Contemplating the Desert




Contemplating the Desert Aïn Cheggag, Morocco, January 2016


We are the only guests in this hotel with its landscaped garden paths bordered in roses and pungent rosemary shrubs. Our route to the hotel wound across the Rif mountains, through remote mountain villages and over harrowing stretches of unpaved cliffs; then in a wide loop around the dorsal curve of Fès. My phone bleats (largely incorrect) directions at me as my hands clench on the wheel of our rental car. It, like nearly every other rental car in Morocco, is a manual transmission, which my husband does not know how to drive. And so it is that at 8 months pregnant I am driving my little American family over the Rif mountains then up and down the sheep-herder's dirt roads between Fès and Sfrou, searching for our hotel. We pass at least ten flocks of sheep, their shepherds walking slowly behind them with long palm-branch switches or crooks, and one family riding a single donkey, and a miniature truck carrying a full crop of oranges in its tarp-covered bed. I steer around potholes and only get half-stuck in mud once. The ground is a cold flat beige, dust-beige; the sky is a blanket of white with no snow; we are too low for snow. When we finally find the hotel, a lovely colonial mansion with a wood chimney smoking heartily into the sky, our car sits alone in the parking spaces allotted for guests. The air is cold and crisp and smells of woodsmoke. My toddler wants chips. A slender woman smiles us all the way to our large room on the second floor, where the fire has not been stoked and the terra-cotta floor tiles are layered in Berber woven rugs to cheat the cold. I have so much to do. My book is almost done – has been “almost done” for over a year, and will remain so for three years more – and yet … we have to change the toddler and take him for a walk after this long day of sitting. My husband needs to sign and scan some official university form regarding the leave of absence he took to accompany me on this grant year in Morocco. Emails have piled up over the course of the day. Everyone needs a bath. We are hungry. And it is cold. Dusty, bright, clear, the landscape like a picture out of time as if we had lifted a photographic negative out of the chemical bath and printed someone else’s image: Middle Atlas, Morocco. And a biting cold such as I have never known. It is invigorating: I want to write. But I can't; there is too much to do. * I once thought about becoming a contemplative Benedictine, and when the monastery in France was not a fit I moved to Boston and looked into joining the Carmelite order, then the Cistercians. The very same weekend Mother Agnes called me to ask if I could come for a longer retreat with the novices, I got another phone call offering me an academic job – the interview process had been rocky, and I had basically given up, but after a decade in a PhD program … I took the job. I felt called to the work, teaching at the semi-rural branch campus of a land-grant university, with a population of students typically underserved by higher education. But as I drove from Boston to the Midwest, I planned my route specifically to stop in Kentucky at the Abbey of Gethsemane, Thomas Merton’s one-time home. I could not quite shake the monastery dust from my shoes.

Nor could I reconcile a yearning for monastic life with a love of the world. My mother instilled in me a desire for travel: the preparation, the flight, the colors and sounds, the discovery of other cultures and cities and flavors. My father's passion for ethnomusicology played a starring role too, and I won't deny that even an unmitigated love of Gregorian chant made me balk slightly at the thought of never again hearing Italian pop radio or Brazilian percussion rhythms – or my own Daddy playing his clarinet. Would any other recording of K626 sound half as throaty, half as melancholy and sweet? Hearing my father play Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto had always filled me with a feeling that bore no name; it felt the way Carson McCullers described, about Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony: “The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough.” I had heard my father’s Mozart all my life, without necessarily ever listening. And there, suspended between worlds, the concerto, my father playing the concerto, suddenly meant everything, it was the only thing. “Torn” is not a strong enough word. I lived as one frayed, the seams of my existence picked and shredded. Everything that drew me to the monastery seemed also, simultaneously and with equal force, to draw me away from it. How could I open one hand to otherness – to all the othernesses God’s great earth holds and all their beautiful uniqueness – and close the other around a choice, a calling, that would keep me forever in one place, wrapped in a lifetime of the familiar? I chose the world and its work, or it chose me, and I closed a vault door inside myself on contemplative life. My proof that God has a fondness for irony? This same choice led me to Charles de Foucauld, to his conversion story and his footsteps emblazoned across North Africa’s desert sands. * The dining room opens at five p.m. and we wake groggy from a family nap, swaddle our toddler in the warmest things we have brought on this road trip, and head downstairs into a woodstove warmed lounge to find our table. We sit as near the fire as we possibly can, slicing roasted peppers and eggplant with heavy, elegant forks; our toddler drains his wide saucer of lentil soup. We discuss Morocco animatedly, blindly, aware with every sentence that we will never truly be more than tourists here, that our experience floods with privilege: even at one-third of one American university salary our monthly income is ten times that of the average Moroccan citizen. Julian wears flannel