Thursday, October 25, 2012

For the Sheep

Wow—I’ve been in Tangier for twelve days already? I still feel like a greenhorn, but it’s hard to believe that, only a little over a week ago, I was worried about sitting in the Café de Paris. I’m practically a regular there at this point.

Soon after my last post about Tangier, I came down hard with a cold, or more likely, a virus. I wandered around for a few days getting sicker. When I started coughing up bloody sputum, I decided it was time to get in touch with my health insurance company. Got a very helpful chat-bot who told me to e-mail their special 24-hour helpline. [Follow-up: got a reply to my e-mail--subject line: “NEED HELP IN MOCOCCO”—two and a half days later with an encrypted message I couldn’t open. Thanks, Aetna.] No worries, though. I got in touch with my nurse practitioner sister-in-law who, given the combination of symptoms and circumstances, recommended I get myself some antibiotics. It took a few delirious cab rides, but I managed to find a pharmacy that was open on the weekend.

By the way, if you’re ever in Tangier, I recommend those little blue and yellow taxis. It can take a while to flag one down, and even then the driver might not take you, depending on where you’re going. When you find one to take you, he’ll stop to pick up other people. You sit back and listen to the driver and the other passengers talk while you go around traffic circles and through different neighborhoods, having no idea where you are or how indirect a route you’re taking. But it doesn’t matter, because it's always really cheap. 8 dirhams (about $1.00) is the most I’ve ever paid, and I’ve been on some pretty long rides.

Anyhow, I’m feeling a lot better, but the upshot is that I haven’t been very touristy. I’ve been wandering around a lot, walking slowly and stopping frequently for fresh orange juice (which is, thankfully, ubiquitous in Tangier), and frankly, happy to let a lot of things go unexplained.

I was charmed to see a flock of sheep grazing on an overlook near Café Halfa—the spot where Phoenician tombs are. I just assumed they were always there.

Same with the huts made out of hay bales on Rue de la Kasbah, and the sheaves of fragrant green hay being sold in the narrow alleys inside the medina.

The other night, I was finally feeling well enough to go out and look for a café I’d heard about called Les Fils du Detroit, where musicians gather to play music. They keep irregular hours, but I was lucky enough to find the place open. The proprietor told me to come back à sept heures for music.

I walked around for a while, looking at stuff, then came back a little early and sat on a wall outside the café. Some boys were hanging out, kicking a soccer ball around under the streetlight. A little cargo van pulled up in the courtyard, and the boys surrounded it. The driver got out and opened the rear doors and pulled out a sheep. Two of the boys dragged it away somewhere.

The proprietor came and summoned me, and I forgot about the sheep and the boys.

Me and Les Fils du Detroit

Am I burying the lede? Come to Tangier, then, and have a glass of mint tea with these wonderful people. "Detroit" refers to strait, as in the Strait of Gibraltar. The music they play is Arabic music from Andalusia. It's lovely and lilting, happy and bouncy and a little sad, too. The dynamic tempo changes made me think of bouzouki. The lusty singing, with everyone joining in on the choruses, made me think of French cafe music. It's not really like anything I've heard before. It seems modern, but actually it's ancient. The cafe is really like a little clubhouse. The proprietor is a smiley little old man who speaks   (in French, whether you speak it back or not) with the timbreless rasp of someone who's had his vocal chords removed. He sits in with the other fils and claps. The core musicians are three older men, and then others come and jam with them, swapping instruments back and forth: lutes, tablas, wooden flutes, a violin that is sometimes played upright resting on a knee and sometimes tucked under a chin. Don't miss it if you're in Tangier.

A few mornings ago I left the hotel and found that the medina was suddenly full of sheep. Plain white sheep in groups, fancier brown and red rams with twisty horns being driven around in the backs of cargo vans. There were even a few sheepdogs around—very rare. You hear a dog bark once in a while, but you hardly ever see them (in my experience, anyhow). I finally decided to ask someone. “Holiday,” I was told. “Festival.”

It turns out the sheep, and the hay, are for Eid al-Adha: the festival of the sacrifice. Allah commanded the prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son, and when the preparations had been made, revealed that his willingness was obedience enough. He was allowed to sacrifice a sheep instead.

In the last few days, more and more sheep have flooded into the medina, brought in on wagons and in vans, pulled and pushed through passageways and squares. They disappear into houses, waiting in hidden courtyards for the appointed hour. The market stalls have filled up with piles of skewers, wood charcoal, grills, boxes of matches. In the morning, women come out and sweep up sheep droppings and wash off the cobblestones. The stores of hay in the huts have dwindled. Tonight's the night. They’re all doomed. The meat will be distributed among friends, family, and the needy. Maybe I'm a meat-eating hypocrite for having a slight case of the horrors. Or maybe you're supposed to feel for the sheep, their sacrifice.

