Last week, while walking with my friend and colleague Neal in Rabat, I recited the first line of Márquez’s novel, One Hundred Hears of Solitude, from memory and cited it as an example of the lasting effects and pleasures of language and art. I read that novel in the 1980s and have tried to keep up with much of Marquez’s work in between. I remember starting Love in the Time of Cholera on a bus in the state of New York. To me, Márquez took the Faulknerian touch and turned it into an all-embracing and colorful art, drenching it so resolutely in Latin American colors that the reader feels at times lost in the jungle of time and puzzling alleys of memory.
I taught many writers over the years, but I kept Márquez on my shelf of sacred objects. It would have been sacrilegious to teach his work. Autopsies are made on dead bodies, not dazzling lifeforms.
The most controversial actress in Morocco and the Arab world gave me a tour of Rabat, the capital of Morocco. To say that it was a unique experience would, quite frankly, be a huge understatement. Parking attendants, men in uniform, women with hijabs and jellabas, food sellers and everyone—literally—who saw Latefa greeted her with smiles and affection. People took photographs with her and asked for new performances. She is truly a people’s artist, one who uses a container (labelled “cont’n’art”), among other tools, to foster awareness about health and difficult social issues.
The car ride, as you could see in the video, was, in itself, a fascinating spectacle. The free-spirited Latefa sang throughout most of trip, ending, most appropriately, with the theme of Carmen, reminding us that women are born to be free, not objects to be hidden away.
As I was marveling at the beauty of Belyounech, a small Mediterranean village that borders on the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, I came across a big sign proudly declaring that the American people are financing a fisheries and access project in the area. The Belyounech project is part of a $697.5 million agreement that Morocco signed with the US Millennium Corporation for an initial five-year term back in 2007. This is how the United States needs to be seen around the world—as a nation that is doing everything in its power to stimulate local economies, reduce illiteracy and social inequities, and encourage socially marginalized people to have a voice in the global economy. These kinds of initiatives are the royal road to peace, prosperity, and friendship among nations. Bravo!
For years, I had known Aziz Abboud (top picture), a receptionist at the El Minzah Hotel, an avid nighttime fisherman, and a man of strong opinions and high values. We used to have fun and didn’t mind pretending that I was a fellow receptionist at the hotel. It always helps to see the world from a different angle, anyway.
Then, one day Aziz collapsed behind the counter and died of a heart attack, leaving behind a family. His son, Ahmed, was recruited to work in the same hotel. Some time after I met him, I showed him the picture I had taken with his dad and we decided to do the same for the sake of memory.
And so there we are in the photo below.
One sure marker of a great hotel is the low turnover of its employees. In El Minzah, people stay forever. In fact, it’s a family business, even though the employees are not technically shareholders. I hope this culture never vanishes in the foolish quest to implement the newest and the latest.
Mr. Chakib Benmoussa, Morocco’s ambassador to France, knows that culture matters, so he initiated a series of gatherings to address burning social issues, like the one I attended at his Paris residence last night on social inequalities in France and Morocco.
Ambassador Benmoussa introducing event
A moderator allowed two panelists—the Portuguese-born French Phillipe Da Costa (right on panel) and the Moroccan political scientist Mohamed Tozy (left)—to address the issue before members in the audience were invited to comment or ask questions. Da Costa of the French Red Cross talked about the breakdown of social cohesion and solidarity in France, which is exacerbated by the poverty and alienation of the youth. To him, the war on poverty requires social innovation, which includes uniting citizens around philanthropic projects and encouraging entrepreneurship (at one moment, when he used the French verbs “entreprendre” and “apprendre,” I realized how doing and learning are related in a way that never occurred to me before). Da Costa argued for reinstating human beings at the center of the debate because we want a future that is founded on human dignity. These were the same concerns eloquently articulated by the governor of Morocco’s National Initiative for Human Development (speaking at the end of the video above), who described dignity as access to social services and equal opportunities.
There was no reflection on what causes inequalities, and whether economic disparities can be avoided though social engineering or other political measures. In this sense, the discussion was not academic at all, because economists seem to be divided on how best to approach the issue without dampening initiative and slowing economic growth.
Still, it was most inspiring to be in the presence of people who are doing something about inequality. The French Red Cross distributes some 50 million meals a year and Morocco’s INDH spends colossal sums to complement the government’s already enormous budget for social affairs. The presidents of CorpsAfrica (inspired by the U.S. Peace Corps) and “the French “Vivre Ensemble” (Living Together) were at hand to add their voices.
