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Nomadic Homesick Blues

When you are a nomad, what does it mean to be homesick?

 I currently take Harvard Square for granted. Today, I walked into the Harvard book store and read five pages of a book that made me cry. I looked around the room and I saw this very cozy, very warm and stable room, anchored down with books. Ten years ago I sat here all the time. I would come and pull a pile of books and sit on the floor and read them. I’m not sure I was supposed to do it that way, but no one ever told me not to. Then I went away. Like I have told you before, I went to Morocco and Turkey and the UAE. From those places, I went to India, Thailand and Oman and maybe some other places that are slipping my mind for the moment. And while I was in those places, I would think about the Harvard bookstore. I even had a friend take a photo of it for me once and bring it to me when she came to Morocco. I stared at that photo and I felt homesick. I longed for Harvard Square. I missed the familiar feeling of it. I missed the people around me reading books. How those people have many different thoughts and perspectives and how it is often possible to sense that those people accept the differences among them.  I missed it being a place where I could go and disappear. In most of the countries I named above, it is incredibly difficult to disappear. Everyone stares. Americans don’t stare nearly as much as they must want to. Don’t we want to?

So now I am back here. I even work in Harvard Square. I walk past the Harvard bookstore every single day. I rarely go in, due to my grown-upfulltimejobmotherhood lack of free time. But it’s there. Here. It’s here and I am here. And today while I waited for the bus, I looked out across Harvard Square and I realized that I take it for granted. And for a moment I stopped. I looked at it and I felt the feeling of it -the lovely brick buildings, the ideology of American education that is Harvard University, the gutter punks, the tourists, the shops and the famous old newsstands, the subway station and the Unitarian church with the rainbow flag waving. I breathed it in. I am in one of the most liberal cities in the USA. I love all this.

But damn, am I homesick.

Moroccan taksheta.

I haven’t hennaed my hands since before my son was born in September 2010. My clothes have gone quite conservative – jeans and trousers, turtleneck sweaters, blazers, and clogs as I naturally begin to blend in with those around me. My Indian “suits” have slowly disappeared from my wardrobe, along with my long flowing scarves, catching the wind behind me as I glide through an Emirati mall or an Indian bazaar. Our hefty collection of oil-perfumes: musks, frankincense and amber is dwindling. My husband never wears a djelleba or a gondora here. I miss the endless cups of tea and the circles of women, gabbing or the circles of men playing drums, drinking wine. I am mashing all of my countries together. I am missing everything and also very specific things. Aren’t I from these places too? Wouldn’t it be better if…? Wouldn’t I be happier, wouldn’t I feel fulfilled, won’t things have finally all come together when we finally get back to….. Fill in the blank. I seem to say these things about every place I have lived in and then left.A Turkish engineer in Bursa once referred to me as Marco Polo. The Arabs have their own Moroccan born Marco Polo, called Ibn Battuta, travelling the globe, fitting in – finding himself everywhere he went. So the legend says.

Do the Bedouin long for the seaside in the winter while they camp in the desert? Do visions of the chilly winter desert nights tug at their heartstrings while spending their summers fishing in the Gulf? Is it possible for a nomad to ever be completely in the present? Hasn’t she left little pieces of her heart everywhere she has been?

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Categories: Morocco, Nomadism, UAE, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Can we afford to relax in the USA?

Lying on the massage table this morning – redeeming a birthday gift certificate for this pricey spa – sent me into a reverie of remembrance of all massages past. My massage history is probably a little unique. From a rather painful, but somehow wonderful three weeks of traditional massages on a Thai island, on to steamy and cleansing bath house massages in Morocco and also including an overpriced Ayurvedic doctor in Rishikesh, India, where I was kneaded and beaten with soaking hot tea bags full of medicinal herbs, I have come back to America to be massaged all too infrequently and expensively. That got me thinking about how accessible personal care and the art of relaxation is a bit lacking for my taste in the USA.

I grew up in a world where only money can buy a person the time and the place to nurture the mindbodyspirit with some spa activities, family vacation or even a few days off from the daily routine. I think I always thought that was normal – downtime is expensive. And then, at 21 years old, I set foot in Morocco, and everything changed. I should preface this by underlining just how ignorant I was about Morocco or any place, really, outside of the US. I think I had internalized, after a life time of public school the idea that America is an oasis of opportunity, liberty and dream-realization. I don’t want to say that all of that is wrong. These ideas can be true. They did not spring from nowhere. But they are not equally true for everyone who lives here and, more importantly to me, it is not only in the USA that people can feel free and realize their dreams.

