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In my ongoing search for a particular Ritual Theory approach or Performance Theory idea that will aid me in interpreting things for my dissertation research in just the right way, I somehow came across the 2008 book Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity, co-written by Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon (Oxford U Press).

It is obviously cited widely enough that I did come across it myself. But at the same time, it’s refreshing and interesting to see a book that’s not one of the same big names, that might be able to bring a new, different, foundational Ritual/Performance approach to work like my own. While in the grand scheme of things one might say the core arguments of the book only really contribute to one particular side or aspect of the much broader, more complex, topic of Ritual/Performance, even so, I think it a good solid book on Ritual Studies in general. If I were to go back over the list of all that I’ve read about Ritual and Performance and choose just five or six works to suggest to others, if I had to choose, this one would definitely make the cut.

———–

The book makes two chief arguments:

One, that whereas most scholarship on ritual discusses it as closely interconnected with harmony, unity, and so forth, Seligman et al wish to emphasize that the harmony or unity effected by ritual is necessary precisely because the world is fractured and imperfect. Ritual helps us create a “subjunctive,” as Seligman et al put it, an artificial and temporary space where things are as if the world were harmonious, unified, living up to some ideal. In other words, whereas much scholarship talks about ritual as reflecting political or social realities, Seligman et al say that ritual decidedly does not represent the world as is, but rather an imagined ideal, enacted artificially and temporarily, in a bid to help us bear and manage and create/maintain order in our world.

Two, the authors introduce a dichotomy, or rather a sliding scale, that I suppose no one in the field had quite articulated before, between individual or societal value placed on Ritual, and value placed on what the authors term Sincerity. The Confucian societies I am studying, along with many others around the world and throughout history, placed great importance on Ritual. As numerous scholars have written regarding Confucian concepts of propriety or etiquette (礼, C: , J: rei), and as Luke Roberts and others have written specifically about life in early modern Japan, the notion of propriety or etiquette, as well as the “authorities[,] were less concerned with orthodoxy, or correct belief, than they were orthopraxy, or correct practice.”1 What was important in Confucian society, for the most part, as well as in countless other times and places, was not that you believed correctly, but simply that you behaved correctly. Take your hat off when entering certain spaces, or the presence of certain people. Leave your hat on when in the presence of God (i.e. always). Bow deeply on these occasions, and not so deeply on those occasions. When meeting with the shogun, after lord so-and-so says such-and-such, you shift forward exactly three tatami mats, bow three times, say these words, bow again three times, and then present this document by holding it up and forward with both hands. Things like that.

One portion of a model of an investiture ceremony, at Shuri castle, Okinawa.

And there is a mountain of scholarship (well, presumably. I still haven’t found any that really explicates it to my satisfaction) pointing towards the notion that these kinds of actions, regardless of sincere belief underlying them, do function to create political realities. Bowing before a lord, or before a god, has emotional (affective) impacts, and it has discursive impacts through the process of seeing and being seen. When I attended reenactments of Ryukyuan court ceremonies held at Shuri castle, and individuals playing the roles of the Ryukyuan king or of scholar-officials in his service kowtowed to Heaven, to those playing the roles of Qing envoys, or to the one dressed as the king, the feeling of subservience, of hierarchy, was truly palpable. These might not be the greatest examples, as my own sense that it was palpable was likely very much influenced by my modern and American (individualist, democratic) perspective, rather than by some unattainable objective knowledge. Wish I had had the chance to talk to any of the performers about how they felt about it. But, regardless, when performed for real (and perhaps even when performed merely as reenactment), acts such as these are not “mere ceremony” or “mere formality.” Ritual actions such as bowing before a lord make you feel subordinate, and they make you look loyal. What, after all, is the difference between being loyal and merely acting loyal? So long as one bows and presents gifts and does all the things a loyal retainer should do, how is that any different from being a loyal retainer?

Seligman et al contrast this with “sincerity,” arguing that in many times and places throughout history but perhaps particularly in the post-Enlightenment, post-Protestant-Reformation “modern” world, society has been dominated not by a notion of ritual, i.e. correct practice, correct behavior, orthopraxy (a word which incidentally doesn’t appear anywhere in the book), but rather by an emphasis on sincerity, i.e. correct belief, or orthodoxy. Ritual is seen as just formality, as oh so much fluff – nonsense, really, under which lies truth; and if one is not truly loyal, or not truly devout, and is only behaving as such, then one is insincere – a deceiver, a betrayer, or at the very least simply inauthentic; less than, in some fashion. The Protestant Reformation, after all, attacked idols and icons, and excessive decoration and ceremony, and advocated a return to a more authentic form of worship, focused on the worshippers’ beliefs, their devotion, their love, and so forth. The Enlightenment, similarly, disparaged superstitions and emphasized the human mind – what’s real, what do we know, what do we think.

A church in Cambridge, England.

Some sections of this book really helped me shore up something I already had quotes for from other scholars, providing a necessary stepping stone for my work on ritual. Before we can talk about specific rituals, what they meant, how they functioned, after all, we need to first establish that it’s okay to not go down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out whether each and every participant was sincere in their enactment of the ritual actions. When daimyô prostrated before the shogun, gave him gifts, and otherwise ritually reaffirmed their loyalty to him, was this done begrudgingly, with gritted teeth, because political, economic, and/or military considerations required them to do so rather than to more openly oppose the shogun? Or were they sincere and honest in their reaffirmations of their loyalty, their recognition of the shogun’s authority, their praise for the shogun’s virtuous and benevolent rule? In the vast majority of cases, we simply don’t know. We can’t know, because the diaries or other sorts of documents that might indicate a lord’s innermost thoughts simply don’t exist.

Of course, it would be great if we did have such documents and could get some real insights into that issue. But, we must also acknowledge that rituals have meaning and impact regardless of the personal beliefs or political attitudes of their participants. By acting out the role, one becomes it – not in a magical sense, but in a discursive, functional sense.

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One thing I found particularly interesting about this book was the way it addressed major issues in modern history and contemporary politics – namely, (ultra)nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Their explanation of both of these phenomena as being founded in an excessive emphasis on sincerity, and on what Seligman et al call “gnosticism,” really helped me get a new perspective or insight into what’s going on politically in so many corners of our world today.

By Turkish political cartoonist Izel Rozental, from his book Karikatör.

As they write,

the Wahabbism championed by the Saudis [to take an example] rejected (and continues to reject) traditional religious practices and representations in search of an authentic, original religious experience—a pure, that is, sincere religious expression that cuts through the historicity of all real, lived traditional religious practice. In fact, it rejects tradition in favor of a putative original, founding moment, of which it claims unique understanding. This is the core of what today is so often termed “fundamentalism.” It equates truth, which is nonindividual and supraindividual, with its interpretation, which is invariably personal and conditional. This is where the basic contradiction between fundamentalism and true tradition lies. There is no tradition that permits the individual or group, solely on the basis of its own assertion, to proclaim its own knowledge to be infallible and absolute.”2

As this quote hopefully shows, they use the term “gnosticism” to refer, essentially, to attitudes in which one individual or group claims to have the true knowledge, and to speak for what the religion (or the nation) really is, or should be, and what it is not. It’s a form of modern nationalism or religious fundamentalism that claims I know better than everyone else, and the version of the religion, or society, that I wish to create is the best one, or the most true or authentic one, because I know so. It ignores and often actively rejects diversity, complexity, tradition. They give the example of Saudi Arabia funding the construction of Saudi-style mosques all across the Muslim world which gradually come to replace those in more locally traditional styles. This rejects the truth of how Bosnian or Syrian or Iranian Muslims have lived and worshipped for centuries – the reality of their tradition – in favor of some artificially imposed idea of one particular group’s vision of what constitutes the truer, more authentic, purer Islam. Of course, one could cite countless examples. Just look at nationalist revolutions in late 19th and early 20th century China, Turkey, Russia, and Japan for instance, each of which could be said to have rejected the ethnic, cultural, and political diversity of their societies, to impose upon everyone the vision of a particular leader, or a particular group, as to what “true” Chinese, Turkish, Russian, or Japanese identity meant, and what the “authentic” Chinese, Turkish, Russian, or Japanese nation should look like, or should be like.

