Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983 iv
Miḥrab page, Dalā’il al-khayrāt, completed 1705 (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 19r).

The famed late medieval book of prayer and blessings upon the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, known as Dalā’il al-khayrāt, written by Muhammad Sulaymān al-Jazūlī (d. 1465), would become one of the most popular texts of any sort across the early modern Islamicate world. From modern-day Morocco, where al-Jazūlī lived, worked, and died (he completed Dalā’il in Fes, while he would ultimately be buried in Marrakesh), his most famous work would rapidly spread to points east, with copies appearing by the mid eighteenth century as far afield as Eastern Turkestan and the Indonesian archipelago. As this text and its devotional regime spread, the text itself took on what was in some regards a relatively stable visual schemata- depictions of Mecca and Medina, schematics of Muhammad’s tomb and minbar, and an overall ornamentation and careful, often fully vocalized script could all be found in copies across the Islamicate world. At the same time, different regions drew the text into their own traditions of art and manuscript production, while in some cases adding additional material. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Ottoman copies of Dalā’il would often come to include hilye-i şerif panels, calligraphic ‘verbal icons’ of Muhammad (which themselves had originally existed in a medieval treatise).

In the Maghrib- the Islamic ‘Far West’- where the text originated, copies of Dalā’il would often include unique to the region elements, elaborated in a variety of styles. One such unique (so far as I can tell) element was the inclusion, in the opening pages of the manuscript, of an illuminated genealogy of Muhammad. Here is a relatively plain example, making use of name roundels (which were also common in Ottoman productions and may have their origin in such a milieu) and extensions of names into the neutral space of the illumination:

Library of Congress. Arabic manuscript, SM 85.
A genealogy page from a copy of the Dalā’il made in the Maghrib during the second half of the 18th century. (Library of Congress, Arabic manuscripts, SM 85)

However, the manuscript that I want to focus on here, now classified as BnF Arabe 6983, is another Maghribi version of the famous prayer book, and was completed in 1705 in what is now Morocco and held in the library of the Nāṣiriyya sufis in Tamegroute on the edge of the Sahara until it came into the collection of Hubert Lyautey, the French Resident-General of Morocco in the early twentieth century, and thence to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This manuscript, which in its provenance history already bespeaks to much historical change, has one of the most spectacular and beautiful visual schemes of any copy of Dalā’il I have come across. The mihrab page above- an unusual feature in itself- hints at some of the artistic vigor and cultural exchange visible in this manuscript, which is very much oriented towards the Ottoman world, even as its core features speak to its Maghribi origins. The following page, an example of the above-mentioned genealogy component, demonstrates the Ottoman stylistic aspects especially well:

Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983
Dalā’il al-khayrāt. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Arabe 6983, fol. 6r)

Here, the illumination’s neutral space, while like the first example containing the winding names of Muhammad’s ancestors attached to calligraphic roundels, has been filled with a delicate swirling floral pattern. Anyone with some familiarity with Ottoman history is likely to recognize that pattern- it originated in the illumination of the sultanic calligraphic emblem, the tuǧra, as visible in the following example, from the late sixteenth century:

A firman (imperial decree), paper, written in Divani Istanbul, Turkey; 981 H = 1573 L: 295; W: 56 cm
The tuǧra of Sultan Selim II, as affixed to a fermân issued in 1573. Note the intricate floral ornamentation filling the interior of the calligraphy- this is an especially colorful example. (David Collection Inv. no. 51/2002)

Continue reading “Ottoman Cultural Exchange and Devotional Art in the Islamic Far West”

Itching for an Answer

The following are two fatwas- legal opinions issued by a mufti, a Muslim jurist qualified in both knowledge and application of Islamic law- from a multi-volume collection of fatwas of Maghrebi, Andalusian, and Ifraqian origin. The collection was compiled in the fifteenth century, but the fatwas apparently range in dates. Unfortunately, the editorial apparatus gives little indication of exact date or place of origin; only in certain cases does internal evidence provide clues to those sorts of things. However, these fatwas are filled with interesting insights into both the process of Islamic law in the Muslim Far West and into the concerns and exigences of these communities (for instance, in these, dermatological problems…). I hope to translate and share several more sets of fatwas from this collection in the coming weeks and provide a taste of both of these aspects, and hopefully shed some light on the how and why of medieval Islamic legal reasoning and concerns.

