Eastern European Girls

Eastern European Beauties

Eastern European Girls

Eastern European Beauties

If I should disappear you can look for me in Eastern Europe where I will be eating incredible food, drinking fine wine, spending my days with Eastern European Beauties. Life is good in Eastern Europe and not so expensive as everywhere else. Yes, if I disappear, you can look for me there.

Moroccan Mountains

Morocco’s Unseen Mountains and Rivers

Morocco towns and riversSometimes the most rewarding trips are close to home. Lately, I’ve been feeling the itch to travel but have been a bit stuck at home because of family responsibilities, work and the weather. Yesterday, though I decided that I needed to take some time to go on a short jaunt from the town I live in, Sefrou, Morocco – a medium sized city in the Middle Atlas Mountains of North Africa.

My wife hates to travel this way, which is perhaps why neither of us have a truly satisfying time when we travel together – I don’t like to make plans. Instead, I walked down to the grand taxi plaza in the center of Sefrou (there are two others that serve other destinations but I’d never taken a taxi from this one) and I stood around for a while seeing if I could figure out where they were going. A taxi plaza is a nice place to loiter as everyone assumes you are waiting for a taxi to fill up and so you can just sit and people watch to your hearts content.

Morocco townsI heard that one destination was Ribat El Kheir, a berber town I’d heard of but not been to and the other seemed to be Asouta – more people were going there it seemed so I called my wife and asked her. Her response (about what I expected) “No, don’t go there, there’s nothing there, it’s too far, you won’t find a taxi back in the afternoon, the people there like to stare.” Oops – I probably shouldn’t have called. Once I promised her I wouldn’t go to this mysterious destination (this time) I jumped in the wait for the Ribat el Kheir taxi to fill up (since I hadn’t said anything about that destination and so hadn’t had to make any promises about it.)

I didn’t know how far or how long, but it was easy to find out it was 20 dirham which probably meant it was about twice the distance to Fes (10 dirham). After about 20 minutes, the taxi was filled with me and six other men. I wondered if I would be able to find a taxi back but knew that even if I didn’t I would be able to find a hotel, if they had hotels, but even if they didn’t I would be able to find a Moroccan family that would accept a donation in return for letting me sleep on a couch in their salon – I hoped.

Moroccan MountainsI had no idea what to expect. I knew a Peace Corps Volunteer last year who worked with a group of women in Ribat el Kheir but aside from that, I knew nothing. The taxi ride took a little over an hour and let me tell you – it blew my mind. The ride to the village of Azzabba was fairly typical of the scenery around Sefrou high desert foothills, cactus, rocky soil, olive trees and not much else – but then the Middle Atlas came into view.

A bit of research when I got home means that you get to hear more detail than I knew as I saw things. Jebel Bou Iblane is the second highest mountain in Morocco and sits 3174 meters high and covered with snow. Like a small white lion, she crouched over the scenery.

Moroccan RiversBut there was more. Soon we came to an astoundingly large river. The Sebou River begins in this region and then winds more than 600 kilometers to the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the largest rivers in Morocco. Not only that, but it has carved out a sort of mini Grand Canyon that completely astounded me with massive red cliffs, rugged valleys, and more. Sadly, the Sebou is one of the most polluted rivers in the region due to open sewage and industrial waste pouring into it along its entire length. A beautiful river and a huge tragedy all in one. The stretch of the river I saw looked perfect for kayaking, rafting, fishing and more – but not a soul was doing anything but washing clothes along the banks.An historical note, the Sebou River was actually chronicled by the Roman Pliny the Elder.

A short distance further we passed through the city of El Menzel – which I visited later in the day – briefly.

Jebel Bou Inana MountainAbout forty more minutes and we reached the surprisingly busy Taxi plaza of Ribat el Kheir. Both Ribat el Kheir and El Menzel had what looked like bright shiny new banks with bright shiny ATM machines – just a few years ago, finding an ATM machine in cities this size was impossible in Morocco, but it just goes to show how quickly this country is changing – though sometimes it’s hard to tell when you are living in it.