these orientations gave birth in our times to the enormously powerful ‘‘secular religions’’ of the twentieth century: Nazism, fascism, and communism (or, perhaps better, Leninism rather than all forms of communism). The firmly held conviction of the leaders, followers, and elites of these movements—that they knew the course of history, the telos of existence, that they possessed both the practical and the theoretical knowledge necessary to realize the Endzeit — led to the worldwide horrors of what were, at their outset, reform movements par excellence.3

This gnosticism is very often intertwined with an excessive emphasis on sincerity. What’s really interesting is that on the surface, one might assume these sorts of fundamentalist, authoritarian, or ultra-nationalist ideologies to emphasize ritual. And they do, in certain ways. Stand for the national anthem. Fly the flag. Put up pictures of the great leader in your home and shop. Talk the talk when it comes to the “ritual” performance of claiming to stand for supporting our troops. Be sure to be seen attending all the right rallies or military parades or whatever they may be. But, as Seligman et al explain, societies that truly emphasize ritual over sincerity don’t care much what you believe, so long as you do what’s expected of you. By contrast, in authoritarian, fundamentalist, gnosticism-based societies, it’s not enough to just perform your duties as a good upstanding member of the group: you have to be pure of thought or belief as well. You have to be a true communist, or nationalist, a true islamist or evangelical, a true devotee of whatever the gnostic leader’s precise particular personal ideology may be. Disagreement, criticism, or debate are not tolerated – they are seen as traitorous. Non-believers or those who think differently are to be eyed with suspicion. They are criticized, ostracized, even imprisoned, “reeducated,” tortured, killed.

But, such matters are so pressing and so ever-present in our lives today that any further discussion could easily lead into an even more extensive digression than I’ve already done. Let’s move on.

Drinking kava (or ‘ava). A natural root, ground-up and suspended in water; relaxes your muscles without altering your mind. I really miss participating in ‘ava circles at East-West Center.

Another contribution I found particularly useful and interesting in this book was its categorization of ritual into four types. This is borrowed from work by Roger Caillois, but is nevertheless explained at length by Seligman et al, and was new to me.

The vast majority of work I’ve read on ritual either explicitly defines what types of ritual it is focusing on (e.g. Shingon Buddhist rituals supporting claims of sovereignty in 14th c. Japan), or it speaks of ritual in very general terms without providing a clear idea of the full range of what myriad types of ritual there are out there in the world – leaving the reader trying to imagine for themselves what types of acts or events any given theory or argument might (or might not) apply to. Caillois’ four categories help clarify this considerably, reducing down the wide wide world of ritual into four graspable categories:

(1) Agôn – Agônic rituals include ritualized sport, combat, and other forms of ritualized competition. Seligman et al give the example of a cricket game played out in such a way that it incorporates aspects or overtones of traditional ritualized combat “fought” between clans or tribes in that region. In agônic rituals, the participants both act as themselves (without taking on some other role or character), and they are in control of their actions, playing out the sport or combat just as freely as if it were real.

(2) Mimicry – Rituals in which participants take on roles or identities and follow a ritual script, but remain consciously in control of their actions. A great many religious rituals, from communion and baptism to Bar Mitzvah and the Passover seder, would seem to fall under this category, as would the diplomatic and court rituals I study. In diplomatic and court rituals, for example, the participants are not simply themselves (e.g. Steve Smith or Anne Black or whatever), but they are taking on the roles of lord and vassal, diplomat and head of state, and they follow a script, entering the hall in a certain way, bowing, presenting documents in a certain way, declaring certain pre-determined phrases, but remaining in control of themselves in contrast to rituals which involve, for example, spirit possession.

(3) Alea – and no, I don’t know where these names come from. I imagine it’s explained in the book but I’m afraid I’m not going back to look again. These are rituals in which the participants don’t take on roles or identities – they act as themselves – but they give over control to fate or the gods. Divination rituals are a key example of this category. Carve questions into bone and throw it into a fire to see how it cracks; leave the dregs of your tea or coffee and then see what forms they take; hold a seance; or simply roll dice. You’re being yourself, but the outcomes of the ritual are determined by some outside force.

(4) Ilinx – in the final category, participants give over both their identities and control over to some other force, such as a spirit or a deity. These are rituals of trance or spirit possession.

I really like these categories because, as I said before, they help make the broad wide world of myriad different rituals seem graspable. They help us to understand what types of things the huge wide category of “ritual” might include. And in doing so, they help us to understand what ritual theory is talking about, by helping us to know categories of examples.

The funeral procession of Marquis Shô Ten, last crown prince of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. This funeral was the last ceremony to ever be officially performed as a Ryukyuan royal ritual. Photo on display at Tamaudun (royal mausoleum, Shuri, Okinawa).

I do have one quibble with the categories, though. While they seem to cover all possible ritual in a nice broad way, covering all combinations of AA, AB, BA, and BB (whether participants give over their identities, and whether they give over control), in fact I feel that there is a problem with the second category (mimicry), or else that there is call for a fifth category. Seligman et al talk about the Passover Seder as one in which we imagine ourselves having spiritually or metaphorically been there at Mt. Sinai ourselves – not our ancestors, but ourselves – as Moses received The Law (the Torah) from God. And so, in that way, we are taking on roles, taking on identities, even as we remain in control of our actions (we are not possessed, even though our actions /are/ determined by a ritual script). Okay. And as I said, in political rituals one is performing as head of state, as diplomat, and not really as oneself, so in those cases too one is taking on an identity. But what about in the vast majority of other basic religious rituals, and secular rituals, that we perform? When you stand in synagogue and recite words out a book for three hours, sitting and standing and bowing at prescribed times, I suppose you’re playing the role of “worshipper.” But is that really so different from simply being yourself? Or, if we’re always playing a role – as teacher or student, as parent or child, as shopkeeper or customer – then what is the meaning of any category of “not taking on another identity; simply being yourself”? I think the slippage in these categories as applying to ritual comes from the fact that Caillois – something I missed on my first glance-through – wasn’t actually talking about ritual, but about games, or play. There, the categories (perhaps) make a lot more sense: games of competition, games of “make-believe,” games of chance, and games of just losing yourself.

Still, despite this slippage, I found these categories a very helpful theoretical construct for wrapping our minds around ritual. All in all, I found the authors’ arguments regarding ritual and sincerity very interesting, and very important contributions to the larger conversation on ritual. Though I suppose I was hoping for too much to think that somewhere in the book they might happen to touch upon all sorts of other aspects of Ritual Theory, thus sparing me having to go out and read yet another five or ten other books. That was an unreasonable expectation on my part; that issue aside, taking this book for what it is – contributing one particular argument to one particular facet of the broader discourse on Ritual – I would definitely put this (or at least the Introduction, or some portion of the book) on any Ritual Theory reading list.

All photos my own.


1) Marcia Yonemoto, The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan, University of California Press (2016), 221.
2) Seligman et al, 161-162.
3) Seligman et al, 132.

After our fifteen minute tour of Independence Hall and a quick peek at the Liberty Bell, we made our way to the National Museum of Jewish History. Beautiful building, very new shiny clean exhibits. The first three floors house a permanent exhibition on the history of Jews in America, and on the top floor, until Sept 2, they’re showing a special exhibit on the life of Leonard Bernstein. Now, I really must admit, I had only the vaguest idea who Bernstein was. I knew he’s a famous musician, and I’ve been to his grave actually, but that’s about it. Even so, I learned, and I found the exhibit just fascinating and wonderful. For someone so deeply involved in Jewish spirituality, music, liturgy, and philosophy, who composed so many pieces directly based upon or inspired by liturgy, to become so popular and successful in such a mainstream way is really incredible. I know some composers or musicians today who, I don’t know their career aspirations or anything, but who are definitely deeply involved in Jewish music. But if Bernstein can be accepted and loved and therefore successful in a mainstream and widespread way, and not only within the niche world of Jewish music, maybe they can too.

The exhibit was, of course, not terribly musicological. We didn’t learn much at all about precisely how or why his music was groundbreaking. How he used the devil’s interval in “Maria” in West Side Story, or how his half-speed rendition of the fourth movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, featuring the harp, was so revered. Or that Mahler was Jewish, for that matter. At least, I don’t think I remember seeing any of that in the exhibit; just learned it from my gf.

