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Tag: bidonville

3

Worrying Times in the Shantytown

Shantytown surrounding Dar KhalifaThese are worrying times in the shantytown within which we live. Just as the big nasty apartment building mushroomed up without any warning in the bowels of the bidonville behind us, there’s been almost no official word about what’s going on with regard to breaking down the homes.

I’ve heard it said that the people who bought apartments in the expensive building behind paid the first slice of their cash on nothing more than an artist’s impression. The second tranche is payable now as I understand it, now that the concrete super-structure is complete.

The problem for the developers is that no one that’s paid a big chunk of cold hard cash is going to slide any more their way until they can drive in and have a look at the work done so far. And those people aren’t going to pay a single dirham more until there’s a nice plush road, as there is on the plans.

Meanwhile, the larger problem with many of the shacks is that they lie in the path of the road. I have heard it said, too, that 32 families were paid off last year. But they didn’t move… of course they didn’t, because in Morocco anyone with any cash is immediately cajoled into lending it to extended family and friends.

The first houses to have been knocked down were mostly bashed down with sledge hammers… the work of men from the building site. Needless to say, there are many glum looks and plenty of bad feeling. But, as anyone reading this can I am sure imagine, a handful of impoverished people in a shantytown have little hope when pitched against what is one of the Kingdom’s most powerful building contractors.

Two of our guardians live in the bidonville, and our maid. Thankfully, they live just out of the path of the road and so, hopefully, will be saved a little longer.

I’ve resisted taking pictures while walking through because this is a sensitive time. And the last thing I’d want if my house was being knocked down was people taking snaps of it all.

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Bidonville Blues

In French ‘Bidonville’ means ‘Tin Town’, taking its name from the battered old oil drums (bidons), the metal of which has traditionally been used to make the shacks weatherproof. Casablanca is a wild and eclectic mix of housing. Near to where we live are some of the smartest villas in the city — even the smallest would go for well over a million Euros. Many are five times that. Other Moroccan cities have Bidonvilles, but few have them nestled so cheek by jowl with the more upmarket areas. Casa Trash, the dreaded nouveau riche, are embarrassed by the shantytowns, and will tell you that they are hotbeds of danger, dirt, and depravity.
     As anyone who has read my books will hopefully know, this perception couldn’t be farther from the truth. Living in the middle of Sidi Ghanem, the Bidonville that surrounds our home, has been more most rewarding and humbling experience imaginable.
     At first when we moved here, to live at Dar Khalifa, I looked at the situation in black and white. Come from the Occident and that’s how you tend to see things — good and bad, rich and poor. But Morocco is a realm of shades of colour rather than monochrome. And that’s where the true magic lies.
     The Bidonville functions in a very sophisticated way. There’s no crime to speak of, and most of the people who live here have some employment, many of them working in the surrounding villas as gardeners, maids and guardians. Their homes may look shabby on the exterior, but inside they are always neat, spotlessly clean, and welcoming. What has always impressed me is the way that the community works. If anyone’s sick or ill, friends, neighbours, or even strangers, watch over them. There’s a sense of fraternity that doesn’t exist in the fancier areas of town, such as Anfa, where the new money can be found.
     Walk through during any hour of the day and you’ll see women chatting on the main street, carts laden with pots and pans, fishmongers weighing out sardines, encircled by hopeful cats, and children scampering about between the buildings. There’s a sense that the streets are a grand sitting room, a place that belongs to everyone at the same time. The cornerstones of Moroccan life is very much in evidence — friendship, faith, and family.
     I’m not pretending for a moment that all’s well. Because it is not. Over the years we have been living here there have been mumblings from time to time about moving the Bidonville on and using the space for luxury. Once or twice there were even plans to bulldoze some areas. But then, at the end of the summer, construction began in ernest. The animals were moved first. They used to live in a great sprawling paddock of dust, donkeys, cows, geese, goats and sheep. Free-ranging and fabulous. The sound of the geese in particular formed a raucous quite musical backdrop to my working days.
     For six months the engineers have been toiling, building a series of plush apartment blocks on the far side of Dar Khalifa, homes for the wealthy that will — soon — overlook our lives. It’s not the high rise apartments for a new wave of Casa Trash that worries me, so much as what’s going to happen to the hundreds of ordinary people who lives in the Bidonville.
     Our maid, Zenab just told me that last week a man with a clipboard came round and asked her questions…. how much she earns, how many people in her family have jobs, and whether she has relatives elsewhere in town. She came to work this morning and broke down sobbing, damping her eyes with the corner of her headscarf.
     ‘They said we will have to leave in a few month,’ she said. ‘But where will we go?’
1
June 23, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Baker

Walk through the shantytown which surrounds our home and you will see children as young as six or seven hurrying forward, oversized trays balanced across their arms. Over the tray there’s always a cloth, pulled down tight. Under it there’s a loaf of flat round dough, ready for the oven.