Ribat El Kheir is a name that was given to the town as punishment when the Berber residents rebelled against the former king Hassan II in July of 1971 – obviously, their coup failed. Prior to that it was called (and still is called by the residents) Ahermoumou or small white lion in Tamazight. The views of Jebel Bou Iblane and the Zloul Valley were nothing less than astounding. I’m not sure how to reach the mountain, but perhaps a later expedition will clear that up.

Women's Artisanal in MoroccoA shopkeeper I met told me that the city had once been an important stopping point for the railroad, but I saw no signs of it. Later research showed that a narrow gauge railway had run from 1925 until an unknown time when it was destroyed. Not sure if that was in a Berber uprising or perhaps World War II or even later.

A bit of hiking around and searching led me to the women’s artisanal and retail outlet that my friend the Peace Corps Volunteer had helped to organize and set up. A woman named Foudia gave me a tour, showed me how the rugs and textiles are made and told me the prices. Sadly, I hadn’t brought enough money with me but the absolutuely gorgeous rugs ranged from 300-1000 dirham ($45-$130) and were well worth the price. Peace Corps volunteers have done incredible work in Morocco but I’ve heard that this kind of economic training has been discontinued and instead the Peace Corps is focusing on youth development, which pretty much means English classes. I find that very sad.

dream house in Ribat el KheirI found my dream house in Ribat el Kheir, which is most likely owned by the richest person in the town. I wandered the many small streets, hiked a bit on the rough slopes and enjoyed the awesome views before climbing into a van heading to El Menzel. Designed to hold 12-15 people, it was soon filled with about 25 and we kept stopping along the way. Just 6 dirham, but tight, uncomfortable, and very slow since we stopped often for new passengers. A real life experience, that’s for sure.

El Menzel looked interesting but with daylight fading, I wasn’t sure how much longer the taxis would run to Sefrou and I didn’t want to upset my wife by telling her I’d be staying in this village for the night, though I wouldn’t have minded if I had gotten stuck there. I found a small town of nice parks and unlike Sefrou, there were plenty of spaces to sit on benches surrounded by plants and flowers. I don’t really know what is wrong with Sefrou – I suppose it is a victim of too rapid growth but every bench is quickly torn apart and the huge amount of garbage makes the plants not as enjoyable as in other places.

Moroccan sunset from Grand TaxiI found a very comfortable cafe (again, why can’t I find one like this in Sefrou?) enjoyed a coffee for five dirham and then wandered the streets where I found one of my favorite food carts, Baboush – African Snails in herbal broth! Mmmmm.
I think that snails would be considered haram by other Muslims, but North Africans love them and I have to admit – so do I, but since I have no religious prohibitions- it’s all about the taste. Finally, I grabbed a bag of popcorn from another street vendor and bought the two front seats of a taxi. Once four guys had filled the back seat, the driver got in and we drove off – the cost for my luxurious occupation of the entire front seat 26 dirham or about $3 versus $1.50 to have some other guy crammed in next to me. Well worth it as I snapped pictures of the canyons, the Sebou River, and the sunset on the way home.

Getting back home, my wife was just coming back from her mom’s house with the baby “Did you hitchhike? Where did you go?” She asked me.

“Oh, I just took a little drive.” I told her.

Sidi Ali ben Hamdouche Mouassim

What am I doing here? Mouassim in Sid Ali Ben Hamdouche

Vago Damitio. What am I doing here?

Moulay Idris Zerhoune and Sidi Ali ben Hamdouche
30 January 2013

This past week has gone faster than any last year did. I don’t know what that means or even if it means anything. Last Wednesday began an odyssey that I’ve only just started to digest and I’m not sure I can actually share it in any kind of detail. Air Sidi Ali was an experience like no other.

