Moroccan Soundscapes

The innocuous pop song faintly heard in the grocery store, the 30-second jingle seeping into our subconscious from the television in front of us or in the next room, or the booming bass from the car driving past us—with the ubiquity of musical sound to which most of us are exposed on a daily basis, it’s easy to stop paying attention to the way in which sound helps construct our environments. This is something I spent a lot of time thinking about lately while researching Hard Rock Cafe earlier this year, and it’s been a popular topic with ethnomusicologists, as evidenced by Jonathan Sterne’s seminal article “Sounds Like the Mall of America: Programmed Music and the Architectonics of Commercial Space” (Ethnomusicology 41[1], 1997). It’s amazing to continue thinking about soundscapes in Morocco, for they are tremendously diverse and in some ways, I believe, the way they more readily overlap here than they tend to do in the US reflects more general characteristics of the treatment of public and personal physical space in Morocco. Here are a couple snapshots of what I mean.

Last night, as I went to bed around 3am after finishing suhoor (the last meal before sunrise, when the fast resumes during Ramadan), I laid in bed with the windows open for some fresh air, and listened as a half-dozen mosques within earshot all issued competing versions of the adan (Call to Prayer); it is quite beautiful, especially as I live near a large, well-funded mosque that has clearly been able to find someone with more significant training than most in the area. But the adan is more than just the recitation of words, and the calls from each mosque not only begin and end at different times, but include their own melodic and rhythmic characteristics. In other words, as I lay in bed, exhausted from my trip to Marrakesh over the weekend, I listened to a wash of sound that was both beautiful in its spiritual significance as well as confounding in the way in which the adan from one mosque would encroach upon the acoustic space of the next.

The famed Jemaa el-Fna square is another environment whose soundscape is complex and continually changing through the course of the day: from the sound of honking horns, the adan from neighboring mosques, and the occasional wail of the snake-charmer’s ghaita (oboe) in the heat of the day to the insistent, multilingual appeals by food vendors or amplified banjos, ringing kettles, and booming dafs (frame drums) in the evening, this is the place to be in Marrakesh. There are musicians, juice vendors, henna artists, and merchants selling pirated smartphones and DVDs as well as carvings, paintings, and other trinkets. And there are tourists, and where there are tourists there emerge scammers. (I didn’t have any many problems, but some of my companions unfortunately did: but this makes for memorable stories and for some fantastic Arabic practice!) It is an adventurous place to be, and although I spent only 24 hours in Marrakesh (it’s unfortunately a long 7-hour train ride from Meknes), I left convinced that it was deserving of its mythic reputation.

In the souq in Marrakesh, where I bought a lotar (lute from the Atlas Mountains) and qarqab (castanets used in Gnawa and other North African musics).

In the souq in Marrakesh, where I bought a lotar (lute from the Atlas Mountains) and qarqab (castanets used in Gnawa and other North African musics).

Next to the impressive 14th-century Ali ben Youssef medersa (Islamic school) we visited.

Next to the impressive 14th-century Ali ben Youssef medersa (Islamic school) we visited.

Some tourist in the medersa.

Some tourist in the medersa.

View of Jemaa el-Fna from a second-story café, just before sunset.

View of Jemaa el-Fna from a second-story café, just before sunset. Off on the horizon you can just make out part of the High Atlas.

Literally hundreds of these makeshift restaurants are set up in Jemaa el-Fna every night, a world-renowned tradition that is often covered in travel shows.

Literally hundreds of these makeshift restaurants are set up in Jemaa el-Fna every night, a world-renowned tradition that is often covered in travel shows.

I had been looking forward to seeing this place, so I of course went big and got a platter of various meats. Delicious, as always. My new life goal may be to return to Marrakesh and systematically try each and every one of the hundreds of food stalls in Jemaa el-Fna.

I had been looking forward to seeing this place, so I of course went big and got a platter of various meats. Delicious. My new life goal may be to return to Marrakesh and systematically try each and every one of the hundreds of food stalls in Jemaa el-Fna.

