Saturday, October 11, 2008

To Morocco and Back

The celebration of the life and work of Mahmud Darwich was a splendid success. Because we are both in London, Amjad Nasser and I traveled together, picking up a connecting flight in Barcelona to Casablanca. There we were met by the charming Mohammed Benniss, a poet who teaches at the University Mohammed V in Rabat; he had engaged a driver for the hour-plus trip to our hotel in that city. Tourists going to Morocco often skip Rabat, which is odd considering how interesting a city it is—the capital, situated on the Atlantic, the center of government, and the residence of the Moroccan king Mohammed VI.

I saw nothing of his palace except its enclosing wall, but I did take a long walk to see other sights on my first morning; for example, the Tower of Hassan, which looks like Seville’s Torre Giralda, the reason being that they were both built in the same era under the same empire. Impressive, too, is the Casbah of the Uddayas, a former fortress that now encloses a garden, with a terrace tea house looking out over the Bouregreg River toward the ocean. I felt that the inevitable wall between tourist and resident was breached a little when I explored the labyrinthine alleys of the Medina, the market sector of town. Not in the crafts part of it, which is there mainly for tourists, but the open food markets, where Rabat’s non-rich people shop. Great heaps of produce everywhere, fruit, vegetables, chickpeas—also, stacks of mint and coriander, used in so many North African dishes. Lots of homeless cats wandering about, surviving I don’t know how, just as they do in Rome.

The Darwich event was held in a Moorish-style hall in the Faculty of Literature at the University. A crowd gathered in the courtyard outside and then filled up the house. The university president, Dr. Boutaleb Joutei was there and the Minister of Culture, whose name I didn’t get. That was a problem when I was introduced to other participants—I mean, I couldn’t always decipher their names, and I take it for granted they weren’t certain about mine, either. Of those reading in Arabic, of course there was Amjad Nasser and Mohammed Benniss, but as for the others, I only got the name of one. Why? Because when I spoke to him afterward I asked him to write it down. That was Jalal El Hakmaoui, who explained (we spoke in French) that his generation of poets had abandoned the grand rhetorical style and subjects of an earlier generation in favor of something more down to earth and daily, and this partly under the influence of American poetry.

The international aspect of the event was filled out by a reading in Spanish by Federico Arbos Ayuso, of the Instituto Cervantes in Rabat; in French by the Parisian poet Lionel Rey; in German by Klaus Reichert of the Deutsche Akademie in Frankfurt; and in English by the unaffiliated but sincere Alfred Corn. I read three poems from Fady Joudah's translation The Butterfly's Burden. Author introductions were made by an attractive young woman poet named Ouidad Benmoussa. I have to say that during the nearly two-hour-long program, the audience seemed rapt. And speaking to people afterward in the courtyard, I heard nothing but praise and enthusiasm. Once again, that inexplicable fact: People outside of North America and Europe are passionately interested in poetry, whereas in our countries it’s fashionable to be a little condescending to that particular form of loomcraft. After all, there’s no money in it. Definitions of civilization vary.

I found the old-style Franco-Arab manners very appealing. Nothing was ever rushed, people showed regard for each other; courtesy and measured deference were the rule. That might not be true in Casablanca or Tanger, but it was true in Rabat. We were driven to a restaurant in an old quarter of town, the name of which I’m not sure of. It was a high-ceilinged Moorish room with an elaborate domed ceiling supported by slender stone columns. Our waiters were striking in appearance, not only because of the varied genetic origins they attested to, but also because they wore pre-modern clothes. I hope it doesn’t sound like “Orientalism” to wish there might be some way to save the traditional dress of Morocco for most people, letting others who have to engage in business and administration adopt our plain, colorless, dull Western outfits. (Actually, in the Medina I saw quite a few men wearing djellabas and many women in headscarves and ankle-length dresses.) One of the things I liked about the late 1960s is that people, even males, could wear bright colors, embroidery, ornamental accessories, etc. Now we’ve all gone back to the gray suits, blue blazers, and striped ties of commercial correctness. Only Catholic or Anglican churchmen can wear magenta robes. Well, and Indian women here in London often wear saris, whose color provides relief from the overwhelming, gray, black, white, tan, navy blue, and dull green everyone else has been taught to favor.

