Fall Comes to the Mountains

Fall is nearing the peak of color here in the Southern Appalachians this weekend, or at least we suspect it is. Despite spending the day in the Smokies, my comrades and I caught very few glimpses of the mountains themselves, other than the bits (wet and muddy!) beneath our feet, as the hills were living up to their name and sat wrapped in mist and cloud all day. Still beautiful, as I hope you’ll judge from the photos below.

This fall is cooler and wetter than last year; it was nearing freezing in the highcountry when we left this evening, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the year’s first snowfall occurs this weekend. Even here in the Tennessee Valley we are supposed to reach near freezing for the next several nights. Winter is looming up close by; last winter had some bitterly cold (spectacular in the mountains) stretches, and we imagine this winter will be even deeper and colder.

If you do feel compelled to visit these mountains in the fall (the loveliest on the continent, by my lights, but I’m biased), do be warned that the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge entrance to the Smokies is absolutely hellacious this time of year. The other entrances, and the rest of the Southern Appalachians really, are comparatively decent and less congested.


On the way up the Trillium Gap Trail, on the slopes of Mt. LeConte.



The trail along Brushy Mountain, a spur of Mt. LeConte covered in dense heath bald; some days with lovely views, but today socked in with cloud.


Grotto Falls, on the way up the Trillium Gap Trail.


Spider web up on Brushy Mountain.


Grotto Falls from the other side of the creek; the trail passes behind the falls and stays fairly dry in the process.

The Light and the Fish

Down a dark, narrow little side street in the Fes medina there is a tunnel, old solid cedar beams straddling overhead holding up whatever structure stands above- what exactly is not clear when coming down the street from Tella Kabira, the main drag through the medina. Upon emerging on the other side, if you look back and up, you can see one of the most remarkable little architectural gems in Morocco, in my opinion, the Ayn al-Khayl Mosque, which dates back at least to the time of the 12th-13th century Muslim mystic and esoteric philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi, and is presumably older than that. While I know of at least one other mosque in Fes that straddles a street- it’s way across the valley in the Andalusian quarter- this little mosque also stands out for its octagonal minaret (I only saw one other in the rest of Morocco), and the evocative flame-shaped moldings around the tiny windows that march up the minaret towards the sky. That, and it was in this mosque, its tiny prayer hall perched above the street, that Ibn ‘Arabi spent much of his time while sojourning in Fes, and where he experienced repeated mystical visions. It is also home, within its elevated courtyard, to a spring- the Ayn of the name- in which, it is said, a mysteriously large fish appeared one day, some thirty years ago. And while there’s no word of al-Khidr having shown up in the area, there is a wonderful vegetable and fruit market a couple blocks over.




Rising From the Ashes

I spent part of this week in and around Atlanta, the ever-expanding capital of the ‘New South.’ I’d not been to Atlanta in years, other than in passing while traveling; this week I wandered around the city some, both intentionally and unintentionally, since I didn’t get a hold of a decent map until the last day of my visit. It’s a big city; most of my experience in urban navigation has been in ‘Old World’ cities where my means of transport was my own two feet, and in New Orleans, a city set apart from pretty much every other North American city I’ve visited. Atlanta is, I suppose, the South’s paradigmatic example of the modern city- big, ever-expanding, new and shiny (in the up-scale parts anyway, never mind the poor parts for the moment), with precious little of any considerable age, even for North America. Of course, General Sherman bears some blame for that, but not very much; there wasn’t a whole lot there back when my unfortunate ancestors were getting shot up at Kennesaw Mountain and Peachtree Creek.

There are of course some sections of the city that are fairly old and historic, and feel it. Auburn Avenue, which was the center of African-American life and commerce after the imposition of segregation in the early twentieth century, has some wonderful old and funky buildings; the Episcopal Methodist Church with its hodge-podgy neo-Gothic and big blue neon ‘Jesus Saves’ sign on the steeple is singularly wonderful, and is still in good shape. Further up the street, the Park Service has purchased and renovated a whole neighborhood worth of old buildings associated with Martin Luther King Jr., who was born and spent his boyhood in one of the old houses. But the stretch of street running back from the historic site is, with all its lovely old structures and venerable history, pretty decrepit. As my friend and I walked up from downtown towards the MLK site, we were approached by a homeless man offering an impromptu tour, followed by a request for donations. The whole area is now run-down, boarded up buildings and heavily armoured likker and mini grocery stores here and there; our homeless tour-guide told us he lived back up under an overpass of the interstate which now dissects the area.