The children scamper fast through the narrow alleys which run between the shacks, with the trays. They run around the side of the bidonville, where the donkeys laze hobbled in the morning sun, and present them to the baker.

His name is Mustapha. His arms are scarred from the wood fire, his hair all singed at the top from the interminable heat. All day long he shuffles the loaves into the oven with a long wooden paddle, and then shuffles them out again.

In Morocco there is no food as sacred as bread. Indeed, it’s far more than any simple food. It’s a symbol of something far greater than a food designed for alimentary sustenance. The idea of ever throwing away a morsel of bread, however stale, is completely unthinkable.

In our home, a piece of bread that’s unfit to eat is never thrown away – not ever. Instead, it’s passed on to someone or to something who will have use for it.

I once wondered what happened to all the stale old bread that was unfit to eat. There must be tonnes of it created in Casablanca alone every day. After all, no one throws it away. They protect it, defend it at all costs from the dustbin, and ensure it is given a fitting end.

I never asked anyone where the bread landed up, but the question was always in my mind. Then, one day, I was strolling through the muddy junk yard in the nearby area of Hay Hasseni, searching for old Art Deco basins as I do, and I saw it… a sea of stale old chunks of bread. There was every shape and size, every colour from white to the darkest brown.

I went over. The stench was terrible, as a great deal of the stuff was rotten, or gnawed at by rats. It was winter, and the Atlantic winter climate is merciless… especially on bread.

Every so often someone would stumble up, hand a small coin to the bread guardian, and saunter off with a bag of the stuff. The guardian told me that people bought it for their cows, that it kept them healthy and free from illness even in the coldest weather. ‘It’s a sort of miracle food,’ he said.

In the bidonville, Mustapha the baker told me he knew of the bread dealers in Hay Hasseni. ‘They make quite good money,’ he said. ‘And I thank them for their work, they are honorable men.’ He paused, shuffled another paddle of loaves into the fire.

Through a kind of alchemy, Mustapha and the other bakers transform the raw dough into the magical comestible and, as such, they are regarded with special esteem. As bakers – and they are exactly that – men who bake bread, they continue in a profession which remains unaltered since ancient times.

One mention of the history, and Mustapha holds still, rests the end of his paddle on his thigh.

‘The Prophet said never to discard a crust of bread,’ he said, ‘and that if you ever see it even the smallest piece on the ground, you must pick it up and put it on all wall. Then, if a beggar is passing and is in need of food, he will not have to stoop down. Because however poor a beggar, he has dignity too.’

 

 

TS

 

1
June 22, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Barber

Hamid the barber crouches in the doorway of his shop, a cut-throat razor in one hand and a tired leather strop in the other. As soon as a client arrives, slips across the sunlit threshold, and eases himself into the black vinyl chair, Hamid comes alive. He’s like an automaton, wound for a few moments, cued into action by the prospect of a coin and an audience.

Ask him any question and Hamid will tell you his tale. It’s a story crafted from pride, fantasy, and from an enthusiasm for dreams, conjured by the magical twilight world of his own mind.

‘We were warriors,’ he says, massaging lather into my cheeks.

‘Who were?’

‘My ancestors.’

‘Where did they come from?’

‘From the mountains, and the desert.’

‘They came from both?’

‘Yes, yes, from the mountains first and then from the desert.’

The razor was dipped in cool water, inspected for sharpness, and applied at an angle to the cheek bone. At no point in the day is Hamid ever more content than when a bristly cheek was beneath his hand. Not because it means he is making a little money, but because it allows him time to talk, uninterrupted.

‘My grandfather was from the High Atlas,’ he said, carving the blade south towards the chin. ‘He was so brave that every villager for hundreds of kilometres were fearful, terrified of just hearing his name.

‘What was his name?’

Hamid paused, wiped the cut-throat to clear the soap.

‘He was called Abdul-Kader,’ he said, filling the name with vigour like a balloon blown full of air. He said the words as I would tremble at hearing them.’

