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Marrakech

Koutoubia Mosque

Back in Japan now (several weeks out from our Morocco trip) where things generally cost around the same as in the States, and where I’m much more used to the exchange rate and the prices and so forth… By comparison, while I was in Morocco, much like when we were in Turkey and Greece last year, I was constantly having trouble trying to think about whether or not it was cheap to be there. Some things were a rather reasonable price – two sandwiches, a juice, and a tea for $8.50. And some were quite cheap – 60 cents for a big 1.5 liter bottle of water. But then a great many other places still charged $6-8 for a sandwich, and $2.50 for a tea, which isn’t so different from the States, so were we really saving that much money every day? And sure, paying $80 for a handmade Berber rug is an incredible deal compared to what you might pay in the States. If it is indeed handmade and unique and high-quality and all those things they claim it to be. Even at such prices, I still found myself sometimes going through one or two hundred dollars a day. On what, exactly, I couldn’t even say. Eight dollars here, another fifteen there, another one or two or three dollars there… and yet, somehow, it added up. The hotels were reasonable, at $50-70 a night or whatever the amount actually was, for full-on suite-style hotel rooms, but even still, even if we call that a good deal, it’s still not pennies. And, there were some places we went where we paid $25-30 for dinner, for a big prix fix menu with live entertainment. So, even if you think you’re saving money over what might cost $50 or $60 or $70 in the States, it’s still a far cry from any romantic/stereotypical notion of “Morocco on dollars a day.”

Canopy over a rooftop seat at a café overlooking Ben Youseff Madersa.

Having arrived in Marrakech on Eid al Fitr, with so many of the shops, museums, and historical sites (palaces) closed for the holiday, we did what we could, just walking around and seeing what we could. Found the Madersa Ben Youseff, one of the oldest and most significant structures in the city, and also went to Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in the city and easily visible above the Jemma el Fna market square, both today and in old photographs from a century ago.

Sadly, I didn’t find any historical plaques around Koutoubia, nor were we allowed inside. Fortunately, Francis Ching’s A Global History of Architecture, along with other sources I had access to without internet, provides a little background. Koutoubia, like many of the most major mosques in North Africa, was based on the model of the Kairouian mosque in Tunisia, which was also the model for the Al-Karouian Mosque at the center of the Fes medina. Marrakech was founded as a city in 1062 by the Almoravids, a group of Berbers who by that time already controlled much of Spain, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It was under their successors, the Almohads, however, that Koutoubia was built. Like Ben Yousuff and many other major examples of mosques from this region & period, Koutoubia is a large rectangular compound organized around a big open courtyard – not that we could get inside to see any of this. At one corner of the rectangle is the minaret: a square tower some 70 meters tall, nearly twice the height of the original in Tunisia.

That night, our second-to-last night in Marrakesh I suppose, we went to dinner at Restaurant El Bahia, another of these crazy fancy “palais” restaurants with big round tables in a big open atrium. All the fine painting and tilework at this one, though, kind of hilariously, was really sloppy or cut-corner otherwise. The fine mosaic work was not individual bits, but just commercially mass-produced large square tiles, repeating like bathroom tile. And the paint work was really sloppy. The whole thing was crazy touristy, and probably the closest we got to the Moroccan equivalent of the Christmas-themed “Smith Family Luau” hula performance we went to in Kauai. All the other diners were retirees and their families, either American or European we’re guessing, and from the way they all left all together at once, probably all on a single tour group. Yet, somehow, even though the show marked all the checkboxes – traditional music, bellydancing, unnecessarily dramatic acts like the bellydancer balancing a tray of lit candles on her head, the performers bringing people up from the tables to dance, guests just going on eating and talking as if the performers were just background – somehow it just didn’t quite ring the same bell for me as that hula show. That hula show on Kauai, a geisha performance at the ANA Hotel in Kyoto, and certain other things I’ve been to, just really struck me so strongly as blatantly Orientalist and likely unchanged from decades ago. As if I’d traveled back in time to how Americans used to understand (and reenact) the Far East or Hawaii back in the 1950s. Yet, here, maybe just because the show was so low-key, it just didn’t feel so strongly for me. Maybe if we had gone to Chez Ali, a place just outside Marrakesh that we’re told is like a Medieval Times-style large venue for just big over-the-top shows, maybe that would have rung those bells for me.

In any case, it was a nice dinner and a decent show, though two musicians by themselves can’t really fill such a large hall adequately – it would have been good to have a larger ensemble. I snuck up to the roof for a peek into the neighboring Palais de Bahia, and just saw some trees and the walls; sadly, the Palais was closed that day for Eid, and by the time I got to it the next day, too, it was closed again.

We visited a lot of musical instruments shops in both Fes and Marrakesh. It’s really interesting to see how the music, and the instruments themselves, have their different variations here. It just goes back to the same thing I’ve been thinking about a lot this past year or so – that any country or culture you talk about, there are going to be interesting diversities of variation, sub-groups, and minorities. Much of Moroccan music is Arab music – it’s centered around the oud, often accompanied by darbuka or certain other kinds of drums, along with (sometimes) qanun, zurna, ney, rebab… and many of the songs are the same throughout the Arab world. But, as my gf could probably explain better than I ever could, there are differences and variations, certain songs or styles and certainly variations in the shape and style of the instruments, that are more distinctly Moroccan. And there’s the Analusian aspect, which is huge. But beyond that, there are also entirely different genres or categories of music, and instruments, unique to the Maghreb. Gnawa music, Berber and Touareg music, and various other North African and Sub-Saharan African musics. We were familiar with wooden zurna – a double-reed “flute” or horn with a gracefully flaring mouth, also known as a mizmar – but I had never before seen double-barrelled ones with sections of actual ram’s horn at the end. And that’s just one of the many different instruments we saw. I’d be curious to get a stronger sense of these different styles or genres of music. And I’d be eager for the opportunity to learn a bit more about Moroccan history, and about Berbers and Touareg and all the rest, and to incorporate that into my World History courses, perhaps. What’s interesting about Morocco is that it had none of the same dynasties as the Turkey/Levant/Egypt area, none of the same historical developments. So while the Mamluks and the Seljuks and the Ottomans and all these other groups were coming and going in succession, none of them ever made it to the Magreb. Here, it was the Almoravids and the Almohads and the Saadians, only some of whom were from Arabia – some of the key dynasties were actually Berber.

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The Train to Marrakech


We finally left Fes and made our way to Marrakesh by train. I will admit, this being my first time in what’s generally known as “third world countries,” I was a bit worried about how the train ride would be. We’ve all seen pictures or heard stories about super overcrowded trains, with no air-conditioning, and just, I don’t know, crowding and smells and how torturous the journey can be. And, to be honest, I’m sorry if this makes me elitist or something, but I really do appreciate some basic level of comfort if I’m going to be traveling for hours and hours. I fly coach, not first class, and I’ve taken night buses and public buses and so forth, but some basic level of cleanliness, comfort, personal space, is kind of essential. And, as it turns out, the Moroccan trains were just fine. Wifi or outlets would have been too much to ask for – we barely even get those on trains back home – and so I didn’t end up getting too much work done, actually, on that eight hour journey. But, we rode in a compartment, like in the Harry Potter movies, and it was just fine. Air-conditioned, and more than clean and comfortable enough.

