Toole Castle on the Gulf of Finland [again, courtesy of the panorama setting on my camera]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Eid l Kabir

     It's Eid el-Kabir, one of the most important Muslim holidays. On this occasion, every Muslim family who can afford a sheep is obliged to buy one, sacrifice it, and then eat just about all of the organs. The holiday lasts five days total, from Wednesday until Sunday--but the last two or three days are like a gentle awakening from vacation stupor, a return to the normal cycle of day-to-day life.
     My family hosted three slaughters in our living room, because we have the biggest house among all the relatives. Also, our living room has a drain in the corner, which proved to be very handy in cleaning up the mess.
     I thought my presence for the ritual would be an inconvenience, or at least an irregularity, and it was with meek expectations that I asked if I could take a few photos of the event.
     "Mashee Mushkil!" I was told. No problem at all!
     As it turned out, I wasn't the only one to wield a camera for the slaughter. Camera phones, camcorders, point-and-shoots...everybody had some gadget in hand. Anyway, photos and such will come later. Let's start at the beginning of the day.
     I awake at a quarter to 7. The sunrise call to prayer is thickened this morning by a chorus of cheep thousands strong, bleating their last heartfelt bleats across the city. I think about going for a run--yesterday's early morning jog was nice--but I decide against it. It somehow seems irreverent on this holy day, and I besides, I don't want to clash with holiday preparations in the street. I imagine harried Muslims carrying last-minute sheep home on their shoulders, or children sent out by their parents to find just one vital bunch of mint for the afternoon tea.
     I clomp up to the rooftop and watch the sunrise through squinted lids, my whole body slowly shaking off the rigor mortis of a long night's sleep. Already some fires in the street are smoking, contributing the first clouds in the haze of sheep smoke that is to envelope Fez today.
     At about 10 o'clock, the festivities begin.
Three sheep, slaughtered one by one on the living room floor. It starts with everyone standing in the living room. Nothing out of the ordinary, but we're clearly waiting for something. And if you look close, you'll notice rolled-up sleeves, grimy workshirts, and splattered track pants; all perfect attire for a sacrifice.
     First, my host father and his brother bring Sheep #1 down from the room that has served as their pen for the past few days [side note: it has been great: their room was directly above the bathroom, so every morning when I washed my face and took a whiz (I'm bringing that euphemism back if it's the last thing I do, dammit), I could hear them clattering around, nuzzling the hay and bumbling into one another's natty hides]. The sheep is wild-eyed and flighty. My host dad pulls its legs out from under it and holds it steady by the hooves, while his brother spreads apart the thick wool on its neck, clearing a spot for the knife. The air in the room is alive with the chatter of an entire Moroccan family; words and exclamations are punctuated with the groans and grunts of the sheep.
     When they cut the throat, the frantic bleating ceases, only to be replaced by a rasping scrape of breath, taken in not from the mouth or the nostrils but from the brand new opening in the throat just below the jawline. The sheep bleeds out for a while, my host uncle kneeling on the neck to hasten the process. Then he wrenches the head around 180 degrees and takes it off completely. Next they remove the front legs, cutting from below the knees or elbows or whatever sheep have. After that, my host dad pokes a hole on the inside of a hind leg, puts his mouth to the opening, and proceeds to inflate the sheep. Now, I'm not a medical doctor, but I assume this helps separate membranes and what-not, making the sheep easier to skin. Once the sheep is sufficiently bloated, they string it up by it's hind legs and skin it, and then remove all of the organs, separating the edible from the garbage. And hardly anything, I soon realize, is garbage. The next two hours are a blur of bloody wool, innards, and smiling relatives.
     I want to write more. And I will! But later. Now I must return to the city. Here are a few pictures of the holiday to tide you over until next time. And if you would like to see a video, let me know. I feel a little odd about posting it on the blog; it's really graphic. Is that something I could get in trouble for?

This is my cousin Abda il. He's a hyper, sweet little kid who spent the holiday flitting around the room, dodging blood smears and trying his hardest to get into every picture and video.

Dear old Baba, blowing up the sheep.

I have no idea who this man is (the one reaching into the carcass). He burst into the living room shortly after we killed Sheep #2. He was accompanied by a teenage boy; the two of them made quick work of skinning and gutting the first two sheep, then left.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Into the Hamam

It's half past 11 p.m. in the Medina of Fez, and I'm face down on the floor of a public bathhouse, while a man whose name I don't even know works up a lather on my back and scrubs me down with a brillo-pad glove. This is my friendly neighborhood Hamam, and my very first (much needed) bath since coming to Morocco. My host father is the aforementioned nameless man. Already I've been a week in his home and I still don't know what to call him. I've heard him referred to as Baba a few times, which is the Darija equivalent of "Daddy." I have yet to adopt this cutesy term of endearment, but I'll need to figure out some name for him soon. As a rule, people don't really introduce themselves by name in this family. I think this is because everyone comes and goes with such regularity, formal greetings and goodbyes aren't necessary. It's basically understood that you will see the other person again, and probably within a couple of hours. 

Anyway, back to the Hamam. Also known as a Turkish bathhouse, the Hamam is a public place where people come to relax, socialize, and get clean. Hamams are segregated by sex; ours is for men from 6 am to noon, for women and small children from 12 until 9, and then for men again from 9 until midnight. Just about every neighborhood in the Medina has a Hamam. My family--like many in the Medina--doesn't have a shower in the house, so everyone goes to the Hamam once a week--twice a week in the summer. And if you think one shower per week is not enough, you clearly have not been to a Hamam.

And until now, neither have I.

I am completely clueless in the Hamam, so I mostly keep a sharp eye on my host dad and try to do as he does. First we grab about eight big blue buckets, and line up with some other men by a fountain of hot water. We fill our buckets and then find a spot in the corner of the room. We dump out a bucket of water on the floor, and then sit in the hot puddle. The bath has begun. From his toiletry kit my host father procures a sandwich bag full of what looks like axle grease. He slaps a handful into my palm and mimes a scrubbing motion on his body. I follow suit. Every few minutes he dumps a bucket of water over me, while I frantically scrub at myself, trying to work up a lather and rinse off within the same bucketload.

Then it's time for the scouring.

Shick. Shiick. Shiiiiickk. This is the sound of me losing skin. As my father labors away across my hide, I notice white flecks on my bathing shorts--spongy crumbs of sluffed off skin. The novel experience of being vigorously scrubbed in a public place is complicated by the fact that I'm not sure if this is customary, or if I'm receiving special treatment. Do all Hamam-goers help each other in this way, or is this process usually reserved for infants and the infirm? There's no way to know, so I might as well just enjoy it while it lasts. This proves more difficult than it sounds--my host father scrubs very hard. It's no problem for most parts of the body, but he gets really overzealous with the armpits and the collarbone area, two very tender spots.

The shower chamber is a large vaulted room of glossy green and umber tile. It's clouded with steam, and cluttered with the clatter of men maneuvering their plastic buckets and toiletry kits. Two young men sit together in the corner, several blue five-gallon buckets of hot water by their side. They look on, probably curious and amused to see this pasty Westerner in a Hamam for the very first time. My host father taps my shoulder and gives me a smirk, nodding toward the men as if to say, "look, you have an audience," then dutifully continues to scrape off several pounds of my flesh.

After that, my host father retreats to the other room to scrub himself (so I was getting special treatment back there) and I sit amongst our buckets, following the example set by other men and massaging my legs, arms, and chest. Then we shampoo, followed by one last scrubbing, this time with a softer sponge. By the end, I'm pruney, pink, and thoroughly refreshed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Entry: In Which I Can't Remember the Numeral of My Last Entry, So I Will Not Include One in the Title. [there are photos in this post!]

     A view from the rooftop. If I understand my host sister correctly (and there's a good chance I don't), the building that looks like a castle is actually a hotel. Notice all the satellite dishes; they're scattered all over the Medina rooftops.

     My room. It's furnished with a big bed and several long couches, so I can practice many different techniques of reclining and lolling about. I'm not sure how old my house is exactly, but I know there are engravings in the walls that date back to the 12th century. Now, I don't know if the engravings were restored and installed in the house or what, but I'd believe it if you told me this house was about 900 years old. Something about it just feels ancient: thick stone walls, an open courtyard for a living room, high ceilings, a tiny winding staircase, etc.
The aforementioned mosque, seen from the roof.

Here I am in a Quranic school in the Medina. These little schools are for kids from about 2-5 years old. They're pretty much the same as preschools in America (snack-time, singing songs, etc.), except the children study the Quran. We stopped to visit one of these school on our tour of the Medina last weekend, and the children sang us some songs, recited the five pillars of Islam, and showed off their language skills (Fus'ha, English, Darija, and French. These kids are amazing!). The little girl sitting in front of me also gave us a lesson on pronouncing some letters of the Arabic alphabet. "Very good," she said when we had finished mucking through. [side note: I'm not sure how I ended up being the only visitor sitting in the tiny-sized desks. The little guy in the red sweatshirt seems to be wondering the same thing.]
A communal bakery in the Medina. Families from various neighborhoods bring their unbaked bread to this man, who marks the loaves of dough (using the the white stick you can see in his mouth) to indicate which family it belongs to. Then he bakes the bread in a giant stone oven the size of a living room and stacks the finished flatbread on a shelf, ready for pick-up.

That's all for now. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Another Truncated Entry

Okay, Morocco:
I don't know what to say. The first time I used the bathroom, I peed on my leg. This is not my fault. My family has a Turkish toilet (i.e., a hole in the ground with a giant cork in it and a bucket of water beside it). It's tough to get the perfect squat on the first try, but I'm improving with each day. Considering it has only been a few days, I'd say I'm pretty good at using the bathroom, if I may toot my own horn.

Moving on. My house is across the street (a street scarcely more than five feet wide) from a mosque, and I hear the call to prayer three out of five times in the day. This mosque is only one out of hundreds in Fez, so each call to prayer is a veritable orchestra --something between dueling chainsaws and the battle-cry of a swarm of angry, pious bees.

Moroccans really know how to relax. Never before have I spent so much time just sitting in the company of others, doing nothing in particular. It's fantastic.
Aggh, I must go. I'll be late for class if I go on any longer. I promise I'll post a video soon.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Back in the Saddle

Okay okay okay. I've really fallen off the blogwagon this time. (Spelling that as one word makes it sound like some sort of ominous, repulsive swamp thing. I don't really feel that way about blogging, it's just hard to be disciplined sometimes. It's a little like flossing. And I have never fully boarded that wagon.)
Anyway, I kind of want to talk about Barcelona, but I think Morocco is much cooler. A couple pictures from Spain should suffice, and then a quick explanation of Morocco, and then it's off to class for me.

So, #1: Spain 

Montserrat. How cool is this? There's a monastery up here, and tons of old fortifications built into rock faces. The mountains are unlike anything I've ever seen. The cathedral is pretty touristy-- everything smells like ice cream cones and cotton candy in a way that reminds me of Disneyland. But the trails are great and the views are breathtaking. 

#2: Morocco
Sorry, I have no time right now. Class starts in two minutes. I promise I'll return soon and tell you all about Morocco. For now, let me entice you with the promise of a video clip of my winding walk home through bazaars and alleyways.  


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Entry IX: In Which I Ponder Something Dumb, and Should Just Not Worry About It

     I worry that I am leaving the impression on my host parents that I am an asocial recluse. I spend a lot of time sitting in my room scrolling through PDF files of class readings, and paging through my textbook. I feel like an all-around useless member of this quasi-family, emerging from my room to lounge around with them for mealtimes, and occasionally watching the news or some Estonian TV program, but generally staying anchored to my upstairs bedroom. I'd like to hang out with Riina and Aivar more, but it's hard to stay glued to a news report or sitcom I can only partially understand when papers require writing, articles and chapters must be read, and friends and family overseas should be corresponded with.
     I have been telling myself that they understand I am busy, that they know it's nothing personal. I have to tell myself this, because otherwise I feel like I'm playing the part of a broody and ungrateful adolescent, taking up space in the house but not really making myself part of the home. I am aware that this perceived dynamic is starting to edge into the way I interact with Riina and Aivar: I think I'm being a little awkward around them. I need to get over this, to shake this feeling and just relax. That's all that will improve the atmospheric disturbance in the house, whether it's real or all in my head.
     Another way to look at it is really quite simple: it doesn't matter if host family relations aren't sunshiney right now, because I'll be in a different country in a little over a week.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Entry VIII: In Which We Excurse For The Last Time

Well, I've done it again. I've successfully put off chronicling a weekend excursion until a week after the fact. I could blame technical difficulties again, but I would only be fooling myself and insulting your intelligence, gentle reader. In any case, this waiting game will continue no longer. Allow me to tell you a bit about last weekend's trip to the south of Estonia.

Last Friday, we piled into the bus at 8:30 and puttered out of the city center. I felt tired and a little ragged around the edges. My mouth was dry and filmed over, thoroughly flavor-scorched with Riina's garlicky beet salad from breakfast. Speaking of the morning meal, it seemed like my food was upset with me; it had formed an angry ball in pit of my stomach and proceeded to tumble and twist malcontentedly every few minutes. I wouldn't say I was hungover, but I definitely drank a little the night before, and my body knew it. [side note: I went to a club called Plink Plonk the previous night, where I saw some excellent music. The first and best band was a hip-hop/jazz/blues ensemble whose show I stumbled upon in a street fair back in September. I was ecstatic to see them again, and this time I remembered their name: Külalised, meaning "the guests."]
Well, excursions wait for no man -- or his physical malfunctions -- so I would just have to get over it.

On our walk through Viljandi
Our first major destination of the day was Viljandi, the artsiest town in Estonia. It is home to the Viljandi castle ruins, originally built by --you guessed it-- Teutonic Knights. The ruins are cool, as ruins tend to be, but the real point of interest in this town is the Viljandi Culture Academy, a school specializing in art, music, theater, traditional handicrafts, and more. We got a tour of the main university building by a soon-to-graduate student of cultural event planning. Swimming in scarves and clinking her bangles, our guide proudly led us through art studios, set shops, dance studios, and black boxes. Overcrowding was the theme of the day; she would introduce rooms by stating their holding capacity, then proudly follow that with how many people they actually fit inside, which always exceeded the limit by at least 100 people. 

After an hour it was time to go, but our tour guide promised she would see us at the folk music festival later that night; she had helped plan this particular cultural event. We toured a manor house in the afternoon before returning back to town for the folk music festival. There, I fell in love with a folk quartet called Gjangsta. Cameras weren't allowed inside, so I have nothing to offer you but a hearty recommendation.

It seems that I've already spent a few paragraphs of this entry and I haven't really said all that much about the excursion. So, time for a shotgun retelling! Here are some highlights:

Sangaste Loss is either a red brick castle that looks like a mansion, or a red brick mansion that looks like a castle. Whatever you choose to call it, it's beautiful, and heavy with the history of about three hundred years. And it's bigger than any human could ever need. In my wanderings, I went down an extra flight of stairs and ended up pacing the long halls of what seemed to be a haunted hospital in the basement. It was immaculately clean but completely uninhabited, with some doors spookily ajar to pitch black rooms. Outside, the place is itching with decadence: rolling lawns, serene ponds, mighty oaks just beginning to shed their leaves...the place practically screams for a match of croquet.

Pastoral Estonia.
Suur Munamägi (Big Egg Mountain) is the highest point in the Baltic states. By all accounts, this isn't saying much. The hill (it's less of a mountain and more of a hill) is only 1,043 feet above sea level. But still, superlatives are always nice for bragging rights, and Estonians are very proud of their Highest Point status. They lord it over their Latvian neighbors, whose tallest peak is a full twenty feet lower than Suur Munamägi.
Suur Munamägi tower. The observation deck up top was inhabited by a middle-aged couple who made out for the entirety of our visit.

At one point we drove through a slice of Russia. This piece of the country protrudes into the Estonian road system, and travelers are permitted to drive through. However, getting out of the vehicle is strictly forbidden. I don't know what would've happened if we had stepped out of our van. Our driver made it sound like the forest would explode in siren song, and Soviet tanks would come crashing through the underbrush flanked by armed guards. We decided not to test this theory, instead choosing to take pictures from inside the van. Now I can say I've been to Russia (for about 35 seconds).

Well, that's all for now. I have a paper to write and an accordion to play. And I'd like to take a walk --it's supposedly the last day in a string of nice weather. Rain and sleet are on the way, which doesn't bode well for me. I didn't pack enough warm clothes for the Estonian autumn, so I have resorted to using my travel towel (super absorbent and compact!) as a scarf. If I tuck the ends into my jacket, it looks like an honest-to-god article of clothing. I'm not sure how the towelscarf will perform in the rain; I think the absorbency might work against me in that case. I guess I'll find out soon. Nägemist!