The historic site is quite nice itself however, a sudden imposition in the immediate landscape, neatly trimmed shrubs, a rose garden, a fairly new looking museum, as well as a new Ebeneezer Baptist Church (the old one is still there, though it is at present closed up for renovations). There are signs up in the National Historic Site warning visitors against giving anything to ‘panhandlers,’ reminding one of signs in less urban Park Service sites prohibiting the feeding of bears.

The area went down, as we say, in the late sixties; before it had been a thriving center of African-American businesses, churches, and residences, with it’s own economy and tradition of mutual aid. If the segregationist regime rejected their money, the entrepreneurs of Auburn Avenue reasoned, it was their loss- so they built up their own economy, and thrived. Dr. King’s family came out of this milieu, and the determination and communal (but deeply personalist) sense of mutual aid and support would go a long ways towards the successful challenging of the segregationist regime and its systematic but ultimately untenable oppression. This was one of the things that struck me most as I looked at the exhibits in the museum, and has always struck me about the civil rights movement, particularly in its early stages- it was community-based, and broad-based, with people of many cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and standings coming together in a truly powerful movement. The men and women who challenged the segregationist State did not have to resort to bombs and guns; they had built up lives and communities powerful enough to take on even a violent and deeply entrenched regime and succeed, without turning to violence and oppression themselves.

Returning to the gritty shot-up feeling streets of which Auburn Avenue is only one, one has to ask- what happened, and what can anybody do about it? Auburn Avenue itself is an icon of what has been happening in our cities and towns for years now, what is happening right now as I write. Desegregation had its part, of course- African-Americans were no longer restricted to their own self-contained economy, and could take part in the wider economy and succeed there- leaving behind in many cases places like Auburn Avenue. But this is hardly the only explanation, or even the primary one. At the same time as desegregation was going into affect other programs, Federal and otherwise, were coming on-line, many under the title ‘urban renewal.’ As one line was erased new ones were laid down, often with the best of intentions, but often resulting in Federally-supported ghettos. The drug war has only escalated and grown more violent and more deeply entrenched; the ever expanding field of operations of the Mexican drug cartels only harbours more violence and destruction, and it’s not up-scale gated communities suffering the brunt of the violence and the corruption and rot.

There are other problems as well- job losses, poor education, and so on- but they all share the quality that few of them are exactly intentional. Much ‘urban renewal’ was meant to help the poor, at least ostensibly, or was at least supported by people who wanted to do good. Of course, plenty of it was deliberate in partionining off the poor, especially but not exclusively minority poor, from the elite enclaves. There is ridiculous highway a few blocks from my neighborhood here in Knoxville that, I am pretty sure, was built primarily to separate downtown from the much poorer, and darker-skinned, east-side neighborhoods; maybe there were no such intentions, but the effect is the same. The drug war is supported by well-meaning people, and I am sure at least some of those carrying it out have only good intentions and genuinely desire to do good. The damage is the same though.

The problem is further presented though- the evils and problems afflicting places like Auburn Avenue are so various that they are hard to fight against. There is no segregationist regime that we can unite against and battle; there are no straight-forward targets, as much as we would like for there to be. There is less ground, too, for people to stand on, as so many urban- and otherwise- communities are shot-up and worn out. The work that is needed- and here I start to really preach to myself as much as anyone else- is personal, is on the ground, and is probably not going to yeild immediate or impressive results any time soon, maybe ever. The great failing of the American elite- who are often very well-intentioned people- is to generally stay safely away from the poor and the decimated places, while sympathizing for them, in the abstract, and proposing solutions that are sure to work in theory, in principal. But while there are some genuine general policy solutions no doubt- the drug war comes to mind- they are only a part of the solution, probably not a terribly important part.

When it comes down to it we have to stop thinking in terms of helping the poor, or saving the inner city, as if the poor were a different species or something (albeit an endangered and valorized one), capable of being saved through the right policy enactments or a sufficiently large charity pay-out. In the end, working to end the violence and destruction of our cities is a struggle for ourselves; it is not a case of our aiding the poor and downtrodden in their struggle; we are all in this together, my struggle is your struggle. I cannot cut myself off from the rest of the world; my sin afflicts my neighbor and it afflicts me, just as the violence and deprivation of endless war and seeping poverty are part of my struggle, against the violence and evil in my heart and the violence and evil that come from outside my heart.