So here is the first fatwa I’ve selected, followed by my commentary. I should warn you, however, the subject matter is a little, well, icky:

[Scratching Scabbies in the Mosque]

Sīdī Ahmad al-Qabāb asked about a man who had many scabies on him (bihi jarab kathīr), so that when he went to the mosque for ritual prayer he itches them so that the skin peelings (qushūr) of the scabbies fall off in the mosque, and he is not able to desist from that. Is it permissible for him to enter the mosque or not?

He answered: I did not find any text about this! (lam ajadu fīhā nassan) But if he prays outside the mosque with their prayers if he is capable, it is a precautionary for him.

*

This first fatwa is quite short, and the mufti does not provide us with a great deal of transparency in his legal reasoning for his opinion. But it raises a couple of important issues in medieval Islamic law: first, questions of ritual purity and bodily propriety. As we will see from the second fatwa, the fact that our unfortunate scabies sufferer is not only scratching vigorously but transgressing the ritual space of the masjid with his skin peelings is a problem- or at least our mufti thinks it is a problem, with the condition that he has found nothing written about it. That is, and this is the second important issue raised here, he can find no legal precedent that addresses this problem. While he doesn’t tell us as much here, the succinct opinion he gives is built on analogy with other rulings concerning bodily propriety and the transgression of ritual space with bodily fluids and other forms of ritual impurity. This process of analogy from previously established cases to a new one is one of the central elements of Islamic law, and part of the flexibility and multi-valency of the legal process.

[More on Scratching]

Sīdī ‘Abd Allāh al-‘Abdūsī asked about a man with an itch during ritual prayer, so that he scratched a lot on account of that, but did not interfere with either the words or external actions of the ritual prayer. So should he start the ritual prayer over or not?

He answered: As for itching during ritual prayer, if on account of necessity it occurs to him in that he is incapable of desisting, and if the pain would distract him if he did not itch, then [scratching] is permissible to him and he does not impair his ritual prayer, unless he greatly prolongs [the scratching] or it distracts him so that he does not know what he is praying- then his ritual prayer would be voided. But if necessity does not compel him, but rather he scratches purely out of pleasure, that is disagreeable. And in the Traditions six [things] are from Satan, that is, on account of him, and scratching is mentioned [among them]. So then, if he prolongs greatly or it distracts him so that he does not know what he is prayer, he ought to start over, and if not, then no.

I said: The master, God’s mercy be upon him, did not discourse about what fell from the skin peelings of the scabbies due to this scratching since he wasn’t asked about that. But the answer for Sīdī Ahmad al-Qabāb has preceded it earlier in this volume.

*

Here we see, not concerns with ritual purity as such, but with the intention and action of ritual prayer. The question is: does this man’s persistent scratching invalidate his prayers? The scratching would invalidate his prayers, our mufti says and the questioner implies, if it was so intense that he could no longer pay attention to what he was saying and thus would be unable to register the significance of the words. In other words, the validity of ritual prayer is contingent on one’s active cognition of it. Mere repetition without registering is not enough; mumbling through the words while being overwhelmed by a wave of itching would necessitate stopping and resuming later- presumably once one’s itch had subsided… However, in the interest of what a Christian canonist might refer to as economy, some distraction, if it cannot be avoided, is permissible, provided one can still keep his mind (mostly) on prayer.

