Tetouani Wanderings

It’s another regular Saturday in Tetouan. I’m chilling on the roof of Alex’s hotel doing sweet F.A. in the afternoon sun with a book and a blog and a map for tomorrow’s hike. Today’s a day for doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it. The others went to Chauen en masse. The Alegría music festival is on and they went to check it out, though I don’t half wonder whether they spent most of the day admiring the town itself. Apparently it’s shot from obscurity to one of Africa’s most visited municipalities over the last five years. Oh, to have visited it before the boom…

Tetouan’s Hotel Reducto has some simply gorgeous rooms…

I’ll keep today’s post short. Just a few observations I’ve made over the course of the day in elaborated bullet form. That ought to keep the ideas concise.

  • The wind governs life in Tetouan. Seriously, it exercises a power greater than the beloved King himself. When the Levante is blowing, and it almost always is, the world slows down. People sit out the sun and the maddening wind. The minute the wind changes, the city is suddenly full of joggers and movement. I’m serious about the joggers. That one afternoon when it rained back in June, every other man in town was out running.
  • Tetouan’s a great place to be in summer, even during Ramadan, but this place must simply shut down in winter. With the King out of town, and no tourists, and precious little commerce, not to mention the total absence of desire for the beach… why, it must be like Durham in summer. Or Mérida in winter, perhaps.
  • The Turkish First Army staged a failed coup in the early hours of the morning. Erdogan crushed it. It may not look like it, but the world is chomping at the bit for a war. All these proxy wars, migrant crises and terrorist attacks are the signs of a world that’s been held back from all-out war for too long. Globalization and the atom bomb might have saved us from further conflict, but it’s been over seventy years now since the last global war: seventy years removed from something that has been our oldest and most persistent tradition as a race. There’s a slow creeping back towards the far right across Europe. Britain has severed its ties with the European Union. Trump is within a few months’ reach of being allowed a shot at the nuclear codes. And all the while the terrorist strikes are increasing, striking randomly at civilians the world over like sharks biting at a whale. The centre cannot hold. It’s only a matter of time.
  • Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm… and yet, I have absolutely zero interest in getting in on this fad. And that’s despite being a PokéNut until I was twenty-one at least. I caught them all, all 720 of them – twice – and I must have spent several months’ worth of my life staring gormlessly at those little pixelated monsters along the way. I was just playing at David Attenborough, I guess. Pokemon was perfectly suited to a budding, obsessive, studious little naturalist like me. It’s less that I’ve grown out of it now so much as reading and the novel have taken its place. A well-deserved revenge, perhaps, since they were both ousted for hours of Pokébore when I was ten. No, I’ve already got a world of my own to jump in and out of, and it requires no technology whatsoever, thank you very much.
  • The girl behind the counter in the stationary shop is kinda cute. Buying a couple of 2B pencils and a pen turned into a scene out of one of my novels where I wound up talking to this lady through the glass as we picked out the right kind of pen. That was also a lot of eye contact for a little transaction (I tend to get to know the stationary shop staff far better than the people who work in cafes or restaurants. Hey, I have an insatiable appetite for a certain kind of pen and a certain kind of notebook, alright?). I do wonder, though… If I don’t find Her on the road, or in a park or concert or wherever, I might just end up finding Her in a bookshop. There’d be a kind of divine justice in that.

That’s all for today. Early start tomorrow. After weeks of staring up at those peaks, Alex and I are finally going to tackle Mount Ghorghez. And none too soon; another two weeks from now and I’ll be back in England and all of this will be a thing of the past. Fa3lan, time is running out… BB x

When ‘No’ is a Cultural/Moral Faux-Pas 

Of all the misadventures on this earth, I didn’t expect to wind up in the cardio ward of a general hospital during my stint in Morocco.

No, don’t worry. It’s not me. It’s the mother of my host family; there was an accident involving a police car and now she’s hospitalized. I’m just sitting here to show face, typing this up on the old iPad (and, if I might be so selfish, feeling very hungry). The entire family were here a couple of hours ago, but they’ve all filtered out and left one by one. It’s just the old guard, now. The old guard and me.

And of course, it’s Dārija on all sides. My posts from Jordan from last year imply that within two weeks I’d tuned unto 3mia. Not so with Dārija. It’s just too different a sound. Some of the words are the same but the accent is just too strong. I guess it’d be like studying the Queen’s English and then being exposed to Cajun. 

The trouble is, I was asked if I wanted to come along. I certainly could have stayed at home and got some more of that essay done, but what was I supposed to say? No, thank you, I’ve actually got a lot of work to do? How soulless is that?