A first class compartment on the train to Marrakesh. I didn’t actually see what second class looked like at all, but as an American, this was extremely reasonably priced, and I’d recommend it.

Napped for part of the way from Fes to Rabat to Casablanca, and then chatted with our compartment-mates, an English couple and a Moroccan woman, for much of the rest of the journey. The woman, an engineer based in Casablanca and with excellent English, was traveling to see her family in Marrakesh. We talked about world politics, monarchy, gender equality in Morocco and abroad, and a lot of other things. It was nice. I was a bit dismayed to learn that these young, cosmopolitan, London professionals seem to have genuinely thought that all Americans were like the Trump supporters they see/hear so much about in the media…. That since “the American people” had chosen Trump, that that was representative of how most or all of the country was. Very sad.

But, then, I guess it’s a lesson, not only for realizing just how deeply, how profoundly, the current administration has impacted our reputation abroad, even more extensively beyond all the ways we already knew it has, but also as a reminder for how we think about everywhere else in the world – that just like X percentage of Americans are nothing like the pro-Trump images in the news, so too are X percentage of Moroccans and Syrians and Iranians and Chinese and Mexicans and so on and so forth. Whatever impressions or images you may have of any culture, there is absolutely truth to these stereotypes – they have to come from somewhere – and those rulers and regimes, and their supporters, and the political/cultural/religious base that they grow out of, are absolutely real. But so too are the opposition.

The views of the scenery from the train were disappointingly unexciting… I had hoped to get some sense of Casablanca and the other cities we passed through, but we really did just pass right through them, seeing little beyond the stations themselves, and there were few if any other recognizable monuments one might notice as we passed through the rest of the country. So, it was mostly just countryside, including farms, pastures, wild areas, people on donkeys, some horses, sheep, and that’s about it.

Left: One of the many market streets in the Marrakech medina.

Arriving in Marrakech, I found it to be a somewhat more pleasant city, in certain respects, if only because the streets are wider and more open. I hadn’t realized how claustrophobic Fes felt, on a very low-grade level, until we got to Marrakesh and I felt a certain discomfort or fear sort of leave me. Of course, it’s just as easy to get lost here, just as easy for anything else to happen; it’s not necessarily safer or “better” than Fes in any particular way. In fact, many tourist guides as well as individual people we spoke to in Fes said that Marrakech is worse – keep your wits about you, keep your eyes on your wallet, don’t allow yourself to get taken in by scammers. But, still, somehow, I can’t help but feel that Marrakech feels “nicer,” more open, a little more upscale in some ways.

Of course, this might be in part because Ramadan was over and it was now Eid al Fitr. On our first full day in Marrakesh, nearly everything was closed all morning, until late afternoon. The streets were nearly empty, meaning there was less to do – none of the museums or other sites we wanted to visit were open – but it also meant that no one was hassling us at all, and it meant an opportunity to take pictures of the scenery and architecture without crowds complicating up the picture.

The market streets were pretty lively that first night of Eid (especially compared to the quiet of the following day), and we actually happened upon a shoe shop where the artisanal leather shoes, handmade in a workshop right above the store, just looked beautiful. I had been holding off on trying to buy any Moroccan shoes that might be of a particular style that would look too out of place back home, or just plain Converse or the like which I could find anywhere (albeit for higher prices than in Morocco), but these just took me in. And the shopkeepers were just so kind and friendly, not in a deceptive way but as far as we could tell in a really genuine way. After talking to them and trying on multiple pairs of shoes for I don’t know how long, we turned to try to find our way back to the guesthouse and got lost; and the shopkeeper actually ended up really helping us out, not taking us around and around, and not accepting any kind of tip or payment for his help, but just genuinely, authentically, helping us to find it. As for whether the shoes hold up, or whether they fall apart quite quickly, remains to be seen however. They also sent my gf the wrong shoes – the wrong size, even after a lengthy conversation and process about how they were going to custom make her ones in the right size, and then couldn’t because the cobbler hurt his hand, and then and then and then. Plus the same guy hassled us in buying rugs. So, who knows, in the end, whether they were really ever being genuine or whether the whole thing was just an act, to get our money.

As amazing as I feel to have visited Morocco, though, the whole time I kept thinking, why does this feel so different from other places I’ve visited? I think part of it was that I hadn’t done my homework – hadn’t gone to Wikipedia or anywhere to brush up on any knowledge of Moroccan history. So, when I went, I just went into it not knowing what I was looking for, or looking at. Not knowing the history, not knowing the significance of particular sites, it was much harder to appreciate the experience. And while some sites had some signs up explaining the history, there weren’t quite so many as in some other cities, and perhaps even more to the point, we didn’t come across any history museums which might provide a fuller foundational knowledge of the historical outline.

One thing that was quite interesting about Marrakech as compared to Fes was that the presence of sub-Saharan African people and culture was much more present and visible. While Moroccan culture itself (as I understand it) is primarily composed of Berber, Tuareg, and other Saharan cultures, plus considerable influence from Arabs who came and conquered in the 8th century or so, bringing Islam and a great deal else. Of course this is Africa, and any sub-Saharan people or cultural elements that are here are really, genuinely, here in Morocco. They are as real a part of what’s really in front of you here in Morocco as anything else. But, they’re also still a distinguishable set of cultures. So, I don’t know the real politics or economics of it, but for whatever reason, in whatever way, Marrakech does seem to function much more so than Fes as a frontier, a borderland, where sub-Saharan Africa bleeds into Morocco. Individuals moving to Morocco for a short time or for many years; selling paintings of a distinctly sub-Saharan aesthetic or style; selling or playing musical instruments from sub-Saharan Africa. Something very interesting that we barely saw at all in Fes.

Last Day in Fes

Outside Bab Boujouloud, aka The Blue Gate, one of the main gates of the old city (medina).

It’s funny, I just realized that I have all these multiple posts planned/drafted for my Morocco trip, one per day more or less, but actually looking back I discovered that I only ever posted one post about Istanbul. Nothing against Morocco, but I really thoroughly enjoyed my time in Istanbul last summer. It was really wonderful, and I’m sure that if I took the time to take more notes while I was there, about each of the different museums and different things we were seeing and doing, I’d have had so much more to say. It’s just oddly disproportionate, is all. To summarize all of a week in Istanbul into one post, and say nothing at all about our time in Israel or Greece, but to then have post after post about Morocco. Ah well. Such is life I suppose. I still have photos up online, though, from those travels, so if you’re interested, feel free to go take a look over there.

At the Batha Museum.