Through my friend Jess at Culture Vultures Fez, I was able to participate and observe something that not many outsiders have ever witnessed. It’s not like I’m the first or even the hundredth foreigner to ever go to a leela or visit Sidi Ali ben Hamdouche during the annual moussim, but not many have. One reason for that was the draconian fascist control system which was thrown over the entire project by the driver-cap wearing Moroccan councilmen who would prefer that outsiders not witness animal sacrifice, trance induced euphoria, or the mysteries of mystical Moroccan Sufism.

Funny that the magic of being a witness to such an amazingly primal celebration, being welcomed warmly by complete families of strangers and master musicians into trance ritual healing, celebration, and release – all of that was overshadowed by a bunch of insecure bureaucrats in tailored suits who did their best to throw a net over all of us who wanted the chance to understand something beautiful, to be a part, and to gain a greater understanding into the true pulse of Morocco.

Sidi Ali ben Hamdouche MouassimFrom the moment that Jess began organizing her artistic project – for ARTISTS – not journalists, not reporters, but ARTISTS who sought inspiration and beauty from the very soul of the maghreb – from the moment she requested permission and began to do things in a legitimate way – from that moment the bureaucrats did their utmost to stop it. Had she simply gathered a group of foreigners and gone to the mountain village to see and take part – it wouldn’t have been a problem. The problem was that she was trying to do things in a way that was respectful of the culture, respectful of the people, respectful of the rules, respectful of the authorities, and respectful of the bureaucracy.

One of the reasons I can’t wait to leave Morocco is that small-cocked bureaucracy where each level of bureaucrat is so scared to look like they don’t know how to do their job (which most of them don’t) that they can’t risk making a mistake that will point out what they don’t know. So, they simply say no, they make up reasons to say no, they refuse to give access to the higher ups, and they maintain the status quo in the hope that they too might rise to the higher positions where there is more money, more authority and less chance that anyone will find out that none of them know what the fuck they are doing. The key to that is to not disturb the guy above you. Be a good gatekeeper and you will rise. Rock the waters and you will be replaced with a better do-nothing. These guys in their driving caps and suits were on us like stink on shit as we were welcomed by people, musicians, herbalists, magicians, fortune tellers, mystics, and scholars alike. They went so far as to shut down a conference when they found that foreigners would attend and to post officials on either side of us as we walked through the streets or sat in houses. When the portrait photographer set up his large polaroid portrait camera in a public space, none of the common people cared, but those bastards in the suits did. They shut him down before he could take a picture coming out of the woodwork where they had been watching us. As we walked down the street they grabbed our interpreter/guide/facilitator and dragged her backwards without saying anything to us demanding “What do they want to know? Why are they here? What are they trying to find out?” I doubt they would have dragged her to some dark dungeon if I hadn’t noticed she was being dragged away, but maybe, luckily there were friends about with more pull than me. I’m just a nobody. Through the time I was there they were demanding papers, entry numbers, signatures, permits and doing everything they could to keep this magnificent spectacle from being seen. They failed. They failed and they looked like fools doing it. Not only did they look like fools, they are short changing their spectacular culture, the wonderful people, and the rich cultural tapestry that we wanted to tap into. Yes, they failed.

We were taken into houses where they were not present. We witnessed slaughter, we heard music, we danced, we chanted, we tranced. We met fortune tellers and herbalists and watched as candles were lit for spirit saints and saint spirits and djinn. They stopped the photos in the streets but the musicians came to private houses to provide portraits. They shut down the conference but they couldn’t shut down the conferences in the cafes or even the slaughter of a cow in a house filled with Hamdacha, Gnawa, Issawa, and musicians. They didn’t keep the blood from bare feet, the candles for the sacred tree of Lalla Aisha, the washing in Aisha ben Hamdouche’s spring, or the dancing in procession.

This project wasn’t about revealing things to the world. It was about tapping into and sharing the sacred, the beautiful, the artistic. It was about bridging cultures and finding the commonality of man. The project was a success. My art is changed, the art of the others is changed, perhaps, even the art of the people we interacted with is changed.

The bureaucracy? It’s still the same. They just don’t get it. They never will.

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