But what I really want to talk about here is the Moroccan hammam. The public steam baths of Morocco have revolutionized the way I think about caring for myself and people should know about them.

A hammam is a bath house where Moroccans traditionally go to bathe, relax and purify. Although most Moroccan homes these days have some kind of bath tub or shower, some of them may not have hot running water and the hammam is commonly regarded as the only place one can go to get really clean. The first hammam I ever went to was in Marrakech, deep inside the souq around the corner from the shop where I met my first Moroccan friends – the first of those boys in the street I have spoken of before. From the outside, like many other buildings in the medina (the traditional, walled-city quarters of Morocco), it looked plain, maybe even a little scary – a concrete, windowless building with mysterious doors leading to nowhere that could be perceived from the street. I walked past it for weeks or maybe months, listening to the grand legends of the luxurious Moroccan bath houses all the while, wondering, and daring myself to get up the courage and go inside.

A men's hammam in Marrakech. Many of the traditional ones in the medinas look like this - plain, simple, and if you can't read the sign - mysterious.

I finally did go inside, accompanied by the American woman with whom I had traveled to Morocco. We were awkward. We stumbled, naked except for our underwear, through the three dark, stone-walled rooms – the level of intensity of the heat and steam increased as we passed to each room – trying not to slip. Hammams are either equipped with separate chambers for men and women or designate different operating hours for the genders. So we tip-toed among the women and children, also naked and sprawled out on those hard, sloped floors. They were surrounded by a littering of buckets of water, sponges, scrubby mitts, cakes of soap, bottles of shampoo and 1.5 liter bottles of fresh squeezed orange juice.. The floors were designed to let the water run down into drains. Women washed their hair with henna – dyeing their white stands to a shameless bright orange and as they rinsed it away, the watery brown past ran in rivulets to the drains. We learned the hard way that day that you shouldn’t sit on the down slope in front of anyone else or you will be swimming in their dirty, soapy water as it makes its way out.

This particular hammam, being a hammam populaire, that is, a cheap (about 1 dollar for entry with no time limit) no frills hammam made to serve the function of providing a place to bathe for the common people of Morocco, was a very particular kind of anthropological experience. Back in 2000, when this first hammam visit took place, there was not a word of English being spoken and even French, so widely used in the street, seemed to have no place in here. Since we were suddenly enveloped, by default, in the mysterious women’s world at a time when I had yet to discover myself as a woman who could relate to Moroccan women, the whole experience is sort of dim and cloudy and awkward. Though, I suppose that could be due to the fact that I was in a dark steamy hot sauna bathing with a gaggle of strangers.

Seeing myself as something of a cultural purist – not wanting to be perceived as a European descendant of the colonial citizens who came to Morocco with French, Spanish and some Portuguese ruling, I spent the next several years going only to this type of hammam. I eventually became quite adroit at navigating the dressing room, tipping the women who guarded my bag of dry clothes and learning how to communicate to the keysala that I wanted a scrubbing. (It is possible, and common to have a woman, a keysala, who works in the hammam scrub you from head to toe like a little child. She will scrub you until the dead skin starts rolling off your body in little black rolls. No wonder Moroccans feel truly clean only in the hammam!) I knew there was a more luxurious option but I avoided it in what I saw as an effort to preserve my integrity among the lower to middle class Moroccans I had befriended. In retrospect, I am not entirely sure that my insistence on doing everything “the difficult” or the most foreign way was always entirely necessary. But taking the road less traveled is a continuing theme of my life.

Traditionally, Moroccans visit their local hammam once every week or two. Although I did not always keep up a frequent schedule of hammam bathing, I was able to benefit from them as often as I wanted to for very little cost. As time went on and I eventually moved to Casablanca, I began to discover more varieties of hammam. Later, when I met my husband, I experimented with the hammam his mother preferred because it had private rooms you could rent. Still a steam room with a faucet, buckets and a bench, this room allowed me to close the door and take my time. No matter how many years I might spend in Morocco, there will never be a way to deflect the constant stares a western woman receives in the traditional public hammam, so sometimes this private room option is nice.

