One morning, Beth, a journalism masters student at the Cardiff University, knocks on our door. She wonders if she could write an article about our way of life.
It seems important right now to contribute to a positive image of travelling people’s lifestyle, when government seems hellbent on criminalising anyone who’s not in a house of bricks and mortar.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (this link will take you to the government web site where you can see the bill and watch its progress through the various stages) has brought people out in protest due to its draconian rules on the right to protest. What not many people know is that it also has sections that will hugely impact on travellers’ rights. If this bill goes through, government will have the power to impound the vehicles of anyone sleeping in them by the roadside, of charging thousands of ££ in fines, and even to put people in prison. Impounding a traveller’s vehicle means removing their home from under them! What for – so they are left living on the streets without shelter?
This is dangerously close to getting apporved. Of course, once it’s approved there is room for interpretaion of it, and may or may not be implemented. I can’t really imagine they would impound a European holiday maker’s Motorhome if they are caught sleeping in a lay-by, and neither a lorry driver who is taking a break. But they will basically have a tool to use, and with the government’s intentions in plain sight, I think the first people to suffer from it will be traditional travelling folk. Here’s a video from someone who can explain this much better than I do, plus some links to follow up and make your voice heard. You will also hear in this video, that the other change in law will be that, once having been told to move on, travellers are banned from that location for 12 months. There is a shortage of dedicated spaces that travellers can move to. The whole situation leaves a lot to be desired already, and it’s about to get much worse.
Back to our trainee journalist. We were in two minds about sticking our heads above the parapet, so to speak, but if not people like us – who are in many ways privileged and, although hugely affected by the impending changes, are much less vulnerable than many other travellers – who else is going to speak out about these changes?
We thought a positive article about the lifestyle of a travelling couple may change people’s attitude and remove some of the fears and prejudices.
Beth wrote a lovely article about us, and a few days later, her Colleague Joseph turned up and complemented the article with a video. First it got published in the Cardiffian, the newspaper connected to the University, but soon it was picked up by Wales Online and from there it went into a national paper whose name I don’t want to sully my blog with.
We sat and waited for the backlash. Is the police or the Council going to move us, are people going to accost us? Nothing of the sort, so far! On the contrary, the one big change it made is, that now lots of people are talking to us when they pass by – somehow the article has broken the ice, or the British Reserve. “It says in the article you’d like us to come and talk with you, so we are here” they say, by way of introduction. Many of them must have previously walked past us, studiously looking the other way, maybe so as not to disturb us.
We love the change – it’s like being elsewhere in Europe now
Thank you to Beth and Joseph
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One day, when parked up in a car park by the riverside on the edge of Cardiff, a man knocks on our door. He’s part of the local “keep an eye on your neighbourhood” group and he wants to know what we are doing in this car park.
I love talking to people, so I never have a problem with anyone knocking on the door to make a genuine conversation. It’s a shame though that in this case it starts on a hotbed of negative assumptions. While I’m pretty quickly able to convince him that we don’t leave rubbish, don’t do drugs and are quiet and considerate people, he still has misgivings. Even the fact that we clean the car park on a regular basis of debris that others just throw out of their car windows, doesn’t allay his fears.
What if our presence invites those other travellers that are real trouble, the ones that leave a terrible mess and take ages to evict, he says?
I sort of get where he is coming from, as I’ve seen how some places look once people have been, with no care for their environment. But I don’t agree with his conclusions.
Here is another way of looking at it:
1) Our presence in a car park means that:
a) We pick up litter on a regular basis
b) Others feel less inclined to engage in undesirable night activities (no-goodnicks feel watched by us)
c) If another mobile home were to turn up and abuse the place, we would knock on their door and challenge them on it.
So actually, having a caring traveller in a car park is a good thing!
2) Where else do you forbid something to everyone, just because a minority does not behave sociably? For example, would you forbid owning dogs, just because one dog owner lets their dog shit on the pavement? Would you forbid all front gardens in a road, if one garden is not kept to specifications? If one child of yours misbehaves, do you punish all your children?
When looked at it like this, I hope you can see how travellers feel discriminated against.
What is really behind the fear of accepting someone in your neigbourhood who leads a life different from yours?
In this day and age of climate emergency, shouldn’t we be welcoming people who choose to live a simpler life, with a lighter environmental footprint?
Considering the fact that life in a mobile home is also much more economical than owning or renting a house, this life style sometimes becomes a creative and empowered alternative to being homeless for people who fall on hard times. Shouldn’t it be in society’s interest to cater for people (by providing simple dedicated spaces, or allowing car parks to be used) who, by choice or necessity, are travelling folk?