On our last day in Fes, we checked out the Batha Museum, located in a former palace just a couple blocks from our guesthouse, just outside the walls of the medina. I remain a bit confused about the term “palace” (or “palais”) here in Morocco, as there are gazillions of them. Seems that while some were actually royal palaces belonging to sultans or their relatives, or other nobles of some sort, many may have been simply the homes of particularly wealthy or prominent individuals, more a “mansion” than a “palace,” really, at least to my mind, in American terminology. Whether that’s a standard meaning of “palais” in French, or something more unique to North Africa, I guess I could just Google it…

A number of these palaces are today cheesy touristy restaurants, where large groups can enjoy “dinner and a show,” complete with bellydancers and so forth. The Batha Museum, though, was once an actual sultan’s palace. Like some of the other places we’ve visited, it consists chiefly of a large garden, with two halls, one at either end. The halls are surprisingly small for a “palace” that one might actually live in; it works fine as a garden, where one might go over to one of the two halls for tea or a rest or whatever, but in terms of having a full number of rooms for sleeping, eating, preparing the food, sitting with guests, doing administrative or other sultanly work, I just don’t quite see it.

At the Batha Museum.

In any case, the collection includes a number of books, documents, garments and textiles, weapons, wooden and ceramic objects, and so forth, chiefly pertaining to elite and rural (e.g. Berber) wedding customs, lifeways, and so forth. All of the objects look worn and old, their colors faded, their metal tarnished. But I suppose maybe for a small museum in a less wealthy country, it’s not entirely unexpected.

Sadly, the labels were extremely minimal. I learned just about nothing, I’m sorry to say, about the different styles or types of cultural objects (what stylistic elements typify Arab vs. Berber design? Or 15th c. ceramics vs. 17th c. ceramics?), nor anything about the history of Fes or Morocco. Basically just saw some things, some objects, and had little choice but to just move on. But, again, so it goes. The building itself, and the gardens, were beautiful though. Definitely worth a visit if you have the time to burn.

Right: McDonald’s at Borj Fes shopping mall.

We then headed out away from the medina into the new city – the regular, modern, car-filled city. We had tentative arrangements to try to meet up with an instructor from the main Fes Musical Institute, who said he’d show us some collections or resources there. But in the end, timing just didn’t work out. So, we went to the shopping mall. Borj Fes, seemingly the most major shopping mall in the area, is pretty small by mall standards, holding maybe 20-30 shops. But it’s an interesting thing to see – very modern, very much like any shopping mall anywhere in the world. Many brands we recognize from around the world, including LC Waikiki, Orange (mobile phones), and Virgin. Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that such a thing exists in Fes. As poor as many people are here, even they often have cellphones and other up-to-date technology, and of course, not everyone is so desperately poor. So, fashions, electronics, McDonald’s, home appliances, and all the rest. The mall also had a MiniSou, which I found entertaining. If you haven’t come across this yet, it’s a Chinese company masquerading as a Japanese one – a knockoff Daiso – drawing on the appeal of a certain slice of Japanese commercial aesthetics, selling a variety of basic goods from cosmetic tools to stationery to stuffed animals that are clean and simple and cute, for good prices. I don’t know if 49 or 79 dirhams (roughly $5-8 US) is crazy expensive for the average Moroccan to pay for an officially licensed stuffed animal toy of Kumamon (the official mascot of Kumamoto prefecture, Japan), but for an American or Japanese, it’s super affordable. So, maybe could have been a good place for us to get some cute notebooks, pens, eyebrow pencil, or whatever, though we didn’t buy anything there in the end.

Right: Peeking into the Karouian Mosque.

Later in the evening, I decided to take it upon myself to make sure to see the Karaoiuine Mosque at the very center of the old city. We’d seen a lot of the other key sites in one way or another, even if it was just very late at night when being traipsed around by those assholes that one night. And I wasn’t going to take the time to retread exploring out across the whole Andalousian quarter (the eastern half of the walled city) just to take photos of the outside doors of a few mosques or whatever – especially since the Andalousian Mosque is currently under major renovation and is covered over in scaffolding. But I did want to make sure to at least see this, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed inside, and therefore wouldn’t see much.

Right: The souks at the center of the medina.

As I made my way deeper and deeper into the medina, I realized to my surprise that all of this time we’d really never actually been to the center. At some point, X blocks past where we’d ever explored previously, the style of the space changes, to something more recently redone – cleaner, nicer, more upscale-looking. More well-lit – or maybe it was just sunnier that day. An area with just a nicer, brighter, better feeling about shopping there. Not that people wouldn’t haggle and harass you there just the same, and not that there’s anything so horrible about the rougher, dirtier sort of areas, the areas some people might call “the real Fes” or “the real experience.” But, this too is “real,” and a real part we hadn’t seen before. I sped through it after shaking yet another self-appointed asshole guide who demanded money from me even after I repeatedly told him I didn’t want or need his help and guided myself with my phone; I didn’t stop to look at the shops at all because my girlfriend was back in the guesthouse waiting for me to return so we could head back out for the evening. So I just found the mosque, took some photos and turned around. But, still, I’m really glad I went. Got to see the real center of the medina, a slightly different side of things than we’d seen up until then. And then on the way back, happened to take a different way, and found that it wasn’t just the center of the medina, but actually a whole other parallel main street of the medina – Talaa Kebira – that we somehow had never really spent any time on. A lot of the same sorts of shops selling the same sorts of stuff, but, still, some different. When we went out there again afterwards, together, we found some shops we’d never come across earlier, where Simone was able to buy tons of good music, and a new instrument.

Street cat chilling out on rugs outside of a shop in Essaouira.

I never know what to buy in terms of souvenirs, either for myself or for others. I ended up with a few postcards, and some handmade ceramic mugs for my father and brother, but I know that if I buy anything more for aunts and uncles it just starts to get out of hand. What do you buy? And where do you stop? If I buy for my aunts and uncles then maybe I should also buy for some of my closest NY friends, and maybe also for some of my closest Santa Barbara friends… and well, it just gets endless. But even buying for myself, I keep looking at these rugs, and well, while I’m a Japan/Okinawa specialist, and don’t really see the need to fill my home with things specifically evocative of Moroccan style (and I don’t even have a home, or all that much room in my suitcases), it’s definitely tempting. Some of these rugs are just gorgeous. And fun. Colors and styles that aren’t appealing solely due to their association with some “Oriental” aesthetic, but that are actually just attractive in and of themselves. I’m not 100% sure, still, which designs are Berber and which aren’t, or which are representative of this or that tribe or ethnic group, but we saw a lot that were largely plain with small embroidered designs in them, looking like rivulets expanding out from a center, or like the molecular diagrams we learned to draw in high stripes or spots, but something in between; diamond-shaped sections each of a different color, within which are dashes and lines of other colors. Some rugs are quite flat, and others quite fluffy or bushy; the latter being quite fun and appealing as well. Simone particularly liked ones that were patchwork designs, with each square of the overall rug being a different set of colors and designs. Chaotic, but somehow not overwhelming; somehow coming together and looking modest and good overall.

That was the end of our time in Fes. The next day, we made our way to Marrakech.

Fes, Day 3

La Gare.