jammies with a dinosaur pattern, and he likes sitting next to the fire. Over the PJ top he wears a quilted vest; in the pockets he has secreted glittering white quartz fragments from the geometric paths through the rose gardens downstairs. At his daycare he is the golden boy, the sharp blond américain who sings in three languages and loves sharing a fou rire with his friends Simon and Omar. “Kololi ya ness, methe tarifouna,” he sings now, and we all do the gestures for hands, legs, a trumpet, the friends. “Hel tarifouna l3riba bil mismar?” I have a pen in my hand, a notebook folded over my left thumb, in between nursery-rhyme verses jotting ideas that will provide the foundation of my section on Foucauld’s time in Sfrou; on the Jewish population of the town and the textiles that now make up its cultural heritage, on the troglodyte caves in the nearby hills and how Foucauld instinctively adapted the spelling of the town for his French audience, who would not automatically understand the unwritten vowel between S and F. I gesture with my notebook on one thumb, my pen clutched awkwardly in the crook of the other: “L3riba bil mismar, mismar, mismar, mismar, ah-ah-ahhhhh …” I became a mother later than most, and would be lying if I pretended not to struggle with the demands of this vocation even now. (Even now! Seven-plus years in!) A Fulbright grant relocated my little family to Morocco, because my work, this inénarrable book I kept writing and writing, refused to resolve until it met native soil. I had originally planned to publish my book before December 1, 2016, so its publication would coincide with the centenary of Charles de Foucauld’s death in Tamanghasset. But – though the edited and annotated translation sat in one form of completion on my desk and hard drive – I did not send it off to the press. Our youngest son, born in February 2016 in Rabat, required open-heart surgery at six months old; our summer and autumn 2016 was devoted to his surgical needs and recovery. Then our (then-)threeyear-old had trouble at preschool. The city flooded. My university commitments doubled. The book stayed in a literal heap of pages, marked up with red, at the back of my desk. Every summer, for the next three years, we travelled back to Morocco. My husband watched the children every morning so I could work on the book. One summer I made a makeshift work station on the tiny balcony of our rented apartment in the souq: Malika Zarra played on my headphones while chickens clucked in the garage of the building next door and vendors called to one another across the bustling streets between Place de Russia and Place Italie. The smells of turmeric, saffron, and cumin floated upwards from the corner hanout; every few days a particular fruit-seller passed through the narrow market lanes with his wide flat of nectarines and fresh coriander. The lanes opened organically to let him through, then closed behind him again, like water. A tall man in a white apron made Moroccan flatbreads, spreading batter over a convex pan over and over, just across the street from us window, hour after hour. And when I turned away from the sights around me, the words on my screen filled my mind with Foucauld’s adventures, a Morocco so different and also so similar that sometimes I forgot where I was. A long weekend found us re-traversing the route between Fès and Sfrou, bumping down the worn highway toward the walled city’s cherry festival. In January of 2016 a guide named Zekaria had led us through the streets of the medina and the mellah, regaling us with stories of the lost Jewish culture from this place, pointing out the faded paint on Star-of-David patterns wrought into the iron balcony railings. The mikvah, the ritual bath, has become a dry corner hollow, its stone enclosure filled with the echoes of water and prayer; the synagogues within the ramparts have been converted to multi-family houses. Even walking the same streets Foucauld once walked, outsiders as he once was, we had no way to trace him: the city he visited had disappeared. It was sobering, to walk in a city whose ghosts had even forgotten their names. Then, we bought pastries from a man with a cart, almond croissants and sesame cookies, and winter citrus. In the dappling light of tarps stretched between houses to fight the summer heat, we bought cherries by the kilo, boxes and boxes of them, filling the car with baskets of gleaming crimson fruit. Our lips were stained. Any time the car hit a bump in the road it jostled our bag of collected cherry pits, which rattled like some rudimentary tambourine. Every narrow street and path, every blade of every kind of grass, every shadow of emptiness and change, taught me about Morocco – Foucauld’s, and today’s. I write about being in three cities at once: the cramped Jewish quarter, the wary precolonial space, and the post-decolonization/post-Israel Sfrou in which UNESCO works to preserve some of the old lost ways. I wander mesmerized through this city bisected by a babbling stream, my mind flickering rapidly from Gilles Deleuze to Pierre Nora. This palimpsest of place bears the weight of its history: the Jews are gone, the mellah transformed, and only odd old architectural ornaments linger, while new generations of different peoples work to conserve and restore its past. Sfrou, Taza, Agadir, Bou el Djad, Essaouira … the cities are all sites of memory, built layer upon layer as identities crumble to ruins and the maps adapt to erasure. Sometimes traveling in Morocco is like looking at a complicated cake from the side: you see every layer, every ingredient that constructed it. * But for now, in this firelit dining room, I have placed the notebook face down, and the pen has rolled off the table as my left-handed toddler clashes elbows with me. We sing. We share soup and khobz and roasted vegetables. The dun-hued wheaty