Our Auburn Avenues are not going to be magically transformed overnight; if there is going to be change, it must begin in our hearts- my heart- and work outward, person by person, community by community, in knowledge of each person and place’s particulars, and with love for them, love that, in imitation of the love of God, offers itself in becoming one with the sufferer, by becoming a co-sufferer, from the inside, with all the danger and dirt and darkness that comes with being inside of a suffering world, a suffering humanity.

Palimpsests, Contested Land, and Spring Comes to the Mountains

I love every season in the mountains, and if you asked me what my favorite season to be in the hills is my answer would probably be whatever season it is at the time. Spring is probably the most exhilarating season though, particularly after a harsh winter: you can feel the life springing up out of the ground, the woods and peaks starting to stir and throb with new life. This weekend the hills are just starting to show the signs of spring- the ice is almost all gone from the high country (just a few icicles and patches of frozen ground left in the shadows), wildflowers are blooming up almost to the high peaks, and down in the valleys the patches of new green and blooms are covering larger and larger spaces.

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Early spring is one of the best times of the year to trace out the vast array of palimpsests that lie under the forests of the Southern Appalachians, before the thick growth of summer temporarily buries them yet further under the resurgent forest. Up almost every little valley and cove, if you look hard enough, you can find the traces of the people who once dwelt here, who pushed into the mountains up from the Piedmont of the Carolinas or down from Virginia, and cut and slashed their way into the often harsh and unforgiving landscape. In the Smokies, and in many other ranges and valleys, there are no more people- none at all in the Smokies, thanks to Federal policy that bought up and ran off (or let die out) the land owners. In other parts of the Southern Appalachians there are few or no people thanks to the hardscrabble nature of this land- after a century or so, the attraction of outside work was too strong, and the valleys and coves emptied out.

There are a variety of forms of writing, to continue my metaphor of the palimpsest, that still show up under the trees. Piles and rows of stones are the most obvious, usually- stone walls in various states of disrepair, disheveled stacks that mark old chimneys, disorganized piles along old fields, testaments to what had to have been back-breaking labour of digging up and clearing out the product these hills grow best. Occasionally bits of structures remain- spring coverings, foundations, less ambiguous signs than the often random-looking rows and piles of rock. Here and there are the stone marking graves, some of them still tended by the descendants of the people buried there, the names on the stones the last link of individual persons to the land in which they now lie waiting the Resurrection.



There are other signs- day-lilies and ivy, rose bushes and periwinkles, living markers descended from the plants brought with the people who once dwelt here. If there were no other records, we would know this much- whoever dwelt here cared about the appearance of their farmsteads, hardscrabble as they might be. You don’t eat ivy or day-lilies- they make your home more civilized, more settled. They are markers- though doubtless whoever planted them didn’t have this in mind- that persist, that have struggled against the return of the native forest: the day-lilies and roses have themselves become native, as the people who lived here had been, slowly, settling into the landscape. And like everything else in this landscape, they are in flux, rising and falling with the seasons, spreading and retracting, struggling, living.

The old fields and roads show up too, more subtly than the above signs, but clear enough if you’re looking for them. In cove after cove, even-aged tulip poplars grow like the corn stalks they’ve replaced; in some places the furrows of the fields are still visible under the fallen leafs and new humus. All through the hills old roads and paths still wind through the valleys and over ridges, appearing and disappearing; here and there modern trails lie on top of them, as people with very different lives and intentions follow them. But we leave eventually, returning to our homes elsewhere, in a different world, a different land.

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Finally, this is contested land. The signs of the Cherokee, and whoever might have come before them, are almost entirely invisible now. A few names of streams and mountains, mutated under the hand of English, survive on maps; in some of the lower valleys more tangible traces appear, or used to appear. But otherwise there is little left but the absence. The people who displaced the Cherokee are more visible, who wrested control of the land and gradually too became native to the place. The lumber companies who fought their way up the valleys- contesting the land perhaps most of all- still speak through the hills, but their traces are even more ephemeral than the settlers, now reduced mostly to railroad beds and bits of cable and a few scattered cinders; the forest is largely healed. The farmers themselves were challanged and driven out by the combined power of economic difficulties and the force of the Federal government; the transposition of old roads and modern National Park Service trails are testimony of this struggle. The signs of the Park Service often overlay the old signs- reused trails, place names, old cabins and houses marked by interpretive signs and tourist grafitti. One day, no doubt, these signs will also be subsumed by mountains, as the forest- enduring in its presence if not its form- swallows up this latest assembly of signs, and new ones- or perhaps none- replace them, and our contemporary presence recedes into the scattered memory of the hills.

