in a brilliant yellow for men. Tourists are told that all the dyes are natural— the yellow is from saffron, green from mint, red from poppies... Though I know little about leather dyes, I am sceptical of this as I have never seen mint dye anything, and saffron is quite expensive. In any case, the rainbow of colours that the tanners are able to create is gorgeous.

The 11th century Chouara Tannery is hidden among the clustered geometric buildings of Fès' medina, its levels of stinking vats in various shades of celadon, red and brown. The tanners who wade through the noxious pools in the blinding sun to work the hides wear anything from wellies to flip-flops on their feet, some with nothing at all. I can only imagine how hard their days are, how their muscles and heads must feel at the end of the day— it certainly gives me a deeper appreciation of the work behind my leather bags and babouches, which though bought in different parts of Morocco, all trace back to Fès.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


While wandering the alleys of Fès' medina, I began to notice nails wrapped in coloured thread jutting out from the old stone walls— some nails entirely cocooned into soft balls. I remembered climbing the hill to an orthodox church on Büyükada shortly after Easter once, where the devout had tied threads from the top to the bottom of the hill in prayer, wishing for the things we often wish for— good health, fortune, love... My mind then travelled to the Fates, weaving our lives into a vast tapestry, then to the many knotted bracelets my students in Nepal tied around my wrists.

Though I suspected the reason for these pretty bursts of colour was more banal, I still hoped to find something special at the end of the threads that extended beyond their cocoons. Stretched across buildings and down the alleys, a multitude of colours were being twisted into threads which were wound around spools by quick and elegant fingers.

To think of what these threads would someday make— someone's favourite scarf, or the embroidery on a well-worn djellaba— a gift of a blanket, to be wrapped around a loved one...

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

declarations of love

I often wonder about the outcome of these declarations of love on walls, doors, and trees. I imagine one of the two scrawling or carving away in secret, unveiling their feelings to the other, hoping for approval... Were they impressed by this act of vandalism? Did they shy away in embarrassment?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

the yellows of fès

Somehow I thought lugging my eighth month swollen belly around a medieval city under the bright North African sun was something that I would enjoy— and I did, mostly. I say mostly because after a morning of sightseeing my feet and ankles had swollen to an uncomfortable degree, and the heat had me nearly seeing stars. We had been saving the large, popular tourist cities like Fès and Marrakech for when we had visitors, and with Pedro's family in town at the time, Fès became our first stop.

Apparently the medina of Fès is the largest pedestrianized urban area in the world. I had been warned that you can lose yourself in its labyrinthine alleys without a guide, but to be honest, we had a guide for a morning and I not only found him to be a bore, I thought a good map would do just fine. Fès is one of Morocco's four imperial cities (the other three being Meknès, Rabat, and Marrakech), and served as the country's capital from the 9th Century until 1912, when it was Rabat's turn.

Part of me dreaded going to Fès— I expected a noisy, smelly tourist trap where I'd be hassled at every turn, but I was happy to find stunning architecture, nice people, and so many shades of yellow. Yes, the amount of tourists clogged some of the smaller alleys to a standstill, but it was April. Perhaps a return in November would be a quieter (and cooler) experience— the next time however, will be with Baby being carried on the outside of me!