I visualise a more welcoming solution. Dedicated spaces in every town or city, maybe simple facilities, and a basic ‘rent’. Like a car parking fee, not like a camp site. One could even specify that people need to move after a certain period of time, to avoid people settling (although this would only work if there were enough sites to move to).
The British don’t have this kind of negative attitude towards boat people. Somehow, living on a boat is more accepted, more romantic maybe? What’s the difference – the wheels?
In France, these places are called Aires. Here in Cardiff, there is no such dedicated space, but we’ve been fine on the car parks – we have largely been met with tolerance, even bordering on friendliness. The Police, the car park wardens and anyone else in a position of authority have been very friendly (we make a point of making contact with them, to allay any possible fears). Any trouble we had came from people who live nearby. That’s sad, don’t you think? How do we negatively impact on their lives, I wonder, that they would feel the need to get us moved on?
We enrich the neighbourhood, we bring live music and laughter (at reasonable daylight hours, not night parties! We go to sleep when the sun is down!). we’re also always willing to lend a hand where help is needed, as those who’ve followed our blog know.
Travellers have an age-old profession of bringing the arts (music, dance, performance), being seasonal helpers, and also being a carrier of news. We meet lots of people, and sometimes we are able to put people in touch with each other when we realise they share a common concern or project. We are a live version of Facebook!
If you pass by, do knock on the door for a chat!
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It’s 7 years ago that Frank and I tied the knot, in a small informal ceremony in the company of our children. Seven years on and we’re still deeply in love.
One of the many things that make it so special for me is that we never go to sleep in a huff with each other, never share a bed on a discordant note. We speak about what troubles us, we listen to each other and find harmony. We’ve sailed through calm and stormy times around us this way, but never lost sight of each other. There are no unresolved upsets between us.
You are a golden soul, my precious husband, and I consider myself so blessed to spend my days in your presence. I’d say YES again, no hesitation!
We celebrated the day with a special, home delivered Georgian Feast.
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This morning, we woke to Ice on the windows of our Emma. Inside!
It’s a beautiful morning here in Cardiff, but too cold for our daily swim in the Taff, so instead I swing myself onto my bike and cycle, despite the frozen Gel pad saddle and gears, through Bute park to the shops.
The river gives off clouds of steam, especially near the weirs where white water crashes down the usually gently moisted slope. It’s been raining for days on end, storm Christoph has meant people elsewhere in the UK having to sandbag, or even evacuate, their homes. Every evening, I anxiously watch the online flood warnings so as to move Emma away from the river car park if needed, but somehow the Taff is not on the list of flood warnings, and indeed although high, I have seen it higher before without any problem to the car park.
It’s been a year of sorting through stuff in various houses – Paris, Devon and Cardiff. A year of engaging in old, dusty matter, to shift what is no longer needed.
There is light at the end of this particular Tunnel. Soon we will be able to fold our life back into Emma and live by the daily rhythms that this more simple life dictates; finding wood, chopping it, lighting the fire, find water if needed, clean the van if needed (which doesn’t take nearly as long as cleaning a house!) practise, busking, cooking, reading etc.
Doing a clothes wash is a more exciting event which takes best part of a day and involves meeting new people, from finding a launderette to having everything washed and dried, rather than chucking a load into the washer at home while doing another 15things at the same time.
I look forward to the simplicity, despite the ice on the windows – inside.
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It’s been a while since my last post. Life hasn’t stopped however, it’s just taken a turn that invited me to spend some time on a ‘retreat’ from sharing our lives with you all.
In case you were worried by the long silence, Frank and I are still on our extended honeymoon, now in its 5th winter, we’re still madly in love with each other and travelling in Emma, our lovely home on wheels.
This winter, we went to the South of France where I’ve been taking a series of Bandoneon lessons with Fernando Maguna, an extraordinary teacher of this fiendishly difficult instrument. It is a gift to myself to immerse myself in practice and lessons, and it may well be the reason why I have gone quiet – by the time I have finished my three hours practice every day, I really don’t feel like touching another keyboard. My mind is scrambled by the intricacies of music, perched on the rocky foundations of navigating the four ever-shifting keyboards (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask a bandoneonist next time you meet one!). I’m making great progress in building up practice stamina, however actual progress on the instrument is painfully slow. I know, I have a strange notion of what constitutes a gift
We’ve mainly spent time in the region between Marseille and Avignon, an easy train ride away from my weekly lesson. Frank went away to India in December (in search of healing for his wheezing lungs which have not got better since July!) to subject himself to an Ayurvedic cure from which he returned somewhat stronger but unfortunately not fully healed. After his return, we took off to explore the French Pyrenees west of Toulouse and down to the coast. We shivered in sub zero temperatures and boiled ourselves in wild hot springs, we saw beautifully frosty forests and met people and communities with Living Projects ranging from Amazing to Downright Crazy.