Rainy Day in Sefrou

Sefrou is a fairly small town south of Fes, placed between the grand valley of Fes and the Middle Atlas. One approaches Sefrou from Fes through rolling groves of olives, mostly, the citadel-shaped mountain that stands guard over the town drawing closer and closer. The town itself sits in a little valley, with the rolling expanse of the Middle Atlas spreading behind; a stream drops down from the hills alongside, over a lovely little (and much locally celebrated) waterfall, and through the Old Medina (where it serves pretty much as a garbage chute, unfortunately). The entire time I was in Morocco this little river was full of water, and Sefrou and its surronding countryside was incredibly green. Walking around the edge of town I was always struck by how incongrous all the greenery- oaks and ivy even!- was in comparison to the usual image of North Africa as all desert and barren mountains: a far cry from reality.

Nor is it all sunshine and heat, as this set of photos relates. I took them on my first full day in Morocco- a wet, cold, and continually rainy day. I had spent the night in Fes after taking a plane to Tangier and then train to Fes; after checking in with the Arabic institute in the morning I trudged through the rain, down the street past Fes’ regal McDonalds, and confidently got in a grand-taxi bound for Sefrou. When I arrived, the rain that had harried me on my trek to the grand-taxi stand in Fes was still pouring down, so I sat in my little hotel room and looked out the window, wondering if had in fact ended up not in North Africa but perhaps England or Ireland. After a while I could stand no more sitting about, so I put on my raincoat and set out into the little medina, where I got lost (not for long- it’s hard to stay lost in Sefrou’s diminutive medina) and thoroughly drenched. In the meanwhile I took these photos, which are a bit drab, thanks to the rain, and work-a-day in their subject matter, I suppose. However, as I was looking back over this set today- inspired by the advent of cool, rainy weather here in Tennessee- I thought that they give a nice snapshot of ordinary medina life, and all the wonderful colours and shapes you can see, and perhaps a hint of the sounds and tastes and smells and feelings attendent to the seen things: the marvelously rich- moreso than any other urban place I’ve visited in the world- sensory experience of the Moroccan medina.

This is probably in the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter- Sefrou’s old Mellah takes up nearly half the Medina, though only a handful, if any Jews, now live there.

The robes some of the men in the photos have on are jellabas, the traditional, and quite functional, Moroccan outerwear.

In the always wonderful and aromatic (particularly compared to the meat sellers stalls…) vegetable and herb section of the suqs.

Along the outside of the walls, on the north side of the Medina.

In the evening, in one of the ridiculously narrow streets of the Mellah part of the Medina. It was rather cold by now, and I did not, alas, possess.

On The Road

Transportation in Morocco is frequently a real adventure in itself; in the out of the way places finding onward transport can be a somewhat hairy experience. My most vivid such ordeal came during an extended weekend from classes courtesy of the Prophet’s Birthday, which I spent, at first with friends but in the last leg solo, wandering around southern Morocco. It was a Sunday- a bad day for finding transport in the countryside- and I was quite by myself, my comrades having declined to accompany me on my somewhat ill-advised adventure into the hills. I had spent the night in the one-horse town of Anemetir, twenty plus something miles north of Ait Benhaddou, where I had stayed the night before. The distance between I covered by foot, one long Saturday, clogging over desert and dust and hills. I stumbled into Anemetir around eight thirty at night, the sun having set hours before. It was pitch black when I hailed a kid playing football under a solitary streetlight- ‘Is there a hotel here?’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘Where?’ He was somewhat non-committal, merely pointing down the road. Well. I had read in the guidebook that lodging was available here, but, like my football playing informer, the description was non-committal. I walked out of the streetlight, waved to some men standing in front of a little store, probably nearing closing. I smiled- I have always hated to look like a lost, clueless tourist. My goal is to beam confidence, a knowing surety, as if I have anything to lose by appearing a little flustered in front of people thousands of miles from my home who could really care less about my traveler’s pride.