In the evening, circles gather around a dozen bands scattered surprisingly close together in Jemaa el-Fna. It is an amazing spectacle, and while the sounds themselves are quite different from the adan, this was another case where the mingling of musical sounds from separate, competing sources flew in the face of my own sensitivities about respecting boundaries of acoustic space, no doubt developed by my self-consciousness as a performer of loud instruments like bagpipes and saxophone. I did not record much of the music for a number of reasons, but if you are interested in getting more of a sense of the sounds in Jemaa el-Fna, I recommend taking a look at the documentary “Musical Brotherhoods of the Trans-Saharan Highway” (2005) from Sublime Frequencies (another documentary from Hisham Mayet, who is friends with my colleague Brian in Niger and who I cited in another post last summer). The full video is currently available on YouTube; I’d recommend the latter 2/3rds or so, as the film begins in Essaouira, a nearby city on the Moroccan coast:

Aside from the personal/public dichotomy in soundscapes that I’ve described, which itself may be an oversimplification, there’s also a rich diversity of sounds in various other spaces. I’m particularly amazed by the music I hear when I walk into Western-style locations, like Carrefour, a large French grocery store chain. Whenever I’ve visited the Meknes location in the past, the music has almost always been American hip hop or other popular genres, and it often deals with fairly risqué themes. I can only assume that the music is permitted because most people don’t understand the real meaning of the English lyrics; hearing songs about “grinding on my baby” and things to that effect aren’t really what I expect to hear anywhere or anytime in a commercial space, and especially not during Ramadan. Just today I was at Carrefour where the employees at a nearby restaurant were blasting uncensored music by Eminem. I can’t remember the last time I heard “f****t ” sounding from a business in the US. Even though the music is familiar, these minor differences have stuck out to me because they’re unusual in the US. But that’s not to say that everything is different: as I boarded the train in Marrakesh yesterday, I entered a very, very familiar soundscape crafted by the unmistakable, mellifluous sound of Kenny G playing “Songbird”:

Ramadan Mubarak!

Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, began in Morocco last Tuesday, ushering in a new pace for daily life as the vast majority of the population fasts between dawn and dusk. I was in Niger during Ramadan last year, which had proved quite frustrating at the time because it posed additional challenges to my music research; additionally, because I was essentially living alone, I was pretty removed from any truly meaningful Ramadan experiences. Now that I’m living with a Moroccan family, I’m having a terrific opportunity to observe Ramadan customs in closer detail (even if there may be local differences here compared to Niger or any other country).

Foremost on the mind of pretty much everyone in the CLS program is the issue of fasting. A few students are fasting, and a few more are doing a partial fast (i.e., not eating food, but drinking water during the day), but most of us are not fasting at all. There’s much, much more to Ramadan than just fasting—things I certainly don’t begin to understand—but it is the observance that has changed our daily routine more than anything. Almost all restaurants and many stores are closed during the day, so those who are not fasting need to be sure to pack lunches to bring to class. Additionally, the meal schedule is shifted late as the last consumption before dawn occurs around 3 or 4am; as result, our classes have all been pushed back an hour later in the day to give everyone more time to sleep.

Even if we are not fasting, it’s also important to be mindful that most people around us, including most of our teachers, are, and that when we eat or drink in front of them it can be a cruel sight. Of course, not everyone agrees to what degree visitors to Morocco need to adapt their own lifestyles to respect or show solidarity with local customs, and while few Moroccans seem to expect non-Muslim Americans to fast, students have varying opinions on how much we should keep daytime food and water consumption private. It’s an interesting exercise, although it certainly doesn’t compare to the self-discipline involved with fasting.

I’ve been quite exhausted from the high intensity of this language program and knew that trying to fast throughout the entire month was not something I wanted to do or felt would be worth the additional challenges it would pose to my efforts on learning Arabic, considering that I’m not Muslim. But I did want to have a better grasp of what it feels like to fast for a day, and even though I still have little idea of what it’s like to fast day after day for an entire month, I’m glad that last week I at least went a day observing the fast. I found that by the far the hardest part was going without water for a day, and I’ve developed huge respect for my teachers in particular, who spend the day on their feet  and talking the entire day without a sip. But that period of not consuming anything, for me anyway, made breaking the fast at iftaar, after the sun sets, even more delightful than it had been when I didn’t fast. Taking that first sip of milk and first bite of a date after not eating all day was magical. There’s a whole array of special foods consumed at Ramadan, including several sweets. There’s also a lot of eating in general, which I really can’t complain about.