I can hear two different calls to prayer from my balcony at the hotel; first the muezzin from the Grand Mosque, and then, just slightly out of sync, another call from the direction of the Kasbah. It’s almost sundown. I’m wondering if there will be something special to mark the beginning of Eid al-Adha and the end of the sheep.

Monday, October 22, 2012

La Chimi

[Apologies for the crazy font size/color variation here. I can't figure out how to fix it. -ed.]

Here's the long-overdue report on Seville, where I was still taking a lot of pictures. This is the top floor of the youth hostel where I stayed, in the historic center of town. It used to be a retirement home.

It's cheap and friendly, with a kitchen (!), on a lovely little plaza lined with orange trees.

I was a little travel-weary when I arrived. I really just felt like sitting on park benches.

Fortunately, Seville is a great place for it.

They do it well.

Seville is kind of a shock to the system after Naples and Cagliari... everything so pretty and clean. The streets around the historic center are narrow and close, just like the Spanish Quarter in Naples, except that an army of sanitation workers in stylishly tailored safety-orange jumpsuits appears every night to hose them down.

I walked around and looked at surfaces the first day.

I didn’t feel like paying to go into the cathedral, which—even on the outside—is crazily overstuffed with decoration. It makes Notre Dame look like a Pizza Hut.

Honestly, I felt a little trapped by the tourist hustle in Seville.  

Without a doubt, Seville is really pretty. I loved these glass casement things you saw everywhere, though I’m not quite sure what they're for. They cover the upper story windows… so you can leave your windows open inside them? 

I liked walking around, especially at night when the whole town comes out to promenade. 

Allow me to generalize recklessly. After Naples and Sardinia, Seville felt a little starchy. Like, the horses pulling tourists carriages around had exquisitely showy high-stepping gaits, just as an example. It seems the Roma are the extroverts in this buttoned up city. I saw some of them working the tourists pretty hard around the cathedral, the men singing in groups and the women handing out sprigs of thyme and offering to read palms. It kind of made me sad, because they seemed so bad-ass and cool but really, the only relationship I could have with them was as a stooge. So I tended to just hang back in silent admiration.

I wanted a picture of this lady with her accordion and her little dog curled up at her feet, yelling into a cell phone. This was the best I could do.

And then of course there’s flamenco.

I wanted to see some flamenco, and the hospitality industry in Seville devotes a lot of energy to delivering it to you and you to it. The hostel had a nightly outing to a free show, but my bunkmate said it was pretty touristy. The professional shows are very expensive and polished. There are flamenco bars where amateurs dance and sing (and tourists are encouraged to join), but that didn’t appeal to me either. Poking around the internet, I read about flamenco clubs, called “peñas,” where musicians and dancers study under flamenco masters. As it happened, the Peña Cultural Flamenca Torres Macarena was having a recital while I was in Seville, so I went. 

The first great thing about the peña was that it got me away from the historic center and into the adjacent neighborhood of Macarena. This felt like a place where people lived, The recital was at their hall, on a little side street. Inside, it reminded me of one of those Italian social clubs in South Philly.

I suppose this is the Torre(s?) for whom this particular peña is named.

6 euros—a bargain.

The performers chatted onstage while people settled in. Then the guitarist started playing and the others sat down, stiff-backed in their chairs, staring into the middle distance while they listened. After a bit, one of the singers stood up and erupted with the most heart-wrenching, tormented, impassioned song—no buildup at all. There were a few little flutters of staccato clapping from the other two, and then the dancer ("La Chimi") got up and started dancing, first in slow movements and poses, building to a reckless frenzy that tossed her back and forth across the stage, like her body was being controlled by wires—all the while holding an expression of stunned grief

The atmosphere was not “olay, olay” at all, like I expected—it was reverent. Just a few hushed “bravas” and “bravos” during the performance.

It felt like real hospitality--
the members of the club letting us spend an evening in their world, where flamenco lives! 

Flamenco, it seems to me, is about the tension between real emotion and display -- and relatedly, about control and its total absence. Big insight, huh? The emotion is so intense, and yet so instant. Raw and tearing, yet it feels dangerously close to being a put-on.

At the end of the evening, an older musician was coaxed onstage—presumably one of the peña’s master singers. It was interesting to see how differently he interacted with La Chimi than the younger singers. She had seemed to be the physical embodiment of their singing—like a translation—but the older singer sang to her… called her beautiful… the flower of the moon.

Forgive me for saying this (remember... the fatuous quest for authenticity?) but all felt so real—right down to the plastic roses and fake terracotta roof.