Another Farewell

Hassana and Hajiba prepared the traditional “Fes exit meal” for me (and several others) Saturday. I planned to leave early Sunday morning at 7:30 by train. Having a special meal with special friends seems to make the actual departure less sad as we contemplate the fact that we shall not be spending time together for at least several months.

In the eighties, soon after Zoubida became our househelper, Denise taught her to make several dishes that made meal times more enjoyable. Even from the beginning, we enjoyed the traditional Moroccan meals Zoubida cooked; they were well-prepared and we always felt that the plentiful variety of fresh vegetables and fruits available ensured that we ate at least as healthfully in Morocco as we had in America. However, we did miss some of our comfort foods such as fried chicken, pizza, and spaghetti with meat sauce the way the way Denise made it. Zoubida’s culinary skills, coupled with Denise’s instructions, enabled her to learn quickly the methods of recreating those dishes which made us feel a little less isolated from home.

Although the pizza Denise taught was distinguishable from that of Pizza Hut, we came to appreciate it as much as the commercial product. Our Moroccan friends considered it a special treat to be invited over for a pizza party. Things have changed dramatically in the thirty years since we lived in Fes. Practically every block in the city center has at least a couple of pizzerias. Indeed, Pizza Hut itself has two locations in Fes. The taste and quality of their product is practically identical to what we find in the states; but to be honest, I could be satisfied with the homemade version were it not for the labor involved.

Three of Zoubida’s four daughters live in Fes; Raja, the youngest is married to an American and lives in Jacksonville. (Not exactly sure how she managed to settle there.) The elder two, Fatima and Hajiba, are not married and live with their mother. Hassana is married and has two children, Iman and Yassine. They relate to Denise and me as grandchildren, providing an additional outlet for Denise to further practice her gift of generosity! We have been fortunate to be able to visit with them every year since Iman was born 11 years ago.

All were present last Saturday when Zoubida’s son, Abdelrahim, also showed up in time to participate. We made his acquaintance in 1986 soon after we met Zoubida and he came to perform some handyman chores at our first residence in Fes. The fact he is now retired (he was a young man then) is another reminder of our present stage in life as well. He has two sons and a daughter, all adults, and we also consider them our “grandchildren.”

Such events as the one described above are not the only reason we continue to travel to Morocco, but they certainly help to convince us that it’s worth the effort. Just as we consider all of Zoubida’s children and grandchildren a part of our extended family, there are several other Moroccan families about whom we make similar statements of feeling and identity. Enlarging the family has always been a source of real satisfaction for us and a reminder of our good fortune in having been accepted and loved even when we were the outsiders!

*Editor’s note: “Fes” is the French spelling of the English version “Fez”, this city is the Spiritual capital of Morocco, population 1.4 million—the 2nd largest city. 1st is Casablanca.

Striking Out

Yesterday marked the fifth day of the alleged “four-day strike” of the Petit Taxi industry here in Fes. The Petit Taxis operate within the city limits and is a primary form of transportation since only a very small percentage of families own an automobile. Those who do would generally be considered upper middle class or above. Of the eight families I had hoped to visit and spend time with during this trip only one owns a car. There are still enough cars that there is significant traffic congestion at rush hours (four each day since most businesses and schools close at noon for two hours), but the absence of approximately 3000 taxis on the street has reduced traffic considerably

Each taxi is licensed by the government and the right to own a taxi is a form of political patronage established after the French Protectorate was ended in 1956. For forty-four years Morocco had been a colony of France. A bloody war raged for several years prior to the return of Mohamed V, the exiled heir apparent of the royal family, to reclaim the throne of the newly independent monarchy. Most of the licenses for the taxis were awarded to military members who had served on active duty during the struggle for independence. The owners of licenses were allowed to sell the granted asset or pass it along as an inheritance upon their deaths. In the past 63 years, the population has grown by a factor of approximately four, and the demand for cheap and quick transportation has increased at least as much, especially as the developed parts of the cities increased geographically

In the part of the city where I am staying with a friend, hardly any of the residents own a car. Well more than half of the people who live in the Old City would have to park their car in a location requiring a 20 or 30 minute walk from their home. In addition, few would be willing, even if able, to take on the additional expense of rented parking. Taxis, when not on strike, are always available near the gates of the city, and the cost is very reasonable.

At the present time, the meter begins computing a fare at 2.10 dirhams, roughly 21 cents. I overheard a discussion that the primary demand is a rise in the basic fare from 2.10 to 3 dirhams or 30 cents. Denise and I thought that sounded reasonable but is in fact about a 43% increase. I am not certain, but I think the sticking point in the negotiations is the part of the increase that goes to the driver. Almost none of the drivers own the taxi they drive. Since the licenses can be bought and sold, over the years the more astute business people, especially the families which received the initial patronage, have increased their holdings and control a larger share of the market. The drivers contract with the owners and might benefit hardly at all

I do know that for many people, the past couple of days have been a real hardship. I visited in a home late yesterday afternoon (after a forty-five minute walk). The mother in the family works as a teacher’s aide in a private American school and called to see if the son, who happens to own a car, could come and take her home. It would require over an hour for her to have walked, which she had done in the morning. She called about five p.m. and thus had been at the school almost ten hours. The kindergartners she teaches had been there only eight!