I followed a series of signs that promised lodging. I was bone-tired, dreading each further step. I was beginning to loathe the town, the night, myself, my inept decisions of the day. In several of the little villages I had passed through people had offered me a place to stay for the night. One of the villages was a particularly beautiful oasis, the village running along the rim of the canyon, the desert above, green lush sward below down to the river; at the north end of the village a huge wall of stone dropped from the mountains down to the river, only a narrow notch allowing the river and a sliver of road to continue north to the Atlas. Across the valley from the road the village stretched on, and in the centre was a crisply painted white minaret, stark against the mud brick of the kasbahs. The cultivated part was glowing with fruit trees in bloom. It was paradise. I had passed a sort of pension where the proprietoress had hailed me and suggested I spend the night. No, no, I said, I’m heading for Anemetir. She looked incredulous. Too far- stay here! No, no, I said smiling, I must go on. She shook her head and said goodbye. Some kids followed me for a ways, laughing and talking. One little girl asked me if I was from Egypt, and I took it as a decent appraisal of my Arabic, or her lack of knowledge of things Egyptian.

Eight-thirty at night in mostly dark Anemetir I was severerly wishing I had stayed in the paradisical village. But no- I wanted to get transportation out on Sunday, make Marrakesh, and, dutiful student always, be back in class on Monday. Right now though I was contemplating sleeping under a rock, in the cold. I found the advertised hotel. There were no lights on. I knocked and knocked on the big, prison looking wooden door. Nothing. Place was closed as a tomb. I dithered back down the path, wondering what I was going to do next. I climbed down a little valley, past another late-night store, an oasis of warm, gentle light and domesticity, while the rest of the town seemed to have receded into the threatening desert, cold, dead, dark. I continued on the road north. I knew there was another town seven or eight miles on, with a couple of for-sure hotels. Or I could knock on someone’s door and take my chances.

I was passing the last streetlight in the village, the open road and open country stretching in front. My heart sank; I felt sick. Interiorily I was cursing myself for such an idiotic enterprise. I had neither tent nor sleeping bag, only my paltry pack with a little food and some extra clothes. It was getting cold out, the wind whipping down from the snowfields of the High Atlas. Then, as if my troubles couldn’t get any bleaker and more pathetic, a pack of dogs started barking at me and threatening with their barred teeth. I started to stoop for stones; it wasn’t the first time I had been forced to ward off angry dogs. But before I had to do anything else, a man with a flashlight- a headlamp at that, of all things- yelled at the foul creatures and they snarled away. I waved, and he asked- in English, if I recall correctly- if I needed help. Indeed I did- did he know of a hotel, gite, anything? Yes in fact- and he shined his light across to an odd-looking place: Chez Mohammed’s Gite Camping Berbere, the sign proclaimed. My anonymous guide knocked on the door of the little compound, and after a bit Si Mohammed appeared. My guide explained my predicament, and Si Mohammed agreed to put me up. He led me into a sort of dining room, with tables down the middle and couches around the sides, which I supposed were used to cater tourists during the on-season. He also had some big Berber style tents for use in warmer weather. That night however I was the sole customer.

I looked pretty horrible no doubt, and Si Mohammed seemed genuinely concerned. I tried to explain my adventure so far in a pidgin of Arabic and my meager stock of French. After making me a bed on one of the couches, and running his cat out of the room, he shuffled back to his kitchen and cooked me dinner. It was quite possibly the most wonderful meal I have ever eaten. After eating I laid down in my bed, my whole body shivering with exhausation, my legs aching like fire. I had a vision of myself waking up deathly ill, stuck in Anemetir, my money running precariously low, and no ATM in sight. My vision didn’t last long, however, as I quickly fell asleep.

I woke up and felt- al-hamdu’lillah– wonderful, completely refreshed. My aches and chills were gone. I groggily walked out to the bathroom, put in my contacts, washed up as best I could. After packing my things and eating a bit of breakfast from my pack, I knocked on Si Mohammed’s door and said good morning. He had explained to me the evening before that a grand taxi would be leaving from Anemetir in the morning, and I was going to make sure I made it out. We looked out but the taxi hadn’t pulled up yet; it waited at the edge of town, across the little valley from Si Mohammed’s. While I waited he invited me back to his little room to watch al-Jazeera. So for a while I took in the weekend’s news, or at least the bits I could comprehend from my limited vocabulary and the power of images. Eventually the taxi arrived, and I paid my bill, which was quite low. Not that I cared a lot- I would have paid considerably more, seldom having appreciated a roof and bed more.