One thing I really enjoyed about the exhibit was how well they included multimedia interactives. There were several listening stations and also small screening rooms, where you could listen to his music, watch segments from a performance of his “MASS,” or watch segments from all over popular culture reenacting or referencing bits from West Side Story. There were also several video screens with clips from documentaries about Bernstein, including one I found particularly interesting, on his trip to Israel in 1967.

There was also a station where a whole bunch of wooden blocks were scattered on a table; by choosing a block and putting it in a designated spot, you could activate a screen with video and audio relating to one of Bernstein’s works. By turning the block to different sides, you could get the screen to focus on the lyrics or the composition or the recording or other different aspects. They could have just done this with a series of buttons, or any number of other arrangements, but doing it with blocks was very neat, I thought. The whole thing, the whole exhibit, was just really interesting. Learning about this man’s relationship with his Judaism, but then also with African-American music and civil rights, with allegations of association with Communists – even suspicions that Bernstein was explicitly a Soviet spy. He was never actually brought up on any charges of any kind, nor subpoenaed, so far as I know, in connection with any of that, but a copy of his 800-page FBI file was on display in the exhibit. Pretty incredible.

Bernstein with the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany, 1948. People who had suffered and survived the concentration camps only to be left in refugee camps for years… and yet still had enough strength, and talent, and memory of their training & skills, to perform as an orchestra. Just reading about this was terribly moving.

And, he went to Germany in 1948 and conducted an orchestra composed of DPs (displaced persons, i.e. refugees), and went to Israel just after Independence Day, going back again in 1967, when he then conducted the Israel Philharmonic, previously the Palestine Philharmonic, composed originally of some of the absolutely best musicians in Europe, members of the Vienna and Munich and Prague Philharmonics, who were given visas and documents and help to leave Europe in the late 1930s or very early 1940s if I remember correctly, escaping from the Nazis before it was too late.

Two of the three floors of permanent exhibits.

And then we turn to the permanent exhibits, which were pretty great. More than just being a “Jewish Museum,” this is a Jewish history museum, and actually really endeavors to tell the history chronologically. We learned of the first Jews in the New World – all Sephardic Jews living in South America. Some of them then relocated to North America fleeing Catholic persecution, and became the first Jews in the British colonies. The first synagogue in New York, as I already had known, was a Sephardic synagogue. After these early stages, the vast majority of the exhibits after that made little mention of the Sephardim, however, which is a real shame because I was curious and would have loved to learn more about their history.

Today, I am told, there are more Jews in New York City (or maybe it’s the broader greater NY metro area?) than in any other single city in the world. But, still, that doesn’t mean that NY Jewish history is all there is to Jewish history in the US! I found it really interesting to learn about the first Jewish communities in Charleston, SC; Newport RI; New Orleans; Detroit; all these different places. I was sad to not see any focus on LA at all, only since I’ve been spending more time there lately and would be interested to learn more about that history as well.

But, while I suppose one could write a whole blog post solely on the issue of how this compares to other “ethnic” history museums, my head’s not really in that game right now. It would certainly be interesting. The key thing which struck me and got me thinking about that was the one section on the role of Jews in the Civil War. I suppose you might not be surprised to learn that there were Jews on every side of that political / ideological conflict, as there were also in the Revolutionary War. I don’t know what to say about people of any other ethnic or national background, but Jewish residents of the 13 British colonies, just like Protestant and Catholic residents, included both some loyal to the revolution and some loyal to the Crown. And I’m not at all surprised. Though we might in retrospect consider one side “patriots” and the other side “traitors” or whatever, at the time, in the moment, how the hell was anyone to know? Not just in terms of thinking strategically in terms of siding with whichever side you think is going to win, but just simply the fact that there was no simple right answer. Do you remain loyal to your country, which yes has imposed some unfair laws and whatever, but generally speaking is the only government you’ve ever known, and one which has provided some notable degree of security and stability and all of that, or do you join up with this rebellion that’s led by who exactly? fighting for what exactly? to separate from one of the great powers of Western Civilization in order to instead build a new nation (or thirteen separate ones?) in this rugged frontier? …. I think about Jews living in Europe in the 1930s, and especially those of some wealth and privilege, those who perhaps had the most freedom to actually get out (e.g. disposable income to pay for train tickets, political or civic connections to get the papers, connections elsewhere in the world to have somewhere to arrive to), but who also in a certain sense had the most to lose. I think about people invited to join the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, who had such comfortable, upscale, well-to-do lives in Vienna or Berlin or wherever, who really didn’t know what the right decision was. How could they know in 1936 just how bad it would get, and that it really was going to get like that? … And in light of that, in light of the genuine reality of people not knowing what to do amidst what turned out to be one of the most extreme situations in recent history, it’s really quite reasonable to realize that of course there would be Jews on both sides of the Civil War. Many Jews just like Protestants and Catholics were slaveowners, and many Jews were abolitionists. Many Jews were farmers and many were industrialists. Many were small-town people and many were big city people. Many braved the frontier and settled the West (and probably were pretty horrible to Native Americans and others in the process). Many did not. Is this because we were “white”? Maybe. I don’t know. But we were still an ethnic/national and religious minority. So while there are pretty stark reasons that the vast majority of Blacks, Chinese(-Americans), Native Americans, and members of certain other groups went one way politically, and very few another way, at various times in history, on various contentious issues, there are surely numerous other groups which were more divided, more diverse, in their positions and actions at such times. I’d be curious to see other ethnic history museums address this issue. I don’t recall seeing JANM or NMAI address such matters… And I can certainly understand why. But, even so, our country has been more diverse than most people realize for a much longer time than most people realize, and I’d be genuinely curious to learn more about more individuals of different backgrounds involved in the Revolution or the Civil War on both sides, people of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds involved in (or in trying to stop) actions against the Native Americans, hell for that matter, people of all different backgrounds involved in overseas wars as well. After all, history is rarely so simple, as to assume that all our ancestors, in whichever ethnic or religious community, were on the “right” side of history so to speak.

Of course, such matters are by no means the central theme of the National Museum of Jewish History either. After the Civil War, the exhibits go on to talk about the origins of the Reform Movement, early 20th century immigration restriction policies, and numerous other topics and themes, before eventually getting to the Holocaust. This section was very well-done, with concurrent videos of Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s speeches run next to each other, giving a sense of the history going on at the same time, as it indeed was.

One thing I found particularly interesting and somewhat unexpected in this section was examples of just how anti-semitic American society was at that time. We like to believe in a story of how the US was this bastion of freedom, this great hero that came and eventually rescued the Jews, and the world, from Hitler and Nazism. And of course there’s truth to that. I one thousand percent am happy to live in a world where the Nazis lost that war. But even so, to have the displays be not about conditions in Nazi Europe and about US heroism, but rather about anti-semitism here at home, was kind of eye-opening, actually. And very sad. And a lot of it echoes very strongly with what continues to go on today with other groups in the case of fears of immigrant groups overwhelming the American population and taking over the country. But a lot of it echoes with anti-semitism that continues to go on today as well. A booklet published in 1939 entitled “Am I an Anti-Semite?”, which on first glance you might think would be a good thing, a book educating people about Jews and about anti-semitism. But, no. This is a book justifying the author’s anti-Jewish sentiment through discussion of the horrors of (Jewish-associated) Communism. I’m not sure whether the author’s answer to “Am I an Anti-Semite?” is “no,” or if it’s “yes, and for good reason,” but either way, the same might as well be published today, just denying or justifying the author’s anti-semitism by talking about the horrors of Zionism instead of Communism. Or just flat-out continuing to repeat the same-old “Jewish conspiracy” lies. These days, in the era of Trump, we’re seeing some of those old canards come roaring right back, to a truly frightening extent sometimes. Some things never change.

There was so much to see, we ran out of time twice, coming back to see the museum a second day, and then even on the second day not getting to see all of it. I ended up rushing through much of it, getting very few photos of the 19th century section at all. Afterwards, we made it to the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which was fantastic, but only for a brief time there too before turning around to head home entirely. Much still left to see in Philadelphia, another time.

Philadelphia

For some reason, growing up we never took family trips to Philadelphia even though it is only a few hours away. Boston, DC, we did, but not Philly. So, this June we finally took a short two-day peek at what Philly has to offer.

