Monday, June 16, 2014

Ma Fahemtsh [I Didn’t Understand]: First Days in Fes

Arriving in Fes, I was hit with a wall of heat when I walked off the train from Casablanca. While Casa was certainly warm, Fes is pretty hot — during the day it hovers around 38/39 C (that’s about 100-102 F), although it can go down to a balmy 30 C (86 F) at night.

I hopped in a cab and headed straight for le Centre Americain [the American Centre] — the local name for the Arabic Language Institute in Fes where I am studying Colloquial Arabic Moroccan, aka Darija. I checked in and filled out some paperwork, and then my host family came to meet me and take me to the apartment where I’m staying for the rest of my time here.

My host family is lovely! It includes my host mother, A—, her 20-year-old daughter F—, her sister N—, and N’s adorable 3-year-old son K—. They live in a lovely small apartment in the medina [old city] right next to a big palatial residence called Dar Tazi with gorgeous gardens.

My host brother/cousin! I understand about 5% of what
he says... I'll be lucky if I can leave Morocco with the
vocabulary of a 3-year-old.

My host mother had made chicken for lunch, but luckily I had already eaten at the Centre so I was able to politely accept only the bread and various vegetable salads, and after lunch I discretely explained that I was vegetarian and that I didn’t eat meat, chicken, or fish. She took it pretty well and since then she has been very nice about making me vegetarian food — bread and cheese, lentils, eggplant, chickpeas, vegetable tagine, etc.

The view from my apartment.
From my place it’s a five minute walk to the Batha Museum, an amazing collection of Moroccan crafts and handiwork (I haven’t had a chance to explore it yet but hopefully I can go next week), where I pick up a taxi to the Centre, which is located in the Ville Nouvelle [New City].

Although I haven’t started classes yet, I’ve been very busy — this week is the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, an international gathering of musicians and music lovers to celebrate the spiritual power of music… Essentially, the Sufi Woodstock. This year’s theme is ‘The Conference of the Birds,’ alluding to the famous text by the Persian Sufi poet Attar, which describes the journey of the ‘birds’ (a metaphor for the soul) travelling over seven ‘valleys’ (stages of spiritual development) to find the Simurgh (the legendary ruler of the birds, representing the Divine). I’ve always wanted to go to the festival, and here I am in Fes just as it begins! And even better, ALIF students get discounted tickets!

Among the many people who are in town for the festival are some friends and colleagues of mine from Canada and the States, and some friends of friends that I was put in touch with and urged to meet. Among those were H— and Y—, a Spanish rabbinical student and his Moroccan partner, with whom I was connected by three separate mutual friends. We had made plans to have Shabbat dinner at Cafe Clock, a well-known restaurant in the heart of the medina, but things got a little crazy and when I showed up they weren’t there. 

New and old friends at the Festival.
It was approximately a billion degrees, I was stressed and cranky, I didn’t have a Moroccan phone, Shabbat was starting in half an hour, and I was all alone in a strange city having failed at social connection. While I was sitting there feeling sorry for myself, I overheard the two tables next to mine having a lively conversation so I decided to move over and join them. 

I introduced myself and as I explained that I was studying North African Judaism, one of the women exclaimed, “Oh, you must meet my friends who are here for the festival! One is a rabbinical student and the other is Moroccan, you would love them…” “Could it be H— and Y—?” 

But of course! This wonderfully serendipitous meeting instantaneously transformed my mood, and as a wave of relief and gratitude washed over me, my new friend and I set off for the opening of the Festival where we met up with our other friends.

Hopefully this also gives you some idea of how crowded it was.

It is hard for me to describe how extraordinary the music was. The opening was a musical adaptation of Attar’s story — each bird was represented by a different singer and the seven ‘valleys’ which the birds cross were tableaux of music and dance from different regions and cultures: Senegalese Sufi chanting, Bolivian nature poetry in Quechua, Bharata-Natyam Indian dance, Sephardic chants of the Song of Songs, a Byzantine-style church choir from Hungary, Turkish Mevlevi dervishes, and more.

Soldiers by the red carpet waiting for Her Majesty.
And as if that weren’t enough, because the concert is sponsored by the royal family it was attended by the queen of Morocco (technically her title is Princess Consort) Lalla Salma, who walked regally down the red carpet to wild applause, which also meant that I got to say (for the first time in my life!) the blessing for seeing (non-Jewish) royalty. You know you’re a Jewish liturgy nerd when you get excited about things like that.