After saying a heartfelt thank-you and good-bye to Si Mohammed- who seemed to wish I could stay longer and hang out- I walked out to the taxi. I was the only person waiting at the moment. I said hello, talked for a minute to the driver, then sat down in the back seat. And I waited. I thought about going back to Si Mohammed’s place to catch some more al-Jazeera, but I feared a sudden influx of customers and the taxi leaving without me. Of course, no such thing was likely to happen, but I was eager to get on with my journey, and not wait around Anemetir for another night. Over the next hour passengers trickled in, and we were soon on our way. The engine of the old Mercedes Benz complained and coughed, but started after some encouragement, and we rolled through the barren salt wastes that line the dry riverbed of the appropriately named Nahr al-Mellah above Anemetir. After some elevation gain, however, the scenery changes, becoming gradually greener, pine trees appearing on the slopes, and soon the snowy peaks of the Atlas emerge. We ended our journey in Telouet, the former home of the infamous Glaoui chieftans. We drove past their massive, sprawling kasbah at the edge of Telouet, its rotting hulk looming against the mountains distant. The taxi driver asked if I wanted to stop at the ruins, but I said no, I need to keep going. We piled out in the dusty little main square of Telouet, and as soon as I stepped out the bitter cold wind hit. It seemed a world away from Anemetir. I made for another grand taxi, which was supposed to make for Marrakesh. I stuck my bag inside, then went by one of the little stores and bought some sweets, then walked up the street to snap a photo of the great Kasbah. The wind ate into my inadequate clothes, and I beat a quick retreat for the taxi. When I had arrived, several men were sitting inside. I assumed they were going to Marrakesh. They weren’t. After about thirty minutes, the driver informed me I was the only passenger, which meant a trip to Marrakesh would be in the hundreds of dirham. I balked; there was no way I would or even could pay that. I looked around; down the street was a blue van, its flat snout pointing down the road towards, roughly, my goal. I climbed out of the taxi and started walking for the van; my walk became a run when I saw the vehicle start moving. I ran up to the driver’s window and asked if he was going towards Marrakesh. He laughed but nodded; I took that as an affirmative, and climbed into the van, which was packed with local men heading for work higher up in the mountains. I salaamed to everyone and did my best to look calm and nonchalant, like this was something I did everyday.

We started off- or rather, one of the men jumped out, pushed the van down an incline until it started, then ran and climbed back in. The road wound its way higher and higher; we stopped from time to time to drop a man off at his field or herd. At last we rounded one last incline and reached the main highway between Ouarzazate and Marrakesh. And that was the end of the van’s route. We were deposited at a sort of café-garage. I went inside and had some mint tea, then went out and stood by the highway alongside a couple of young Moroccan men. We started work at hitching a ride. It was not fun work. The snowfields were only another thousand feet or so above us at this elevation, near the very top of the highway, and the cold was bitter. I took a break from hitching and joined a little group of mechanics warming their hands over a fire next to an old Volkswagen being disemboweled. After regaining a little warmth I returned to my task. No one stopped. The buses- which were frequent enough- simply frowned and motioned that they couldn’t stop. All the grand taxis were full. I was beginning to feel a little jazzed out, to say the least. I stood alongside the young Moroccan men and we shifted back and forth in the wind, extending our hands from time to time at passing cars.

Finally a lumbering grand taxi pulled up and stopped. I ran to the driver and asked if I could get a ride to Marrakesh. Yes, he said, and told me the price, which sounded about right. Not that my options were very great. I climbed- literally- into the hulking extended body Mercedes Benz, already packed with travelers. I squeezed in and we were off. I breathed a prayer of thanks. The taxi scooted around the curves, dodged tour buses, and spluttered and coughed up the pass, then down towards Marrakesh. A mile or so below the main pass the taxi suddenly died. We stopped, in the middle of the road. Behind us- blind curves, buses hurtling down the mountain, break-neck. I imagined what it would be like to be flung off the highway and down a thousand foot cliff. I wondered whether I would make CNN, and figured no, I was just one American, not a very big deal. Now a taxi-load of Americans… The driver was cursing and kicking at the car. I laughed and said, “Miskeena– the car’s sick!” My fellow travelers laughed with me. The driver climbed back in, turned the ignition, and the car mercifully woke back to life. We made it all the way down, past the Berber towns clinging to the valleys, down into the cedar forests, down onto the plains, almost to our destination in a town just outside of Marrakesh. But a mile from the taxi stand our poor vehicle died again. It was several minutes before she finally restarted, and we pulled up the taxi stand and piled out. Nobody could complain of being cold by then. A grand taxi stuffed with nine men hardly needs a heater.