On our third day in Fez, we first left the medina and went out to the train station, to make sure we booked our tickets to Marrakesh sufficiently early. The train station, like the airport, looks really new and clean and shiny. Actually, here and there all throughout the city we saw various buildings which looked super new and clean and shiny, in stark contrast to everything else around them. Some were labeled “International Agency for Human Development” or something like that; others, such as an old caravanserai, we were told were renovated at the expense of the King. But, in any case, after the train station, we went to a district called the Mellah, about a 20 minute walk just southwest of the Medina, which was once upon a time the Jewish quarter. There, a kind man in his late 20s named Abdul Assif, offered to show us around. And he really did a very kind job of it. Didn’t lead us too far astray, or pressure us to buy anything. Just genuinely showed us various markings and sights, including the rabbis’ houses, and some markings of horseshoes, stars, and hamsa over doors or windows which he claimed marked the former homes of Jewish artisans. I’m not sure I buy it.



But, still, he then also showed us the gates to the Jewish cemetery, labeled “Beit Ha Chaim,” or “House of Life” in Hebrew, a very typical name for a Jewish cemetery. And finally he led us to what we were really looking for – Ibn Danan, a 17th century synagogue that’s no longer in operation but is maintained as a historical site. Nothing too exceptionally special on the inside, looking quite similar to ones I’ve seen in Tsfat (Safed) and elsewhere, but still very very cool to see – a synagogue, in Morocco!, in that particular traditional style where the pews face no particular direction, and the bimah (pulpit) is its own tiny little box with a pointed roof over it, looking quite a bit more like counterparts in Catholic and Muslim traditions, rather than the larger simpler stage and lectern that we see so often in the West (or, at least, almost ubiquitously in the US). As we expected to hear, the men would pray in the main room downstairs, and the women in a little balcony upstairs. There was also a tiny ritual bath (mikva) in the basement. And from the roof, we could see the cemetery. I don’t know anything about Moroccan Jewry – the synagogue itself looked very similar to things I’ve seen elsewhere, Sephardic or Mizrahi traditions, with some elements, such as the hanging lamps, clearly quite similar to Muslim aesthetic styles. But as for the rows and rows of perfectly white tombs, that’s new to me. I wonder where I might be able to learn a little more about that.

After the synagogue, Abdul Assif led us to his friend’s shop, who sells just about everything from shoes and leather bags to argan oil and other health products to rugs and ceramics. The argan oil was quite cheap, and the guy kept going on about how his prices were so much cheaper than in the Medina, because he sells wholesale to Moroccans – not usually to tourists – but then in the end he still charged us something like 280 dirhams ($28) for a cup or bowl! So, we kind of got taken in. Oh well. But, Abdul Assif then led us back to the gates of the medina, and was really quite kind and good as he let us go. No further pressure or anything.

We then made our way back into the medina, and had dinner that night at a place called Cinema Café, where they offered a special break-fast buffet. It was mostly tourists, so I felt a little weird about that – people have been fasting all day, and are eager for their traditional (or, in this case, at a café, maybe not quite so traditional) break-fast dinner with friends or family, and yet here we are, as tourists, pretending at joining in the same sort of religious or cultural custom. I think if we were Muslims visiting into town, who didn’t have any friends’ or family’s home to break fast at, that might feel more to the point to me. Like when I myself am overseas and am happy to find somewhere to celebrate Thanksgiving or Hannukah or whatever with others. Still, anyway, we did this thing, and both the food and the atmosphere were quite good. Cinema Café and another place we went to numerous times, Café Clock, are hip little oases of the kind of “hip” “modern” “cosmopolitan” sort of places one might expect to find anywhere else in the world. Feels a bit more like London, New York, or Tokyo than one might think or expect of Fes – which isn’t to say, of course, that Fes isn’t allowed to be modern, worldly, cosmopolitan, but hopefully you follow my meaning.

Café Clock is a funny place. On the one hand, it sort of feels like the hip sort of place that cosmopolitan young Moroccans might hang out in, a place that works really well as a “third place,” to go to regularly, to have a coffee or smoothie and (use the wifi and outlets and) work, or just hang out. Certainly the staff, many of whom seem like they’ve probably gone to school in Europe or elsewhere, seem to have that air of having the space serve that for them. But, then, on the other hand, it also feels really touristy in certain ways, like you’re doing a bad tourist, bad expat thing by “escaping” to this more comfortable place, which is cleaner and nicer, a bit more upscale… They have cooking classes, film screenings, music performances and music lessons, and other cultural events all the time, which is really great, but then also, makes it again feel more touristy. So I’m not sure what to think, except that we enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was there, and I’m not going to feel sorry or embarrassed about enjoying it. They had excellent smoothies and other things on the menu, a beautiful rooftop terrace with a view out over the neighborhood, a slightly quieter/cozier downstairs area with tables where I just worked on my computer while my gf had a private one-on-one oud lesson.. and the best wifi we’ve yet found in Morocco – much faster than in the guesthouse, allowing me to upload and email photos to my father, etc. We went back to Café Clock I don’t know how many times, for oud performances – my gf got to join in and play for one of them – for break-fast buffets twice, for getting a little work done, and for just having tea and sweets late at night. I also tried their camel burger. I’m glad I did, just as something I can say that I’ve tried, but frankly it was pretty gross. But then again, this is the first meat I’ve had in many many months, and I’ve never really been into burgers or steaks to begin with. So who knows if it was actually prepared badly, or actually all that bad-tasting, but it just wasn’t for me.

As I think I mentioned, in Fes, not only do people constantly call out to you to come look at their wares, and then haggle with you over the price, and make it hard for you to leave, but people will also constantly come up to you asking where you’re going, and offering to help guide you there – then take you around and around, intentionally getting you lost to make you feel like you really did need their help (and will need their help getting back, so you can’t leave!)… they take you to their friends’ places and try to push you into buying things, and then at the end demand some kind of fee for their help. … Simone is quite good at haggling, but even so we both were taken in a few times.

Thankfully, we were lucky, nothing too horrible ever happened to us at all. We got tricked or pressured a few times into buying things that were much more expensive than we’d expected – for example, a 28 Euro bowl that we’d expected would be closer to something like 70 dirhams (7 euros), given the expectation that everything ought to be much cheaper in Morocco, and that it almost undoubtedly *is* much cheaper, for Moroccans, just not for tourists; and for example taxi rides where they refused to use the meter, and then at the very end tacked on an arbitrary additional amount, say 30 or 50 dirhams, for the bother of loading and unloading our luggage. … That’s about all. Really the worst was just that a couple of kids (mid-to-late 20s) offered us tea and hash, and got us sitting and talking for a long time, and then led us around and around and around the winding roads of the medina for at least an hour, maybe two, I don’t know, at like midnight, offering to show us all sorts of key sights but really showing us pretty much nothing, and then we made the mistake of arranging to meet them the following morning so they could show us around again, and made the mistake of telling them where we were staying. Such that the following morning, even after we decided we were sketched out, and would just ditch them by staying in our room and just not answering the door, they waited for us for *two hours* and then cornered us when we finally did leave our guesthouse. Fortunately, again, though we were a bit scared and turned off by the whole thing, scared they might follow us, or just keep showing up demanding more money, or bring more friends to – I don’t know what, actually turn to physical violence? – fortunately, once we were firm and just told them we were done, and to go away, nothing more came of it.