After iftaar, hordes of people flock to the streets or city center to celebrate the holiday, energized after the evening meal. I’ve yet to go out during Ramadan in Meknes, since I live far from the city center and have also been busy with homework, but my host family put on an impromptu dance party the other night. It was, of course, a lot of fun. (For those wondering, we did sing and dance along to “Saafi.”) I’m hoping that after my final this week I can get out to Meknes with my host family to see the celebrations in town.

I have a few photos and videos from the dance party, but I’ll share those another time. For now I thought I’d share a few highlights from Rabat, Morocco’s capital, which I visited over the weekend. It’s a beautiful city and certainly more cosmopolitan than Meknes, which meant that a lot of people were prepared to answer my poor Arabic (or—shhh, don’t tell—French) in English. The weather was about 20 degrees cooler than Meknes, which was probably the most welcome aspect of the trip; it felt like a miniature vacation of sorts. There are some lovely souqs  (markets), delicious street food and bakeries, and great music shops, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that Rabat is a must-see destination for sight-seers. This is fine with me; I welcomed the chance to take it easy for a couple days. The only challenge was finding something to eat for lunch: with everything in town closed and unable to find a grocery store during our walk around the city, we had to visit that iconic center of globalization, McDonald’s, where I got the “Royal Cheese.” I can’t remember ever eating in a McDonald’s in which the portrait of the King and the portrait of Ronald McDonald share wall space, but I can say I’ve done it now. What was probably more refreshing than anything was the fact that I had ice in my Coke, a small luxury that means so much when you spend the day walking around in the sun.

Tour Hassan in Rabat was on track to be part of the second largest mosque at the time of its construction several centuries ago, but it was never completed to its original specifications and was eventually destroyed in a major earthquake in 1755. Now it's an iconic image of Rabat, juxtaposed here with one of the many columns that once supported the main part of the mosque.

Tour Hassan in Rabat was on track to be part of the second largest mosque at the time of its construction several centuries ago, but it was never completed to its original specifications and was eventually destroyed in a major earthquake in 1755. Now it’s an iconic image of Rabat, juxtaposed here with one of the many columns that once supported the main part of the mosque.

Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the first king of post-colonial Morocco, which is next to Tour Hassan. Both Mohammed V and Hassan II, the present king's father, are buried here in this beautiful mausoleum.

Mausoleum of Mohammed V, the first king of post-colonial Morocco, which is next to Tour Hassan. Both Mohammed V and Hassan II, the present king’s father, are buried here in this beautiful mausoleum.

Four ornately carved doorways lead into the mausoleum, each with a guard at the entrance. This shot is taken from one entrance looking out through the opposite end of the mausoleum, facing the Atlantic beyond. You can also see a chunk of what I believe was the original wall of the mosque.

Four ornately carved doorways lead into the mausoleum, each with a guard at the entrance. This shot is taken from one entrance looking out through the opposite end of the mausoleum, facing the Atlantic beyond. You can also see a chunk of what I believe was the original wall of the mosque.

The Kasbah des Oudaias, the old fortress protecting Rabat at the mouth of Oued Bou Regreg (Bou Regreg River).

The Kasbah des Oudaias, the old fortress protecting Rabat at the mouth of Oued Bou Regreg (Bou Regreg River).

Next to the Kasbah is a large cemetery overlooking the Atlantic. Not a bad place to be!

Next to the Kasbah is a large cemetery overlooking the Atlantic. Not a bad place to be!

First Glimpses of the Sahara

Over the weekend I finally set foot in a part of the world that I’ve wanted to see since I was quite young. My interest in the Sahara has matured from an early fascination with images of camels and sifting mountains of sand as I’ve been reading more and more about the region and its peoples and cultures over the past few years, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t continue to feel some of that same early excitement from my childhood, stemming from the exoticism of the Sahara to which any American with a pulse has undoubtedly been exposed.