From there it was an easy municipal bus ride to Marrakesh, and then a petit taxi to the train station. I was in and out of Marrakesh, not having time to see the famed Djama’ al-Fana or anything. I got my train ticket, which expended nearly all the dirham I had left in my pocket, then wandered down to a food stall on the street, walked to the National Theatre and back to the station. Once I boarded my train the journey was straight-forward. I sat next to a pretty British girl who had been on a two-week holiday in Morocco; we talked for a while about our different experiences of the country, which she had visited once before. She got off at Casa, and after that I chatted with a Moroccan couple and picked up some new Arabic words; after they got off an elderly lady sat opposite me. She was thrilled by my Arabic, and shared her basket of fresh fruit with me. I went to sleep, and woke up outside of Meknes; while coming back from the bathroom I happened across some English-speaking German students who were staying in Fes and seemed rather worried about getting to their hotel. I tried to help them out, gave them my cell phone number in case they needed help, and felt very proud indeed at my local knowledge. When we pulled up to Fes I got off the train with them and negotiated a decent price at the taxi stand and waved them good luck. It was one or two o’clock in the morning, and I was more than a little tired as I dragged my feet back across the Ville Nouvelle to my little room, where I collapsed and slept soundly, but woke in time for- ever the dutiful student- my morning class.

Odds and Ends, Fes Medina

These are rosaries for sell outside of the shrine of Moulay Idriss II, the founder and (current) patron saint of Fes. The haram-precinct surrounding the shrine is filled with small shops selling rosaries, incense, candles, and other devotional aids, as well as sweet-meats (Idriss being the patron of sweet meats as well as the city, apparently).

The Millenium Falcon in miniature showed up at a flea-market at the edge of the Andalusian Quarter, along with a host of other wonderful items, including stacks of used Heinenkin bottles…

The rose-petal and rose-water vendor down Tella Kabira, just below the meat-sellers quarter. The olfactory contrast is intense.

Zellij tile and calligraphy in a medrasa in the Andalusian quarter.

Potatoes and herbs on or near Zanqa Romain.

An interesting piece of decoration of the exterior of the Moulay Idriss shrine. I’m afraid I have no idea of its symbolic import- assuming it has some- so if perchance anyone out there knows, I’d love to be filled in.

A Border Incident

I’ve not really blogged much concerning my travels in Morocco this year; I had meant to do such at a separate blog, but haven’t… So instead I will share, insha’allah, a few travel narratives here, coming in no particular order. Here is the first such installment:


On arrival in Morocco my passport was stamped with a ninety day standard tourist visa. Unfortunately, my plans called for a stay slightly longer than ninety days, and since I did not wish to fill out the burdensome paperwork and face the infamous Moroccan bureaucracy, I opted to simply make a jaunt from Fez up to Ceuta (or Sebta, if you prefer), one of two Spanish-owned and operated cities on the North African coast. Besides being an opportunity to recharge in a European city, I could also renew my visa without any trouble. Or so I thought.

Ceuta is a nice enough little city- large town, really- stuck on a peninsula that sticks out from the northwestern tip of Africa, just opposite the Rock of Gibraltar. It has changed hands repeatedly over the past few millennia, but the Spanish have held it down for the past few centuries, and look likely to do so for a while longer. As much as Morocco may complain and refer to Ceuta and its sister, Milleta, as occupied cities- which, granted, they are- no one stands to gain much if the situation is changed, or at least as long as the two autonomous cities are duty-free zones, and the cheap(er) cell phones, digital cameras, and liquor continues to flow for Spanish and Moroccan day-trippers.

