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.
Chapeau to that.
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.
I will let the film speak for itself.
(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.
Here, near a museum aptly called Topographie des Terrors, are the grim remains of the Berlin Wall, built by what used to be the German Democratic Republic to shield its people from the depredations of capitalism. No better relic can explain the unsettling sentiment one gets in the dynamic capital of Germany, a city so defiantly rich in every imaginable way and yet so constantly and painfully reminded of the violence and terror that lurk perilously close to the the shiny surfaces of its numerous malls and grand luxury stores. The Wall captures the essence of Berlin and maybe Germany itself in a way that the Eiffel Tower can never do for Paris or France.
Violence has haunted this greenest of great cities since the early 20th century. It was from here that Adolf Hitler unleashed his deadly agenda on the world, leading to the retaliation of the Allies and the obliteration of some 70% of the city as a result. Berlin was reborn in the shadow of the Cold War, becoming the de facto fault line in the decades-long war of nerves that pitted the United States and the West against the Soviet Union and Communism. I had no idea how revered Ronald Reagan is in Berlin until I visited the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, erected on the very spot where the American section of the Berlin Wall stood, as a tribute to the values of freedom. The Russian president Vladimir Putin is clearly not a hero in this building.
And so the industrious and friendly Germans continue to excel without surrendering to the joie de vivre that should be their rightful reward for so much success. Maybe they know that the excellence they studiously pursue can never shield them from the terrible darkness of unexpected terror. But then, in this, as in many areas, they have so much to teach us.
As the Checkpoint Charlie Museum never ceases to remind visitors, we should all be prepared to escape and turn a blind eye to those who try, for, as a line in the first of these two displays states, “escape is the mother of invention.”
I assume few people in the rich industrial world have a more acute sense of what it means to live in a culture of human rights, a sentiment that the museum exhibits with unrelenting emphasis. If only for this reason—and it’s not an insignificant one—Berlin should be declared the world’s capital and guardian of freedom in all its aspects.
Today, I spent most of the day with Jenny Marquardt in Berlin. We had lunch at Manzini and dinner at Cassambalis—both exquisite places for Berlin connoisseurs. To land in Germany for the first time and be thus introduced is a rare treat. Although still recovering from a bad cold, the well-traveled Jenny spared no effort in making sure I get a proper glimpse of the city she so loves. And, believe me, she knows everything about the art scene in Berlin.
I first met Jenny in 1993 or 1994 in the American town of Biddeford, Maine, when she came to visit her son Michael. I met her again ten years later in Wilmington, Delaware, when Michael got married to Claire, a senior adviser to Senator Joe Biden, who was a lot of fun at the event.
And now, ten years later, I meet Jenny in Berlin.
Independent and iconoclastic, Jenny developed an interest in medicine early in life and met her physician ex-husband—a prominent urologist— in a hospital. But conventional medicine was not enough for her, so she pursued a career in professional acting before she discovered holistic medicine and became quite prominent in this field. Just when her business grew and Indian “technicians” came knocking at her Berlin doors, she chose to downsize her practice and do less in order to live more. She did establish a home for children in India and travels to that country on a regular basis, but her life is more focused now.
She certainly has a good sense of who she is and who she wants to be.
Jenny at Cassambalis
Not everything turned out to be perfect in Jenny’s life, but, as she put it to me humbly at dinner, “life was not boring.”
Cheers to that.