But then, this is exactly how I’ve ended up in these scrapes before. I went to a funeral in Uganda once, for a family member of a former member of staff. We’d never met her, but one of my companions got it into her head that it would be kind of us to go along. That meant a five-hour drive out into deep country, far away from the English-speaking hub of Lira, to attend a lengthy service in a language none of us understood a word of for a woman none of us had ever met. That I spent the entire journey there and back wedged between the two fattest women in Africa didn’t help matters.

The trouble is, I guess, that I’m just very bad at saying no. I think a lot of Englishmen are. Maybe that’s why we have the word awkward and so many other languages don’t: we need it. What does that say about us as a nation? I’m just throwing ideas about here. Anything to take my mind off this Dārija.

Everyone’s off now, except the father, of course. One of the family took the car with them, which means I’m stuck here, I guess. Stuck in the general hospital with no power in my phone and a missing pen. For how long, I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The good news is that the mother seems to be recovering. Also, food has arrived in the form of biscuits and a Danone yoghurt drink. I’m even feeling a little guilty for venting like that back there, I guess that’s what hunger does to you. Thank goodness Ramadan’s over. In a while, crocodile. Let’s hope it’s not all night. BB x

Blaming the Wind

“My country lay within a vast desert. When the sun rose into the sky, a burning wind punished my lands, searing the world. And when the moon climbed into the dark of night, a frigid gale pierced our homes. No matter when it came, the wind carried the same thing… Death. But the winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin. I coveted that wind, I suppose.”

Ganondorf’s speech, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Have you ever tried to write an essay in summer, when your friends have all gone to the beach and the humidity is fiercely high? Let me tell you: it’s brutal. I have nobody to blame but myself for the panic, having left it this late to really knuckle down and get working on this essay, but the Levante is an obstacle I confess I had not counted on. It tires you out and yet at the same time it holds you back from sleep. On a regular day when the skies are clear it might just make you a little woozy, but when the clouds push the current down to earth it acts like a greenhouse. The very wind saps you of your energy and leaves you hot, sticky and lethargic.

Not the best environment to tackle a 5,000 word research project in a foreign language.

The Levante reminded from the very first of Ganondorf’s final speech from Nintendo’s Zelda: The Wind Waker. Until then he’d been a fairly standard videogame boss with awesome power and not much personality. I don’t know whether it was an act of mercy on the designer’s part or a simple desire for a more human villain, but he was a new man in WW, and that last speech always stands out in my head. Maybe after a thousand years of imprisonment in the Sacred Realm he’d had time to mull the whole world-domination thing over. So Zelda supports cognitive behavioral therapy. Who knew?

Alright, so the Levante doesn’t exactly bring death. But lying here in the heat and the stickiness and the fatigue of the night, it certainly isn’t the kind of wind I associate with green fields.

Fortunately, at least as far as the essay is concerned, I planned well: more than 365 days later, the topic – bandit mythology in Spain – is as exciting as it sounded when I first came up with the idea on a whim last year, when my mind was likely otherwise occupied by British Council anticipation and the next Northern Lights gig. So, whilst the others at Dar Loughat spent a jolly old time at Ceuta, or Ain Zarqa, or watching Grease, I managed to bust out a decent thousand words or so; decent being a liberal term, dependent entirely on whether you can stomach my shamelessly flowery essay-writing style. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been run down to my last megabyte of data – quite literally – I might consider going for another thousand this weekend too… But that’s not what the year abroad is for. Besides, I need more data or I’m going off the grid. I think I’ll check out the Three Armies after class.

At some point over the next few weeks I’ll get around to braving new territory and filming a grand sum-up of the year – mainly because I have to, it being part of my contract with the Durham blog. Not so good for this particularly camera-shy blogger, but you never learn if you never try, and it might be a fun little break from routine, anyway. You might even call it a swan song, in light of recent events.

It’s just gone four minutes past midnight, post-Ramadan time. I’ve got the Corrs’ latest album playing as I write – specifically, Gerry’s Reel. This evening, between sweating like a pig and drinking like a fish, I’ve got a decent amount of novelling done, too. Never forget, BB, that that is the crux. University, the year abroad, Arabic… It’s all a passing phase. The book is eternal and if you don’t work on it, nobody else will. It’s really blossomed this year like never before and I’m quite excited to have the time to work on it without any guilt in September, before dissertation season and the travails of Finals year set in.