Although I had intended to visit the Sahara last summer during my time in Niger, circumstances didn’t really allow for it at the time. And this past weekend’s trip was not exactly my ideal way to make such a visit, crammed into a huge, air-conditioned bus with nearly forty other American students rushing from one point to another on a jam-packed schedule. Being part of an obnoxiously large tour group wasn’t my dream visit to the Sahara, and even though riding a camel and sleeping under the stars in the Sahara were experiences I can now happily check off on my bucket list, there were particularly rewarding experiences this weekend that also weren’t part of my nebulous idea of what an ideal trip to the Sahara would entail. Most significantly, and most rewarding of all, I never imagined that whenever I would visit the Sahara that I’d be communicating with locals in Arabic.

So, I’ve had a quintessential tourist experience of the Sahara, and although I still yearn for many return trips in which my time is spent living and getting to know people in a little less structured or artificial contexts, tourism is a hugely important industry for people throughout the Sahara and it is an issue of profound significance with regard to Tuareg music. This was an experience I might not have sought out on my own time and money, but it will provide useful perspective as I get to this region more intimately in the future, in shaa’a Allah.

Breakfast stop in the Middle Atlas, the first mountain range and one of many amazingly beautiful landscapes we encountered en route from Meknes to the Sahara.

Breakfast stop in the Middle Atlas, the first mountain range and one of many amazingly beautiful landscapes we encountered en route from Meknes to the Sahara.

A Barbary ape in a campground in the Middle Atlas.

A Barbary ape in a campground in the Middle Atlas.

Entering the High Atlas, which in many ways resemble the rocky landscapes of the American Southwest, including the Grand Canyon.

Entering the High Atlas, which in many ways resemble the rocky landscapes of the American Southwest.

An abandoned structure near a sprawling oasis town where a lot of dates are grown, on the Sahara side of the High Atlas.

An abandoned structure near a sprawling oasis town on the Sahara side of the High Atlas.

First views of the Sahara: Merzouga, the town where we met our camels and guides into the dunes. This picture also highlights that contrary to popular assumption, the Sahara is not one giant sea of sand but in fact comprises several different landscapes, including the flat, rocky terrain in the foreground.

First views of the Sahara: Merzouga, the town where we met our camels and guides into the dunes. This picture also highlights that contrary to popular assumption, the Sahara is not one giant sea of sand but in fact comprises several different landscapes, including the flat, rocky terrain in the foreground.

I'm here, wearing Sahawari garb and a tagelmust/cheche/turban to protect from the sun and sand.

I’m here, wearing Sahawari garb and a tagelmust/cheche/turban to protect me from the sun and sand.

Riding off into the twilight.

Riding off into the twilight.

It's actually quite difficult to take photos from the back of a camel, so this is from after we arrived at our camp.

It’s actually quite difficult to take photos from the back of a camel, so this is from after we arrived at our camp.

Sunrise.

Sunrise.

Self-portrait.

Self-portrait.

On our way out of Merzouga after camping, we stopped in a nearby village to attempt a performance of Gnawa music, which is a rich tradition that is also quite popular among foreigners. Although it developed in Morocco, it shares many traits with musical practices from West Africa, as it emerged among descendants of Sahelian peoples brought from Mali, Ghana, and Guinea as slaves around the 17th century.

On our way out of Merzouga after camping, we stopped in a nearby village to attend a performance of Gnawa music, which is a rich tradition that is also quite popular among foreigners. Although it developed in Morocco, it shares many traits with musical practices from West Africa, as it emerged among descendants of Sahelian peoples brought from Mali, Ghana, and Guinea as slaves around the 17th century.

Hello, Niger! This was an interesting but entirely surprising discovery in a tourist shop we visited: this collection of crosses was presented as a collection of compasses representing different families, but from what I understand these are actually all cities in Niger (see Agadez and Zinder in the lower right corner of the box, for example). From previous readings, my understanding is that artisans in Niger developed these symbols for Saharan cities in Niger in order to attract tourists interested in collectible artifacts. Although undoubtedly rooted in historically significant symbolism, it's striking how artwork from several thousand miles away also winds up in another part of the Sahara. (I also saw other artwork, such as leather pillows, decorated in an identical fashion to those I saw in Niger.)

Hello, Niger! This was an interesting discovery in a tourist shop we visited: this collection of crosses was presented as a collection of compasses representing different families, but from what I understand these are actually all cities in Niger (see Agadez and Zinder in the lower right corner of the box, for example). From previous readings, my understanding is that artisans in Niger developed these symbols for Saharan cities in Niger in order to attract tourists interested in collectible artifacts. Although undoubtedly rooted in historically significant symbolism, it’s striking how artwork from several thousand miles away also winds up in another part of the Sahara. (I also saw other artwork, such as leather pillows, decorated in an identical fashion to those I saw in Niger.)