I was seated next to Klaus Reichert, a soft-spoken cultivated man who took a degree in English-language literature and who has a special liking for Emily Dickinson and Robert Creeley. It also turned out that he knew (and published) Paul Celan, which gave me a chance to ask questions about a poet I love and have translated. Also at table were Dr. Boutaleb Joutei, an intelligent, good-humored man with nothing of the dull functionary about him. Others at our table were Federico Arbos, Ouidad Benmoussa, and of course Mohammed Benniss. We had a delicious Moroccan dinner, completed by fruit and sweet pastries.

At the hotel again there were warm goodbyes, and then the lightning-quick visit was mostly over. Amjad and I were driven back to Casablanca airport next morning for our Iberia flight. So I really saw nothing of Casablanca, but I'm told it is just a huge modern city with little of the traditional Moroccan charm. (Which brought to mind the moment in the film Casablanca, when the character Rick is asked why he came to the city in the first place. "I came for the waters." "But, monsieur, there are no waters in Casablanca." "I was misinformed.")

Check-in went smoothly, but unfortunately we had to pick up a connection at Barajas airport outside Madrid. No one told us there was a two-hour difference in the time zones. I thought there was just one, with the result that we dawdled a little and missed the connection. Another three-hour wait in the dead zone of a modern transportation hub. I hadn’t been through Barajas since it was remodeled. It is this huge megaport that requires miles of walking between terminals, and its moving conveyor belts and airport train really seem like an imposition rather than assist. It's also, like all new airports, a vast shopping mall, which no doubt adds to the distance pedestrians have to cover. Let’s face it: air travel has become an excruciating nightmare, what with passing security and immigration every time you make a connection, crowded flights with cramped seating, and no extras of any kind. Iberia doesn’t so much give you a glass of soda for free. When oil prices peaked last summer the airlines screamed, raised ticket prices, and dropped all the amenities. Now that the barrel price of oil is below $100 again, do we see any relief for the passenger? No. Business is business; squeeze the client for every penny you can get.

Just how deeply our civilization is in the grip of business and those who conduct it became luridly apparent during the last two weeks of banking news and tobogganing stock market prices. How did it happen? Well, think about it: a worker in finance, if he wants to keep his job, needs to show financial growth for his “product.” And if he doesn’t really have it, he has to fake it in his bookkeeping techniques. How does he get away with it? Because the Republicans deregulated financial practice. With the results that we’ve just seen. Do you suppose people are now ready to stop worshiping the Great God Business and turn their attention to experience that is really valuable? And by the way, all those billions of dollars wiped out on the world stock markets had to go somewhere, it wasn’t just hot air. Where, exactly, did those billions go? Who got away with the money?

3 comments:

Pierre Joris said...

A pleasure to read you on the Darwish commemoration (we had one in NYC at the Bowery Poetry Club which you can check out on my blog: http://pjoris.blogspot.com/2008/10/this-afternoon-mahmood-darwish-tribute.html )
I for one like Rabat too — a much underestimated city (even if I prefer Fez). A pleasure too to hear Amjar Nasr (who translated some of my poems into Arabic) and Mohammed Bennis (a good friend) mentioned.Excellent company you had!
Greetings from another Celan translator & Darwish reader.

Alfred Corn said...

It was good to hear about the Darwish celebration in New York. I visited your website and found an announcement of the event, but not an account of it. Did I miss something? Also, while navigating the site, I saw the Alice Notley celebration and was curious to hear her read, since I don't know her work at all and many people have told me what fans of hers they are. But I had no luck accessing the readings. Admittedly, I'm practically disabled when it comes to making the cyberworld function for me, but I couldn't get any audio reproduction from the links. Suggestions?

Consider contacting Klaus Reichert about Celan because he was given all sorts of fascinating information about Celan's sources and allusions, things that no one would be likely to notice. But of course Celan refused ever to put them into print.

As said, I can just barely publish a weblog post here, and I was envious of your ability to assemble all sorts of links and visual material on the site. Why are electronic media so difficult for some people and like falling off a log for others?

neal said...

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