Speaking of which, we should be finding out our dissertation choices this week. Scary, much. Especially so when it’s a 12,000 word commitment. Fingers crossed, eh? BB x

A Question of Appetite

The fifth week in Tetouan is drawing to a close. Eid has come and gone and Ramadan is over. The streets are full of smiles again and I have my own key. Dobby is free. I really should have done some more posting over the last week, as I’ve been pretty busy – but there’s your reason. It’s been a rather non-stop five or six days, both in and out of class. When I haven’t been in class or tempering my Arabic skills with the Host, I’ve been wining and dining with the massively-engorged Dar Loughat student body, burning several shades of red at Cabo Negro and frittering away four gigabytes of mobile date on Doctor Who, not to mention putting a great deal of thought aside for my Target Language Research Project on Spanish banditry legends and, in the not-quite-so-long term, my dissertation – to be confirmed in a couple of weeks, if the rumours are true. The end of the Year Abroad might be drawing near, but the pressure’s not about to be released. Not yet, anyway.

The biggest headache of the last week – and probably the biggest reason for the lack of posting – will become clear in a few months’ time. All I’ll say is that it was a very difficult choice to make, and that Cortés, Tariq Ibn Ziyad and Alexander the Great would all understand.

Breakfast this morning was standard fare. Mint tea with not too much sugar, honeyed r’ghiif (Moroccan pancake) and another ticking off from the Host, who can’t get their heads around why I never ask for things.

Ben, you never change. You are always quiet. If you want something, you must ask. You never ask. When Alex was here… etc etc.

I’d love to use the excuse that I’m English and that I’d rather die of shame than ask for something, but the previous student who stayed here was also English, and by the sounds of things even more reclusive than I am, so that’s not going to work (I was also a little irked that they’d gone back to comparing me to him, which they used to do all the time a while back. I really tired of it). My reasoning was that I simply eat and drink what I need; anything else is just extra.

If you want something from the kitchen, take it.
I did, though.
What did you take?
Water. Delicious, cold water.
You have a choice. Anything you want, if you are hungry. What would you do at home?
The same. Cold water.
Just water?
Seriously, though. I love water.

There’s a cultural divide there, especially when it comes to food. Not a divide, a fissure.

This year has taught me that, for all the wonderful creations of my housemates last year, food will always be for me a means to an end and not an art. I need what little I can to get by and no more. Morocco, like Uganda before it, seems to have no understanding for the concept of a small appetite. Can you blame them, when the Arabic language itself has no distinction between vegan and vegetarian? Fortunately I am neither, which makes traveling and flitting between cultures infinitely easier, but it doesn’t negate the fact that I’m in a world where the concept of an appetite is a thing of myth. I’ve lost count of the number of times where I’ve eaten so much that my ribcage felt like it might just burst. Lailat al-Qadr – last Saturday night, and one of the holiest nights of the Islamic calendar – has become a byword in the family for disaster, as I had to wade through two iftars and three dinners, consisting of all of the usual delights, but on a much larger scale.

But Ramadan is over. No more rushing home at irregular hours for that 7:41pm iftar every night. No more six o’clock fights in the streets. No more guilty fast-breaking in Reducto. The wait is over and the smiles have returned. Oh, and no more excuses for my TLRP. It’s do-or-die time. BB x

Halfway There

I’ve crossed the halfway mark. As of five minutes ago, I’ve been in Tetouan for four weeks. Four weeks exactly remain. It’s strange to think that the year abroad, essays outstanding, will be over soon. It feels like I’ve been away from home for so long. Jordan dragged, but Spain was over and done with in the blink of an eye and now I’ve only four weeks left at this Arabic game, inshallah, before I can return home at last and, for the first time in over a year, not have to think about where my next placement will take me.

At least, not for a month or so.

Victoria left for home this afternoon, which leaves me as the last of the old guard, if four weeks makes a veteran. I think I’m going to miss her, and I don’t say that about just anybody. She’s bound for brighter and better things and I can only wish her all the best wherever she goes. She’s been such an inspiration whilst she’s been her. It’s not every day you meet somebody who speaks nearly fifteen languages to varying degrees.

Goodbye Victoria!

Inspiration is so very important to me. I had an English teacher once who once complained about a parent asking her to motivate her child; her response was that she was ‘paid to teach, not to inspire’. I’m pretty sure I’ve used that example before, but the argument still stands: she was so very wrong. Inspiration is fundamental in teaching. When the pupil is ready etc. You know the phrase. I won’t repeat it. Inspiration is essential, especially for a subject as challenging as Arabic, and I’ve been so inspired by the people here at Dar Loughat. By Dris, the man who seems to know everything; by Jamal, the diplomat; Alex, the adventurer; Victoria, the original polymath; Katie, the courageous. For somebody who was dragged out of Spain by his heels, it was absolutely essential that Morocco delivered the goods and got the job done, and so it did – and how!