Throughout our journey this winter, we’ve been on the lookout for a place where we might like to establish a foothold in Europe, to dock onto a community for the winter months in years to come, but nothing yet has come even close to the treasures we know we have at home!
The Tango Music and Dance calendar for 2019 is filling up and I’ve spent some time doing online work for it, although I know I’m pitifully behind. The computer keyboard has truly been neglected this winter… but below is a first schedule and I promise to try and update relevant pages on the website etc., in the near future.
So before I disappear back into my musical retreat, I wish you all a very good start into the year. Let’s hope it will turn out to be an amazingly positive one. Crisis is an opportunity for positive change!
Over and out…. (back to Bando)
February 9th: Teaching a day of workshops (various levels) in the region of Avignon in Sorgues, at Adelaide’s Tango Studio called Media Luna
February 17th: Teaching a two hour beginners workshop in the region of Avignon, in Chateauneuf de Gadagne at a Cultural centre called Akwaba (link to follow)
March 29th-April 7th: Teaching at the TangoLab in Proitze
May 9th-12th: Hosting the 3rd International Bandoneon Days in Staufen, South Germany
Spring 2019 (dates to come!): Workshops and / or classes & private lessons in Totnes and possibly other places in the UK
June 29th-July 7th: A week of Tango teaching with Ines Moussavi on Vis, a beautiful Island in Croatia.
July 19th-27th: Teaching at the TangoLab in Proitze
August 5th: Teaching a workshop in Plymouth to the French visitors from Bretagne ( I will check if this is open to others too)
August 14th-16th: Orquesta Tipica Workshop in Devon
August 16th-25th: Tango Mango (already fully booked!)
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We’re up at dawn and go for a quick dip in the sea, with the guys from the military looking on with incomprehension. Who would chose to jump into such cold water? Their faces seem to say.
By the time the sun rises, we are already on our way. We stop for breakfast somewhere high up on the cliffs. Just when we’ve sat down to a plateful of scrambled eggs, a boy appears, satchel on his back. He starts to talk to us in Arabic. How I wish I could understand more. But it is clear that he wants money from us. All through Morocco, we have searched for ways to deflect this energy of begging into a more positive contact, a more fulfilling and lasting exchange. This time, it is hard. The boy is in some kind of distress. I don’t understand what he’s saying. We offer him food but he declines and wants money. He starts crying. He says something about his parents, or his family, and something else about his school. My guess is that he has to pay for something in school that his family cannot afford. Or maybe he’s putting on a really good show of distress. If we had more language between us, I’d be able to react more adequately. From everything we have seen in the last months, it doesn’t make sense to just give him money. Let’s say, it is as I seem to have understood. He needs money for school. Lets say we give him some and he delivers it. What does that solve in the long run? Next time he needs money, it’s the same story. Also, how do his parents feel if as a foreigner I help out with something that they would like to be able to offer themselves?
It could also be that he was a refugee, but in that case I would have thought he’d gladly accept the food.
Eventually he walks away. As soon as he’s gone, I see other solutions to this situation. I should have offered to come with him to the school, or to somewhere where there’s an adult who can translate, to find out what really is the matter. This would either have called his bluff, and/or I might have been able to really help him in some way. I feel so sluggish sometimes. All my creative thinking goes out the window when in a situation!
I look out for him as we travel on, but cannot see him anywhere along the road.
Before we head for Tangier, we stop off once more in Tetouan. The old medina is calling us once more, to stock up with spices and dried fruit, and to immerse ourselves one more time in the beautiful chaos, full of colours, sounds and smells, that makes the Moroccan markets so inimitable.
We get lured into a beautiful ancient Pharmacy, with shelves upon shelves of jars full of mysterious herbs and spices.