‘Would you tell me about him?’

But there was no need for the question. Hamid had already begun:

‘Haj Abdel-Kader was four years old when the chief of the village threw him a lamb bone,’ he said. ‘It was covered in meat, juicy and tender. But just as he caught in his small hands, a dog leapt up onto him and wrestled him for the bone. My ancestor was enraged, even though so young.’

‘What did he do?’

Hamid wiped the razor once again. His voice was slow and measured.

‘He took the dog by the jaws and ripped it apart, clean down the middle.’

‘Gosh.’

The coiffeur rinsed my face with a damp cloth and sprayed the raw skin with rose water, before rubbing it with a cube of ice. He seemed pleased to have impressed me.

‘When you come back next week,’ he said, ‘I will tell you a story that will make your hair turn white with fear.’

I thanked him, adding nervously that I couldn’t wait. Then, just as I eased myself from the black vinyl, and fished for a coin, he said:

‘Remember, our ancestors can teach us more than any teacher ever could.’

 

 

TS

 

 

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June 21, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Ochre

It all begins with a square tile, glazed terracotta ten centimetres square, the colour of ochre. Add to this a decade of apprenticeship, a pair of hands so steady they could match those of any surgeon, a cushion of pressed felt, and a hammer with an ultra sharp edge. If you have all these things, you have what it takes to create the finest zelij mosaics in the world.

When I first moved to Morocco I thought the West had some pretty amazing tools. I used to traipse up and down the aisles in the hardware stores gawking, checking the spec of the electric drills and the angle grinders. Once in a while I’d buy one, plug it into the mains, and blow myself away with the power ready and waiting for me to abuse it.

Like everyone else who lives in the West, I became brainwashed by the system. But then, move away, decompress, and you come to understand very quickly that the names we give things, and the nonsense we consider to be important, is quite meaningless.

In the Occidental world we get all caught up with what we perceive to be power. All we talk about is how many horsepower or megawatts, or gigabytes, or amperes we have on tap. And what we forget is that the power’s not important… but what is, is the skill of hands in which the power is placed.

When we moved here to Dar Khalifa, the renovations were ongoing. They went on and on and on. And in that time I had the opportunity to observe another system at work, a system that has been honed through a thousand years and more. It’s a system that is based on transmission alone, and the idea that if you spend enough time with someone who has the knowledge, then you will learn and, ultimately, you’ll gain knowledge too.

But of course the important thing is to be in the right frame of mind from the start, or be ready to enter the right frame of mind as you progress. If you’re not ready to learn, you’ll stay ignorant. And that’s a big point. Because in the West we like to imagine that everyone is a blank sheet, ready to learn, something that’s not right at all. An athlete getting ready for a race limbers up, prepares. Only then does he put his mind to the exercise at hand.

We had several teams of craftsmen working on the house. The one which impressed me greatest with their chain of transmission were the zeligiers, the mosaic workers. There was an entire range of them, and how extremely remarkable it was. At the bottom of the ladder were a group of boys. They were about fifteen years old, fluff on their cheeks, a glint of expectation in their eyes. All they did was to move sand, cement and carry the precious tiles.

After years of struggling under the burden of the raw materials, they were permitted to sort the tiles themselves, to wash them, soak them in troughs, and to caress their hands over what would become their livelihood.

More years, and they would be taught to mark out a shape, the same shape, over and over on a ten by ten square of terracotta. There was no question of making a mistake, because given time the hand and the eye perfected the skill… a skill that would enable them to cut the mosaic pieces in hundreds of different shapes without error. And that’s how humans learn: through repetition.

Trawl the wide aisles of Home Depot of B&Q, buy into the brainwashing system, and you quickly imagine that you can do anything with a set of tools, each one with a power cord fifteen feet long. It looks so easy on the packet, or on the in-store TV display. And the mistake we are making is by assuming that technology is a substitute for skill, which is certainly is not.

During the renovations at Dar Khalifa, a man in his forties sat straight-backed on a cushion in what is now the main salon. Beside his left knee was always a glass of piping hot mint tea, and in his right hand was a hammer. All day, every day, he would chip away, cutting mosaics from ochre-red tiles. To watch him was to slip into another world, a world which surely at once existed (and probably not so long ago) in the Occident.

One morning he smiled as I watched, transfixed by the tap, tap, tapping, by the raw skill focussed on the job at hand. He whispered something. I leant forward, and he said it again.

