Morocco has long been associated in the Arab imagination with magic and superstition, casting off mystical curses and exorcising jinn from the body. The word “al-Moghrabi” (“the Moroccan”) has itself become yet another qualification claimed by those who work in this parallel world, adding it to their names, some going so far as to christen themselves “Sheikh from Morocco.” These are the men one hears about from time to time, those who help ancient treasure-seekers get their hands on spell-protected troves, perhaps of the sort guarded by serpents.
An Orient Free of Orientalism: Magic, the square, and women in Moroccan short fiction
From across the Atlantic, I’m helplessly, compulsively watching videos on the BBC and other news sites. It’s early February 2014, and an unusually powerful storm—in truth a sequence of fierce winter gales—has been raking the south coast of Devon, like a wave of marauding bombers. The storm has conspired with the moon and spring tides (nothing seasonal in the term—these “spring forth” each lunar month), to batter a path of old stone and brick known as the Goat Walk. The path runs south from the small town of Topsham and along the bank of the River Exe, a distinguishing feature here for generations.
Tomorrow is Amma’s seventieth birthday, and I’m wondering what to buy her. She’s told me that the only thing she wants from her children is a new toilet seat, a pair of sensible black shoes, or a replacement floormat for her decade-old Honda Civic. None of these gifts seem particularly appropriate to such a consequential birthday, but then again, Amma has always been practical. When she tells the story of her arranged marriage to my father at nineteen, a decade younger than this man she had only met once before, she recalls bringing a griddle and leaving behind stamp albums as she embarked upon a permanent journey from her home in Coimbatore, South India, to Northern Virginia.
If I had kept a journal in the early fifties, when I was new in New York, I would have marked the day on which I saw the basalt bowl in a store window in Greenwich Village. It was small, and had an in-curling rim and the finest matte black finish. It cost fifteen dollars, almost half my monthly salary, so I got back on the subway and went home. I could not get the thing out of my mind. I desired it. “Beauty,” Stendhal said, “is the promise of happiness.” There was the Saturday I took the subway to the Village, but my bowl was gone.
It might have been twenty years later when I could afford the large basalt platter with a rim that flattens outward. It was a handsome piece, but it did not redeem the thwarted love for that first small black bowl.
When I nurse my baby son Oliver to satisfaction, a beautiful look grows on his face. His small damp lips purse; his cheeks pinken; his black lashes rest delicately shut. If I try to offer more, those lips squash upwards in contented refusal. “You’ve o’er-brimmed his clammy cells,” my partner Paul always observes.
He’s quoting of course from that most beautiful of poems, John Keats’ To Autumn.
When I was sixteen years old, I had a relationship with a man who was twice my age, thirty-two.He was white and brunet, more attractive than conventionally handsome, with a slightly hooked nose that lends him, in memory, an appearance of far greater maturity than I associate with thirty-two now that I’ve passed that age by more years than what separate the man’s age from mine.But to paraphrase the writer Stefan Hertmans, our memories age along with us.Regardless of the appearance of my erstwhile lover’s nose it’s inevitable that in memory he would possess the remote gravitas of a person in late middle age, a person who might be my parent or professor or boss.The impression is compounded by his name, an old-fashioned man’s name even then, as if he’d stepped out of the 1940s.He even owned a fedora, mouse-colored, soft as velvet, its untended crown reverted to a slightly dented dome as if it hoped to be a homburg.I admired that hat so much in the time I spent with him he finally gave it to me when I left home for college, after which I never saw him again.
I remember I was talking to a colleague in the break area of a 2017 translation conference when a tall, snowy-haired man came up to us. (I say “remember,” but my memory is hazy. We are told to forget these sorts of incidents.) The interaction went something like this: The man walked toward us and, without preamble, planted himself before me to ask if I knew a noted translator from Japanese. The translator is Asian-American, like me. (Or—maybe there was a preamble; maybe he asked us our names first.) I felt my smile gelatinize on my face. No, I said. I had never met that translator.
There is something post-decadent about Versailles in winter. The fountains are off; there are not many tourists. Everything is still fiercely geometric and over-the-top, but in this gray, expired kind of way, at least for most of the day; sunset, and the crisp, clear chill of nighttime being the exceptions. Most of the sculptures are covered with tarps, and tertiary destinations like the amphitheater and “outdoor living room” are gated off entirely. As at all times of year, there is remarkably little furniture, the bulk of it having been moved to the Louvre in the name of égalité. I spent the first five years of my career working in grand museums, and this has always been one of my favorite things about them: that they are bastions of opulence that seem morally defensible, inclusive and elite at once. Because Versailles too is now a museum, the awesomeness of its grandeur has been contextualized into an argument against itself, its ostentation forgiven as a public good. At moments it feels almost Soviet, and you can’t help but be reminded that if you trace the political spectrum far enough left or right you end up in effectively the same place.
For the past few days, I’ve vacillated between panic, helplessness, and feeling like a prophetic, burning witch. I spent the first two months of this year watching the pandemic take hold of China—from the arrest of Dr. Li WenLiang for spreading “false rumors,” to Wuhan and the whole country going into lockdown, to my friends mailing masks back home to their families in China—sitting in my NYC apartment as the virus swept across Korea, Iran, Italy, making its way across the globe towards me.
Hebe Uhart’s “A Trip to La Paz” is delightfully misleading in that we never arrive at our destination; we never see the city that touches the clouds. This essay is concerned with a different kind of beauty—the getting there, the buzzing potential of travel. It encapsulates why we embark on grueling car rides, on flights, on long train journeys, in the first place.