“Saafi”: A Catchy Example of Darija

This week in my Darija class we listened to a new song by Moroccan pop star Asma Lmnawar called “Saafi.” It was a great way to hone our listening chops with Moroccan Darija, because it really is distinctive and quite difficult to understand at first when compared to the standardized Fusha most students study in the US. It also happens to be a great example of how much French language has influenced Darija. Finally, it’s just an absurdly catchy pop song–and one with clear influence from Bollywood; the opening choral section reminds me in particular of the main theme from the 1997 film “Dil To Pagal Hai” (“The Heart is Crazy”) starring Shahrukh Khan, which I happened to watch a few months ago.

You can listen to “Saafi” below. There are two things I want to point out here, although I’m sure there are plenty more interesting aspects of Darija to outline in the song that I simply can’t pick up on at this point. First, there’s the title: “saafi” is in some ways synonymous with another Arabic expression, “khalaas,” which in this context of a gushy pop tune might be interpreted as “salvation,” “[good] riddance,” or “it’s over.” But “saafi” and “khalaas” don’t really sound alike, and of course that’s important from a songwriting perspective. What’s interesting about “saafi” is that its origins in French are really easy to identify: it basically means the same thing as “c’est fin” (“it’s over”).

The second thing is the way that Darija lacks a lot of short vowel sounds that are more prevalent in standard Arabic, other dialects, and other languages; this is partly due to the influence of Amazigh (Berber) languages that are indigenous to North Africa (unlike Arabic, which arrived during the 7th century CE). Listen to the first verse: “Saafi saafi skut hta kilma saafi” (in my poor translation something along the lines of “It’s over, it’s over, shut up until the word[s] ‘it’s over'”). Rendered in more standardized Arabic the line might be pronounced “…iskut hataa kalima….” It’s hard to convey in text, and it’s certainly a subtle difference for people who aren’t familiar with Arabic, but mashing together all the consonants without some vowels to space them out mks t rlly hrd t ndrstnd! In shaa’a Allah, I’ll start getting the hang of it. Until then, Moroccan pop songs like “Saafi” offer me little textual meaning but some great beats to dance to, and I love them nonetheless.

From Roman Mauretania to the “Moroccan Versailles”

I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned that my studies would be keeping me busy, but my speaking skills continue to improve dramatically, even if some days are more rewarding than others. I’ve had some great experiences in the past week and fantastic stories to share, but some of those will have to wait until I’m home. Let’s just say for now that my dance moves that I debuted at a wedding in Niamey last summer are working their charms in Morocco, too!

Here are a few shots from some sightseeing I did over the weekend. On Friday we visited the tomb of Moullay Ismail, one of Morocco’s most important and infamous historical figures. It’s a beautiful, extravagant place right here in Meknes; Moullay Ismail was known for his ruthlessness but also for his aspirations to make Meknes into an extravagant Moroccan Versailles after he moved the capital here from Fez, during the time of Louis XIV in France.

I've fallen in love with how beautifully decorated many doors are here. I'm compiling photos of doors, and maybe after I have the chance to do some post-processing back home I'll post a collection of them. For now, here's an unedited close-up.

I’ve fallen in love with how beautifully decorated many doors are here. I’m compiling photos of doors, and after I have the chance to do some post-processing back home I hope to post a collection of them. For now, here’s an unedited close-up from the entrance to Moullay Ismail.

The entrance to the tomb of Moullay Ismail, one of Morocco's most important and infamous historical figures. He was known for his ruthlessness but also for his aspirations to make Meknes into an extravagant Moroccan Versailles after he moved the capital here from Fez, during the time of Louis XIV in France.

The entrance to the tomb of Moullay Ismail.

Another fountain in the tomb of Moullay Ismail, Meknes.

Another fountain in the tomb of Moullay Ismail, Meknes. In case you can’t tell, we were melting in the heat!

On our way out of Moullay Ismail.

On our way out of Moullay Ismail.