flatbread tears apart in near-perfect triangles; we dip them in soup, use them to scoop up julienned tentacles of salty red pepper, tart cucumber salad, the umami vapors of lentil broth. Together we absorb as much of the fire’s warmth as our bodies will allow to linger; knowing it will not linger long enough to keep warmth in our bones through the night, that we will wake with limbs intertwined, toddler hands reaching for Dada’s beard, Mamama’s index finger. And I, who spent years certain I did not want children, am constantly realizing the symbiosis of motherhood: as much as he needs me, I need him – nothing anchors me like the feeling of his downy head against my ribcage, the smell of his head, the spark in his moss-green eyes. Morocco will inflect my son’s existence: over the course of the year he will develop a flawless French “r” (the kind it took me five years of living in France to master) and a preference for vegetable dishes, learn to play with other children across three languages; he will travel on buses, trams, ferries, a métro, several airplanes, and taxis too numerous to count. His very existence opens doors for us – Moroccans love children – and as we stroll through the souq in search of halouiyat or ras el hanout or the home-bottled olive oil from that one vendor two streets back from the medina entrance, people will lean in to kiss him. He makes friends everywhere we go; he is the reason people smile at us when we enter a shop or a doctor’s office. He observes, wide-eyed, the prayer rituals: a broomstick across the medina shop to indicate the owner will return after the salat; the neat pile of shoes just inside the door of a small ancient mosque; the colorful mosaicked ablution basins in public squares. And, late in our year, the Ramadan prayers in the parking lot of our apartment building, led by one of the custodians: Monsieur Hamid sings the adhan as the sun slides through a rosy bank of clouds over the black ocean, and we are peeping toms up on our balcony, watching the men of the building gather, spread out their prayer mats, and kneel and pray. We watch their reverent heads touch the ground as darkness pours over the city and the streets come to life. Because of Morocco, Julian will never have the forehead-smacking experience Charles de Foucauld did, a “profond bouleversement” (‘profound unsettling’), that sudden revelation of faith as a thing you do everyday, not just a vague sentiment or a tradition passed down from your grandparents. La vue de cette foi, Foucauld wrote, famously, to his cousin Marie de Bondy, de ces âmes vivant dans la continuelle présence de Dieu, m’a fait entrevoir quelque chose de plus grand et de plus vrai que les occupations mondaines (‘the sight of this faith, of these souls living in the constant presence of God, opened my eyes to something greater and truer than mere earthly occupations’). Faith practice is a way of life, a rhythm of the work day, a simple given even in the midst of a mall or a modern city. It is not limited to one place, one time of day or one day of the week; it is not archaic or embarrassing (as it might have been among Foucauld’s contemporaries in France of the 19th century); faith is a constant. But the single most important thing for which I give daily thanks, and which I pray my son may always retain from our time in Morocco, is the easy acceptance of difference, the tacit understanding of equality. I believe Saint Charles de Foucauld came to this realization himself : every human life holds equal value, and “equal” does not mean “same.” He advocated for a change in both mentality and policy in colonial Africa, taking the Catholic Church harshly to task for its “elephant in the room” acceptance of slavery in Algeria, and he developed a meticulously detailed project to ameliorate cross-cultural understanding and communication. Unlike the general French imperial project – which held all native instruction, medicine, and language as inferior (even “savage”) and subordinated it to French linguistic, religious, educational, and scientific practices – Foucauld worked in the opposite direction. Rather than teach the indigenous Tuareg population French, imposing the now-ubiquitous “nos ancêtres les Gaulois” on yet another corner of the African continent, he proposed teaching French missionaries Tamasheq. And though he hoped his work would improve the lives of the local Berbers among whom he was called to live, he never saw them as “lesser”; on the contrary, he appreciated the real value of their learning and sought to learn from them and preserve their traditions. The real grace of his vocation in the desert, as I see it, lies precisely in the evolution away from his once-colonial mentality that held France and French as the model for all societies, and one way of being Christian as superior to any other way, any other belief system. Foucauld, humbled and awed by the (literally) down-to-earth faith of Moroccan Muslims, and dazzled by the beauty of the North African space, left the “mission civilisatrice” in his footsteps across those dusty trails. Christ alone is actually superior, he understood; our primary mission, our only mission, is to love our neighbors – and when that means lowering ourselves, we should embrace the humbling opportunity to share in Christ’s poverty and suffering, and trust in the Gospel promise: whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Mt 23:12). It is a humbling thing to move abroad and become the minority, the Other. Every assumption about the place probably needs adjustment. For twelve months we were the neighborhood white family. Our toddler’s preschool, located on the opposite side of town beyond where the tram lines ran, required daily taxi rides; one frustrating morning we shouted and gesticulated “Là! LÀ!!” pointing frantically at the school’s green doorway, while the c