Crossing into Ceuta was no trouble. A grand taxi ran me from Tetouan to just short of the border, where a shifty-looking man presented me a blue form to fill out and tried to direct me to the proper line, then demand the obligatory dirhams as a tip. Better than one guy I’d run into at the bus station in Tetouan, who wanted Euros- which I didn’t have… The border is pretty obvious, marked as it is by a wide barren strip that was literally burned out- still smoldering in fact- while I was there (brush fire perhaps?). Beyond this demarcation line is a network of fences, ditches, and guard towers, the whole thing bristling with guns and barbed wire. I made my way on foot across the frontier into Spanish territory with no trouble- the Spanish authorities didn’t even stamp my passport- perhaps this is done on the ferry out of town? Within a few minutes I was greeted by a bright blue sign proclaiming Bienvenido a Espana.

After a day of hiking around the peninsula and enjoying views of the Mediterranean, I spent my evening and night in dear old Spain nicely enough, enjoying good Chinese food- pork, at that!- washed down with a Mahou beer. Later I looked up an “Irish” pub which, despite stupidly loud techno music, did serve me up a decent pint of Guinness. After that I went to bed, all well with the world.

The next morning I took the bus back to the frontier, and started across, expecting no trouble. Some friends of mine had taken the same trip a few weeks before for the same purpose, and had run into no trouble- other than having to make someone stamp their passport. No such luck for me. I presented myself to the border guard in charge of stamping passports and what not. He looked at my visa, then typed my visa number into his computer, then scowled. He dithered about for a few minutes, during which time I became worried. He stepped out of the post, and did not return for a few minutes. When he finally returned, he informed me that I could only stay in Morocco a few days, and that in fact he could not stamp my passport, or something to that effect. I protested. He handed me back my passport and pointed to an office across the frontier and told me to go there. I dutifully obeyed, climbing over the obstacle diving the coming and going lanes (marked with Do Not Cross signs of course) and over to the office, where other disconcerted foreigners were queued up in front of the window. I joined the queue and thought of the ludicrous idea of not being re-admitted to Morocco.

When I had my turn at the window, I began to explain my predicament in my halting but mostly correct fusha Arabic, thinking how nice it was that I could express myself thus. The official inside quickly grew weary of my Qu’ranic-sounding discourse and interrupted me in English… My passport disappeared inside for a minute, then re-emerged, with “No trouble. Give your passport to that man-” man inside the window pointed to a shuffling fellow in uniform who was busily talking to himself and not seeming very interested in the still confused and disconcerted foreigners standing about. We- myself and the other confused border-crossers- handed our passports over, and followed the swiftly moving official back over the obstacles and towards the post. He handed back passports to one group of French students and waved them through. I noticed- thanks be to God- that he had also handed them my passport, so I ran after them and indicated the mistake. They handed me my passport back and I chased after the official, who had by now saddled up to the post. Once again my passport entered the unhappy post, and the absent-minded official insisted to his dutiful comrade within that I was no problem, let him through, or something of that nature. His mission fulfilled, he ambled off. Mr. Dutiful Border Guard gruffly stamped my passport, looking none to pleased at what he no doubt thought an irregular operation.

I was deeply pleased to at last leave the frontier. I scooted through the last gate and in minutes was in a grand taxi on my way back to Tetouan and then on to Fez, very gratified that my brief encounter with the Moroccan bureaucratic machine was behind me.

Great and Small

Over the weekend my youngest brother and I backpacked and otherwise rambled around the southeast corner of the Great Smoky Mountains. Despite relatively little fall colour due to a very warm early autum, the mountains were still magnificent. What follows are some highlights.

Sunset from Mt. Sterling, where we spent the night under the howling wind and the chatter of college students…


Sunrise from Mt. Sterling.


One of the bull elk in the Cataloochee area of the park.


I must apologize for a scarcity of content here over the past few weeks: I’ve been terribly busy with my college speech and debate team with a series of national tournaments (one in California- beautiful weather and awful congestion and smog; the other in Michigan- miserable, mostly, weather and lots of wide open farmland); this week is my school’s spring break, which I’ve spent mostly at home, which means limited internet use mostly.

Spring arrived while I was off in other corners of the country; it has arrived in absolute resplendence, the dogwoods, redbuds, and azaleas all bursting with colour. The oaks and hedgerows and fields are aglow with green, and even the live oaks are shedding their old leaves and putting on a new coat. But, to all those in northern climes suffering under snow and ice, keep in mind- as we try not to do here in the Deep South- in a couple more months our joy will be turned to sorrow, or at least highly mitigated joy, as the blessings of our mild clime are transmitigated into the evils of living in a giant Turkish bath…