Bab Semmarine, one of the main city gates out by the Mellah (Jewish quarter), about a 20 minute walk from the medina.

But, with that experience under our belts, by the time we got to Marrakesh, we were really on our guard. As we left the train station, none of the taxi drivers were willing to use the meter; all cited numbers we thought were probably too expensive. And then they started actually yelling and arguing with one another over who was going to get to take us… We eventually just got into one, just to get it over with and get away from there.

Then, when our cab finally stopped somewhere, and people just started taking our bags out of his cab, our first reaction was, where are we, who are these guys, what’s going on? For all we know, this cab driver could have been a scammer, who had brought us to his friends who were going to steal our stuff. Or something. Or, if not quite so bad, even still, maybe these guys were just random touts who were going to insist on “helping” us to our guesthouse, maybe even guiding us some excessively roundabout way, and then demand a tip. So we both said, hey, I don’t know who you are, we don’t need your help, we’ll be fine. I was actually a little bit scared. Having to defend yourself like that, and protect all your possessions when you’re outnumbered and don’t know where you are and have so many bags to manage… But then the lead guy – who is a young man, maybe late 20s, dressed in cut-up jeans and otherwise just looking like one of these street touts – pulled out a card showing he was with the guesthouse, so we decided, okay, I guess we should go with him. … This of course made the rest of our stay awkward, since we’d so distrusted him, and now he’s our host for however many nights. But, so it goes sometimes, I guess. If it happened all over again, I’m not sure I’d react any differently.

Bab Boujloud, the “Blue Gate.” The main gate into the medina of Fes.

Between this Morocco trip, and our time in Israel, Turkey, and Greece last year, I really have to say this whole street market culture of harassment, haggling, and scams is really one of my least favorite aspects of travelling in the Middle East. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, as an American, I have different expectations and values and desires, but, I just really hate being forced by the situation to constantly, constantly, have to be impolite to people just to get them to leave you alone, or to treat you fairly. I hate having to assume that all the shopkeepers are constantly lying about the quality of their product, and about the price, constantly having to second-guess whether they’re being nice out of genuine kindness or as part of a method to get your money. Even in a “tough” city like New York, when you tell people to leave you alone, they generally do. But here, people will follow you for a block or more, still trying to haggle to try to sell you something even after you’ve said no. They’ll show you a dozen different versions of something even after you’ve firmly established that they don’t have the right color, style, size, or price for what you’re looking for. You can’t even look at something in the market streets, even glance in the direction of a shop or mouth the words “hey, that’s kind of nice,” without someone showing up to try to encourage you into their shop, sometimes even physically grabbing you or physically shoving the product into your hands. I hate that when you say No, they keep pressing. There’s really no way to get people to go away except to say No over and over and over again, and to just keep walking. There’s no way to deal with the constant calls of “Hello,” “Where are you from?,” “why don’t you just take a look?,” “very good prices, very good products, for you,” except to finally just ignore them entirely. And it’s not ignoring in a neutral sort of way, like how you ignore shop calls in Japan and they don’t care because it’s perfectly normal – here, people treat it like you’re being rude to them, even though that’s exactly what’s necessary in order to get them to leave you alone.

On the plus side, though, I guess I’m getting more used to it. I’m still taken in a lot, but it’s certainly less shocking, less aggravating, than it was last year. One travel tips website actually said that market touts in Fes and Marrakech are less pushy and so forth than in Istanbul or elsewhere in the region; I’m not sure this is true, but … whatever. You learn and you deal and you move on.

Fes, Day 2

The next day, Ahmed was nice enough to show us around a bit. He pointed out, right in the center of the Medina, a home where Moses ben Maimonides, also known as Rambam, one of the most famous Jewish philosophers of all time, once lived. Today, it’s a Chinese restaurant! Haha. He also took us inside Bouinania, one of two major madrasas in the medina where tourists are welcome to visit and see the intricate carvings and other features of classical Islamic architecture; there are only a handful of mosques in the entire country where non-Muslims are allowed to visit, so this is the closest we get. But it was beautiful. Between this and some of the other sites we’ve now seen – as well as from just walking around the streets – I really begin to understand why Art History textbooks often focus so much on mosaics and on doors. At least here in Morocco – I don’t know about the rest of the Muslim world – these really are the things that catch the eye; the places where ornamentation and attention is placed. Ahmed also took us to see a bronze worker, see a little bit of how these beautiful plates are decorated, extensive intricate patterns chiseled into them tiny bit by bit, by hand. Really incredible.

We then also got to see the Tanneries, where they make leather by traditional handmade methods. The place is terribly smelly. We got a view of it just from above, from a nearby rooftop. They bring in skins from outside of the city by donkey, and then treat the skins in various different ways, in different vats, scraping the wool and meat off, treating it in vinegar and pigeon droppings and other natural materials to get it to the right texture and strength and whatever, and use a giant wooden barrel, which looks like a waterwheel, as a pre-industrial-style washing machine, to wash the leather. Finally, another set of vats are used to fix colors into the leather, using a variety of plant dyes and other natural colors. Cochineal for red, indigo for blue, saffron or turmeric for yellow. Apparently goat skin is the softest and nicest; sheep skin doesn’t hold color quite as well, and it fades over time. Camel leather is quite rough, but is very much a thing. Makes me wonder how common camel leather (or imitation camel) is back home, because now that I’ve seen the real thing, I feel like I’ve seen it before.

A bunch of fortresses or walls are visible up in the hills in the distance, along with the tombs of the Merinid Kings. I don’t know if we’ll make it out to them. (In the end, we didn’t.)

Finally, Ahmed took us to two shops run by his friends, to see if Simone could get her hands on some music CDs. Tiny little shops that I don’t think we’d ever have found on our own, way down a ton of winding winding streets… It’s weird, on the one hand, whenever anyone leads us anywhere it feels like it takes forever, down a gazillion turns. But then, once we’ve gotten there, there’s somehow this sense that surely it can’t be that hard. Surely, if we just walked down the main street and made just a couple of turns off, here or there, we’d find it, right? I don’t know. But, in any case, we did find one shop where this guy just burned custom CDs of whatever from his massive digital library. Personally, I would have liked to have some nice cover art and insert booklets – or at the very least to have a track listing with artists and song titles, instead of just somebody’s rough scrawl “Arabic music,” as generic as can be. But, then, I guess that’s part of the joy of traveling, and doing ethnographic work or whatever one wants to call it; you end up collecting all sorts of things – cassettes, LPs, not just commercial CDs.