On Saturday we visited the ruins of a former capital of Roman Mauretania, Volubilis. After studying Latin for years in high school, it was great to see some more extensive Roman ruins after only seeing some for the first time in France two years ago.

The ruins of Volubilis, in what was once the southern edge of Roman Mauretania.

The ruins of Volubilis, in what was once the southern edge of Roman Mauretania.

It's amazing to stand in the middle of the street of a once-thriving city and imagine what it must have looked like at its peak some 1500 years ago.

It’s amazing to stand in the middle of the street of a once-thriving city and imagine what it must have looked like at its peak some 1500 years ago.

Finally, we visited the nearby town of Moullay Idriss, named for one of Morocco’s most revered saints whose tomb is located here. Many people make a pilgrimage here, and according to one resource I’ve read some locals say that attending the annual pilgrimage to Moullay Idriss at least five times in a lifetime is equivalent to making the Hajj in Mecca. It’s a beautiful town positioned across two mountaintops, but after an extensive day of touring around in the heat, I spent my free time at a streetside restaurant, where I ate the best kifta (minced lamb) I’ve ever had. The food here is phenomenal, especially the meat and fruits. I’ve rarely had such flavorful meat, and I’m very thrilled that it’s currently melon season, so we’ve been eating a lot of watermelon and another melon that is pretty similar to honeydew.

Moullay Idriss, nestled on two mountaintops. We're looking down from a high vantage point down onto the second summit in town.

Moullay Idriss, nestled on two mountaintops. We’re looking down from a high vantage point down onto the second summit in town.

Labyrinthine Linguistics in al-Maghrib

Ahlan w sahlan! La bas? Ma lish? Ça va? How’s it going?

I’ve entered another linguistic maze this summer, and compared to my trip to Niger last year I have to say it doesn’t necessarily get easier to navigate. In Niger there are dozens of indigenous languages with which I had no familiarity. French was the language of colonial administration and of formal secular education, so it was different from what most Nigeriens spoke in their daily lives and was also the second, third, fourth, etc. language for most speakers; its usage was, for the most part, clearly delineated once I became familiar with the sound of West African French.

In Morocco, it gets tricky because the spoken language in daily life and the written and more formal language of media, etc. are closely related forms of Arabic: one, the local dialect known as Darija, and the other, Fus’ha, often referred to in English as Modern Standard. It’s hard to know in which language someone is speaking, and, in fact, it seems like this is not only due to my own confusion but also due to uncertainty by others about what I’ll understand. (In truth, I’ve probably misunderstood some of the linguistic relationships I’m about to describe.) Darija blends standard Arabic with vocabulary derived from French and from indigenous Amazigh (Berber) languages, which are related to Tamasheq (the Tuareg language I studied a bit while in Niger). But beyond simply drawing new vocabulary there are completely different expressions, greetings, patterns for verb conjugations, etc. Further complicating the picture is that not all Moroccans have studied Fus’ha. In other words, the little Arabic I have studied so far—Fus’ha, in my coursework—has limited utility at this stage.

Each day I am speaking a blend of Fus’ha, Darija, French, and English with members of my host family in order to be understood. Remarkably, we’re getting by, and it’s an absolutely exhausting but rewarding experience. The other students are at a variety of levels of Arabic; I am among those with the least amount of training, so it can sometimes be frustrating as I can’t always keep up with everyone else, even though almost none of us arrived familiar with Moroccan Darija. On Monday we’ll resume classes in Fus’ha but will also begin studying Darija, which will make communicating in Morocco infinitely more enjoyable and rewarding. [Note: I wrote this on Saturday but didn’t get a chance to post until Monday…I’ve done the Darija class, it’s great; I’ve also just met my Moroccan language partner, Younnes, with whom I’ll be meeting at least 3 hours a week to talk, explore Meknes, etc.]

There’s much more to say and share, but I’m not going to have much free time, and that time is being preciously spent watching Arab Idol with my host family, talking to kids playing drums in the street, or playing pickup soccer games. I’ll leave it to a few photos to say more for now.

Baab al-Mansour, a beautiful and enormous doorway in the old walls of Meknes.

Baab al-Mansour, a beautiful and enormous doorway in the old walls of Meknes.