Our last stop in Morocco is not far from Tangier harbour. We have arranged to meet up with a lovely young German family we met in a campsite some weeks ago. As we follow a bumpy road through the hills for the last 20 miles to Tangier, rain settles in properly, running down the roads and turning any earth patches into mud bogs. The landscape could be northern Spain, or even Wales, witha bit of imagination…
We park up next to the family’s 4×4 and invite them for a meal chez restaurant Rozelaar. We talk about our travel and share plans for the future. Their older child, a boy of 6 years, wants to go to school, so it’s time to settle down and they are heading back to Germany to buy a house, having traveled for a couple of years. It’s nice to see their happy anticipation for this next chapter in their lives.
Despite the rain and windy gusts, Frank and I take a little trip to the local market. We get chatting to a street vendor and the conversation turns to the King. Just as we have heard it all across Morocco, there is a strong support and admiration for the king from this man. He tells us that just the other week, the King came by in a car, just him and his cousin, no bodyguards.
We want to write a letter to the King.
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We steer out of town. Once more the sea is calling us, but this time it’s the Mediterranean. Park4night tells us of a spot in nature, in a valley towards the sea. Little do we know that to get there, we go along one of the steepest roads yet and, by what I can glean in the moonlit night, one of the most spectacular valleys. We have to come back this way one day, in daylight!
After about an hour of zigzagging to the point of total disorientation, we arrive in a quiet spot, a dry riverbed by the looks of it, but we think we can risk it, it hasn’t rained in a while…
We have a quiet night, only broken by the occasional snuffling of some animal outside, maybe wild boar. The next morning, we discover we have parked amongst lavender fields. A little stroll towards the river takes us past some people loading earth from the dry river-bed. We greet them when we pass and only get a scowl in return. This is very unusual for Morocco, and it makes us think that they must be up to something shady.
We drive on down to the sea by Oued Laed, where we spend the rest of the day chilling and catching up with writing and admin.
We get chatting to a couple, who have traveled the world with their large 4×4 vehicle. They say it’s quite easy to travel on through Mauretania and all the way down to Senegal. Hmmmm, maybe some time. But we’d need more time than our normal 6-8month window of traveling. They’d taken a couple of years to travel down to Senegal and then take a ferry (with their vehicle!) to Argentina and made it all the way up to Alaska. They spoke about their 25 year old daughter, who is married and with child and a good job, who accused them of having abandoned her. It’s not easy for the children to understand their parents’ travels, we have found that too. This kind of traveling is not a holiday, as some might think. In fact, we work more than we would at home. In my case, there is all the administrative work related to organising the various events I run in a year (amounting to about 20 hours of desk work per week), plus about two months per year of teaching workshops and at festivals abroad. There is the daily physical routine of yoga to maintain our bodies for the times when an intense phase of dancing and teaching hits us and there is my daily instrumental practise. Then there is writing the blog, which in the case of Morocco may one day make it’s way into book-form. We also get involved in farm work wherever help may be needed, mucking out, mending walls and fences, cutting hedges clearing the undergrowth, planting, hoeing etc.
Frank makes a lot of marmalade, which gives us an opportunity to reciprocate the locals’ generosity with something home made. In Europe he also gets quite a bit of massage work. The van is ideal: the massage table fits perfectly and a quick blasting of our wood burner cranks the temperature indoors up to over 25 degrees.
Living in the van is also connected with some daily physical activity, such as finding and cutting wood, sourcing water etc. It’s a different life, but after 4 years of living it, I wouldn’t call it a holiday by any description. Yes, we are in a camper van, yes, we travel, but that is where the similarities stop.
I’m not complaining though. It’s fab. Today, my office looks out over the sea, tomorrow I hear the frogs croak by the side of a little stream, or I’m overlooking a peaceful campsite. When I’ve had enough of sitting still, I take the bike and ride along the promenade, feeling the spray of the sea in my face and the wind in my hair.
This particular beach is under army surveillance. In fact, the next few days show us that the whole of this coast is heavily guarded by the military. We get talking to a soldier early one morning, who tells us they are on the look-out for drug traffickers and for emigrants attempting to cross the sea.
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(This chapter continues from two chapters ago…)
It is a bright and sparkly morning and after our Yoga session inside the van, we take a stroll down to the house, marmalade in hand. The dogs and the geese make a real racket when we approach, and the woman I met the day before waves us into her courtyard where she has prepared a lovely breakfast for us, with fresh bread, scrambled eggs and olives from her own garden. We have our limited conversation on the topic of our respective families. How I wish I could speak a bit more Arabic! We spend a lot of time just smiling at each other and showing each other photographs, but somehow we manage to exchange quite a bit information about our lives. The 21-year old daughter is at home, meticulously sweeping the yard with a broom in one hand while holding her mobile in the other, on which she receives a constant flow of messages from her fiancé.