I’m also still trying to think about just how cheap it is to be here. For example, that one fellow charged us $4 per CD he burned; certainly quite cheap compared to $15-20 at Best Buy or whatever back home, but when you buy 10 CDs, you’re still paying $40. Not exactly just pocket change. On the other hand, we found some shoes for 20 dirham a pair – about $2; certainly an exceptional deal compared to anything. Even (knockoff?) Converse for 100 dirham ($10) is also a great deal. We also had a nice post-Ramadan break-fast buffet for 50 dirhams ($5) each – a steal. But, then a lot of the other places we went were still charging around $7-10 for a sandwich, another $2 for a bottle of water, soda, or tea, $18 for a bottle of wine; and there are places we went where a full multi-course prix fix dinner was anywhere from $30 to $50-60. So, again, it’s not like pennies a day. And, as for the hotels, to stay somewhere really nice for $30 or $50 or $70 a night is a wonderful treat, especially when the prices of hotel rooms in the US are so bloatedly overpriced (I have found tons of places to stay in Tokyo and all over Japan for $30-50/night, but even motel rooms in the middle of nowhere in the US it can be difficult to find anything decent for less than $80-100 in my experience), but even so, $50-70/night is still a not insubstantial amount. I hear rumor there are places in the world one can visit where it really is ten dollars a day, or whatever it may be, including the lodgings. Morocco is pretty cheap, but it’s not that cheap. All in all, I don’t actually know precisely how much I spent in total on our Morocco trip, but it certainly wasn’t an entirely insignificant amount.

In any case, Ahmed introduced us to another place, Restaurant Batha, where they had a single oud player, quieter and tamer than the show the first night. Actually, it was a bit hard to hear. But at least it was a bit more well-attended, and thus less awkward. Similarly beautiful, expansive, space. I wonder if maybe we’ve hit the quiet season. Maybe during other times of the year these places really are full and bustling. I hope so.

Of course, during our time here, we’ve had our fair share of haggling and harassment. You can’t even look at something without someone coming up and trying to sell it to you. And sometimes they’re really persistent – Simone pointed out a pair of shoes I might like, in a neat cerulean sort of color. But even after we pretty quickly determined that they didn’t have that color in my size, the kid just kept trying to insist that the shoes could be made smaller if you put insole inserts in, and that I should just have a seat and try it on, try it on again, this color, that color…. And a couple of times we were taken in by people who brought us back to their other shop, or their other other shop, sometimes way down a whole series of winding streets such that we’d never find our way back on our own… and then once you finally get there, you learn that the ceramic bowls aren’t 2 or 3 or 5 dollars each, but are actually $28 (but are actually only $4 or $5 if you can haggle your way down to it – $28 isn’t really a real price)… and it just takes so long, and so much back and forth, trying to haggle down and trying to just get out of there. I hate it. And then, you have all the people who invite you into their shop for a cup of tea, or offer to show you around to wherever you want to go, and the next thing you know you’re in a situation where you really feel like in order to be polite you have to give them something, or to at least hear them out, or at least give their wares a try…. and so you’re there even longer….

Visiting Morocco

At one of the many, many, shops in the souks of Fes’ medina.

Even with air travel being what it is today, making the world ever more accessible, the United States is still unavoidably at a great geographical distance from so much of the world. For travelers from Britain, France, Spain, it may not be such a big deal to think of taking a holiday in Morocco, but for us Americans, just about anywhere outside of the Americas or Western Europe feels like an incredible crazy thing that we might not have ever imagined.

Even after all the traveling I’ve done – I’ve been so fortunate and privileged to get to do, far far beyond what my grandparents or even my parents might have imagined – there’s still a very long list of places I never thought I’d end up going to. Morocco is most certainly one of those places. Yet, there I was. My partner was accepted to present a paper at an academic conference in Essaouira, a beautiful beach town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, and so the opportunity presented itself. Prior to heading to Essaouira, we took the opportunity to visit Fes and Marrakesh. During the trip, I wrote up notes and thoughts… I’ll share these over the next however many blog posts, probably mixing unedited copy-pastes from the notes with some post-trip revising. Maybe I’ll put original sections in italics, and my later revisions unitalicized.

Here we go.
June 9-14, Fes

Even after all this traveling, I still find it hard to wrap my mind around the idea that I’m actually in such a place. Whether it’s Hawaii, England, Okinawa, Istanbul, or Morocco, it’s weird to think that I’m actually physically geographically located in such a different place on the globe right now, and also culturally, that I’m in a particular place that I’ve heard about read about seen pictures of. Hard to believe this is Morocco. This is *the* Fez, sacred city of music, and not… I dunno, some substitute that’s not quite the real thing but is still better than nothing. It’s weird to walk the streets, and sit in the cafés, and think this is *the* Fes, this is what it’s really like.

In a way, it’s almost a bad thing, making it all feel too real, too ordinary, too mundane. Actually going and visiting these places breaks the illusion. I don’t know what I expected of Morocco – I’ve barely seen any movies based in that “Oriental” setting, and just haven’t really been immersed in it, I guess. I have some very vague, general, stereotypes that swirl around my head just from being a part of the general popular consciousness – fezes, turbans, bellydancers, camel caravans. But, of course, as we know from Edward Said’s Orientalism and everything that’s come after it, Orientalism was always much more about Western people’s fantasies than it was about Middle Eastern realities. And perhaps all the more so today, as everywhere in the world things only ever get more and more modernized, more and more removed from historical realities, over time. Thus, the only turbans, bellydancers, snake charmers that we saw were there explicitly intentionally for tourist consumption, and not because that’s just how things actually are in Morocco.

Fes skyline, as seen from above the tanneries. Minaret of Bouinania medersa on the right.

As a result, I find it quite weird to be here, and to be finding it frankly not so magical, not so breathtaking. I’m not sure what really to think, what to say are my takeaways. I’ve been really kind of struggling to think of what to say, what to think, how to characterize it all for myself. Sure, it’s a Third World country, and it feels like it in a lot of ways. There are goats and donkeys and chickens in the streets. There is raw meat hanging right over the stalls, and people bustling through tiny winding market streets, and a lot of the other key main features of what we might imagine of “Morocco”. But, then, at the same time, everyone has cellphones, and electricity, and TVs with world news, and lots of the cafés have wifi, and people are just going about their normal everyday business. I’ve been to too many market streets in Jaffa and Jerusalem, and Yokohama and Naha and elsewhere, to really find this so exceptionally out of the ordinary. And while the tourist websites and such tell us that there *are* snakecharmers in certain squares, we haven’t seen any yet. All in all, it just doesn’t quite have that magical, mysterious, “Oriental” quality that we might imagine from books and paintings and movies… And especially some of the cafés we’ve been to feel so modern, even hipstery, that it throws one’s sense off even more. What is the “feel” of this city? Once you move past stereotypes, once you’ve traveled enough, it all gets plainer…

A former home of Maimonides, aka Rambam, one of the most-cited Jewish philosophers in history. Today, a Chinese restaurant.

The medina, the old city center, consisting of some 9000 narrow winding cobblestone streets within heavy stone walls, dates back many centuries. Some of the oldest buildings are from the 9th century, and I think the walls, the city overall is 11th or 12th. Maimonides once lived here.

It’s said to be the largest car-free urban center in the world. The streets are indeed far too narrow for cars, and the artisans and merchants transport their goods in and out of the medina by donkey or by handcart.

