Friday, October 23, 2009

The "Dirty South"

So we didn’t make it to the river nor the desert. However, we threw pots, painted, glazed, polished, hennaed a lot of pottery pieces and bleach painted fabric. Nebii, Soyoun’s host brother, is the painting artist at the pottery “Coop” and was basically guiding us through the week. He is hoping to turn this type of workshop into a regular business for tourists and Moroccans interested in pottery. The purpose of our week was to try out the workshop and give our feedback on what worked and what could be improved.

His coop doesn’t work so much like a coop, but they certainly make a lot of product, most with a distinctive green glaze. I love their green glaze, but in my opinion they could use some serious finishing to their work to make it more consumer-friendly. They fill the kilns by stacking the pieces on 3-pronged clay pieces. These clay pieces leave 3 distinctive “nicks” in the glaze-they say it’s their signature-but these nicks in each piece leave a very rough finish. They have a lot of their stuff, along with pottery from other parts of Morocco, to sell to the steady stream of tourists who come through their town, which is about 1 ½ hrs from the end of the road into the desert, so a popular route for desert treks.

Each day we were doing either a different piece or finishing process, and this took up most of our time. Not a complaint, just an observation, as we thought we’d have a lot of down time. Thus no river or desert trips. We did take some time out to walk over to the Zaouia shrine and library of Mohammed Ben Nassur-patron saint of the Nacin fraternity. There are over 10,000 books in the library, dating from the 1200's, all handwritten calligraphy on gazelle skin. You have to get permission from the Ministry in Rabat to actually touch any of them, but they’re well displayed to marvel at their beauty. On the other end of the intellectual scale, we also managed to fit in a lot of Bananagram games, which I’m now completely hooked on.

So here are some observations from “the dirty south”:
Visually it is stereotypically Moroccan. Dry, dusty, mud buildings, palm trees, women in all black shuffling along slowly under a hot sun. It’s amazing to see the design detail in the mud buildings-such detail will only last in this very dry climate. It is more tribal-literally. The area is a mix of Berber, Arab and a lot of Malian descendents-originally brought in as slaves. The attire is distinct from the North. Women are entirely covered, the Malian tribe in all black. No jellabas here. They wear a gathered long skirt of black fabric, then use another large piece of black fabric that wraps around their entire upper body and head. They may adorn themselves with a colorful belt. The typical men’s garb of the area is a sky blue caftan with gold braid, and a scarf wrapped around their heads, Arab style. Other women will also be entirely covered, but in beautiful print fabric. Wish I had photos, but again, when in a very conservative area where a Peace Corp Volunteer lives, I hesitate to take photos of their community/neighbors-just seems too intrusive.

It was a good group-worked together well, got along, shared the cooking and cleaning duties, etc. PCVs are pretty used to communal living and pitching in, Hamdullah. Only downside was that of the 11 of us, I think at one point there were 6 of us feeling pretty shwiya. Myself included. After 2 full weeks of a system-gone-wrong and loading myself up with Pepto Bismol, I think I’ve forced my system into normalcy, finally. Just in time for the 9 hour bus ride from Tamegroute to Marrakech. It was a beautiful ride, despite its length. Tons of palmeries that we didn’t see on the way down as it was dark by the time we got to them. Beautiful combination of red, yellow and black dates hanging from the trees. Mud brick villages in the background. Up and over the High Atlas Mountains. Picturesque. Nice to feel well again, just in time for some fresh/yeasty/yummy bread on the ride. We had a woman baking bread for us each day in Tamagroute-strangest bread I’ve ever seen-huge rounds, all crust and no middle-incredibly dry and inedible within hours, and when your system is shwiya and all you’re eating is bread and water, you’d like the bread to be decent. Fortunately I was able to enjoy a yummy dinner at the Earth Café in Marrakech once Lisa and I got here last night. Ran into some other PCVs at the Café. This week Peace Corps is giving flu shots-(they’re mandatory), so everyone had to travel to their “consolidation point”, and Marrakech is one of them.

Had a couple of good reminders about sustainability while in Tamegroute, and the importance of involving the prospective beneficiaries. Examples: The pottery coop has 2 beautiful new gas kilns right next to the crude wood burning kilns that they’ve used for years. And still use. The gas kilns go unused. Why? Well, according to Nebii, a German NGO came in and saw the work the potters were doing and were motivated to help them out. They knew of these gas kilns and decided to pay for them to be installed. Forgot to ask the potters what they wanted/needed/why they used the wood burning kilns. Nothing wrong with the gas kilns, except the gas, in the quantity required to fire the pottery, becomes expensive. The wood is free. Certainly costly to the environment, but not to the Coop. Thus there they sit, kiln shrines to others coming in from the outside, wanting to make a difference, with good intentions, but without involving the beneficiaries, throwing money into the wind. According to Soyoun apparently now there’s a Spanish NGO who has come to her town and wants “to build something”. Great. They are offering to purchase 20 computers. Great. Who is going to say no? But why aren’t they taking the time to sit w/members of the community to determine what the community will really benefit from? Because that takes time. Then there’s the French woman who spent several days w/Nebii being trained in different pottery and painting methods. She was so inspired that she took a ton of photos and information, with the promise of putting it together and getting it all back to Nebii so he could have materials to share with others. Small problem. Seems she didn’t have enough money to pay him for her training-no problem-he tells her to send it when she sends the photos and information. That’s the last he’s heard from her-no money, no info, nothing. Promises, but nothing changes. Given these scenarios, it’s easy to see why locals get cynical to outsiders coming in with offers to “help”. Just give us the money is a typical response. More understandable as you learn about how they get burned.

So now I’m here in Marrakech until Monday. I spent yesterday trying to get time w/the mundub at the Marrakech Artisanat. I was finally successful and spent an hour with him late in the afternoon. My objective was to explore the possibility of doing a Marche Maroc in Marrakech next year. It was a successful meeting and they are willing to host the event and help do the training. I’ve seen the space available and it could work out well. I need to work with our Program staff to identify another PCV here in the south to take on this project. Marrakech is too far away for me to manage (7 hour train after I get to Fes), and since travel costs for our projects comes out of our paltry allowances, it is far too expensive for me to do from Ribat El Kheir (based on the # of trips I had to make to Fes for Marche Maroc). Hopefully this will work out.

I took advantage of the mundub’s lunchtime break, to go to the Jardin Majorelle. This beautiful garden was originally designed by Jacques Majorelle in 1924. The property (home and garden) was purchased and restored by Yves Saint Laurent and he established a trust to ensure the garden’s future existence and public access. It’s a real treasure in this tourist-trap city.

So for the most part I now have 3 days to myself here in Marakkech. I’m thinking of taking a day trip out of town. We’ll see how it goes. Still want to explore the Ville Nouvelle of Marakkech, but have had enough of the medina/el Fnaa area.

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