It is ok to speak about this in the presence of the mother, and it ellicits a happy smile in the daughter, so I presume all is going the right way for everyone in this family, and it’s not long until the marriage.
When we leave, we are showered with gifts – Olive oil, freshly pickled olives, Beldi Lemons and we ‘retaliate’ with a jar of Frank’s marmalade. We invite the mother and daughter to come and have a look at our van and they extract a promise from us that we come and visit again next time, insh’allah.
On our way to Chefchaouen we stop once more to buy more pickled olives and beldi lemons from a family with a roadside stall. We chat for a while in the morning sun before heading off again. Just as we’re saying good bye, they bring out a litre of Leban beldi as a gift.
We have two important missions today: Frank needs to find somewhere to watch the 6 nations Rugby match and I want to buy myself a shorter, more westernised version of my Jellabah in Chefchaouen, one which won’t look too strange once we come back into Europe.
We find a place to park Emma in town and go and explore. It’s amazing how much less energy it takes to go to a place that you’ve been to before. When you know a few things already, such as where to park, and how to get to the town centre from there. There’s something to hold on to, a familiar structure that allows you to economise with your senses and go about your business with more clarity. And yet, straight away, the mind looks for new things. We choose a different route up into town, one that leads through some back streets. We pass the workshop of a very skillful carpenter working on various Andalusian designs. He kindly takes the time to show us the various patterns. Some of it is highly decorative writing. i find it impossible to see the letters, even after a few months of reading practise…
We then head for the top of town to the cooperative where we bought or first jellabahs. However, I don’t find what I’m looking for there, so we stroll back through the old town. I see two jellabahs that I like but only buy one.
After a delicious lunch, Frank settles in to watch Rugby in the van and I head out to buy vegetables – and the other jellabah that I saw but didn’t allow myself to buy earlier. Maybe I want to hold on to Morocco…
It is dark by the time we leave. Frank has seen his two games of rugby, and I, the Minimalist, have managed to obtain two extra jellabahs, in addition to the one I already owned!
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As we get closer to Tangier, Frank and I quietly follow our own thoughts, slowly letting go of this amazing country, so full of contrasts. I’ve been mulling over a couple of experiences we had some weeks ago, which I’ve not been able to put into words yet. Today I will try. I will split it into two parts.
We are in a friendly campsite, run by an educated Berber (with a command of a number of languages, amongst them German), somewhere in the Southern part of Morocco. We’ve had a lovely few days there and are parked up by the taps to refill Emma’s water tank before leaving. Frank is at the back of the van dealing with the water, while I’m in the driver’s seat, looking at the map to determine today’s route. A German couple is by my window, so I say Guten Morgen. I don’t remember what sentence fell next, but it somehow turned a switch in this woman, who started spouting a hateful diatribe about immigrants in Germany. I can’t get a word in edge-ways, she is so keen to foist her views on me. At full volume and using derogatory terms – remember, this is a campsite where the owner speaks German! – she tells me about the problems they bring to Germany.
I’ve been thinking for a long time, whether I should give space to her words in this blog, or anywhere else for that matter. I’m still not sure, but I also feel that we have to face the fact that these mindsets exist, so here we go. Please note, what follows in italics is NOT my point of view, but I am quoting the woman I described above!
“…of course they all steal like magpies. And they are not interested in working. In our town, we suddenly had 80 immigrants. The local industry gave those Moroccans the opportunity to train for two years, but they walked out after two weeks and went into the black market instead. All they are interested in is money. So they said, “show me how to do a thing and I’ll do it for you and then give me proper money for it. Who needs training?” (note how a nationality turns into a swear word, synonymous for laziness, thievery and thugishness and is used regardless of the actual nationality of the people she speaks about!) A social worker went to a family to talk to the parents about the integration of their children into the school and all the parents wanted to talk about was when they are going to be given a television and a car. And the girls in our town are learning the hard way not to be nice to a stranger. They’ve been raised to smile at everyone, but they are now paying the price for it. They know now to take a weapon with them if they want to go out in the evening, what with all those Moroccans around. And those Kopftuchweiber (I am still struggling to find an adequate translation for such a derogatory term, something like Hijad Hags), I gave them a piece of my mind the other day, when they were walking, three abreast with their arms linked, babbling to each other, not paying any attention to anyone or anything and this poor old German woman with a Zimmer frame has to move out into the road to let them pass. When I had a go at them for being so insensitive, they have the audacity to call me a Nazi! And the other day, a whole horde of men, just walked into a Lidl, took what they wanted and walked out, with no-one able to stop them! In Bottrop (that’s a town in the Ruhr valley, previously thriving on steal industry) they’ve built all these new houses – for whom? Not for the poor Germans who’ve been on waiting lists for years, but no, it’s for the Newcomers! So they get state of the art housing while our socially needy people go empty handed! Where’s the justice in this? Merkel wants to be nice to the immigrants and we Germans have to suffer the consequences. But this is not going to continue much longer, enough is enough. This problem is going to explode.”
