Monday, June 9, 2014

"The Land of the Moors" — I'm Off to Morocco!

Tomorrow, I leave for Morocco, to participate in a six-week immersion program in colloquial Moroccan Arabic (also known as Darija). The program is hosted by ALIF, an Arabic language centre in Fes, where I will be staying with a host family. I should also note that my trip was funded by a generous grant from the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

I am very excited, even though there is still so much I don't know: what will my host family be like? Who else is in my program? Will I get hopelessly lost in the cobblestoned medina [old quarter]? Will I be able to understand a single word I hear in the streets? 

And of course, I hope that I'll be able to learn more about Moroccan henna while I'm there. Fes is renowned for its henna artists (the origin of the "Fessi style" we know and love) and I would love to be able to watch a local neqasha [henna artist] at work and even ask some questions. I don't know how much time I'll have outside of class, but at the very least I'm sure there will be plenty of beautiful henna around, and I'll make sure to grab pictures inchaAllah [G!d-willing].

My work in the Fessi style, 2014.

I'm also hoping to meet some of the local Jewish community. While Fes was once a centre for Jewish culture and life (the great rabbi Maimonides studied there, among other notable figures), unfortunately only a hundred or so Jews remain and there is almost no Jewish presence in the 'old city' of the Fes Medina. There are still beautiful synagogues and other historical buildings, and I'm looking forward to discovering more of Jewish Fes.

I'll try to post as often as I can, although I don't know how reliable my internet access will be and I don't know how much time I'll have to write posts. But I will certainly try my best to make sure that there's a picture and a brief update here at least once a week. Follow along by subscribing to this blog so that you don't miss a post!

The student manual that the program sent us included Budgett-Meakin's 1901 travelogue "The Land of the Moors" on the list of recommended introductory reading. And since I am a conscientious student, of course, I went straight to the library (or internet, as the case might be). Meakin writes that Fez is "the true metropolis of Morocco... rich in the richest gifts to the Eastern taste" (pg. 235), and concludes (pg. 274):
So much for the Fez of to-day, by far the most interesting town in Morocco, both as to its history and its contents, well worth a visit from the intelligent explorer able to appreciate and study things Moorish. What it may become in a generation it would be bootless to guess. There is just a possibility that it may still be the rambling city it now is, but the chances are all in favour of its seeing many alterations ere that, in its inhabitants, if not in its stones. It is by no means improbable that by that time the proud Fasis may have to own a different master from the easy-going shareefs of the present dynasty. Who can say?

A view of Fez, from Budgett-Meakin's The Land of the Moors, 1901

I do hope I qualify as an "intelligent explorer" and I certainly aim to study as much as I can and appreciate my time in "the most interesting town in Morocco." I look forward to the visit — whether I will succeed in navigating the streets of the medina, well, who can say?


Michelle H said...

Hers an insight into Jewish Fez that may be useful:
Will follow your trip with interest!

Driss said...

Shalom Noam,
As a Moroccan leaving in the US and native of a city only 70Kms from beautiful Fez, I firmly believe you will have a wonderful experience!
As a kid I grew up in Sidi Slimane and vividly recall vibrant Souks where my parents stop always by Jewish merchants and by all sort of goods! We could not tell teh difference. I was treated by Moroccan Jewish Doctors ... they spoke darija, french and we enjoyed same food and jokes! I still have great Israeli friends of Moroccan decent and they visits Morocco more often than me! Robert Assaraf a Moroccan Jew wrote a great book in Frenc "Moroccan Jews under the Reign of King Mohammed V"! He refused to discriminiate again Moroccan Jews again the Laws of Vichy French Government which exiled him and his royal family to Madagascar! Germans approached him to play him against France! He said his faith taught him to do the right thing and his Jewish subjects are same as Muslim ones and he wont stab France in the back because friendship and future interdependence! Enjoy your trip. Great to have people like you rather than politicians who use religion as a factor to divide people.