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Tag: casablanca

March 26, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Common Greetings and Phrases

Following on from yesterday, I want to highlight a few of the Arab expressions and phrases that are heard constantly in North Africa and the Middle East.

Assalam wa alaikum: As I said yesterday, this is the most common Arab greeting, meaning ‘Peace be upon you’.  It is uttered constantly, and it would be incorrect to omit it  when meeting someone, entering a shop, and so on.
Ahlan wa sahlan:  An all purpose relaxed greeting, favoured particularly in Egypt, that is truncated to ‘Ahlan’.
Bismillah:  ‘In the name of God’, it is said before a pious Muslim embarks on any activity at all. Before sitting down, before breaking bread or eating, or beginning just about any action that requires a little thought.
Alhamdullillah: ‘Praise God’. It’s used as a reply when someone asks you how you are. Also when one hears good news.
Tafaddul: Literally, ‘Honour me’, is an invitation to someone to sit down, come into their home, and so on.
Shukran: ‘Thank you’.
La illaha illa Allah, Muhammed ar-Rasul-Allah: ‘There is no god except Allah, Muhammed is the Messenger of God’. This is the Islamic Profession of Faith. To repeat it once is to testify once conversion to Islam.
La haula wa la quwwatah illa billahi al aali wa’l azeem: ‘There is no Power or Might accept God, the High, the Great.’ The phrase is sometimes said is an expression of great surprise.
Astaghfirullah: ‘I seek refuge in God’. The expression of alarm, disgust and so on.


March 25, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel


In the Arab and Islamic world greeting people is very important. It’s usually much more than a passing ‘hello’, and can often turn into an elaborate exchange of expressions, and an abundant show of friendship. The Prophet noted that people ought to greet each other. And anyone who has travelled in an Arab country, must have seen local people greeting friends and acquaintances, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. Here in Morocco there is almost nothing so important as greeting someone, whether a stranger or a friend. Each morning when I meet the guardian’s here at our house for the first time, I spend a moment asking them how they, and how their families are, and of course shaking hands. Hand-shaking is a very big deal in the Arab world. It would be unthinkable for me to greet another man and refrain from shaking their hand. The same goes for public greetings. When you enter a bank for example, or even an elevator, you always say: ‘As salam wa alaikum’, ‘Peace be upon you’.  I suppose it came from the times when you never knew whether a stranger was a friend or foe. And by expressing your greeting, you were declaring that you were friendly, and not about to stab them in the back. In the Arab world it can be considered inappropriate for a man to ask another man about his wife. So you always find yourself being asked “how is the family?” A conversation between two friends will never begin until such enquiries have been made.  On my travels I have noticed that almost all societies outside Europe and North America have such elaborate greetings. They are part of the culture, an expression that runs far deeper than the simplicity of the words. Last week I went to London to two or three days, and in the middle of the trip I found myself getting into a crowded elevator. As soon as I managed to squeeze in, I spent a moment greeting everybody, as I would do in Morocco. I did it on autopilot, and found myself  met with looks of blank amazement. After all, in London there can sometimes be a sense of hostility to outright strangers. But then, as the elevator rose up towards the top of the building, a few of the other passengers nervously greeted me back. It was a heart-warming experience, and I could sense that the others just like me felt energised in some way by the greetings someone they didn’t know.

March 9, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

The Favour Network

Living in the Arab world, or blustering through, you find yourself faced with a system that can be disconcerting or even bewildering: the business of favours. It’s a subject that is sometimes hard for Western society to grasp, because it’s a system that’s perfectly balanced, with pitfalls awaiting the unsuspecting. I can’t tell you how often we receive unsolicited gifts. Someone will send a platter of pastries or candy for the kids… and we’ll be very pleased, naturally, and thankful. But then, often, you get a request a few days later. That same person asks if they could make use of a contact of yours, or borrow something. I’m not trying to make this system sound dodgy or bad in any way. Because it isn’t, really. But you have to watch out. For example, if someone sends over a huge bouquet of flowers for no reason at all, send a platter of pastries over to them, of about the same monetary cost. This instantly negates their action and prevents them from asking the favour, and chances are they won’t try it again. It’s far, far better to be owed a favour. So, it does make sense to do a favour, and never ask if back. I promise you that it’s chalked up somewhere, in your friendship with that person, and he won’t forget. I promise you, too, that he’s desperate for you ask it, so he can clear the debt and move on.


Bridging East with West

You’ve probably had enough of my obsession for jungle expeditions. And so for the next few days I’m going to write on facts and fallacies of the Arab World and Middle East. Living in Morocco as I do, I am often amazed that there is such a sprawling gap between East and West. One small way to bridge it would be to correct some of the misconceptions that are all-pervading when it comes to the East. I hope a little of what I have planned will be of interest or even insightful.