Finally, I was pulled out of my stubborn public traditionalism by a good friend who didn’t have the same weird chip on her shoulder as I did about forcing myself to be absorbed by old school Morocco.

She took me to a more expensive, luxury hammam. Topkapi hammam in Casablanca is modern, beautiful and decked out with a large circular central room where bathers can sit on benches at individual sinks and also disappear into a sauna room for heightened purification. This hammam uses olive tree wood to stoke their fires. The smell of that wood in the sauna is divine. Back in the round room, there are massage tables in a circle around a central pillar and this is where one can stretch out for a good scrubbing and a massage. The price of all of this amounts to less than 12 USD. And that is somewhat expensive.

This hammam is actually in Marrakech, but Topkapi looks a bit like this on the inside.

The lesson learned here, folks, is that there is a lovely quality of life in Morocco – a place that may be called a “third world” country in some contexts. At least in some ways. What I witnessed in the country that has become my second home is that Moroccans know how to relax. They know how to party, how to spend good time with their friends and family. They know how to take time for spiritual nurturing and how to rest and purify their bodies. Why can’t we figure that out here in the US? Even with the relatively new-to-the-mainstream trends in yoga, natural healing, and whole foods eating, it all still feels a bit inaccessible. All of those things are expensive to procure in the USA and people who do not earn enough money or who live outside of a city or some other progressive community may not come into contact with organic farmer’s markets or a reflexology practitioner.

I tried not to mourn this as I was having my 90 dollar massage on a table in a quiet room in Cambridge, MA. I tried very hard to enjoy the skillful touch of my excellent massage therapist. But I could not help but wonder how American life would change if there was a hammam in every neighborhood. How much would be a fair price to go for a nice soak two or three times a month?

Categories: Morocco, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Tariqa (“the way”)

Last night I brought my husband and son to a Sufi center in Boston. We took the subway to this neighborhood full of beautiful brick row houses. We rarely come here. It is out of our way and we live on oppossite schedules, a childcare tag team.  It was cold and raining. We were late and I felt a late winter flu taking over my body – weak muscles, chills, stuffy nose. We walked quickly through the rain and I was worrying about the lateness – I hate being late.

We finally arrived and I rang the doorbell. There was some awkwardness, some nervous comedy as we struggled up the slippery steps with our enormous stroller. When we we couldn’t fit the thing in the door, our host called to a younger man to help my husband. Meanwhile, Son and I disappeared into the warm and silent front hall, removing our jackets and shoes, placing them on the shelves and in the closets our host pointed to as we made our way to the large majliss.

At some point I stopped to shake hands with my host. What I saw was a small aging man.  I already knew he was Iranian. He was dressed like any American grandfather, though, in a pair of light blue jeans – coming up high at the waste – and a zip-up windbreaker. He wore clean, bright white  gym socks. And I noticed the softness of the carpet under my feet.

We came here seeking (again) some solace in Islamic practice. In my typical fashion – nomadic, as some have called it – I have been unable to settle myself into a spiritual practice. Ever. I chased yoga for years – hoping I would be the enlightened yogi my friends came to see me as – but I was not. My yoga practice served me in many ways but for many little reasons that may come up as reach deeper into this blog, it became clear to me that yoga wasn’t going to be the long term medium of my spiritual practice.

I have thought and written at great length about the transition from yoga to Islam – which came after almost a decade spent living in North Africa, Turkey and the UAE. Much of it was situational:  the practicality and relevance Islam held in my life as I adopted the cultural consciousness of these places, married a Moroccan man and built  friendships with other born Muslims from Islamic cultures. Now my husband and I and our 17 month old son have been in the US for just under two years. Occupied with settling ourselves, finding work finishing my Master’s degree and making a home here, we have not had a moment to build a spiritual community around us. My personal practice is once again elusive and erratic while I see signs of spiritual despair in my husband as well. I decided, with a little help from a friend, to seek  community in a Sufi group. I chose this one because they showed up first when I googled, the photo of their majliss was beautiful, and because they have twice weekly meditations, one of which meets on a night that both my husband and I are free. When I began emailing the center, a certain Mohammed began emailing back and urged us to come visit him on a night when the group would not be meeting.