On Shabbat I went to another concert, a phenomenal Malian singer named Rokia Traoré, and then to the only remaining active synagogue in Fes for havdala [final Sabbath service]. It was, as expected, a few stubborn old men with bittersweet memories of the vibrant Jewish community of Fes in its heyday. I had great fun chatting with them in Arabic and was really thrilled to hear authentic Judeo-Arabic, including one fellow who knew the sharh [traditional oral translation] to the Haggada, Pirqei Avot, and other Jewish texts.

The best, though, was an impromptu concert that happened on our way out of synagogue when we stopped for a cup of tea. As is common in Morocco, a street musician wandered over in hopes of charming us out of a few dirhams. He was, in fact, quite talented and we enjoyed listening to him play; since one of our group was herself a performer of Jewish Moroccan music in the Festival, we persuaded her to sing a song with him, which she did spectacularly. 

The musician loved it, and it turned out that this guy knew dozens of old Jewish Moroccan songs, classics by Zohra el-Fassia, Sami el-Maghrebi, Haim Botbol, and more. He pulled up a chair, we started clapping along, and we spent close to half an hour enthralled. At the end I remembered that my camera could also take video, in time to tape him singing Zohra el-Fassia’s song Hak A Mamma (covered nicely by Haim Botbol here) — I can't seem to embed the video but I put it on YouTube here.

A wonderful but not totally surprising encounter — after all,
these are classics of Moroccan music, not just for Jews. The
musician was also very proud that his banjo was from California.

We also saw a little bit of old Jewish Fes, including the cemetery and the ‘Museum,’ which is essentially a storehouse of the many artifacts left behind or donated by the Jews of Fes, ranging from 19th-century prayerbooks to wedding dresses to report cards from the 70s, and many, many brik-a-braks and other tchatchkerei (how do you say that in Arabic?).

I had a great conversation with Edmond, the elderly caretaker (whom we had met at synagogue) about the importance of studying Judeo-Arabic, and he was very impressed that I had chosen to study North African Jewish culture. As a treat he brought out his copy of Goralot Ahitofel, a Judeo-Arabic magic book, to tell my fortune; you close your eyes and put your finger down on a number chart (1-119), and then you look up the fortune for that number (a type of geomancy). My fortune (no. 46) reads: your star is strong and bright, like the sun in the high heavens, and have no fear of your enemies — Allah is with you. Amen!

Edmond divining with Goralot Ahitofel.

An academic side note: from some quick internet research, I’m not sure the exact history of this book. I found it online here, and [in a different printing] auctioned here, and I can see that there are a number of Hebrew divination texts called Sefer haGoralot or Goralot Ahitophel, popular in Europe as well as Yemen; but what is their relationship to each other? What is their history? How were they used? What was the rabbinic response to them? Many questions… Perhaps a new research project?

The Festival continues, but since I start classes today I won’t have as much time to go to concerts, although hopefully I’ll attend a few more. I know many of my henna artist readers are thinking, “ok, enough already with the funny stories — where’s the henna?” I have indeed been seeing lots of interesting henna here in Fes and I’ve managed to take some pictures. I haven’t yet found a neqasha to talk to but hopefully an opportunity will materialize soon. In the meantime, I wanted to ask: do you want to see the henna pictures as they come (i.e., in each blog update just put the pictures of what I’ve seen so far), or do you want me to wait until I have some more information about Fessi henna and devote an entire blogpost to it with lots and lots of pictures in one place? Let me know in the comments!

(And just because I’m a tease... Here’s a snippet from the market yesterday morning).

A small section of some henna spotted in the marketplace.
Comment below if you want more!


darcitananda said...

Awesome introduction to the hustle and bustle of north Africa. Can't wait to hear more. The music festival sounds amazingggg. More henna please too!

Emily H said...

so cool! keep up the blogging!

Unknown said...

I loved reading your blog. I felt like I was right there with you! I'm so happy that you are having such a wonderful and enlightening time. Thank you for sharing this experience with us! I'd be happy to see whatever pictures you have as you have them as well as seeing an entry dedicated to henna with a group of pictures together. In other words, I want it all! Have a wonderful time!