Please note, all of this (and more!) was raining down on me in the time that it took Frank to fill our water tank with a hose, and that’s only 65 litres! Meanwhile, her husband was standing by her side, vigorously nodding his head, interjecting a sentence here and there when she had to catch a breath before heading into the next chapter of her diatribe. I am listening, speechless.
Frank climbs into the cabin and I’m barely able to say ‘let’s get out of here’, I’m so overwhelmed by this onslaught and the emotions it has unleashed in me. We leave the Germans in mid-sentence, mid-rant.
It’s some days and many miles later that I’m beginning to be able to think about how I would have liked to respond to this couple. This often happens. It’s so frustrating. I have a very clear feeling in my body, but I’m unable to formulate it into words at the time. I need presence of mind and clear thinking, and instead I have this dread and a kind of thick grey wall, an almost dreamlike sensation of all facilities shutting down, like having to wade through treacle. In those moments, I acutely feel the lack of ability, or maybe lack of tools, to respond in the moment, rather than many weeks later in a blog, when it’s highly unlikely that it will ever reach those for whom it is intended.
Better late than never though, so here are some of the thoughts I’d have liked to have shared with this couple, in the hope that if I ever come across such a situation again, I’d be more responsive:
*If you distrust and hate foreigners so much, why do you come to Morocco for your holidays?
*Do you realise that this campsite’s owner is within earshot? I’m sure you know he speaks German because that would have been the language you used when signing into the campsite, unless you are Arab speakers, which seems highly unlikely.
* I find it strange that per se there should be a higher danger for young German women around muslim men, as my experience here in Morocco was the opposite – I have felt MORE, not less secure as a woman who is not from their culture, when walking around on my own. If there truly is an increased risk, it would be interesting to think about what happens to someone’s values when they leave their own culture. How come these people change so dramatically when they arrive in Europe?
* How much of this gets distorted in the media? Do you draw a line between your own experience and hearsay? What is the role of the media in possibly emphasising the nationality and/or religious affiliation of a person as and when it suits them to create a certain picture? How much should we believe what we read these days?
*It is odd to think that Muslims per se would be more likely to steal, because just as with personal safety, our experience here in Morocco has been that we have felt much safer with our vehicle. There seems to be a strong cultural taboo about stealing, so again, if it is really true that there has been a high incidence of stealing, then my question again would be what happens to the values of a person who gets removed from their own culture?
*Ditto with violent acts. Personally, I perceive the culture here in Morocco to be softly spoken, gentle and extremely welcoming don’t you? It doesn’t fit with what you are telling me about the situation in Germany. What are your personal experiences of the culture here, and how do you relate this to what you personally have experienced in Germany?
*When you unloaded your grievances onto the three women, whose only crime was walking arm in arm, were you aware that you put on them all your other misgivings?
* What do you contribute towards mutual understanding?
(There is, of course much more, but that’s enough for now…)
On another occasion, I have an opportunity to talk in depth (and in a language I am more fluent in than Arabic or French), with a Muslim man about the meeting of Islam with the West, and the question of whether they are somehow incompatible and if so, why.
Let’s call him Abdul. Our conversation starts on the subject of education. Abdul tells me how Islam puts a high emphasis on knowledge. As I’ve recently been mulling over the position of women in Muslim society, I ask him how it can be then that young women in more radical Islamist countries are denied the same access to higher education as their male contemporaries. I must have hit some kind of sore spot with this question, because in response, Abdul goes into what seems like almost a lecture, not responding to my question at all. He says: “If you look at an image of a Muslim man holding a weapon, what do you think? You think he’s a terrorist. But have you considered where that gun came from? This gun was not made in his country, this gun comes from a ‘democratic’ country that is enriching itself by selling weapons to a Muslim country, and is happy to fuel conflict for its own gains. Who is the terrorist then?”
Ok., I think that is a good question, although not at all what I was asking about. But I’m holding back, trying to see where he’s going to draw the connection, if there is one.