I loved the historical city center. I don’t know nearly enough about American history – or, to put it another way, US history isn’t my thing strongly enough – for me to get the most out of all the different plaques and statues of these various colonial/revolutionary era Patriots etc. But it’s still very cool that they’re there. And the architecture is just great. I’ve been away from the East Coast so long, to see that colonial/federal style architecture, all that red brick, is just great.

Independence Hall was a bit of a surprise. Though quite large from the outside (or at least appearing so, since it’s nearly connected with the old City Hall, the philosophy society bldg, etc.), it turns out it’s only two rooms on the inside. A 15 minute tour for which we waited at least half an hour. Still, pretty damn incredible to think about these being the very rooms in which such incredibly historical events took place. Everything is all set up using genuine vintage 18th c furniture (obtained from, I guess, museums, auctions, who knows where, in order to make this work) and the one object actually original to the building – the chair Washington sat in as he presided over the Constitutional Convention.

Independence Hall.

Our National Parks tour guide was unnecessarily blustery, yelling the entire tour at us, truly shouting. But I liked how he emphasized that the building has a history outside of just those particular exceptionally historical days in 1776 & 1787. It was the old State House even long before Pennsylvania was a “state,” back when it was still a colony. One of the two rooms was the main courtroom, and had a large wooden carving of the royal coat of arms hanging over the bench before rowdy revolutionaries tore it down. And he also emphasized that the dates we celebrate and revere so much were really only some of the many dates that things took place on. We celebrate July 4th, but what was the date the Constitutional Convention began? When did it end? When was the Constitution ratified? A decade earlier, on July 2, the Continental Congress met to vote on a resolution declaring independence, and the Declaration was officially read out two days later, though it wouldn’t be signed by all those now-famous figures until Aug 2.

Finally, our guide also spoke of how much disagreement and debate there was amongst the representatives of the colonies. I suppose we all know that, it’s part of the narrative we’re all taught. But rather than solely being representative of a theme of how, out of earnest debate the greatest ideas and best solutions can come forth (or however exactly the standard patriotic narrative might frame that), I was struck by the notion of just how contingent all of history is. People revere the Declaration and Construction as if they were God’s words, as if the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired geniuses, larger than life, who produced such utterly perfect documents. But what we have is only one of myriad versions that might have existed, and if any of those alternative versions had been the final one, we might be sitting here in a slightly different, or very different, United States thinking that /that/ version was so perfect, so ideal. To take just one example our guide mentioned, since I don’t know the texts and debates well enough to get into other ones, a significant number of the colonial representatives said they were hesitant to call King George a “tyrant.” That doesn’t simply mean they were wrong and Revolutionary patriotism or whatever prevailed – it means there were different views on this. And it’s only by chance that we’re sitting here today thinking how brave and how right our Founding Fathers were to go ahead and call him a tyrant, rather than sitting here and saying just as reassuredly, just as comfortably, that our Founding Fathers were so wise, so genteel, and so right in their civility to not go that far even though some blowhards or hotheads among the group wanted to.

Boldly displayed on the front of the National Museum of Jewish History, mere blocks away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

Certainly, as elegant as it may be, and as historical and fixed in stone as the language of the Constitution is, it’s got some real problems. We think of these words as excellent just as they are because we’ve had them repeated so many times, they feel like poetry, they feel like Bible verses, they feel like something that was always meant to be and couldn’t possibly be otherwise. But, in truth, they were happenstance. One draft ended up winning out over another. One editor’s phrasing ended up staying while another drafter’s suggestions did not. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”? There’s obviously tons to be said for how language changes over time, and how the need or desire for legal language to be phrased really really precisely in a particular manner is a particular product of the modern age, not to mention the particular political/cultural context of what the Founding Fathers thought about religion, their experiences and their intents…. But look at some of the speeches, letters, and laws regarding religion, written by Washington, Jefferson, and others at that time, and think about what if some of that phrasing we’re in the Constitution. What if, instead of this very general ten-word phrase, we had some other phrasing, that spelled out even more explicitly what the Founders intended regarding the separation of church and state? What if the ideas revealed in these well-known but not that well-known texts were enshrined in the highest most fundamental law of the land?

Right: “Religious Liberty,” a sculpture erected in celebration of the centennial of American independence.

The Founding Fathers were mostly concerned with religious freedom in the sense of not being discriminated against for your beliefs. That people of any various variations of Protestantism (or other religions) should be allowed to believe and worship and practice without persecution. Okay. But, still, Jefferson himself coined the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state,” and somewhere in their writings I wouldn’t be surprised if there really was some argument, stated more explicitly than just “shall make no law respecting”, that said people should not be made subject to one or another sect’s particular religious beliefs, practices, or laws. It would be hard for people of that day to really separate it entirely and say that God’s law is not man’s law or something like that, but even so, I could believe that Jefferson, Washington, Penn, or someone else would have felt that These United States should not all of them have to be subject to Quaker or Puritan or Methodist law, and that that really was a part of their understanding of religious freedom at the time. If only they’d said it more explicitly in the Constitution.

And of course, don’t even get me started on the Second Amendment. But, the point being, it’s just a document, just a text. Any number of variations of the phrasing might have been, but we just happened by chance to end up with exactly this version. So, let’s not take it as God’s given word.

The interior of Independence Hall.

Another thing which really struck me in visiting Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell is that, especially in our exceptionally polarized current political climate, but also in general, how do National Parks sites like these navigate their political role, welcoming visitors of all stripes and conveying to them lessons or stories or meaning about our nation’s history without coming across as too grossly liberal or conservative?

This of course is a broad issue, and I’ve actually studied it a bit, looking at examples like the Smithsonian, the exhibits at Pearl Harbor, and so forth, as well as thinking about those issues as they pertain to places like the National Museum of Japanese History, and the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. But, all the more so in these times, and at sites as central as these – Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell belong to all Americans, left and right, and I just couldn’t help but wonder what the other tourists around me were thinking about all of this. A block or so away from Independence Hall is a stone with the First Amendment inscribed on it. We happened upon it at exactly the same time as another man, and we got to talking, just for a minute or so, weren’t the founders brilliant, isn’t it amazing how poetic their language was back then… But who knows how this guy was taking the message. Is he a super Patriot , the kind of guy who reveres the founding fathers as near to Gods, who thinks the United States is the one and only greatest gift of God to man on the planet, the singular shining example of freedom in the world? Is he the kind of guy who thinks the First Amendment and religious freedom is all about protecting Christians’ rights to impose their views on marriage, abortion, sexuality, etc etc upon the community & broader society? Or does this stone belong to those of us who think religious freedom also includes freedom from religion, so to speak, that Congress shall make no law imposing the views of any one establishment of religion upon all the rest of us? In a nation where half the people take Independence Hall and all the rest as symbols of exactly the sort of liberty and freedom and liberalism that might ultimately prevail against Trumpism, and the other half take it as symbols of an “America First” sort of patriotism, who’s right? Who gets to claim it and be correct in doing so? It would be easy to just say “both,” but we know that no one is really comfortable with that answer. I wonder what the park rangers, the staff, themselves think.

It’s been such a summer of adventures, and I can’t believe I’m still only about halfway through blogging about them. (Of course, the summer isn’t over yet, either.)

Our room at Les Terrasses d’Essaouira. I guess it doesn’t look like much in the photo, because of the bad lighting or something, but I promise it was a pretty nice room.

Leaving Essaouira, even though I had already seen more or less all of the historical sights, I still felt as I almost always do in every city I visit, that I wished I had just one more night. I think this is also a function of leaving so late at night – when you’re preparing to leave in the middle of the night to catch a very early morning flight, as you pack up your things and maybe sit on the bed, all you want is to sleep in that bed one more time. And, yeah, maybe more generally, regardless of what time of day you’re leaving, wishing to walk the shopping streets or visit X restaurant or Y shop just one more time…

We got a taxi at 1am to drive us the 2 ½ or 3 hours to Marrakesh airport, to get there by 4am so my gf could check in for her 6am flight, and me for my 7am flight. We split up for the next ten weeks or so, going different places for our research and so forth. I caught a short flight from Marrakesh to Marseilles, and then from Marseilles to London Stansted, where I was supposed to transfer again to a flight from London to New York, to get home. But because of the way the flights were arranged, I couldn’t simply go through “International Transfers” or “Connecting Flights” or whatever they call it. I had to go through Immigration, wait for my bag, then go back around to Departures to then check in and drop my bag like normal, like as if I had just arrived in the airport from staying or living in London. This takes time. So when the flight from Marseilles arrived 20 minutes late, and then the ground crew at Stansted took their sweet time getting the stairway/jetway to the plane, deplaning us 20-30 minutes late, and then the little transit shuttle between parts of the terminal broke down, I lost enough time that I ended up missing my connection.