So here we are, I have just observed Mohammed’s white socks, noticed the soft carpet beneath my feet and my husband has come bounding up the stairs from where he left the stroller at the basement entrance. There is so much quiet. We go into the majliss and Mohammed disappears into the kitchen to make tea. Our son, at this moment, goes completely wild. He begins running up and down the length of this beautiful room, bookshelves filled with Sufi literature, floors outfitted in thick carpeting – the only seating in the room is pillows organized against the walls all the way around the room. He yips and yells, shouts and squeals. Mohammed emerges from the kitchen with tea and sits silently indicating for us to join him on the floor. Meanwhile, our son runs to grab a large framed photo sitting on a low table at the front of the room,  presumably of the sheikh, or the Sufi master of this Sufi order. He notices a sound system with buttons, knobs and wires and lunges for it, he goes to the kitchen, he comes back, he tries again for the photo….My husband and I chase him, hold him, try to walk with him, try to show him things, offer him snacks, dates, tea, milk, anything to distract him and all while trying to maintain calm peaceful faces, like this is no big deal, like we are not embarrassed or exhausted, sick or annoyed.

The entire meeting went like this. Mohammed began to ask us a few questions about where we had come from, what brought us to the Sufi center and so on. He explained that the center holds silent dhikr – meaning “remembrance” in Arabic – a Sufi meditation practice which often invloves reciting one or many of the 99 names of Allah (Al Asma Al Hossna) in repetition in a way not unlike yogis chanting the sanskrit scriptures. Members of this Sufi order also volunteer at a homeless shelter, cooking for the people who come, offering them companionship, sometimes gifts at Christmas time or other special occasions. He talked about  tawhid, the oneness of God. He quoted Rumi – I can’t remember the exact words now -but he said that if we have 100, we don’t need 99. If we have God, we have it all. And Mohammed went on at length about love – the love for Allah that is all – that equals the love for others and for yourself.

He was quiet and unsmiling most of the time but still managed to look kind. As our son thrashed about and we took turns chasing him, Mohammed manged to continue his explanation softly and slowly, speaking to whichever one of us was sitting in front of him at the moment.

My husband slipped into the bathroom with our son to change his diaper.

Mohammed asked me how I felt about what I was hearing. He asked me if I was interested in the Sufi center and I told him that I was. He said that if I wanted to take care of anyone else, I would have to take care of myself first. He encouraged us to come to the group dhikr, but suggested that we could call to make appointments to come at other times if our family obligations made it impossible to make the group meetings. I felt tears well up in my eyes as he said these things so I looked down, took a sip of tea, and we sat there silent until my son burst back into the room, ready for another round.

Somehow we left. Mohammed, it seemed, could have sat there all night, but we needed to get home. The young man who helped with the stroller appeared again. He told us he was from Bahrain, we shared some knowing looks  and evaluative comments about other Arabian Gulf countries and he exchanged some Arabic conversation with my husband. The stroller got stuck in the doorway again and at the end of another scuffle, the three of us spilled out onto the street, speeding through the chill of the night toward the subway station.

To be continued…

Categories: Sufism, Uncategorized | Tags: | 1 Comment

Asalamu alycum

Good evening. I begin this blog almost furtively as I hear my 17 month old son waking up in the next room. I guess I took too long messing with the background design and I have missed my beautiful sweet window of solitude-time that comes with his nap. He’ll be barrelling out of our room any moment. What can I manage to say before he does?

I have come to write any of this after much encouragement from others. And because I know that I will enjoy telling my stories. And because I have come to understand that I am a writer. A laptop has taken the place of my childhood notebooks.

Right now: I have a freshly earned Master’s degree, inspired by more than a decade of living in North Africa and the Middle East, Islamic practice begun at almost 30 years old, marriage to an adventurous Moroccan, the delight of French and Derrija (Moroccan Arabic dialect) on my tongue, and more…

Right now: I have big plans for the future and among them – to keep up this hot-out-of-the-oven momentum I have built in the proces of finishing my thesis.

I have no idea of how this step into publicly sharing my writing will go. It is an experiment and I am looking forward to the surprises. Whatever they may be. For the moment, my dear child has arrived…

A bientot, c’est sure.

Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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