The East

In the city I smelled the glory of the fat-bellied god revealed by the incense smoke which swirled around my plastic feet slipping on the steaming broken pavement amidst the rats that scurried from cracks in the walls down holes where they were pulled by strings directed by unseen hands in dark corners because the light was scarce and the air was thick in the narrow alleys not far from where the scraping of spoons could be heard, worked by women with yellow skins like turtles in wet plastic boots yelling at customers who were shouting back in Cantonese bullets under the looming tarp that was protecting them from the rain but not noticing the dripping of the piping constructed by the first migrants that came to the malaria infested swamps to build the city before its future was foretold by the gypsy seers that still exist and who will read your hand and you know you must believe them because they wouldn’t be sitting there by night under the flyover on a piece of cardboard if they hadn’t known their own future and holding it for true and unchangeable as the laws of Babylon, far from the  rickety tables that were now laden with food and surrounded by plastic chairs on which people were eating, carefully wielding chop sticks but with room for one more who was listening to the din of wooshing gas burners, the hacking of meat, the shouting of orders, the scraping of woks, with violent fumes drifting among us, assaulting our eyes of men, women and children of all races of the world that had come there and then to taste from the kettles of the east that served chicken and pork and beef, fish and shrimp, noodles and rice, coconut and beer, tea and coffee and beer and ice and tea and mud and rats and shrieks and laughter on tables full of leftovers wiped away with dirty rags by thin legged men whose moves showed the weariness of years of dancing with bowls of soup and plates of  meat in their hands and with money in their belts as they were gleaming with sweat that would drip on the sinking streets of Chinatown.

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In the hostel I was greeted by the travellers that had gathered there together and they wanted to know where I was from and I told them where I was from and they went on drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and I made tea and we drank and we talked without noticing the time because it was dark and it started to rain again and before we knew it the rain was thundering down on plants in pots that were sick and tired of the water gushing down on them but there was no mercy for these petulant leaves, and the inadequate plastic roofing then started to leak so we changed places and we laughed and I made some more tea and we talked and then the rain stopped and the gushing forth of water from pipes had halted and by now we knew where we all were from and where we all would go and where we’ve all had been, only the mosquitos had come out  now and we were all rubbing our legs but there was nothing we could do and so we moved on to politics, religion, science and philosophy and who is wrong and who is right and what is wrong and what is right, seeing that the world is a mess and she said and I said and they said and we said but in the end it was not true but we said it anyway.

 

 

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Morocco wrap up

From Meknes I took a train to Rabat, the only Imperial City  I had not visited yet. It was less touristy and far more cosmopolitan than Meknes and more expensive as well. After I had checked in at my hotel I walked through the medina to the Plage de Rabat where the Atlantic was putting up a spectacular display of might. I cannot think of any other city that has such an admirable seascape.

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The Atlantic Coast at Rabat.

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St Peter’s Cathedral – Rabat

Not far from my hotel I took a photo of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Rabat, the seat of the Archdiocese of Rabat. It’s very distinctive with its Art Deco style and was built in the early twentieth century by the French. The diocese today comprises more than 28 million people but less than 0.1 % of them are Catholic, a number which is unlikely to rise dramatically since leaving Islam, the religion of more than 99% of the population, is not very popular. Most probably because apostates are likely to be socially ostracized and even persecuted in Morocco.

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Kasbah of the Udayas

During one of my walks I passed the Kasbah of the Udayas, yet another UNESCO world heritage site, built under the Almohads after they, the Almohads, had destroyed the Kasbah of the Almoravids. I have no idea who the Udayas were.

Rabat was my last destination in Morocco and from here I flew back to Kuala Lumpur.

 

 

 

Volubilis

Not far from Meknes is the UNESCO World heritage site of Volubilis which is easily combined with a visit to the picturesque village of Moulay Idriss. For a day of exploration I teamed up with Alex from Australia who I had met in the hotel and who also happened to be a connoisseur of good food which was helpful in all things culinary but which also meant we had to stop at nearly every patisserie we passed.

The town of Moulay Idriss is the holiest town of Morocco and before 2005 non-moslems were not allowed to stay the night. Travellers at the time were expected to leave the city before 3 pm (Edith Wharton called it grandly the Sacred City). It is known for its mausoleum of Moulay Idriss I, which, sadly, is not accessible for non-moslems, supposedly because Idris was the great-great-great grandson of the prophet Muhammed. That didn’t help  him much from being murdered, poisoned it is said, by the caliph Harun al-Rashid, whose name means Aaron the Just. It was then apparently okay to kill a great-great-great grandson of the Prophet. Many Moroccans believe that six pilgrimages to the mausoleum are equal to a pilgrimage to Mecca which must be convenient for people who live in Meknes or other nearby towns. I took a picture from a safe distance:

mausoleum

Then we looked around for the only round minaret in Morocco, allegedly so, and I had seen a photo of it and it brought back reminiscences of Central Asia, but when we arrived at the structure it was rather disappointing. Not only was it quite small, but a text on the side suggested it was only built in the first half of the twentieth century.