Relations with the host family have got significantly easier, too. That’s probably because I’ve been going out less of late, but maybe my rising confidence in Arabic has dealt a fair hand in that. The library in my room is a gold mine of information, the food every day and night is amazing (and much too plentiful) and the conversation is fantastic. That the father has a firm naturalistic understanding from his palaentological hobbies is just an added bonus, really.

Oh, I’ve been spending my time wisely, I have…

We had a few teething problems, I admit, but I discovered recently what I had guessed to be true: my predecessor was a bit of a social recluse, prioritizing a rapid mastery of Arabic over any and all gatherings. He rarely left the house, spent every spare hour out of class with the family and was constantly asking questions. The family just kind of assumed I’d do likewise, I guess. Is it any wonder, then, that they were a little confused by my silence, preference for books and long, long walks at the weekend? I reckon they’ve got the hang of me by now – insofar as anybody ever can – and my deep attachment to my own freedom. Maybe I’m more British than I thought.

I think I’ll go for my own apartment in Villafranca next year. BB x

Fast Breaking

It’s funny, the difference a day can make. Twenty four hours ago I’d have been tempted to title this post ‘Man vs Food II’ and it would have come across as a rather negative, Ben-gets-defeated-by-dinner-again sort of post. Right now I’m a little groggy, having just woken up from a much-needed afternoon nap, but the high that’s kicked this post into action has taken Monday’s negative finish and given it a firm kick out the door.

Coming back from Rabat and a more relaxed attitude to fasting has thrown the first two weeks’ routine off the rails, I confess. Apparently one of the various excuses for not abiding by the fasting laws – besides illness, pregnancy and being on one’s period – is travel. As a non-Muslim I’m under absolutely no obligation to fast, and it was only because it seemed the logical thing to do that I started fasting in the first place, but it has since occurred to me that there’s no shame in backing down over a light lunch here and there. 

There’s a lot of misconceptions about Ramadan. It’s a bit like the phrase Allahu Akbar: people tend to take it on face value. Here’s a really eye-opening insight I picked up today from a friend of mine. The Akbar part can be comparative or superlative, and if you let the media and its endless portrayals of gun-touting rebels carry you away, it’s easy to assume that it’s a gesture of defiance; ‘Allah is greater than any other (false) God’. In truth – or at least, in this interpretation of it (which I fully endorse) – it’s a simple reminder to the faithful that God is greater than whatever it is you’re doing right now. Harmless, right? Now that’s a pretty effective call to prayer. Better than a couple of church bells, at any rate.

Back to Ramadan. As far as I can tell, Ramadan isn’t about denying yourself food; it’s about getting closer to God. Fasting is just one way of focusing on such matters, reminding you daily of your obligation to the man upstairs. It’s that drive that gives believers the strength to persevere. I’m not a Muslim, so it’s little more than an act of respect or cultural appropriation on my part to act like the world around me. Fasting isn’t easy: I challenge anyone to try throwing their daily routine amiss with that two o’clock suhūr and still trying to get up for seven for that fifty minute walk to class. Faith is a greater fuel, however, and it’d be foolish of me to fight on without it. One day, I hope, I will find my way to God, but until then I would only be going through the motions, playing at mimicry. I’ve always been frustratingly stubborn, but on some matters the light, I find, is a little easier to see. Faith is one of those areas.

So without further ado, it’s out with the false scruples and in with the £2 tajines.

Now that the shackles are off, I’m going to tackle the meat of this post (there’s a knee-jerk reaction in pun format, if there ever was one). After a solid two hours’ research on the Barbary pirates, I ducked out of Dar Loughat this afternoon with comrade Alex to investigate our options for lunch. For the first time in two weeks I actually felt really rather hungry today, not to mention nursing an odd, woozy feeling in my head. In the latter I wasn’t alone; there were a fair few complaints about fatigue today across the board, even more than might be considered normal during Ramadan. The only difference is that the Levante has been blowing warm and strong all day, that westerly wind that’s supposed to dull the senses and even drive men mad. Believe what you will, I was tired and hungry. Alex offered to show me a local joint he’d uncovered and I was game.

Over lunch – a ridiculously cheap and delicious kofta stew – Alex shared a little of his knowledge of Egyptian Arabic with me. Something clicked upstairs, something that’s been dormant for a long time. Here was a guy who had had just as many years at the Arabic game as I, but one who, like my Parisian classmate, had beaten the language into submission over the course of time through a combination of drive and maintained interest. I found myself inspired to go home and study, and that takes some doing. Between the two of them, they’ve shown me that it’s not impossible to get to grips with the grammar. I’m no pessimist, but I do need reminding of my own capabilities from time to time.