View from the roof of the language center where I'm studying. You can see part of the gorgeous plateau in which Meknes is nestled; the climate and environment is really, really pleasant—it's been cooler than it was in Southern California lately, but completely sunny.

View from the roof of the language center where I’m studying. You can see part of the gorgeous plateau in which Meknes is nestled; the climate and environment is really, really pleasant—it’s been cooler than it was in Southern California lately, but completely sunny. [Update on Monday: Okay, now that I’m carrying a bag full of books around town, I’ll admit that it’s become rather hot.]

The Language Pledge: "I will speak Arabic (and Moroccan darija) only from now until the end of the program, and . . ." [we then add our own component to the pledge]

The Language Pledge: “I will speak Arabic (and Moroccan darija) only from now until the end of the program, and . . .” [we then add our own component to the pledge]

Tea at my Moroccan home on Friday. Friday is the big prayer day and pretty much all of Morocco takes a shorter work day and eats couscous. We hosted some other students from my program and members of their host families. Here you see some members of my host family as well as my classmate Michael and my roommate Corey (from left to right): Ifnan, Yussef, Michael, Corey, Hafsa, and Lotfy.

Tea at my Moroccan home on Friday. Friday is the big prayer day and pretty much all of Morocco takes a shorter work day and eats couscous. We hosted some other students from my program and members of their host families. Here you see some members of my host family as well as my classmate Michael and my roommate Corey (from left to right): Ifnan, Yussef, Michael, Corey, Hafsa, and Lotfy.

Photography Revisited

I’m back in the US now, so updates about my trip to Niger have pretty much ground to a halt for the time being. School’s resumed, so time is a luxury I simply don’t have enough of these days for updating the blog. Hopefully that changes….

However, I wanted to share a great blog post I just read concerning photography in West Africa, since it relates to a lot of the issues I was dealing with while shooting photos in Niger. Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropology professor at Lehigh University, keeps a terrific blog called Bridges from Bamako, which discusses his experiences living in Bamako, Mali. He recently posted about the challenges of street photography in his entry “To shoot or not to shoot: The perils of street photography in Bamako.” (Thanks to Andy Morgan for sharing information about this post!)

While I was in Niger, I had a hard time getting comfortable with the idea of shooting photos of strangers at random, and thus took few photos of street life in Niamey and elsewhere. Even with folks who were willing to be photographed, there were all sorts of social interplay that I was not picking up on, partly from my inexperience and inability to speak the local languages, and perhaps also from my failure to carefully weigh all the issues. I posted about one particularly memorable experience earlier, when my role as photographer was used by Fulani women to make social commentary on a particular mother.

At any rate, it’s helpful to get another perspective from someone more experienced in the region than I. Although the issues may not be the same in Niger—for instance, I’m not aware of an analogous term for sabati that Whitehouse discusses in his post, although I was certainly introduced to notions related to shame, reserve, honor, and dignity (among Tuareg, known as takarakit)— they’re undoubtedly related.

Video: Returning from Baleyara Market

I had mentioned in my post about the market in Baleyara that I had filmed a little bit of our return trip. It’s awfully shaky since we were driving along and the road can be rough, but the clouds and the countryside are so beautiful, and it’s so interesting to see all the diversity of people and their modes of transportation, that I thought it worth sharing. Everyone is hurrying home to break the fast at sundown (this was filmed when it was still Ramadan). Now that my internet connection has improved a bit, I’ve been able to upload the video. Hope you enjoy!

 

Sunset Over the Niger

I was at the Grand Hotel the other night to grab brochettes (beef kebabs) and get some cash at the ATM, and the sunset was spectacular. The river is at its highest level in 43 years I’m told, due to high levels of heavy rain and the opening of a dam upstream in Mali. It’s expanded a lot just in the four weeks I’ve been here.

So, here’s a quick post with a few photos! I know some of them could really use some editing (as with all of the photos I’ve posted), but I have really barebones software with me and can’t even straighten the crooked ones. You’ll have to wait until I’m home to see the more aesthetically pleasing versions!

The two chains of islands on the left were actually just the banks of one larger island (with no water between them) when I first arrived in Niamey.

The symbol on the railing is the Cross of Agadez, which is used in a lot of Tuareg metalwork (primarily silver). Traditionally only three of Niger’s cities had their own cross, but now many more have been developed to appeal to tourists.