Thursday, March 06, 2008


Guten Tag

Being tagged by Cliff means having to reveal one of my many odd habits. I confess that whereas my loved one spends hours sensibly researching our next trip abroad, I leave home knowing virtually nothing about our destination. I know I'll be envious of the head start he'll have when we arrive, but I can't touch a country until it touches me. This means I'll be reading on the homeward flight what he'll have read on the outbound flight. All this is to explain why I'm often reading a book about a country that isn't the one I'm in and why I'm sitting in the sunshine in Morocco this week reading a book called In Siberia. But, a country can touch me through its personalities and Russia weaved its magic on me while reading about some of the most famous and infamous of them.

So, sentences six, seven and eight of page 123 of In Siberia reads:

During the fourth night, at some sad village, a Polish priest embarked. He was the first Westerner I had seen for a month: an elderly man, lean and self-sure. He sat in a vestibule on the lower deck, where passengers loitered to watch him, and rifled through a portfolio of papers oblivious to them.

You may not think that's terribly interesting but wait till you read the extract from my next book. Now that I've been in Morocco long enough to be touched by it, I've started to read a library book called Morocco. It's as dry and dusty as the nearby desert and the writer must have worked really hard to produce such a boring book from such rich material. Still, it's perfect bedtime reading - guaranteed to send you to sleep after only three sentences.

Some became consular agents, except for countries that had very little or virtually no trade at all. Some even naturalised as Europeans, to claim extra-territorial rights permanently and pass those rights on to their children. Yet others took service with the flood of European merchants and then claimed extra territorial rights on their own behalf.

Wake up! There's still one to go.

This is from Letters Home by Fergal Keane - reflecting on the last violent years of our century with articles and broadcasts about Rwanda, Bosnia and Sierra Leone. We heard him speak at the Hay Festival and he comes across as someone not only committed to fair and accurate reporting but who's been genuinely affected by the horror of all he's seen.

That night in my bedroom in the Ibis Hotel I listen to one of those great Rwandan rainstorms and afterwards the chorus of the tree frogs and crickets. They reach a crescendo just before dawn, a sound from a million years ago, full of swamp and fecundity. It is the sound of the world beginning.

Monday, March 03, 2008


Minted in Morocco

I like mint. It’s a versatile little plant and you can do a lot of nice things with it – wrap it in thick dark chocolate for an after dinner treat, mix it with chocolate chips and churn it into ice-cream for an even nicer one, whizz it into a sauce to jazz up your lamb chop, suck it in peppermint form afterwards to get rid of the smell of said lamb chop, scatter it on salads or even frost it and use as a decoration – but stuffing it into a pot with half a pound of sugar and some boiling water and calling it tea, is not one of them. But mint tea isn’t just the national drink of Morocco, it’s an obligatory ritual. They don’t ask if you’d like some – it’s an essential part of a welcome, so that when we arrive at our riad in Fès we’re obliged to play our part. It wouldn’t be so bad if the recipe weren’t invariable, but there’s no point trying to catch the eye of your hostess before she brings it in to ask her to go easy on the sugar – it comes like it comes - teeth-meltingly sweet and it takes all my concentration, under the watchful eye of the staff, who appear to outnumber the guests, to control my shudders as the vile little potion slams into my tongue with an electrifying jolt.

As we’re walking through the Medina the following morning, I recoil as a man is belting the life out of his donkey with a stick. The donkey is protesting at either the weight he’s being asked to carry or the direction he’s being forced to go and I start to say to my loved one “still, you have to remember that it’s not our culture” when he interrupts with “yes, you have to remember that it’s not our donkey”. They may have taken the lad out of Liverpool but they couldn’t take the Scouse out of the lad.

There’s an organization devoted to improving conditions for donkeys in Morocco where you can report mistreatment of them. In Fès they rely on them almost exclusively to transport nearly everything – even the global giant Coca Cola gets its pound of flesh from the poor beasts with specially constructed panniers crammed full of its bottles and emblazoned with the famous logo. But when the cheapest thing in Morocco seems to be labour - a talented craftsman sits on the floor all day for two months to turn out one exquisite mosaic table top and a man sells two kilos of his freshly-picked oranges for less than an imported tin of tomatoes - it’s hardly surprising that the donkey’s welfare isn’t top of their agenda.

If it looks as though I don’t like Morocco, it’s simply that it’s more fun to write about the things that go wrong on a visit to somewhere new, rather than because I’m not having a good time. I’m especially enjoying people-watching here. They don’t smile a lot so, quite illogically I know, I’m surprised by their kindness – someone will always lend a hand with whatever you’re struggling with (not just us, but they all help each other), people frequently give to the poor on the streets, though they often look no better off themselves and they’re remarkably passive at unfolding street scenes: a group of kids baited a tiny dog with imitation barking and bystanders smiled as indulgently as we do watching our toddlers chase pigeons; two rival shoe shiners approached the same customer together and looked set to provoke an ugly scene, but the customer (who didn’t get his shoes cleaned by either in the end) and everyone else in the bar relaxed, knowing that it would lead to exactly what it did - an exchange of insults, the old guy taking off his coat and squaring up to the young guy, who walked off laughing, with the old guy striding after him in a manner borrowed from John Cleese’s ministry of funny walks, clutching his crotch in both hands as a Moroccan version of the hand signal we use to indicate uselessness. But best of all is the exhilarating sight of the beach on Sundays. It doesn’t remotely resemble a beach in England or France – they’re not there to lie in the sun or splash in the water. There are virtually no horizontal figures to be seen and you can almost feel the swaying movement of a continuously moving vertical tide of thousands of people playing either serious or some mini version of football and it’s quite mesmerising.

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