A related problem arises since the public buses which are less expensive (one ride is 40 cents) but at rush hour they are very crowded. Of course it also takes longer because of all the stops. Given there are no taxis, the crowding is unbelievable. I waited for one bus Saturday, but by the time it arrived there were at least three times as many riders as capacity. I started walking again. I think it is important during our time here to get to know as many Moroccans as possible, but I do not need to know that many random folks that well

My scheduled agenda is going to have to be curtailed considerably if the strike continues. I did manage to make it to Zobida’s house for a traditional meal, a required event each trip, but the time I spent with that family was less than the time required to get there and back; a three-hour visit sandwiched between a two hour trek to get there, and two hours to return

The walking itself would be more manageable were it not the rainy season. I had to stand under a shelter for about 15 minutes when a rain shower arrived on the way out, and then experienced sleet for a few minutes on the return. People such as teachers, office workers, hotel and restaurant employees, and blue-collar workers are all having a difficult time. My whining about my situation is not going to help them, I know, but I do hope that regardless of how this strike ends, the folks who need relief the most are somehow rewarded.

Until then I shall maintain my walking shoes as my preferred footwear. My Fitbit declared me an overachiever yesterday! Though helping my ego a bit at first, I realized with adequately low expectations and even minimal talent, one can often achieve more than anticipated. I suppose increased self-esteem is helpful, regardless of how attained.

January 23, 2019

On the Road Again

I am back in Morocco although I have not determined exactly how many times this basic activity has occurred in the past. A friend asked me last week if this would be #35. A quick recounting on the flight over confirmed it would be mid-thirties, but my memory not being what it once was, I am reluctant to state precisely an exact number. I can with certainty say that all our journeys here have taken place in the past 48 years. The first occurred in January 1971, the U.S. Navy providing the cost of my first ticket gratuitously! This time connections were made in Detroit and Paris without difficulty, and within 20 minutes of the scheduled expected time of arrival, I exited the Rabat terminal through the “Nothing to Declare” line, was not stopped by customs officials and therefore did not have to wait to have my baggage inspected. I did not carry contraband but did transport a rich supply of medication (of the non-prescription and legal type) for some Moroccan friends, as well as a new computer to meet a special need for an American who works here. I made my way to the taxi stand and acquired transportation to the Rabat train station for the final three-hour journey to Fes. Regrettably, I had to wait 90 minutes for the next train to Fes, but on the plus side, it was a “Rapide” placing me at my final destination at 6:30 Friday evening. Thus, door to door, the entire trip from Bluff Park to Fes, required almost exactly 27 hours.

I am lodging with a Moroccan friend whose American wife is currently in the U.S. for medical treatment. Denise traveled here with a friend in January 2018 for their wedding. Their apartment is located in the “medina kadeema” or old city. The entire city of Fes has a population of approximately 1.1 million, but 25% or so reside in the very compressed geographic area of the old city. There is the occasional noise of a motor bike outside, but the narrow width of the serpentine streets precludes the use of automobiles within this vast expanse of residences and commercial establishments. The late part of the nights is very quiet and restful. The existence of this part of the city justifies the designation of Fes as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I noticed along the railway path that the rainy season has been a good one so far this year. The fields of winter wheat located on the fertile plain for some seventy-five miles or so north of Rabat along the Atlantic Coast and in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains, after the tracks shift direction to the northeast, are green and growing. The wadis* are full or at least flush with water. Already many of the trees of the verdant valleys are beginning to blossom. The more subdued green of the leaves on the olive trees in the multiple orchards provides a pleasant visual contrast. Prosperity of the country in general is directly related to the amount of precipitation received between November and March, and there is a lot of hope for this year’s prospects.

One of the few stops the train made was in Kenitra, our first “hometown” in Morocco in Traveling back in my mind’s eye to our life together at that time brings inevitable comparisons to what I see in terms of how the country has changed; both in the progress that has been made developmentally, and to what we have become in terms of who we now are and how we relate to this culture and its people.

The railway journey also provided a good opportunity to reflect on the natural beauty extant in this North African country, my usual excitement about being here once again, and the continuing effort to recognize and understand the attraction justifying our expenditure of time, energy and resources to continue our decades long quest. I trust that my efforts through these reports over the next couple of weeks will provide evidence that our time spent here over the years has been more than a lark, but less than an obsession.


Note from Denise:
Weather in Morocco is cold and rainy (temperature between 35 – 55 degrees today. The picture below (forthcoming) shows the typical way we travel while in the city of Fez—by small taxi. There has been a strike for 4 days (Friday through today) and that has impacted Fred’s ability to travel around. Also, he sounds as if he is getting a cold. Please pray for Fred.