Thursday, April 19, 2012

Tastes of Africa

After a long radio silence, I am attempting to get back in the blogging spirit. It's harder than I expected to make room in my life for regular writing and reflection, especially when I've been moving around so much. In the past 6 weeks, I've had a good friend visit from the UK, gotten the stomach flu, showed my parents around northern Spain and savored the power of Easter celebrations here, and journeyed to Africa for the first time on a seven-day sojourn to Morocco. There hasn't been much time to catch my breath (and what time I've had has gone to... well, doing just that.) I'm so behind that it will be awhile until a post on Morocco appears on here for real, so I thought I'd post a small taste of two particularly powerful sensory experiences to tide you over.

1) We stopped in the small northern-Morocco town of Meknes for a few days but were disappointed by an initial 48 hours filled with torrential rain. Although we enjoyed walking the winding backstreets of the city's medina and visiting the remains of a Roman town in the Atlas foothills, for me the highlight was the last night.

The rain had finally cleared, filling the Meknes main square with people celebrating the end of holy Friday. A snake charmer half-heartedly piped his flute, a lazy-looking viper draped across his arm; children played a carnival-like game fishing for soda bottles with oversized rods; nearby, a crowd of men seemed to be cheering on a street performer who was teaching two pint-sized boys to box (?) But my favorite was the band.

Walking the square, I happened to catch a street band playing traditional Moroccan gnawa music to a rapt crowd. The last rays of sun reflected on the tattooed faces of old Berber women, young guys in skinny jeans, women in hijab and out. Above, a cloud of swallows swooped over the ornate gate to the Imperial palace. The music was rhythmic and emotive, and the men's voices wove in and out of the drum beat, occasionally uniting with a power that soared higher than the swallows. What drugs could ever replicate such a high?

2) A few days later in Meknes, my father and I spent a very lovely evening eating Syrian food and bonding with a diverse community of couchsurfers in Rabat (A Somalian-American studying Arabic poetry; a French-Brazilian working with refugees; a Moroccan physicist seeking to break the glass ceiling in her Ph.D program; a Korean doing his country's equivalent of the Peace Corps.)

After tea on their balcony overlooking Rabat's estuary, we returned to the hotel to check on my mother, who was having stomach problems. She reported that she was feeling better and that she had been hearing "some kind of wonderful live music, and very close by." We found out just how close by a few moments later, when the musicians took up their posts after a break, and we discovered that they were playing in the courtyard of the neighboring building. As our room was essentially a cabana on the roof of the hotel, we were able to look directly down at the proceedings.

There, a very exuberant, and exuberantly loud celebration was taking place, with the resonant drums, powerful voices, and complex rhythms that evoke images of West Africa. For a time, I stood in the chill watching, wanting desperately to run next door and knock on the door--but it seemed like perhaps this was a religious rite. Instead, I let the very foreign sounds wash over me, watched the women moving their legs and arms in sinuous rhythm, drummers pounding a seemingly endless and powerful tattoo.

Luckily, the main part of the ritual seemed to end at midnight, and the revelers retired to the inside of their building to continue the party. Even so, my dreams were still tinted with African voices. When I woke, hours later, and went out onto the cold balcony to use the detached bathroom, they were still at it-- though the sky to the east was just beginning to lighten.

No comments: