Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Rock of Gibraltar and A Lot of Empty Doorposts

Our itinerary today was a trip across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco.  We woke early, drove about an hour to the ferry, then took a very cushy boat ride to Ceuta, a Spanish outpost on the North African coast.  During the ride, we passed the famous rock of Gibraltar.  This long-time fortress was disarmed after Britain entered the European Union, but it remains a British territory.  Today it is mostly a tourist site; we gazed at it in passing, across the ferry’s wake.

From Ceuta, we caught a bus to the border crossing in Morocco.  This is in many ways similar to entering Tijuana or any other Mexican border town—you know, right away, that you are entering the third world.  The contrast is striking.  Smugglers scurry across the dunes above the crossing, and the police are omnipresent, though also a bit lackadaisical. 

After entering Morocco, we drove ten miles to the city of Tetouan, which was established as a cazbah, or garrison point, in 1288.  We picked up our guide, Abdul, who would be with us for the day.

He was a character.  He immediately began referring to all of us as “my family” and every other word out of his mouth was shukran, the Arabic term for “thank you.”  He also asked us to call him “Michael Douglas,” joking that he bore a resemblance to that American actor (and then asking every woman in our group if she wanted to be his Catherine Zeta Jones.)  Most of our group found him charming; I didn’t.  I found him to be strikingly obsequious and insincere.  Being with him reminded me of my time living in the south in the United States, where everyone is fastidiously courteous—which only makes it harder to know when they are planning to knife you in the back.  My roommate on this tour, Steve Knick, who has spent a good bit of time in the third world, suggested that just beneath the surface of Abdul’s solicitousness lay a thinly-veiled sense of contempt.  Indeed, as we toured Morocco, I had that sense constantly: everyone showed a kind of deference that felt like the gilding over a great deal of jealousy and hatred.  This is not so surprising, of course, and even quite understandable.   They need our money and perform aggressively for it, but they hate the fact that they need it, hate themselves for needing it, and hate us for being at the other end of that need.  And I have no doubt that we Americans must come off as incredibly arrogant to these poor Moroccans—whose proud culture ruled the world fifteen hundred years ago.  

And yet, I was also surprised by an exchange I had with Abdul late in the day.  As we entered a shop, he approached me, pulled me aside, and asked, "Are you Jewish?  You look Jewish."  I thought for a moment, then nervously answered, "Yes.  I am a rabbi," not knowing what to expect.  He smiled and said, "I knew you looked Jewish.  In school, I once had a Jewish friend. Salaam."  So maybe I got this all wrong.  I still don't know.  All that I do know is that it is a strange and complicated relationship we have, Jews and Muslims, Islam and the West. 

At any rate, our day in Tetouan reminded me very much of a day spent in the Old City of Jerusalem, or the souk in Istanbul.  The old part of the city, the medinah, was what all of these places are: colorful, loud, vibrant, exotic, enervating and fascinating and a kind of guilty pleasure.  We toured a spice shop and a carpet purveyor and got pitched constantly and very aggressively at both.

The most interesting, and poignant part of the day, for me, was when we passed through the Jewish Quarter of the city.  Before 1948, Tetouan was home to a very large Jewish population.  After the creation of the state of Israel, the community basically left, en masse.  There were two reasons for this: the appeal of having our own nation, after two thousand years of exile, and the fact that in the wake of the War of Independence, the losing Arab nations made life miserable for their Jewish occupants.  At any rate, I was struck by the empty niches on all of the doors in this section, which still indicated, very clearly, where the mezuzahs had once been fixed to their Jewish homes.  

We returned to Spain that evening with the sense of relief one feels upon re-entering the West—and a renewed sense of just how very luck we are to live where and when we do.

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