I took this photo basically just to send to my gf to say, “hey, you’ll never guess where I am,” since my flight was supposed to be out of Stansted. But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself.

The two staff members at the check-in desks who I talked to – I wish I’d gotten their names – were not only unhelpful, but flatout rude. I suppose they deal with tens of people every day who have missed their flights for various reasons that are their own fault – just not planning ahead well enough or whatever, so I guess to a certain extent I can’t blame the staff for taking that particular perspective. Still, ultimately, this wasn’t my fault. Yes, I scheduled a connection that left only 2 ½ hours to make the connection, and didn’t leave a lot of room for error. But, this was a set of flights that was an authentic one offered to me in my online searches – not something I hodgepodged together myself. And 2 ½ hours really should be enough, if everything goes according to plan. And if it doesn’t go according to plan, well that’s not my fault – it’s Stansted’s fault, really, for whatever happened with the severe delay to the deplaning process, and for the transit shuttle, which anecdotally I get the impression breaks down on an almost daily basis. The staff member at the airport information booth, by contrast, was very kind, even looking up for me any possibilities of any other flights to NY from any London airports that evening, though she suggested I would have to pay out of pocket for those flights, £350 or whatever it may be.

Thankfully, even where the airport and the airline were unwilling to be of any help whatsoever, Kiwi.com (where I’d booked my flights to begin with) was willing to rebook me on a new set of flights for no additional charge. But, keep reading – it’s not all roses and happiness with Kiwi. I called them, and they said they’d look into alternative options, and they would get back to me within 2-4 hours. Reasonable enough, I thought at the time, though in retrospect I feel like every other time this sort of thing has happened to me, someone has searched and figured it out and offered me a new flight almost immediately, in 5-15 minutes or whatever, while I stood there. Still, okay, whatever. So, knowing there were no more flights to New York that evening and that no matter what happened I would need to stay over in London overnight, I got on a bus into the city. In retrospect, I suppose I should have just stayed at the airport. But, then, I couldn’t have known exactly how things were going to play out. It was still relatively early in the day, and while it would be too late to visit museums or anything, I guess I thought there was still plenty of time in the day to put down my stuff at a hostel somewhere and then go out and experience London a little bit, walk the streets, whatever – maybe meet up with a friend for dinner or a pint. As it turned out, that’s not quite what happened. After a very long bus ride into London proper, I schlepped myself around to several hotels asking for a last-minute room, and all of them were inexplicably booked solid. I finally ended up getting a bed at a youth hostel – definitely the most cramped space I would have ever slept in, with four beds crammed into a tiny corner room, plus it was terribly muggy in the room, with no A/C and only one small window which somehow didn’t seem to help enough. Before I settled in at all, though, I then got an email from Kiwi offering an alternative plan – saying that they would book me at a 4-star hotel near Gatwick, and book me tickets on a set of flights the next day to get me home. Great. I clicked to Accept that offer, to set the ball rolling on them actually booking those things for me, and headed out towards Gatwick. Turns out the hotel is not right at the airport, but a good ten-minute drive away, in essentially the middle of nowhere. Cost me £16 just for the 10-minute taxi ride, though I suppose I must have accidentally come across some expensive “car service” instead of a normal taxi. Finally got to this very nice hotel, and mind you it’s been about two hours at least since I clicked “Accept,” and still no confirmation email from Kiwi. I am just so relieved that after all these hours and hours of traveling, I’ll have a nice bed to sleep in, a private room with a shower, and I can really genuinely just relax before my flight the next day. So, imagine my surprise when the hotel tells me that not only do they have no reservation for me, but that they and all the other hotels for ten miles are completely booked solid. I called Kiwi again, and they said essentially that they were still working on it. Still working on it? It’s been hours since I clicked to Accept this offer of a rebooking, and it’s now 11 o’clock at night and all I want to do is shower and sleep. I’ve just spent £16 to get to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, and now what, I’m supposed to spend another £16 to get back to the airport and then take my chances with finding somewhere to sleep there, either in an airport hotel or lounge or just on the benches out in the lobbies? How long does it take to make a set of bookings for someone? And don’t they know that they have to move quickly or else it’ll get booked up?

Thankfully, the manager at the hotel was very kind and rather than just saying “no room at the inn, I’m so sorry sir,” and kicking me out, instead he let me sleep on a couch in one of the back rooms, a restaurant or reception room far from any activity. It was really wonderful. I cannot thank him enough. As upset as I was at the time, feeling stranded and lost, and just not even knowing whether or not I would in fact have a flight in the morning, it really was just so great to have somewhere to sleep. I generally don’t need that much in life – a shower would have been great, but a couch is just as good as a bed, much better than a bench or a floor, and I had outlets to charge my phone + computer, and a quiet, dark, room to myself where I could actually get some sleep.

I got up about five or six hours later to find an email saying that Kiwi had in fact booked and confirmed me for this new set of flights. So, now I was to take an early morning flight from Gatwick to Paris, have a seven hour or so layover, and then take an evening flight to New York. Okay. Amidst all of this craziness, and as tired and un-showered and sore (from so much sitting on planes, buses, and trains) as I was, the opportunity to visit Paris for even just a few hours was a real silver lining. I’d never been to France at all before, so this was great. Still, before we get into that, let me just highlight again: I am very glad that Kiwi was willing to rebook me on a new set of flights, and to even offer me a hotel for the night, and reimbursement for my various buses and taxis within London, even after the airport and the airline both said “you’re outta luck.” I’m very glad and grateful that, even though none of this was really Kiwi’s fault to begin with – it was Stansted’s – they would do this for me and spare me £350 or whatever the amount would have been. … And, admittedly, I’m not positive whether or not I will use Kiwi again. I just might, though I guess I’ll try to be more careful about planning long enough layovers to account for any potential problems. But, just to state it out explicitly: it should not take 2-4 hours to find an alternative set of flights, and it should not take an additional however many hours to actually book and confirm that alternative plan. Once they offered me a room at that Gatwick hotel, and especially given the intervening two hours it took me to get to the hotel (during which time they could have been making the calls and making the booking), I should not have ended up at that hotel at 11 o’clock at night with nowhere to stay for the night, and no confirmation (yet) that I would actually have tickets for the flight they offered me, which was departing only 8 or 9 hours later.

Apropos of nothing going on in my story, a US military plane on the tarmac at the Marseilles Airport. Why? What are they doing here? Do we have military bases in France? I didn’t know.

I’ve been fortunate to not have to deal with this sort of situation very many times in my life, but when I have, it’s never been like this. It’s always been the airline either rebooking me immediately, or saying go walk around the airport, get a coffee or whatever, come back to me in 30 minutes, or 45 minutes or an hour, and I’ll see what we can do for you. From what I remember of my first time ever going to Hawaii, that was pretty much what happened. It was either USAirways or United, I forget which, but on their flight from NY to Phoenix, it was way too cold in the cabin, and not only were they charging money for blankets but they were sold out. So I was freezing. And they were also sold out of any vegetarian options for food. So by the time we got to Phoenix I was already in a bad state, having not slept much the night before because it was a very early morning departure. We then transferred to a different plane at Phoenix, which had been sitting on the tarmac in literally 110+ degree weather, and it was absolutely boiling inside. I passed out, and was taken off the plane by paramedics or EMTs or whatever. The airline immediately offered to book me on the next flight, and I don’t remember exactly how it happened but somehow or other I suggested that I didn’t feel well enough to fly yet and they offered to pay for me to have a hotel in Phoenix for the night. So, I got a hotel, and a new flight, easy as that. I don’t remember exactly how long it took for them to schedule it, but it happened. I wasn’t left stranded, left in the dark as to what was going to happen to me or where I was going to stay for the night or when I would ever make it to Hawaii. All in all, relatively easy and efficiently taken care of. Not so with Kiwi. So, buyer beware – be careful with Kiwi. I don’t think this is by any means an isolated incident. I imagine that with just a tiny bit of Googling, one could come up with plenty of other similar stories from people who were not treated so well by Kiwi. And thank god I had the flexibility in my schedule to be able to deal with this. Imagine if I really truly had somewhere to be the next day.