‘To cut one piece it takes a minute,’ he said, ‘one minute and twenty years.’

 

 

TS

 

 

 

 

3
June 21, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Black

On the east wall of the courtyard near to where I am sitting, there is a shadow. It’s unlike any normal shadow, shades of grey, because it is very very black. But the colour is not the strange thing about it. Rather, it’s that this shadow is not cast by any object. It’s a shadow without a reason.

I first noticed it three weeks ago. The bright afternoon light was beginning to wane, and the sound of donkeys baking in the shantytown was lessening with the heat. I was working on an article, feeling good about myself for working so hard, looking out at the birds swooping down onto the fountain — a single drop of water sufficient to satiate their thirst. I looked up. The birds flew off, up into the bougainvillea. Suddenly I saw it, as plain as the nose on my face… the shadow without a reason.
I called the guardians from the garden. They lined up and waited for instructions. Nothing worries them more than being called in the late afternoon. They hide down at the stables smoking and drinking endless mint tea. A call from me usually ends in a demand, albeit one couched in politeness. They sauntered in, looking sheepish. I pointed at the wall.
‘That,’ I said.
‘What?’
‘The shadow.’
Osman looked at me, frowned, cocked his head to the side.
‘Yes Monsieur Tahir?’
‘Well it’s a shadow without a reason.’
The guardians turned to take another look. They looked hard, frowned again, scratched their heads, smiled, laughed, and then all of a sudden their amusement was  wiped away… wiped away by fear.
‘It’s not good,’ said Hamza.
‘Not good at all,’ Osman echoed.
What shall we do?’ I said.
Just then, Zohra came out of the kitchen, overwhelmed with curiosity. She ordered to know what was going on.
Osman pointed.
‘A shadow,’ said Hamza nervously, ‘a shadow without a reason.’
Zohra stepped back, pushed a hand to her headscarf, leant forward, squinted.
‘Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!’ she crowed.
I asked what she meant.
‘You silly men.’
‘Why are we silly?’ I asked.
‘Because only men would waste time worrying about something like this, wasting time when there is work to be done!’
‘But I have been working. And now we are trying to solve this problem,’ I said.
Hamza waved his hands on the wall, like a child doing shadow puppets.
‘We’re making a scientific study,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Osman, ‘that’s what we are doing.’
‘Nonsense,’ replied Zohra, ‘you are wasting time. And that’s all men do, their whole lives. They waste time.’
A day passed, and the shadow didn’t move. Evening faded to night, and with the dawn, the shadow returned… very faint at first, but darkening as the hours passed, until it was very black again. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to know the reason for the shadow without a reason. So I went to get my camera. If I could get a picture of it, I thought, then I could study it more closely. I took a photo of the wall with the shadow… click. Looked at the image. Weird, I thought to myself… the shadow’s not there on film.
Just then Zohra shuffled out of the kitchen and jerked her head. A jerk of Zohra’s head is a demand for information.
‘It’s strange,’ I said. ‘I took a picture of the shadow, but…’
‘But…?’
‘But it didn’t come out on film.’
Zohra peered into the screen at the back of the camera. She was going to say something. Then her expression wavered. She looked extremely fearful. It was a look I had experienced before, one conjured by the thought of the supernatural.
I shook my head.
‘No,’ I said, ‘not that.’
Zohra nodded. She spun round and touched the walls, kissed her knuckle and said a prayer.
Anything at Dar Khalifa that has no obvious explanation, is put down to the Jinns, and Zohra is the queen of stirring up fear of them. That is, if anyone needs their imagination to be stirred — which they don’t.
I ushered her back into the kitchen. Then, with all my strength, I moved the big whicker log basket in front of the shadow. Remarkably, the patch of darkness disappeared. I smiled to myself. Zohra peered out of the kitchen at hearing the noise.
‘It’s gone,’ I said.
‘You have hidden it.’
‘No, really, it’s gone away. Vanished. Just like that.’
The maid narrowed her eyes.
‘I don’t believe you,’ she said.
5
June 20, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

White

One morning, long ago now, my father came home and looked white, as if he had seen a ghost. He sat in his study in his favourite chair, staring into space. We asked our mother what had happened. ”He’s had a little shock,’ she said. ‘It’s best to leave him alone.’

A day passed and my father sat there, staring, hardly moving at all.