Here are some thoughts that Abdul mentioned in his talk. I agree with him on a number of points, however, on the whole it sounded dogmatic and brain-washed. I also know far too little about any of this to have an informed opinion myself.
Abdul’s points of view:
*Islam demands respect for women and it forbids alcohol and prostitution.
*Islam offers a system that cares about the common people. Democracy plays into the hands of the rich minority.
*Democracy and Islam are two mutually incompatible systems. Islam is the only truly functioning system. Systems that don’t work eventually break down and this is what’s happening now with democracy – you can already see it crumbling.
*Islamic law clashes with other systems. Islamic countries would always choose their system over democracy. However if they do, the west interferes and imposes democracy. Why? Because they have a vested interest. And if they can’t control the country this way, they invade it, or they try and destroy it by dividing its people and supporting radical groups to increase conflict.
*Islam is misrepresented, maligned and oppressed in the west. Just like the Jews were in the third Reich. But this time, Germany will help to bring clarity. The German people will help Islam (interesting thought – where did that come from, what is this based on? Especially the bit about Germany. If anyone recognises a particular school of thought here, a particular doctrine, could you please point me towards where to look? Because this was not the only occasion when we heard this)
Just as with the German couple’s rant, I feel that fog descending inside me; I feel unable to respond decisively, lacking time and clarity to express myself despite feeling something clearly in my body. I understand some of Abdul’s misgivings. What currently goes on in the name of democracy for sure leaves a lot to be desired….But –
With hindsight I can say what troubled me. Somehow Abdul very quickly got into an ‘Us and Them’ scenario. I felt uneasy to the point of nausea as I followed what sounded like it might have been indoctrinated speech. Unable to speak, I watched myself as I listened to Abdul, and though there are many points I agreed with him on, I felt increasingly sick.
I would have liked to tell him that I felt uncomfortable with our conversation – which up to then had been personal, connected and informative – turning into a political discourse. Where does this come from? Can we remain connected, you and I, when we speak about things? I’m interested in what you have to say, however, I’d prefer a personal exchange rather than a lecture or political debate.
I have to say, I may have brought the latter onto myself by asking a generalised question about women in education. But from what we have experienced, I do feel that it is Morocco’s future to wake up the sleeping potential of the power of woman in society. Morocco is much further on than some of its neighbours, with regards equality for women, and yet, we heard teachers talk about a big drop-out of girls once they reach a marriageable age. One teacher said that in a class of 16 year olds in his school 25% are girls, and that is a huge advance to what it used to be like. He felt this to be a success. For many girls leaving school, especially in the rural areas, it seems their next task is to get married!
In the houses we have visited in the last three months, the acceptance of women as equal to men in a family was like a barometer for a family’s happiness. The families where teenage daughters openly spoke about planning to study law and felt the proud support of their fathers, where everyone – women and men, boys and girls – sat down to share the dish of couscous together, those were the ones where love permeated the very fabric of the house.
I have no answers to many of the issues raised in this chapter, but I feel strongly that it is important to refrain from rants and steer away from regurgitated and possibly distorted information, and instead to seek out human connection and compassion. We need to listen and try to understand what’s going on if we are to find positive solutions.
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With a ‘slight’ delay, here are the last few chapters of our Morrocan experience.
It is a cool, misty, slightly drizzly morning when we wake up. I take a walk around the large, rambling campsite. Everyone is still asleep, even the row of Ibis, on the wall of the abandoned swimming pool, still have their heads under their wings. Somewhere into the mist, I hear the gentle lapping of water against the shore of the lagoon, and in the far distance there is the steady whooshing of the sea. This is a good place to buckle down to do some serious writing, to catch up with the blog and digest the intensity of the last weeks.
Later in the morning, when the sun comes out, Frank wakes up and goes to the market in town, up a steep hill, to get some fresh fish for lunch. I’ve got my head in administrative tasks by that time. The various events I’m running this year are shaping up nicely, but there’s always something to do – I always seem to be chasing my tail, trying to answer the backlog of emails or liaising with teachers, venues, dropboxes for sheet music, information to musicians etc. etc.
I’m very excited about the 1st International Bandoneon days, coming up in April, which will take place in the South of Germany in a little town called Staufen. It’s an idea I’ve been hatching for a number of years and this year it’s come to fruition. We will have 30(!!!) Bandoneonists meeting for a weekend of study and practice, ending in an informal concert on Sunday April 22nd, to share the wonderful sound we can all make together. We will also be joined by Rocco Boness, a famous Bandoneon repairer and restorer, who will teach us how look after our bandoneons and competently deal with minor repair issues ourselves.