Tafsir Interiorized and Acted Upon

The following passage, which I came across (already translated into English, al-hamdulillah...) in Vincent J. Cornell’s excellent and engaging study, Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism, offers a lovely snapshot into the process of scripture engagement, the use of tafsir (commentary) and hadith, in the life of a twelfth-thirteenth century Maghrebi Sufi, Abu al-‘Abbas al-Subti (born in Sebta, or Ceuta if you prefer). One of the things that has recently begun to interest me is the way in which Sufi readers of the Qur’an- formal exegetes and others- tend to interiorize and ‘personalize’ the text of the Qur’an to a degree that more ‘traditional’ tafsir-composers do not, at least not within their text. This is not to say that other tafsir-writers are not striving for an interior and external ‘inscription’ of the scriptural text: I think they are, as well as a broader ‘inscription’ of the Qur’an and its interpretation upon the whole of Islamic life and doctrine. But this is done in a different manner from Sufi exegetes/readers (the line is of course blurry or non-existent; on a certain level, to read with some consciousness and desire for application is to do exegesis, whether in a formal tafsir setting or not) .

The following text is a good example of what I am trying to get at (and there is of course a lot more going on it besides the use of scripture I am interested in here). In it al-Sabti describes for us a very personal experience of a particular verse, in which he feels as if it is he himself whom God is speaking to; this textual-personal juncture leads him to the exegetical tradition, which in turn leads him further into the exegetical/para-exegetical tradition of hadith. His application of this whole complex of scripture and exegesis/tradition is deeply personal and interiorized while simultaneously rooted in traditional sources. His personal reception, via tradition, of the text then leads him to a very physical, ‘real-world’ inscription of the text. Finally, he describes two further explorations of the same verse, which has become so deeply ingrained/inscribed in his person. These two further explorations are conducted in ‘meditation’ which al-Sabti does not explicitly tie into any given exegetical or otherwise tradition. Here he presents himself in a sort of direct dialogue with the verse, though we should keep in mind- as al-Sabti would probably be himself pleased to remind us- that his engagement even on the level of ‘direct meditation’ would still lie within a whole matrix of exegetical tradition, textual context, and his own years of performing and speaking and meditating upon this particular verse. The sacred text has its own potency here, one which is certainly harnessed and guided and augmented by other factors- al-Sabti’s acts of interpretation and embodiment, for instance- yet also retains its own power, its own direction, that carries al-Sabti along for many (apparently quite productive) years.

*

I found a verse in the Book of God that had a great effect on both my heart and my tongue. It was, ‘Verily, God commands justice and the doing of good.’ I pondered this and said [to myself], ‘Perhaps [finding] this is no coincidence and I am the one who is meant by this verse.’ I continued to examine its meaning in the books of exegesis until I found Gharib at-tafsir, which stated that [the verse] was revealed when the Prophet established brotherhood between the Emigrants (muhajirun) and the Helpers (ansar). They had asked the Prophet to establish a pact of brotherhood between them, so he commanded them to share among themselves. In this way, they learned that the justice commanded [by God] was through sharing. Then I looked into the saying of the Prophet: ‘My community will be divided into seventy-two sects, all of which will be in the Fire except the one followed by me and my companions,’ and found that he said this on the morning of the day that he had ordered the pact of brotherhood [to be established] between the Emigrants and the Helpers…. So I understood that what he and his companions adhered to were the practices of mushatara and ithar. Then I swore to God Most High that when anything came to me I would share it with my believing brethren among the poor. I followed this practice for twenty years, and this rule affected my ideas to the point where nothing dominated my thoughts more than uncompromising honesty (sidq).

After I had reached forty years of age, another idea occurred to me, so I returned to the [original] verse and meditated upon it, and discovered that justice was in sharing but that true goodness (ihsan) went beyond that. So I thought about it a third time and swore to God that if anything, small or large, came to me, I would keep one-third and expend two-thirds for the sake of God Most High. I followed this [practice] for twenty years, and the result of that decision among humankind was [both] sainthood (wilaya) and rejection; I would be venerated by some and rejected by others.

After twenty [more] years, I meditated on the first obligation of the station of goodness (ihsan) required by God Most High for His worshipers, and found it to be gratitude for His bounty. This is proven by the emergence of the instinct toward good at birth, before the acquisition of either understanding or intellect. I then found that eight grades of behavior were required for charity and that seven other grades [were required] for ihsan in addition to [those required for] justice. This is because for oneself is a portion (haqq), for the wife a portion, a portion for what is in the womb, for the orphan a portion, and a portion for the guest… Once I arrived at this degree, I swore an oath to God that whatever came to me, whether it be little or much, I would keep two-sevenths of it for myself and my wife and [give up] five-sevenths to the one for whom it was due.