On the second day, I couldn’t stand the suspense an longer. So I asked him, straight up, what was the matter. He tried to smile. It was one of those forced smiles of reassurance, that leads to even more  worry because it’s so strained.
‘I will tell you, Tahir Jan,’ he said… ‘I will tell you a story. And this time it is true.’
So I sat down beside him, a log fire orange and yellow in the hearth. And I waited. The silence continued for a few minutes, and I half wondered if he had forgotten the promise of a tale, a true one. Then, when I had almost given up hope, he wove his long fingers together, pressed the knuckles to his chin, and began.
‘On the morning of my birth a fortune teller was brought to room where my mother had just delivered. It was in Simla, in the Himalaya mountains, because I was born during a hunting expedition as you know. My mother had me cradled in a soft blanket, a touche, made from the finest hair from the chin of mountain goats. Her face was glazed with joy at setting eyes on her first son. Standing tall and proud beside the bed, my father escorted the diviner in, asked him to sit and, when he was ready, to peer into the future.
‘The fortune teller crouched low on a stool at the corner of the bed. He was very old, extremely wizened, his face like an elephant’s back. He was almost blind. But everyone knew he possessed a clear and untrammeled sight of another kind. Tea was brought and pleasantries exchanged. My mother unfurled the corner of the blanket so that the mystic could see the face of the infant.
‘A little time slipped by. Then, only when he was quite ready, the seer held the sides of his wrinkled face, and journeyed into another plane. His eyes appeared to swell with joy, then with tears. My parents, watching his expression as it changed, waited patiently for the divination.
‘An hour or more passed. Then, an only then, the teller recounted what he had seen. “Your son,”he said, “this little boy you have given the fine name Sayed Idries, will grow up to be a very famous man. He will be a man of his age, a man whose name is known in every home and every teahouse, a man respected and valued for his great wisdom, but…”
‘The seer paused. My parents leant forward. ‘But…?’ they said both at once. ‘But what?’ 
‘”But something unpleasant, something grim, will hang above his life, a terrible danger dangling by a thread. It will always be there, waiting for the moment when his guard is let down. And then it will strike.”
‘My father enquired the nature of this malediction. The diviner looked at him, his clouded vision wavering. “I will tell you,” he said. “I prophesize here and now, at the first light of this infant’s life, that he will meet his demise through drowning. I cannot tell you when it shall happen, because that depends on circumstance, but I can state with the utmost confidence that he will drown. Therefore, I caution you to take appropriate action to safeguard against this curse.”
‘A little more time passed and the mystic was ushered out, thanked profusely, and rewarded for his foresight. When he was gone, the first actions were taken to prevent me from meeting my untimely death. The bathtub was immediately taken away and broken into pieces so that my head might never be forced beneath its waterline. The servants were instructed never, on any account, to put the infant boy in a position of danger when near water.
‘Time passed, and I grew into childhood. In that time, I was not ever permitted to take a bath, only the briefest of showers. And, I was never taught to swim, never permitted to go anywhere near water… oceans, seas, lakes or streams. When my friends went to play in the icy mountain rivers, I was kept back, clutched to my mother’s chest.
‘As the years passed, I grew used to my life shrouded from water, the most natural of substances. I rarely thought of it, that I was ignorant of anything nautical. With time, I even forgot the premonition that had been so drummed into me as a small child — that I would drown.
‘Decades rolled forward. My parents passed away and I became a father of my own, to you three children. My life was arranged around habit, the habit of childhood, designed to prevent an untimely death through drowning. I have never taken a bath, nor have I leapt into a river, and have rarely been close to the sea. It is not that I have a fear of water, rather a mistrust of it, for I know that it is waiting, waiting to end my life.’
‘But, Baba, why did you come back home so fearful,’ I asked.
My father moved his vision from the flames to my face.
‘Because, Tahir Jan, as you know I have a heart condition. My heart is weak and, in its weakened state I have to visit a specialist from time to time. He does tests, examines me, and makes a diagnosis for my future. Well, I met him yesterday. He asked me to remove my shirt, which I did, and he put the stethoscope to my chest. I breathed slowly in and out, in and out. When I had done so several times, he told me to put my shirt on. I did so. He took off his reading glasses, and looked at me hard, the corners of his mouth raised ever so slightly in a faint smile.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He said to me: “The trouble with you Mr. Shah is that your lungs are slowly filling with water… and you are drowning.”‘
TS