So, that said, I did get to spend a good few hours in Paris. It’s a very weird feeling, to visit such an incredible big-name world-class city, but only for a few hours. To go back to the very first lines of this series of blog posts on my trip to Morocco, to feel that I’m actually in Paris, *the* Paris, the one and only one, and yet, to be seeing so little of it and then just leaving again. It’s a very strange feeling. Can I even really say now that “I have been to France,” that “I have seen Paris,” when really all I’ve seen is the Louvre, a short set of streets on the walk from the Chatelet-Les Halles train station to the Louvre and back, one sandwich shop, and one boulangerie? I’m glad that in addition to the museum I did think to go to a genuine Paris boulangerie and get a baguette sandwich with camembert, experiencing the authentic Paris version of what I’ve had so many times at French-style places in LA, Tokyo, and elsewhere. But, yeah, it’s a funny feeling. Someday I’ll have to go back, see the city so much more. See the Musee Quai Branly and the Eiffel Tower and all the rest. In the meantime, I did that horrible thing that tourists do, that as a proper art historian I’m a bit embarrassed about, but knowing this might very well be my only time in Paris for who knows how many years, I ran around the Louvre just making sure to see, and photograph, every one of the most famous artworks I could. To be totally frank, I don’t actually even know what I got out of that experience.

My photos aren’t nearly as good as what I could pull up in five seconds on Google Images, and it’s not like I stayed in front of any of these artworks long enough to appreciate them further, more deeply, than to just capture a photo, so, what am I really doing? … But, still, I guess there was something to it. I’m glad to be able to say I’ve been to the Louvre, and to have gotten some sense of how it looks and feels and how it’s all laid out. Now, when it happens to come up in conversation, I can have at least something to say about it, yes, I have some sense of how amazingly difficult it is to find your way from one section of the museum to another, constantly going upstairs in order to get downstairs, and going all the way down one end of the building just to be able to cross over to get to another section… And I have some sense of how opulently decorated the building itself is, the walls, the ceilings, even beyond the artworks on the walls and plinths. And some sense of how exceptionally Eurocentric the collection is, which I had not realized. One very new gallery in the basement, opened in the 2000s, dedicated to what they used to call “Primitive Art” – the arts of the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and Southeast Asia – while the entire rest of the museum is just Western European art, chiefly Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Dutch. (Oh, yeah, plus a section on Islamic Art). Not a single Chinese ink painting or Japanese woodblock print in the entire building, and that’s a building that’s at least as big as the Metropolitan or the British Museum. But, okay, to each their own. Next time I’ll have to be sure to visit some other museums – the Quai Branly, the Guimet, and the Cernusci. In the meantime, I got to see, if not to really engage with, the Venus de Milo, Victory of Samothrace, Da Vinci’s portrait of St. John the Baptist, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Gericault’s Medusa, the Grand Odalisque, Jacque-Louis David’s Horatii, the incredible crowd around the Mona Lisa, and so on.

One of Delacroix’s beautiful notebooks.

Actually, one neat unexpected highlight of the Louvre trip was that they had up at the time a special exhibit on Delacroix, which included a handful of his works produced during his trip to Morocco. So, for me, this could not have been more timely. To spend a week and a half in Morocco, and then immediately afterwards see these Orientalist paintings and sketches of what Delacroix saw a century earlier, precisely the paintings that in part inspire our Western conceptions and imaginations of a fantastic Morocco full of bellydancers, harems, and so on and so forth.

Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Apartment. I had been told that since Muslim women were inaccessible to him, hidden within their homes and not visible to a foreign visitor, he had painted Jewish women. That a great many of the Orientalist paintings of “women of North Africa” from that time were in fact of Jews and not of Muslims. But the Louvre webpage for the painting suggests otherwise. Interesting.

And then, after that, I made my way back to CDG Airport, and finally home to New York, no further surprises or hiccups.

This Delacroix exhibit will be up at the Metropolitan Museum in New York Sept 17, 2018 to Jan 6, 2019.

All photos my own. My thanks to the Louvre for allowing photographs, even in the special exhibition.


On our second day in Essaouira, the ICTM Mediterranean Music working group’s conference began, and I attended for maybe about half the day. This was the real impetus for us coming to Morocco to begin with. It seems a good group, a very cool conference, to bring together some 70 people or whatever the number is who are all specialists in Mediterranean music (Andalusian, North African, Sephardic, Greek, Arab, or Ottoman), to such a special location, to discuss such topics. Makes me eager to try to attend their East Asia working group’s conference sometime. Though it’s recently been in Seoul, Taipei, Nara, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, I wonder if they might ever hold it in Naha, Nagasaki, Tsushima, Fuzhou, Hoi An, or somewhere else that might provide me an opportunity to go somewhere really special I haven’t gotten to go to otherwise.

The harbor at Essaouira. Many of the fishing boats are painted blue, in keeping with the color scheme of the city.

In any case, while the conference was going on, I ducked out a few times, once to retrieve my camera from the Supratours bus company office as I had accidentally left it on the bus the day before, and once to just make sure I explored the key historical sites of the city. It’s a small city, and though it has many gates and city walls, and who knows maybe spots of historical note otherwise that I’m not quite aware of (apparently Jimi Hendrix spent quite some time in a hippie colony / Berber village just down the road, called Diabat), it seems the only thing of really major note is the Scala – a set of fortifications right at the port. Built by the Portuguese, the Scala played a key role in defending the tiny Portuguese settlement here from Moroccan raiders and the like, and with Essaouira (then called Mogador) as a base of operations for Portuguese exploration, raiding and so forth, and trade. As we’ll remember from our survey of world history classes, the Portuguese Empire, at least in its early centuries, was never one of conquering large swaths of land, but rather was all about establishing small trading posts: Mogador and the nearby Madeira Islands in Morocco (the latter still controlled by Portugal today), Goa in India, Macao in China, and various other spots along the African coasts. From their base in Mogador, the Portuguese traded with Madeira and elsewhere, and raided nearby (and not so nearby) African villages and towns.

The ruins of a fortress on a tiny island just offshore from Essaouira.

The city of Essaouira, we are told, really came about only after the Moroccans took back the area from the Portuguese, and a sultan named Sidi Mohammed ben Abhallah oversaw the establishment and expansion of the city. But the fortifications survive. In terms of how long it takes to walk around and see them as a historical/tourist site, they’re small – it took me literally 15 minutes to see them, including the time it took to walk from and then back to the conference venue – but they’re pretty cool. From the Scala, you can get some just gorgeous views of the city and the sea, of the ruins of a small fortress on a tiny island just barely offshore, and of the fishing boats, many of them painted a brilliant blue. The squarish towers seem iconic of a particular style and period – perhaps they’re typical for 15th-16th century Portuguese architecture? – and the cannon still lined up all along the walkway evoke that for us. I wonder, if we went to sites in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa, perhaps we’d see very much the same sort of thing – evoking a particular aesthetic, a particular imagined idea, of Portuguese empire in Africa. A space that is decidedly European, but also distinctive of that particular period, those particular developments, that particular set of phenomena, of 15th-16th (or 17th, 18th…) coastal fortifications and (slave) trading posts in West Africa.



Above: a section of the Portuguese fortifications at Mogador (Essaouira). Photo my own. // Below: a scene from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” TV show, in which the site is used as the scene for “Slaver’s Bay” or Astapor.



Of course, I was also excited about the Scala as it was a shooting location for Game of Thrones. Seems a bit weird that I should get to see this tiny piece of Astapor of all places – and not King’s Landing or some other more central or major site from the show – but it is what it is. And once you see the screenshots, it’s so recognizable.

Above: the “Walk of Punishment” in Game of Thrones. // Right: a section of the city walls of Essaouira. Photo my own.