Abu al-‘Abbas al-Subti

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.

Islamic Iconography From Fes

The images below come from a card-stock poster I found at a miniature flea-market of sorts an elderly Fassi would hold pretty regularly on the north side of the Qarawiyyin Mosque. He had, among other things, a couple other similar posters, along with random booklets, magazines, spoons and forks, and various trinkets and odds and ends. The iconography is what caught my eye- while iconography of various kinds is common enough in Morocco, this particular example stood out for its colorfulness and the sheer volume of visual activity in one piece of card-stock. I don’t know the origin or the history of this document, other than that it was probably produced in Fes, as one of the scenes is of Ahmad al-Tijani, whose zaouia is only a few streets over from al-Qarawiyyin.

Ahmad al-Tijani, on of the most prominent saints in Fes these days. His zaouia is particularly popular with pilgrims making the Hajj coming from West Africa. The Arabic text next to the picture- not pictured here- reads: ‘The sheik Saint Ahmad al-Tijani was a man virtuous, pious and (qūran– not sure of this word), a Sufi and the sheik of the brotherhood (ţariqa) that traces its origin to him.  Originally from Algeria, he immigrated to the city of Fes and adopted it as his residence. Many followed after him in Morocco and in black Africa. Finally, he died in the city of Fes around the year 1165 of the Hajira and was buried in it; God have mercy on him.’

A scene depicting ‘The battle of Said ‘Ali with Ra’s al-Ghul (the demon’s head, al-ghul being the source of the English word ghoul, incidentally).’ The caption inside of Ali’s halo reads ‘our master (saiduna) ‘Ali.’  John Renard writes concerning this particular iconographic subject: ‘Pictures of ‘Ali engaged in combat against the demon of woeful countenance known as Ra’s al-Ghul are among the most prominent North African examples of this first type [images of religious heroes]. Here Muhammad’s son-in-law displays the essential trait of the religious hero, willingness to engage the forces of evil and injustice. ‘Ali usually dispatches the demon with a stroke of his forked sword, Dhu ‘l-Faqar (the cleaver), which he inherited from Muhammad. The sword provides a natural iconographic clue to the hero’s identity.’ (Seven Doors to Islam, pp. 97-8)

‘Ali, along with his two sons, is also featured in another panel on the poster, with ‘Ali seated and his sons standing next to him- not nearly as exciting as the one above. If you are at all familiar with Islam you will probably be aware that veneration of ‘Ali is most often associated with Shia Islam; however, Sufism in general from its initial stages had a high place for ‘Ali, and continues to do so in various forms. This is especially true in North Africa: ‘North African tradition, particularly in Tunisia, regards ‘Ali as a high exemplar for youth. He was “the first adolescent to have embraced the new religion without ever having previously bowed down to any idol or worshipped a deity other than God.” ‘Ali is morever the father of two sons who model ideal behavior for young people. Before they were martyrs, Hasan and Husayn were children of a heroic father. And as youthful martyrs, the two embody innocence and purity standing firm in the face of evil.’ (Ibid.)

Here we have a picture of the tomb of Muhammad, ‘the exalted prophet’ according to the text above the tomb. Obviously, this an image that would resonate all across the Islamic world, though I suspect it has a special resonance in North Africa where the tombs of saints are particularly important as sources of baraka, blessing/grace/power.

One more- the famous Buraq, the winged creature that features in the story of Muhammad’s Night Journey.

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.

Fes, In the Evening

Swirl and swarm, the swallows
Fling themselves, they thrust and pary
The air, flee the ramparts, and swim
The crowds in the great square.
I catch a spiral, a rising gyre, and my eye
Follows the dust of the city up,
On a bird’s wings, it flies, skirts
The white-washed minaret, up past the
Gates, and there it meets, on swallows’ tails
The sun’s last rays: earth and
Heaven mingle, whirl-
Still the swallows gyre on-
Losing sense and sight of which
Is which.