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The unusual round minaret at Moulay Idriss

When we arrived at a small market, Alex decided to buy some peas which, he explained, can be eaten raw, something I never knew. When I tried them they were deliciously crunchy and sweet. He also pointed at some acorns and we decided to buy some. They were the seeds of the cork oak and I later found out that its Wikipedia article completely failed to mention that they were in fact edible, though it did mention that they are also used to produce a pesticide…. They differed in quality, some were bitter, but most tasted very much like chestnuts.

On our way to Volubilis we walked by an old fashioned olive mill, witness to the town’s most important product: olive oil.

Volubilis was of Phoenician origin but is now more famous for being a well preserved Roman colonial town in Morocco. In its time it lay at the fringes of the Roman Empire. The entrance fee was a very modest 10 dirhams, roughly one euro, and which included access to the museum.

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Many mosaic floors were still in remarkably good shape given that they have been unprotected against the rain or snow, or whatever else may have fallen upon them from the heavens, for all those centuries. The most striking I found a mosaic floor depicting Hercules and his 12 labours.

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Pixelated Hercules

Another prominent structure in Volubilis was the Triumphal Arch which was built to honour Caracalla although I don’t know of any victory of this emperor who is mainly known to history for his massacres throughout the Roman Empire. Somewhat satisfactory Caracalla was being stabbed to death during a campaign in Parthia while urinating at the side of the road.

After the city fell to ruin its name was forgotten and the local people called it Ksar Faraoun or the ‘Pharaoh’s Castle’ as they erroneously thought it was built by one of those ancient Egyptian rulers. During the French colonial period the ruins underwent restoration which, according to some, was rather shoddily done.

On our way back we had some kofte (minced meat) served with cumin in Moulay Idriss:

mmmm

After this I stayed a few more days in Meknes which I liked. Its medina is singular in style with its wooden porticoes. There are many little workshops where tailors are sewing and other craftsmen were happily um… crafting away.

The hotel is very cold. It seems colder than any other building I have been in in Meknes. I spent most of my time under a huge pile of blankets and I am glad I fortuitously brought my hat which I had never thought necessary when I left for Morocco.

In the morning I often drink coffee at the Hotel Regina where I only pay half of what you pay at the Place el H. where tourists from Fez and Casablanca pour out of tourist busses.  When the waiter turned his back a vagabond took his chance and drank the dregs of the coffee that were left standing on a nearby table.

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Volubulis

Meknes photos

It was getting too cold in the mountains and so I took a shared taxi to Meknes which lies in a valley to the north. Sitting on the left side of the back seat of the old Mercedes I had a good view of the Middle Atlas with some wide panoramic vistas. At the last moment I was asked to move  to the back seat from the front where I was sharing the passenger seat with another big guy. This was necessary because the driver couldn’t shift gear and he thought it was important. Once in Meknes some of my friendly fellow travellers pointed me the way to the hotel. It was an old fashioned cheapy with tons of atmosphere and arabesque styled tiles in the room but cold as a funerary  cellar even though the city of Meknes lies 700 metres lower than Azrou.

After having checked in I walked over to the Bab Mansour, Meknes’ famous landmark, an enormous gate from the early 18th century built by Sultan Wotsisname . The text above the door says: ‘I am the most beautiful gate in Morocco. I am like the moon in the sky. Property and wealth are written on my front’. That’s a bit much for a door, I felt.

On the El Hedim square, opposite the ancient gate, several snake charmers were walking around  and a circle of spectators was watching some lively street theatre that I couldn’t understand because it was in Arabic.

The following afternoon I was sitting in the sun on the roof top of the hotel warming up like some giant lizard. I have bought a flight to Kuala Lumpur and in this cold I am counting down the days. I can’t wait to sit down in my favourite beef noodles soup place.

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alley

tea

teahouse in Meknes

spices

couscous and um… stuff

In Barbary IV

Some mornings I get company from a Frenchman. At first I was happy to practise my French on him, but I soon found that he is some sort of religious zealot. After a few remarks on the weather he steers the conversation inevitably towards celestial armies and prophecies of apocalyptic doom. He is often followed by his single disciple: a shepherd turned poet of less than Byronic proportions. A few days later I saw him again dressed in fatigues and with sunglasses. He looked like a Serbian warlord.