I do wish they had more (or any) plaques explaining the history of the site. Thankfully, Wikipedia and various travel blogs and the like filled me in, and one of the last conference presentations of the first day gave a very nice overview of the history of the city for us as well.

The next day, I made my way to the other end of the fortress complex – while the Scala is prominently visible at one end of the beach, and on tourist guides, and charges 10 dirhams entrance fee, this other site has none of that. But it’s otherwise fairly similar – and it was this site, I believe, that was actually the one where they filmed the Walk of Punishment. So that was a very nice find. Great views of the city once again.

Looking down into Essaouira’s chief synagogue.

In the afternoon, everyone from the conference got taken on a tour of Essaouira’s small Mellah by André Azoulay. He first pointed out that a gate we’ve passed by numerous times in fact features a circle of a Koran verse at the keystone (center, just above the arch), flanked by two Stars of David. Though the six-pointed star is a natural design to emerge out of pure geometric experimentation, and does in fact feature frequently in Islamic tiling designs, here he says it is definitely a symbol of Essaouira’s Jewish history.

He then took us to the community’s very small synagogue, which was a pleasure to see. Sadly, the explanation was given largely in French, so I didn’t catch very much of it at all. But, attached to the synagogue, they are just now completing construction of a “House of Memory” – essentially a museum of the Jewish community in the city, though they don’t call it a museum because apparently Azoulay, and I suppose others, feel that museums represent a culture that’s in the past, whereas they wish to focus on the future. In addition to exhibits, the Memory House will provide some sort of spaces and resources for research. Dar Souiri, home of the Essaouira-Mogador Association, where the conference was held, also has a nice library of books on local history, and on Judeo-Muslim-Christian relations. I imagine that for someone doing research on just the right topic, these two institutions could be just perfect homes for them during research trips.

The House of Memory being constructed as a museum of the Jewish history and ongoing community of Essaouira.

Azoulay also told us that one of the writers of the very first US Constitution was a Jew from Essaouira, though I didn’t catch his name. He was the first Jew elected to office in the US. He donated his land to what is now the University of Florida. His father wrote a very early anti-slavery treatise. If anyone can tell me the name of this figure, I’d appreciate it. We learned that a notable UK Minister of Defense & of Transport of the earlier 20th century was also an Essaouira Jew named Belisha.

After a simple dinner, we finished out the night with a conversation with this incredible eccentric woman who it seems practically lives here quite frequently, though only for a few weeks or months at a time. She wouldn’t let me take a photo of her, which is a shame because she just seems such an incredible woman and I wanted to document in that way having met her and who she was. But, words shall have to suffice. A thin woman with wild white hair, an elegant blue and white scarf, and long black jacket or robe which made her seem larger than she was. Thin, a bit up in years, but so full of life and energy, and someone who just truly radiated presence. She said others have often described her as the woman of the house (madame d’ l’ mansion? I forget the French), and it certainly sounds like she has a special relationship with the proprietors or staff everywhere she goes.

But, it’s funny. My first impression was simply of a cosmopolitan world-traveler who truly enjoys her retirement, in relaxing fashion. Then we learned of her multiple PhDs, her various forms of volunteer work in Kenya and elsewhere, even leaving her home in a major US city, for a time at one point, unlocked and open at any hour for the police to direct abused women to go there and have somewhere to be. Degrees in agriculture, storage technologies, etc., and experience advising governments and similar institutions around the world in agriculture, storage, education, medicine, all sorts of things. I forget if she said she was ever officially affiliated with the UN or only with other organizations, but definitely with organizations of that sort, at least at times. Makes her seem like someone truly of note, like she should appear in Google searches. It’s truly amazing the kind of people you meet sometimes when you travel.

With the exception of screenshots from Game of Thrones, all photos are my own.

Essaouira, Day One

Now (writing some weeks ago), we are in Essaouira, a small beach town on the Atlantic coast, a few hours more or less straight west from Marrakech. There are similarities, for sure – the food is much the same, albeit with the addition of much fish and seafood; and the basic notion of staying in a medina, filled with small stalls and shops of people hawking their wares. And the wares themselves are largely the same. But the aesthetic and the feeling is quite different. Instead of earthtones, everything here is white and blue. Well, not everything, of course, but it’s a defining color scheme theme of the place. And overall it just feels more relaxed and more friendly and genuine. I don’t think we have to worry quite so much here about being scammed, or taken in by false guides, though haggling is still a thing. Several shop keepers were really quite kind and nice, with no hint of trying to keep us talking, keep us shopping. They genuinely took our interest, sold us things or didn’t, and let us leave. Definitely much more my speed.

And, the hotel/riad that my gf booked, Les Terrasses de Essaouira, wow, it’s a really nice place, and it very much gives me a feeling, unlike the places we stayed in Fes or Marrakech, of … a particular brand of vacationing, like in that film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I can’t actually remember if I’ve even seen the film, but Les Terrasses, and perhaps Essaouira more generally, feels to me very much like the kind of place retirees might come, maybe even come back to every summer, as their regular annual vacation destination, their exotic second (or third, or fourth) home away from home, to just relax and enjoy and experience… I don’t know, it’s not necessarily exactly something I can put into words, but the style of the hotel definitely gives that feel. Beautiful spacious private suites with canopy beds, each suite furnished uniquely with its own slightly distinctive arrangement; on each floor, large chairs facing in to an open atrium space, where one can just sit and read, smoke, drink something, take your time and do nothing. Not like a hotel for the kind of vacationer who just needs somewhere to rest in between rushing around to see the city – it really feels like the kind of place people might come to make themselves at home for several weeks at a time. I wish I could find the words to describe the particular aesthetic I’m seeing… but the best I can say is that it reminds me of (my potentially misplaced memory of the basic concept of) the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Very open and airy and relaxing, with white walls and light curtains and palms & other plants around. And in the lobby, a fountain in the center and numerous little side alcoves with couches, so you can have some variety as you spend your days reading and relaxing and whatever. Hints of Moroccan aesthetic here and there, of course, in the hanging bronze lamps and the tilework and window frames here and there, making the whole place feel exotic but not over the top – definitely a certain very standard brand of Orientalist/exotic vacationing trope, but at the same time wholly distinct from the more primary, mainstream “first thing that comes to mind” type of Orientalist exotic décor.

Indeed, and maybe this is what got me thinking about it, I overheard one older woman telling someone else about how she is only a guest, only here for a few weeks (I don’t live here), but that she’s been here many many times, so much so that other people often tend to think she must be “the lady of the house” or something, that she must be associated with the place, even though she’s not; but I can see why people would say that – it’s certainly the very first impression I had of her as well. She definitely seems to know the place and the staff quite well, I even saw her in the staff areas several times…. So, that’s the sort of place we’re staying in, and perhaps the sort of place Essaouira as a town is, for many people.

A real photo I took myself, on the bus ride to Essaoiura.

The bus ride from Marrakech went fine; it was a normal coach bus, just like one of the slightly nicer ones you might find on slightly upscale bus tour packages. No wifi or outlets or anything, but comfy enough seats, movable footrests. Anyway, it was only for less than three hours. The main highlight of the trip: seeing goats in trees! Something I’d seen online as a meme or Buzzfeed list sort of thing, but not something I ever thought I’d see in person. (and in fact I had no idea what country, what part of the world to find such a thing, so, I couldn’t have expected to see it anyway)

After arriving in Essaouira, we spent pretty much the whole rest of the day just walking around. There are a few notable historical sights, I think, and I’m hoping to see them by the end of our time here. But for today, we just walked the market streets and hung out. She bought some CDs, and we got some food, and that was about it. Saw the Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum, which though small is the first museum we’ve seen in Morocco that actually tells the history and culture in any detail. Housed in an old elite’s mansion, as so many of these museums are, it contains quite a few rooms of artifacts from prehistoric and Roman times up through more modern times, ranging from Roman pottery to various sorts of 19th century firearms, Muslim and Jewish traditional costumes (e.g. a rabbi’s robes, and women’s marriage robes), various silver objects such as carafes and jewelry, and so forth. It was neat to see one whole case (vitrine) devoted to objects of Essaouira’s historical Jewish community, even though the contents were really nothing special – a Torah scroll, some kipot (skullcaps), some Hannukiot (menorahs).