Right: the alleyway leading to our guesthouse. I loved this blue.

It’s actually a pretty incredible architectural arrangement. Heavy walls and coverings over the streets between them keep the heat out, keep it cool here inside the medina, even when it’s sunny and hot outside. It was a comfortable 60-something degrees every day we were in Fes; until one stepped out of the medina and was struck by just how powerfully the sun bears down on you. It was closer to 80, or maybe even hotter, outside of the medina.

The walls themselves, all along these many winding paths, are generally quite plain, with the doors being the main ornaments. Though every here and there the walls are painted blue or pink or green – it’s beautiful. And then behind each door, even the most unassuming doors, so many of these houses are just huge big open spaces, three or more stories of rooms, often with a rooftop terrace. Many of the places we’ve seen are amazingly decorated, with tile and marble and mosaics… Of course these are fancy restaurants and guesthouses. Regular people’s homes might not be as fancy. Though they still may be surprisingly spacious and with rooftop terraces.

After a long 10-hour flight, we arrived at London Gatwick, where we had a nice five-or-so hour layover. It was a bit annoying to have to wait through immigration and baggage claim and everything just to pick up our bags and then go somewhere else to check back in – as opposed to connecting more directly from one flight to another as we all so often do, but all in all it went smoothly. And it was so nice to have just a tiny taste of London again, haha. Hung out at Costa Coffee during the layover, and grabbed a couple things from M&S and Boots. I really think I could love to live in the UK again.

Then, a short two-hour flight to Fez. Fez Airport is quite nice, very new-looking, very clean and sunny and bright. From what little we saw of it, we just came in right off the tarmac into a building that was basically just one big room – one half taken up by the immigration lines, and then once we passed through that, the second half of the building was baggage claim, and then that was it. I kind of wonder where the whole rest of the airport is!

Our guesthouse is a small quaint place in the far corner down an alley. It’s a beautiful little place, run by a kind couple. About four or five guest rooms, I think, across two or three floors, with a sunny skylight/atrium sort of thing running down the middle, like in a lot of the places here. Ahmed speaks many languages – English, Spanish, French, and of course Arabic, with great fluency, and his wife French and Arabic. She makes all the food for breakfast herself – cream cheese, apricot jam, several kinds of bread – and they’re all delicious. The jam especially. Just amazing.

We got in to the guesthouse around 5pm, so there was still some time left in the day to walk around the market streets. Everything gets really busy around 4-5, as people buy food and other things to prepare for their daily break-fast (oh, yeah, did I mention it was Ramadan for our entire time in Fes?), and then from about 6 or 7 until 9 or so, it’s super quiet, as everyone closes up shop to go break fast with their families.

Ahmed introduced us to a place called Restaurant Alfassia to see a show of live music, bellydancing, and so forth. It was a pretty fancy place – super big space, multiple floors, all covered in intricate mosaics. A restored/renovated 15th century home, apparently. Sadly, there was only one other party there besides us, so it felt far too big, an awkward situation with the performers outnumbering the audience. A shame. But, the show itself was good. “Classical” Arabic music on oud, violin, and drum, some bellydancing, and some processional-style music with a different set of drums and chimes and such. There’s a certain style of Moroccan (Berber?) drum, with camel skin for the drumskin, which has a thumbhole in the frame, so you can spin the drum while you hit it; a nice little fun trick.

One of the main gates into the medina. Not actually a photo from that first night, but, whatever, right?

Late that night, I went out to the little corner shops to get shampoo and shaving cream, as we still hadn’t showered in all that time, since first boarding our flight in LA. And when I went out, I heard some kind of drums and chimes, sounded like maybe processional (parade) music? After I got back, and we were in bed, we could still hear it all the way into our room. So we threw on some clothes (again) and went out in search of it. By now it was maybe 11pm or even midnight… and we found this one place (a club? a mosque?) where the music was just pounding, the lights were going, and people were just pouring in and out. A super major party. Not electronic “house” dance music or whatever, but something more traditional. We really debated whether or not to try to go in. It could have been a great experience, especially in terms of Simone’s ethnographic explorations, listening to the music, learning firsthand how people enjoy or interact with certain styles of music on certain occasions, etc. But we just didn’t know if it was a private party, or what. If it was a private party for a particular family and their friends, or for a certain Club or Society or whatever, we wouldn’t want to just bust in like the ignorant tourists we are; and if it was a mosque (the party seemed far too lively for my idea of a mosque, but then what do I know?), then we certainly shouldn’t try to get in. … So, we just skipped it, and had paninis and french fries next door. But the music was really something. I don’t know if Simone or I got any recording of it… I don’t recall.

So, that was our first night, and first impressions, of Fes. More in the next blog post.


Akamine Mamoru – “The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia”, translated by Lina Terrell, edited by Robert Huey

The first overview of Ryukyuan history in English since George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People, this is a most welcome publication. I have not read the original Japanese version, and so I cannot speak to how much it has been changed, but I am overall quite happy with this new book.

Though I expected it to address just one aspect of Ryukyuan history, serving as only one argumentative/interpretive piece of the scholarly tableau of Ryukyuan history alongside works by Tomiyama, Watanabe, Smits, Takara, Kamiya, and so many others, it really does serve as an introductory overview of the entire history of the kingdom, from the Gusuku period (roughly, 9th to 14th centuries, when elites and eventually “kingdoms” first began to emerge, before being unified under a single Ryukyu Kingdom) all the way up to the abolition of the kingdom in the 1870s, though it focuses most strongly on the early modern period (1609-1870s) and on relations with China over those with Japan. I have not had a chance to read the entire book through, and so I cannot say definitively what the book as a whole includes and what it overlooks, but generally it does seem an excellent overview, touching upon domestic developments, political relationships with China and Japan, Ryukyu’s prominent place in regional trade networks, and so forth.

I actually really appreciate this focus on relations with China. Any choice that an author makes, to emphasize connections with China over those with Japan, or vice versa, is a political choice. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and is much more nuanced and complex than perhaps any one publication could ever really convey. So, you have to choose. The same is true for the choice to emphasize the integrity of “Ryukyu” as a unitary and cohesive political, social, economic, or cultural entity over its disunity and diversity, or the other way around. So, perhaps the best we can do is to keep putting out works that illuminate or highlight one side of it, one aspect, and just keep re-balancing, and further complicating, further nuancing, further (re-)correcting the narrative that emerges in aggregate.

For a number of reasons, starting with the fact that the Ryukyu Islands are today part of Japan, their connections to Japan have always been strongly assumed, emphasized, and discussed. And there is certainly validity to that – Ryukyuan culture (esp. folk culture, rather than elite/court culture) in many key respects originates fundamentally, in prehistoric times, from the same “Japonic” wellspring as Japanese culture. The language bears much in common with classical Japanese, the folk religion and folk customs otherwise bear much in common with those of Japan, and the occasional Chinese official’s assertion that Ryukyu “belongs” or “belonged” to China historically is a load of hogwash. But, this association with Japan being the dominant assumption, there is great value in explicating, or illuminating, Ryukyu’s own separate distinctive history, and its history of connections to China. In that respect, it makes me want to read more of Akamine’s work (and that of others, such as Watanabe Miki).