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Nancy with background, watercolours

Browsing the web to find good art is a delight. Many artworks leave me with admiration and most of it is beyond my  capacity to reproduce. There are loads of interesting articles and I learn a lot about art history. I never knew that the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and that at the time people were actually standing in line to see the gaping empty space where she had hung before. Later it appeared that the theft had been spontaneous and the thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, had simply forced the painting out of its frame and had taken it out of the museum hidden under his coat…

In that same year, authorities discovered that Picasso had two Iberian statues in his possession that were stolen from the Louvre and even though he denied he had anything to do with it, some people think he was involved. Another interesting fact: Picasso carried a revolver filled with blanks which he fired at critics who told him their five year old child could paint like him or dared to ask him about those Iberian statues…

Salvador Dali stole pens from fans who asked for his autograph….

Some tips for people who want to try meditation:

Despite lengthy YouTube videos there’s not much to it but to sit still and not think. It’s best to sit cross legged with a straight back. Watch your breath, concentrate on it. Find a space where you are not easily distracted; a cowshed in Patagonia will do nicely. Whether to close your eyes or not: most sources seem against it and I for one get drowsy. Otherwise, drill a hole in your skull and screw your eyeballs to it to keep a fixed stare. A cushion will do nicely if you haven’t figured out yet how to hover 5 inches above the floor.
And don’t worry  about the ice cream. It’s in the fridge.

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People

In Barbary III

Barbary because of Berbers which derives from Barbarians which the Romans got from the Greeks who used it generically as it meant something like blah-blah-blah, designating people who didn’t speak Greek. The Berber population, naturally, wasn’t very pleased with this.
Can’t you name us something different?
No, we shall call you Barbarians.
But we’ll be the laughing stock of your empire. Can’t we be Vandals or something?
I am afraid not. I am really sorry.
Oh, bugger..
St. Augustine was Berber but nobody here knows him.

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Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor

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Wanderer above the Sea of Fog

Lately I am enjoying making sketches of famous paintings. The first of the above is a detail from a portrait of Nancy Astor by John Singer Sargent. It’s not finished yet, but I am afraid I am going to bungle it, so I have uploaded an as of yet unfinished version of it. The second is the famous Wanker above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. It is ubiquitously used now on the internet by creators of YouTube content who want to convey some concept of existential dread. I know because I watch tons of videos on existential dread.
Caspar David Friedrich was a German painter of a particularly depressive disposition, though his work was of an ethereal if haunting beauty and he is now regarded as the most important German artist of his time. Unfortunately, he didn’t end very well and he was described as ‘half mad’ when he died. A portrait of him by Gerhard von Kügelgen (see Wikipedia) seems to intimate this characteristic accurately, I mean, you don’t want to give this man an axe.

The hotel where I stay has a café on the ground floor with a television in the corner. When it is on it forever shows football matches to an exclusively male audience who are smoking acrid smelling cigarettes. It is very depressing and I never sit inside. And I don’t know why they never show anything else but football. No films, no nature documentaries. Just football. I suspect they are bewildered by the green grass…

In Barbary II

According to a BBC article, king Mohammed VI has urged all mosques in the country to pray for rain, as he said it: to implore the Almighty to spread his benevolent rains on the earth. There’s been a bit of a drought here and it’s affecting agriculture in a bad way. About 40 percent of Moroccans still work in agriculture and many of them have become unemployed. When I heard about the problem I thought the government should encourage more Aldi and Lidl supermarkets to open shop because they sell bread for a very low price. All those people that still work in agriculture then have to think of something else. Maybe they could make YouTube videos about em… goats…. or cauliflowers?

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My new masterwork featuring Adele, by Gustav Klimt.

This time I made a thin sketch with pencil before I applied the watercolours and I only painted roughly one twelfth of the original work because the rest I found rather boring. Besides, I don’t have that much yellow for the gold that Klimt used for the grandiose background  The original painting has a long history before it was finally sold in 2006 for 135 million dollar. You can read all about it on the internet. As you might have imagined.

Klimt was an interesting character. He wrote: I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for a painting than I am  in other people, above all women… There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day from morning to night…

Nothing special except maybe that when at home he normally wore sandals and voluminous caftans with nothing underneath. He was a womanizer and even though he never married, fourteen potential heirs showed up after his death, which was hastened by, not surprisingly, syphilis. He was only 55 years old.

In the picture of him that illustrates the Wikipedia article he shows an uncanny resemblance with the grocer here in Azrou who supplies me with eggs and cheese.

Well, off to do some praying…. fancy some nice sunshine….