As an organiser, I am always privileged to get an advance impression of the energy that people will bring to an event, by the way they communicate with me, and I can tell you, there is a swell of enthusiasm behind this group of participants, as well as the teachers, that I have rarely experienced before. It has already fired me up to organise two further dates to do with Bandoneons, one in the autumn and one next spring!
But before that, let’s return to Morocco…
Having been to the south of the country with its dramatic landscape and stark beauty, the north feels almost like Europe again. The campsites are more like french campsites, with well functioning toilets and showers. However, there is a sharp reminder of another world when, on our walk into town, we pass a shanty town of nomads, now somehow not feeling poor but happy and free (like they seem to be in the South) but poor and squeezed, marginalised, hanging on in corrugated iron shacks on the edge of a more wealthy town.
In the afternoon, we meet Leila who comes past our van on the lagoon side of the fence, scouring the brush for rejects from the campers. We meet and talk, reaching hands through the fence. She retrieves a bowl for us, which Frank had inadvertently flung over when he’d only meant to throw out the water.
There is a poignancy to our meeting, one world looking into the eyes of another, barred by metal wire. I don’t have the presence (and I berate myself for it later) to arrange to meet her properly, outside the fence, or even to give her something as a thank you for handing back the bowl. She’s obviously not allowed to enter the Campground, but I could go out. There is no equality in the way locals and tourists are treated here. We’ve heard repeated stories of the Moroccan police being difficult to locals, however, we are always waved on, never questioned and even smiled at.
On our way further up north, we drive past rich fields and miles of greenhouses, interspersed with pretty rough-looking shanty-towns, presumably where the farm workers live. We see many people from countries south of Morocco. It’s not just Europe that has an influx of immigrants. My guess is that the North African countries have a much higher percentage of immigrants and refugees, but I don’t have any figures to corroborate this.
The flat fields lift up into hills covered in Olives as we approach Ouazzane.
There is a lovely Moroccan moment when we hesitate for a second at a large roudabout. A man on a motorbike calls out where are you headed for? We tell him we are looking for the way to Chefchauen. Follow me he says and at the green light, he’s off, not even checking if we are coming. He leads us through the town, sometimes we see signs for Chefchaouen but more often not, and there’s no way we could have found our way through the maze of road works without him. We come to a roundabout at the other end of town and he motions left while turning right, giving us a little nod and a wave and he’s off. No demand for anything, just the will to help. We have experienced this so often, and we will definitely miss it when we return to Europe!
The light is fading, so we turn off the main road, taking a little winding road to the top of a hill and stop for the night, next to a farm-house.
I go for a little early evening stroll. The landscape looks lush and green, and I can hear chickens, donkeys, dogs and cows as I walk along little lanes with overgrown hedges. It reminds me of northern Spain. On my right, some people are busy building the second floor to a house with breeze blocks, while to my left I hear a couple of women talking to each other while they are doing some serious hacking of a tree or a bush. I can’t see them behind the thick hedge, although I think they are able to see me, because like crickets, who stop chirping when you approach them, these women stop all noise when I come close, only to pick up again once I have passed. Maybe they are up to no good, harvesting something that isn’t strictly theirs.
In a field by a farm, a man is ploughing the earth with the help of a donkey. Just when I pass, I see him calling his wife who comes along and takes the donkey’s reins while the man goes off with someone else to see to something down the road. The wife settles in for a wait.
About an hour later, I pass the same spot, and there she is, still holding the donkey’s reins! Two other women approach her and they have a quick exchange that has everyone laughing. When I join I try to explain to the women – in my best arabic – that she’s been waiting a long time for her husband to return. This has all three of them in stitches, bending over laughing, holding their bellies and wiping tears from their faces. Other exchanges, obviously comments about the men, only refuel the laughter. Eventually the husband returns, takes the donkey off his wife’s hands and continues ploughing. In a conversational tone, he offers me the fields to buy, which causes another salvo of laughter and the women invite me to come and have tea with them.
This is a beautifully kept house with an immaculately swept little yard, watched over by two most ferocious but also frightened dogs. Even after the women tell them to go away, they randomly return to have a run at me, looking all fierce and furious, only to stop just short of the act of biting me, scooting off with their tails between their legs instead.
I escape an invite for dinner only by promising to return the next morning. When I get back to the van, Frank has made a delicious meal for us.
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