Friday, June 13, 2014

Nabda [We Begin]! First Days in Morocco

Morocco Day One: Arrival

My flight was fairly uneventful, with the excitement of being briefly pressed into service to translate for an elderly Moroccan woman who spoke only Arabic — I hope it’s a good omen to get things off to a good start. Unusually, I didn’t see much henna in the airport — one Moroccan woman with dipped fingers, a Sudanese family with bold designs, unfortunately in black henna, and a number of women with black henna in the East African style.

East African style black 'henna' in
the Amsterdam airport.

I landed in Casablanca and met my Couchsurfing host at the train station. We dropped my things off at his place and went to explore the centre of the city — Casablanca is not a historically preserved city like Fes, it has a very urban and industrial feel to it, and yet there’s something beautiful about these decaying old buildings covered with graffiti and “For Rent” signs.

I would totally rent this building!

Yum! Fresh fish, Casablanca docks.
Walking around, we ran into some friends of my host and we went down to the docks together, where the fishermen were sorting the last of the day’s catch and putting away the nets. On our way back, we stopped in the market for some snails (a traditional Moroccan delicacy) and another woman at our table had the most gorgeous henna! Dense, precise geometrics (what I think of classic ‘Fessi style’) over the backs and palms, with an interesting floral strip (possibly stenciled) along the sides of her hand. I tried to surreptitiously grab a photo but it was very dark and she was on her way out; I should have worked up the courage to ask her to take a nice picture! I’m kicking myself. You’ll have to take my word on how beautiful the designs were, and I promise the next time I see henna I will make sure to stop and ask if I can photograph it.

My host parents were waiting for us with some delicious vegetarian harira [bean soup] which I greatly appreciated; luckily I already knew the most important phrase in Moroccan Arabic: tbarakAllah fik [G!d bless you], which is what you say when you’ve finished eating so that they don’t keep refilling your bowl. As it was I had to eat two full bowls of soup. 

We sat and talked in what is becoming my usual broken mix of fuṣḥa [standard Arabic], the few words I know of Darija [colloquial Moroccan Arabic], French, and English when necessary. I keep coming up with random words I remember from my Standard Arabic class — al-iqtiṣad [economy], ‘ilm al-insan [anthropology], al-madrasa al-ibdita’iyya [elementary school] — so my Arabic is probably a funny mix of randomly swinging between very colloquial and very formal.

Day Two
I got an early start today — I had accidentally set my clock to the local time in Amsterdam, which is an hour ahead of Casablanca, so I got up at six am. Fortunately that meant I could eat breakfast with my host parents before the dad left for work, which was nice.

Then it was off to the Museum of Moroccan Jewry, a rare and special place that has been open on and off since 2003; I think it was closed the other time I was in Morocco, so I’d never been. A professor that I know is actually doing research in the Museum Archives (housing the Rabat Geniza) so he offered to meet me there and take me around.

I want all of it. Silver jewelry, Museum of Moroccan Jewry.
It was really amazing — if you are in Casablanca, do not miss this treat of a museum! Many gorgeous examples of Jewish jewelry and silver from all over Morocco, including a full reproduction of a Jewish silversmith’s shop with tools and unfinished pieces, and of course many beautiful displays of hamsas and amulets, giant rings, jeweled headdresses from the south, and much more. 

And of course there are also many beautiful examples of Jewish ritual objects, from Torah scrolls to tallit bags, synagogue lamps and even several wooden bimot from various synagogues in Morocco.

Torah scroll pointer and ornaments, Museum of Moroccan Jewry.
Looks just like my room! Books everywhere. RGP archives.
But the best part for me was getting to work in the archives (and thanks to Pr. Oren Kosansky for inviting me in and to my new friend Maïa for showing me the ropes!). The 'Rabat geniza' contains thousands of documents, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, including Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic religious texts, legal and administrative documents, and personal letters collected from synagogues and Jewish community centres in Rabat. Pr. Kosansky's initiative, The Rabat Geniza Project, is cataloguing, scanning, and (eventually) transcribing and translating them. In fact, they will soon be hosting an exhibition at the Museum of selected documents from the Geniza. 

My dream job! Identifying Judeo-Arabic haggada pages with the Rabat Geniza Project.

I was generously invited to roll up my sleeves and jump in! We were working on some uncatalogued fragments of religious texts, and I was able to help identify several Hebrew texts while I was there so that they could be properly entered in the register. It was a great honour to be involved in the project.

I love the Andalusi architectural style.
Masjid Hassan II in Casablanca.
Finally, we finished the day with a trip to the gorgeous Hassan II mosque and a walk around the medina. I saw a few more examples of lovely henna, including full hand dips, resist/stencils on feet, and nice geometric work. 

Unfortunately the only example I’ve been able to photograph so far is this piece on a woman at the Hassan II mosque; it is a great example of what is termed ‘khaleeji’ [Gulf] style in Morocco, although it is quite different than both ‘true’ Gulf style as well as what is termed khaleeji or Arabic style in India. I also saw some neqashat working in the medina in Casablanca but unfortunately they were using black henna and doing only short khaleeji style strips.

Khaleeji style henna at the Hassan II mosque, Casablanca.

Overall, a wonderful introduction to Morocco. I’m now off to Fes, where I will be spending the remainder of my time. Stay tuned for more adventures!

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