Precarious life conditions in the midst of material abundance is a nagging issue that absolutely deserves our attention. By sponsoring this debate, Ambassador Benmoussa is proving that there is no better form of diplomacy than encouraging nations and peoples to come together and make life better for the people left behind.
This brief explanation of secularism by the renowned expert on the subject, Jacques Berlinerblau, seems to be the perfect segue to the previous post on Munir Abbar’s film. I asked Jacques, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, to give me a quick definition of the term “secularism,” following an engaging lecture he gave at UNE’s Center for Global Humanities. His presentation made it abundantly clear that the word is, in fact, harder to define than people realize. So I am glad we have at least something to use should we ever be challenged to provide a quick definition.
During my recent visit to Berlin, I couldn’t avoid being stuck by the sense that life is really fragile and needs constant care and vigilance to make it worthwhile to all species, human and nonhuman alike. Berlin felt like a city sitting on the fault lines of civilization and barbarism, a stark reminder of what might happen if we forget the tragedies of the past.
German-Moroccan filmmaker Munir Abbar, whose work I recently discovered, has managed to connect his two identities to send a warning about the dangers of forgetting and humans’ inhumanity to other humans.
(Make sure to watch the video above before you read on. It’s really exciting and suspenseful.)
I spent the last three days at the European Academy of Otzenhausen with the German professors Puin, Luxemberg, and Groß who appear on this video to show how research into newly discovered manuscripts in Yemen and the expert knowledge of Aramaic or Syriac could change our understanding of the Koran and Islam. What’s very heartwarming about the work they do is that they are resolutely not surrendering to any political correctness that seeks to shortchange Muslims and their traditions. Not doing honest research on Islam and its texts would be profoundly demeaning to Muslims. Watch out for those who defend Islam’s authenticity. Such a thing, at any time or place, is a dangerous fiction.
In the three days I spent at Otzenhausen, an eclectic group of scholars and amateurs shared an interest in exploring the birth of Islam outside of canonical norms. Since texts that are contemporaneous with the prophet’s life, as described in traditional accounts, are nearly impossible to find, coins and seals were scrutinized for clues. One man used a complex mathematical formula to show that the Koran could not have been written by one, ten, or even thirty people. More like fifty, he thinks. A woman who seems to know a lot about the Essene lunar/solar calendar system tried to decipher a few verses containing numbers in the Koran by reading the Book of Jubilees and the Koran side by side. An American colleague shared his difficult experiences teaching or even presenting invited papers on Islam critically. Some views may have sounded a bit too far off to people in the audience, but this is how discoveries are made and knowledge is pushed out of bounds.
Most of the lectures were in German, but since we were practically imprisoned in the beautiful academy, I was able to get explanations in English, French, and even Arabic at the end of the day. We were practically forced to talk—and often laugh—with each other during the whole conference.
When I spoke on the last day, I simply reminded the sponsors scholars, and participants that the work being done by Inârah (the official name of organizing body) is humane in the extreme, as its ultimate goal is the well-being of Muslims and, indeed, the whole world. Traditional scholars may think that much of what goes on here is too speculative to make a difference, but this is still necessary work, a tiny effort to balance the enormous influence of mainstream establishments.
If there is any hope of reading the birth of Islam—as I have been trying to do in my magazine TingisRedux—the work of Inârah is as good a place to start as any other.
Apparently it was on March 23, 1839 that the letters o.k. meaning “all correct” were used in a Boston newspaper on the occasion of humorous squabbling involving the “Anti-Bell-Ringing Society,” presumably during their trip from Boston to New York City. You could get more of a tease in a brief blog entry by Allan Metcalf, the author of a book on OK.
As I walked around looking for a coffee shop in Otzenhausen, a village in the state of Saarland, I ran into this sign outside a shop that looks like a florist. Since I don’t know German and couldn’t make out what’s inside, I kept walking to the end of the bloc before I retraced my steps. It was then that I saw a lady who looked like the owner outside and asked, “Café?” She said yes and pointed to the store. So I walked into a florist’s shop, was shown a well-appointed backroom next to a case with desserts, and sat dutifully waiting for my black coffee. No longer was I served than a German couple joined me. They helped me ask the lady if they serve dinner; she said “of course” and gave me a menu. Alas, I wasn’t able to make it.
If you ever come this way, make sure to stop by at Landhaus Spanier—a place of flowers, food, and good coffee.