Recognising the End

Every journey has an end. As the expedition leader, it’s your responsibility to decide when to call the team together and to give the order to retrace the steps, and venture back to the starting point. The obvious time for return is when you have come upon your goal — when you’ve found the lost city and had a good look around. But, as is so often the case, the goal tends to slip away. And what of it? To me, the goal is so important because it’s the magnet that pulls you forward, the beacon of hope… but at the same time it’s without much meaning within itself. Sure, it would be amazing to find the ruins, or whatever you’re searching for, but it’s equally valuable to have endured the unendurable for so long, and to have been part of the team. When you eventually get back to the base camp, have a feast prepared with remaining food. Then divide up equipment and hand as much of it away to the men as you can. Remember, if they live on the periphery of the jungle, they’re far more likely to have use for it than you. And, taking just the bare essentials, you can slip back into the world you came from… disappear with your memories, and start thinking of another expedition.



Rain, more rain, intestinal worms, dengue fever, sores, scurvy, fatigue: it all spells one thing… plunging  levels of morale. Once morale has dipped below optimal levels it’s very hard to drag back up. The worst problem is a sense that the expedition is going nowhere and that, as leader, you are forcing the team on towards unknown perils for no reason at all. As I have said previously, a good way to counter low morale is hot food and plenty of it. Another way is to have a football, or rest days, or an unexpected party. It’s true that parties and the jungle don’t go hand in hand particularly well… but you can stash some sugary food and party hats (and aguardiente of course) in a sealed bag before leaving. There’s another trick that I usually resort to at some point. Anyone who has read my books may have guessed. I take a crystalline white powder and sprinkle it on the tongues of the men in the most miserable conditions — when they’re all down with fever and general lethargy, or when the rain hasn’t stopped for weeks. They drool at the taste of it, and get a feeling that they’ve eaten a delicious meal even when they’ve not. The powder is Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG).  It works every time.


Cannibalising Stuff

Do you remember a few days ago I was ranting on why you should avoid all that stuff from fancy expedition shops? Well, it’s because that you’re in the jungle, you may have to start ripping stuff up, turning it into other stuff. You’ll soon see that you miscalculated with equipment and your own personal kit… that you left behind valuable things which would make life easier. But use your ingenuity. It’s much easier than you imagine to make stuff. Think of it like a battleship that’s out at sea… they learn to ‘refit at sea’. That means to make do with everything they have with them. We have all become very spoiled with equipment and general possessions. Whereas our forefathers knew that things had to be crafted from constituent parts, we have got so lazy we can’t imagine making anything that isn’t sold in the form we require. Again, it’s worth remembering to take lots of constituent parts along — twine, plastic sheeting, needles, tar, strong glue and so one. You can make just about anything from that stuff.


Living off the Land

In the movies, the jungle expedition always gains plenty of food from hunting, fishing, and gathering wild berries. Well, in reality that doesn’t work so well. One problem is that it’s very very time-consuming… and if the team have been carrying 30 kilos each all day, or have been hauling rafts up river, they are too tired to hunt or gather berries. It does work to have one or two designated  hunters, who love to try their luck at night. And you will need at least one 20-gauge shotgun for this with ammo. You can cut down chonta palms for ‘heart of palm’ but it’s not very nutritious. Beware though of scurvy, which sets in much sooner than you might imagine. You must search for sources of natural vitamin C for this, and there are plenty, as such small quantities are needed. I have always found that you must take food with you, otherwise you proceed with crippling slowness. Or, if possible, get a couple of local Indians working with you, and they will have a good chance at hunting, or at least fishing with bow and arrows.


Rafts and Zodiacs

I’ve taken a lot of rubber boats into the jungle. A well-known brand ifs the French Zodiac. They have advantages, namely that you can take them out of the water and carry them easily over land. They work pretty well over rapids too. The disadvantage is that they get holes, especially when you are dragging them up rapids, something which tends to be done frequently depending on the height of the water line. I’m a huge fan in building rafts, and have found that anyone living near a jungle knows almost instinctively how to do it. You find a grove of balsa trees, fell a few of them (always leaving many trees). While some of the guys strip the bark into strands for the lashing, others make chonta-palm nails. You can use river-stones as hammers, and knock together five or six tree trunks (about 10 inches in diameter), tapering the ends. A team of four men can make a raft in about 45 minutes. The huge advantage is that they can be slipped up rapids with enormous ease, they can also be used as windbreaks and seating, and can even be abandonned when necessary.


Setting up the Camp

As I said yesterday, it’s good to give each man a chore. The most important is cook, and the cook should be compensated in other ways. He can be given one or two assistants who help preparing food, boiling water, washing up and all that. Usually one man will volunteer to cook, and the rest of the group will either support or refuse him. I’ve always been lucky to have good guys cooking, and nothing is so important as hot plentiful food. Give others the duty of setting up the tent etc. On most jungle journeys I have arranged all the men and myself sleep under a single canopy. We don’t take tents as they tend to isolate the men. I have found it’s better to set up a kind of football goal structure, and drape a long tarpaulin over it, tethered at an angle either end. The fire is also important, and the natural place where people accumulate. Most of all, it’s key to have the supplies arranged neatly in the camp, and accounted for before you move on.