It’s taken two and a half weeks to get to this stage. Two and a half weeks out of eight and only five remain. But I’m here at last. That’s what matters. And I haven’t even started the culture classes yet.

Watch out Arabic. I’m going to take you down. Just you wait and see. BB x

Ramadan Dreams

I slept pretty much all afternoon yesterday. That’s what you get after a two o’clock suhūr, I suppose. The result was a slew of very vivid dreams, perhaps not uninspired by the few clips of Inside Out! I’d been watching (I really must see the whole film. It looks amazing). This morning I could have spun the whole bizarre sequence out for you, piece by piece, but like so many dreams it’s been carried away by the morning light. All I remember clearly is standing aboard a gigantic galleon with vast, green sails, floating high above the earth like something out of The Edge Chronicles, and hurling myself overboard with my camera bag into the sea below as an alarm sounded and the ship slowly tilted sideways, stooped and then plunged into the water. And I was mainly concerned about keeping my camera dry.

I don’t think the family were all that impressed by my walking to and from school yesterday. I was. I found my way there and back in forty minutes apiece and it felt so good to get out. After all of that palava over Moroccan table manners, I really needed to get out on my own. To think. To breathe. Homestays really shouldn’t be this tough, but I am a bit of a loner. Sometimes what I really need is just to be left alone for four or five hours to read, or to think, or just to be. That was last year’s trouble, too; always rushing about.

It’s been a hard first few days. I knew it was going to be this way, especially concerning the Arabic language itself, but I didn’t expect it to be quite this hard. Leaving behind the friendly routine of the best year of my life to march straight into a two-month overhaul was always going to be difficult. Had I not gone in so positive I’d be on the brink of tears right now. I’m so behind. My classmate takes in the stuff like a sponge and I’m sitting there leaking. Grammar goes in, gets jumbled up with a million other unconscious thoughts, mistakes come out. It was so much easier in first year, when I was ahead of the game and vocabulary was all that really mattered… But then the grammar caught up, I burned out, and like so many track events, I fell back and back and back until I found myself a whole lap behind the rest. What a joke.

And here’s the punchline. In my brief spell at home, I found a folded sheet of paper covered in red scribblings I’d penned during that five-hour church service-cum-auction in Boroboro. University plans, mostly. I wrote them just weeks before I was offered a place at Durham. In amongst the scrawls there’s a four-year plan, detailing my plan of attack vis-a-vis studying French, Spanish and Arabic.

Apparently I’d never intended to take Arabic past the second year at all. There’s a question mark by that one as it is.

The question is, why did I take this road? Jordan was trying, but then, so is this – for want of company, this time. But for that one Monday class, last year was a dream. I belonged. Just speaking Spanish made me happy. And now I’m here… It seems very silly to be doing something you don’t really enjoy, and less so when you’ve no intention whatsoever of making any money out of it. Neither use nor ornament, and that’s probably the first and only time I’ve used that expression perfectly.

I suppose… I suppose I simply followed my heart. I tend to do that. I fell so very much in love with Arabic in first year. In fact, I scored more highly in Arabic that year than in either French or Spanish; undying proof that, if you put your mind to it, you can surely do it. It was, as we say, in my interest. Then came second year, the Northern Lights, the Gospel Choir fracas, another failed attempt at a relationship and the entire juggling scenario. I fell apart. I like being busy, but that was something else. I was balancing far more than I could feasibly carry. And I was also supposed to be studying Arabic.

Arabic is one of those languages you simply have to devote a lot of time to. I did in first year – almost every evening – and hey, it showed. I only became disillusioned when the lingering gap-year cabin-fever adrenaline rush petered out and I realized that there was more to university than endless study. It was thanks to that that I made so few friends outside my Arabic class that year… and that was one of the main reasons I decided to keep going. Arabic 1B wasn’t just a class, it was a real community in the way that the seven or eight French and Spanish groups could never be. United in fear. That was the magic.

What I really need right now is to escape. To be alone, without having to worry about grammar, about the family, about what my next heinous foodie faux-pas is going to be. Fortunately, I’m in the perfect place for that.

I’m turning twenty-two this weekend. Last year I spent a good deal of the day stretched out under the shade of an oak tree in the hills high above Durham, listening to the skylarks and feeling at peace with the world. That’s what I need to do. To get out. To the country. To be free. BB x