Speaking of the early modern section, which I focused on in my reading, I was quite happy to see Akamine discuss domestic, internal developments within the Kingdom, and to devote an entire chapter to “Reform and Sinification of the Kingdom.” Smits touches upon this, to be sure, but while it might be just the bias formed by what I have been choosing to read in order to research my own topic (and what I have not been reading), I feel as though there is so much debate and discussion about how we talk about Ryukyu’s relationships with China and Japan, and some of the internal developments drop out. This past year, as a visiting researcher at the University of the Ryukyus, I heard professors and grad students from time to time mention the gradual but significant Sinification of the kingdom over the course of the 17th to 19th centuries, shifts and changes in ritual practices, and so forth, as if this was already well-known and established. Well, maybe it’s because I still haven’t gotten around to reading the full-length monographs by Tomiyama, Takara, Watanabe, and others (because they’re lengthy, time-consuming, and intimidating, hundreds of pages in Japanese), but I just never felt I had come across any real explanation of this. So, I am very pleasantly surprised to see it articulated by Akamine. He also touches upon the introduction of feng shui into the kingdom, and into the organization and layout of Shuri castle, another of a handful of topics simply not explicated in other books or articles I’ve happened to read.

It’s really a great book, and I am glad to see the English-language coverage of Ryukyuan history expanding.

My only critiques are a few small points about language, which caught my eye.

To begin, I am still very much struggling with decisions to make in my own work as to how to represent names, places, titles, and other specialty terms, whether
(1) in an Okinawan (Uchinaaguchi) reading, which might arguably be the most accurate, and would help disrupt the assumption that the Japanese readings of these terms, imposed following Japan’s annexation of the islands and forced assimilation policies in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, are the natural and default readings,
(2) in a Japanese reading, as is standard in both English- and Japanese-language scholarship, and would serve purposes of clarity and consistency, or
(3) in a Chinese reading, as might be more accurate in many cases, but for which I just don’t know the truth.

I had drafted quite a few paragraphs trying to address this issue in my review of this book, going back and forth about a lot of different aspects of this issue, but if anything I think that merits a separate blog post of its own. So I think I’ll skip that mini-rant for now, and just say that I applaud Terrell and Huey’s choice to give Ryukyuan individuals’ Chinese-style names in Mandarin pinyin. Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrats often had multiple names, going by an Okinawan/Japanese style name in some contexts, and a Chinese-style name in others. For example, the great educator, scholar, and official generally known as Tei Junsoku 程順則 was alternatively known as Nago ueekata Chōbun 名護親方寵文 (or, I suppose, in Okinawan, something more like Nan ueekata Chūbun?). Yet, while he’s very well-known today as Tei Junsoku, one wonders if he ever went by that name, or if he and others pronounced it in a Chinese fashion, as Chéng Shùnzé. Throughout the volume, Terrell and Huey give these Chinese-style names in Mandarin pinyin; I don’t know if Ryukyuans genuinely pronounced them in Chinese,1 or in Japanese or Okinawan readings, but if the former is historically accurate, I think it’s excellent to push against the Japanization of these Chinese-style names, and to introduce readers to thinking about these people by the non-Japanized, pinyin, readings of their Chinese-style names. I just wish I knew if it was accurate.

Now, I must admit I cannot speak to the quality of the translation overall, as I have not read the original Japanese version of the book. However, if I have one criticism of the book, it is an under-critical use of terminology, including the Japanese readings and meanings of terms, here and there. To be honest, this only glared out at me a few times, but where it did, well, ideally it shouldn’t happen even once.

I am surprised to find that Akamine himself – a native-born Okinawan scholar dedicated to the study of the Ryukyu Kingdom as a separate polity from Japan, or from Japanese history, and someone who did much of his graduate work at National Taiwan University, and not in Japan – would be so uncritical of Japanese perspectives or assumptions. Then again, perhaps this is more a matter of the translators/editors’ approaches. Or perhaps it’s just an accident or oversight. With apologies to nitpick on one thing, I do think this is of importance:

To note just one example which stuck out to me: on p80, they discuss the use of the term shi 士 (C: shì) to refer to the Ryukyuan scholar-aristocracy. Using that character to refer to the scholar-aristocracy is, so far as I know, accurate. I think, if I remember correctly, that term does appear frequently in the primary sources. However, the book then spends a good number of lines both in the main text and in the endnotes talking about how this term means “warrior,” and explaining how the Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrats were not, in fact, a warrior class. Now, I may be wrong, and if I am please do let me know, but my understanding is that the character 士 only has that “warrior” meaning in Japanese because it was appropriated by the samurai class in order to represent themselves as cultured, refined, elites. In Chinese, and in the context of Confucian discussions of the meaning of the term, it does not refer to a warrior (武士, J: bushi), but to a scholar-gentleman (君士, C: jūnshì), which it seems to me is precisely how the Ryukyuans were using it. So, in short, it is surprising to me that Akamine, and/or Terrell and Huey, find themselves tripping over untangling the word from its Japanese meaning, when they could have just skipped that entirely – or could have more explicitly stated that the association of this term with warriors, and thus the mistaken assumption that Ryukyu had a samurai (or samuree) class, is a mistaken understanding based on an insufficiently nuanced understanding of the meaning of the term 士 as referring (even from the very beginning, in the Analects of Confucius themselves) to an educated, cultured, well-mannered, scholar-gentleman.

On a somewhat similar note, likely in large part because it’s a translation of a Japanese work, and not originally written in English, the text does not engage with its own choices of terminology. For example, while Akamine describes out the character of Ryukyu’s relationships with Japan and China, how the kingdom was more directly impacted by Japanese rules and regulations, while on the Chinese side it was a more purely ceremonial and cultural (+economic) relationship – though he does do a good job of describing out this complexity, still the book calls Ryukyu a “vassal” of Japan and a “vassal” of China, without touching at all upon the questions of what we mean by “vassal,” “Japan,” and “China.” (p82-83) Earlier in the book, too, the term “client-state” is used without any discussion of the implications of that term. What is meant by “client-state”? How is this different from “vassal”?

So, those are my quibbles with a few language issues. But, overall, this really is a great book; I’m glad to see a new survey of Ryukyuan history out there on the shelves, and one which explores and explains quite a few aspects of the history not well-explained elsewhere in the very few other English-language books on Ryukyu. Glad to have finally gotten my own copy, and to add it to my shelf. Looking forward to Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, which promises to add to this story further.


1. And, of course, once you start getting into language issues, you start getting into issues of historical language as well. Of course, Ryukyuans in the 17th century didn’t actually pronounce anything according to modern 21st century Mandarin, Japanese, or Okinawan. And even if we did take the bother to try to represent these things in accurately early modern Beijing, Edo, or Naha-Shuri pronunciations (which is a nearly impossible task), this still wouldn’t properly take into account whether they might have spoken Fujian, Kagoshima, or other dialects. The issues are endless.