It’s wonderful how much more relaxed this town is. It’s touristy, to be sure, but in a beach town kind of way, not in a disneyfied, selling-you-exoticism sort of way, and not so overtly in a “tourist trap” scamming sort of way. A number of shopkeepers and so forth we’ve met seem on the surface more like the kinds of people you expect to meet in beach towns – people from elsewhere in Morocco, or elsewhere in the world, who have come here to surf and hang out and just enjoy the laid back environment; we found one café where they have an open mic most nights, and just various different artistic sort of engagements; and a CD store where the young man manning the counter was just happy to talk about all different kinds of music…

I feel amazingly privileged to have gotten to see Fes and Marrakech in my lifetime – every time I think of myself as really not that much of a world traveler, well, after this trip especially I’m not sure I can think that anymore. I’ve been to six countries (plus Hawaii, yes I’m counting Hawaii) on four continents (five, if we’re counting Oceania b/c of Hawaii) between this summer and the last alone, and to say that I’ve been to Fes and Marrakech is just incredible. Still, that said, it’s Essaouira that I would come back to. I wish we had just one or two more days in Marrakech, to see some museums and other things that had been closed because of Eid. But, overall, for all that Orientalist movies, posters, and popular consciousness otherwise hypes up these places, I don’t know, I just didn’t find Fes or Marrakech to be all that magical or exciting – and I have found Tokyo, Kyoto, Okinawa, Hawaii, London, Wales, Norwich, and a whole lot of other places to each have their appeal. I suppose the fact that non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside the mosques contributes to this in a big way. In all these other places, I’ve seen incredible castles, churches, temples, shrines, historical sites of one variety or another, and great art museums, history museums… But if you’re not allowed inside the most major historical sites in the city, then can you really say you’ve visited them? I don’t feel like I’ve seen the Karaouine Mosque, the Andalusian Mosque, or the Koutoubia Mosque the way I’ve seen Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the Wailing Wall, Tô-ji and Tôdai-ji. But, so it goes.

In many of these other places, I’ve also seen just beautiful street scenes, what the Japanese call machinami, and Essaouira has beautiful machinami, largely in white and blue. It feels sunny and open, light and airy, in a way that Marrakech, and especially all the more so Fes, didn’t. I have to wonder, though, if it had not been Ramadan and then Eid, how different the two cities might have felt. I was told later, here in Essaouira, that Fes is “schizophrenic” when it comes to Ramadan, getting very serious and heavy and religious for one month, and not being like that the rest of the year.

Anyway, Essaouira is a small town, and as much as I’ve enjoyed being here, and as much as I am sad to be leaving, I do think I’ve pretty much seen the whole thing, and with a whole wide world out there I don’t expect I’ll be coming back. Still, I did thoroughly enjoy it.

Last Day in Marrakesh

The courtyard at Al-Azma Synagogue in Marrakech. From Cultures-j.com.

Our last day in Marrakech was a Saturday. I was sad to not get a chance to visit the Al-Azma Synagogue during regular weekday visiting times, when we might be able to take photos of that beautiful space. But I did go for Saturday morning services. It’s a completely non-descript building from the outside, as might be expected. Even the door is completely plain and unmarked. Still, there are several signs clearly posted leading the way and marking the entrance, and everyone in the neighborhood knows about it, so it’s not like they’re exactly hiding. Once I got inside, a security guard simply asked if I was Jewish, and if I was coming to pray or just to visit. More security than synagogues I’ve visited in the US (which in my limited experience rarely have any sort of questioning or checking at the entrance at all), but certainly less than we saw in Istanbul, Athens, Thessaloniki, Tokyo, or London. Once inside, the place opens up into a small courtyard which is gorgeously decorated in bright blue and white tile, a Jewish version of a typical Islamic/Arabic aesthetic. And then, from there, to one side of the courtyard is the main worship room, which in the US we might typically call the sanctuary.

The sanctuary of Al-Azma Synagogue in Marrakech, in a photo from a Jerusalem Post article.

Unlike the (Protestant-influenced?) rows and rows of forward-facing parallel pews that I feel are quite standard in the US and certain other places, but quite similarly to what I’ve seen in photos and in person in Europe, Israel, and elsewhere, the sanctuary is organized to face no particular direction, really. The ark is at one end, but the bimah (raised platform from which the Torah is read, and certain other ritual acts are performed), ringed in a wooden bannister, is at the other end. And the seats are organized all facing perpendicularly, so people are facing to the sides of the room and not towards either end. As in many Orthodox services I’ve attended, there didn’t seem to be any one prayer leader, and everyone just seemed to take turns, in no particular order, each being the dominant voice in chanting (or mumbling) a particular section. No one announced page numbers or which section we were moving on to – they all just kept moving, mumbling through the prayers more than really singing or even chanting them, leaving me rather in the dark as to where we were up to. Every time I thought I’d figured out where we were, the very next section they recited would be several pages ahead, or back, and I’d lose my place all over again. I couldn’t really detect any particular melodies, or anything; had my gf been there, she might have been able to recognize or identify something of significance, with her far better musical ear, and more extensive knowledge of Sephardic & Mizrahi traditions. But for me, while it certainly didn’t have the feel, the sound, of the world of Yiddishkeit, it also didn’t “smell” strongly to me of Arabic pronunciation or melodies, let alone anything related to Spanish or Ladino sounds. I don’t know.

I had planned to stay through services and maybe get to talk to some people after that, maybe learn a little bit more about the community and what style of traditions they follow. But I had forgotten just how boring and frustrating it is to attend a service like this one, where no one helps you know where they’re up to, and where it only feels familiar in the briefest of snatches of moments before you’re lost all over again. Even if I know the words to one section, I can’t follow along well enough (quickly enough) to really participate at all before they’ve already moved on and I’m lost again; and they’re certainly not singing the same melodies I’m familiar with, so I’m not getting out of the experience what I normally would. So, long story short, I left after about 45 minutes. Still, I’m really glad I went.

After reconnecting with my girlfriend, we ended up being led into a shop selling rugs, and got talked at for far too long… As I’ve ranted about in previous posts, I really hate the way people don’t let you leave, just talking and talking to you, making you feel rude to leave, making it so the only way you can leave is to be rude. The conversation went on unnecessarily long, as he continually showed us more and more rugs, and refused to tell us prices, even as we struggled to narrow it down to just one or two rugs, negotiate a price, and be done with it. … In the end, though, I came away with two small rugs for which I think (I hope) I got a good price. The fellow says they’re all made by a special organization or group of widows, providing work and income to women who have lost their husbands (and thus their chief means of monetary support). He told us some were made of cotton, some of wool, some from all-natural dyes, all by hand, all in authentic tribal or ethnic styles, each rug one-of-a-kind… But, who knows if any of this was true. Maybe we got scammed. Who the hell knows.


Above: Not the rug place. Just a pretty side street.

Left: The courtyard at the Musee Mouassine.

I then made my way to the Mouassine Museum while she went off to do other things. It was our last day in Marrakech, and especially with so many things being closed for Eid the previous day, this was our (my) last chance to try to see any of the museums or palaces in the city. The Orientalist Museum sounded great – would have been really interesting to see their collection of Orientalist paintings, and various other objects from across periods, styles, etc., but sadly they were closed all throughout Eid, so there was no chance to see that museum at all. The Mouassine Museum, I really could have sworn that the website said it offered a similarly diverse array of artworks and objects representative of a breadth of Moroccan history and culture. But as it turns out, it’s almost entirely all about the art of this one artist Abdelay Mellakh who was born in that house and lived and worked (painted) there for many years. Modern art. Interesting in its own small way, to be sure, and I may even mention him if I ever teach a survey of world art history or something. And a beautiful house, a beautiful space itself. But, not nearly the representative sort of art museum I was hoping for. … So, I saw that, and then made my way to the Palais Badii (a ruined 16th-17th c palace) and Palais Bahia (a less ruined 19th c. palace), both of which were already closed for the day. So, that was that. On the plus side, found some other different market streets on my way back, including the Rahba Kedima et Souks, a nice small open market square with just a slightly different energy from the other streets.

We then set out for the Kasbah – another section of the city outside of the medina, which offers much the same experiences (the same types of shops and cafés), but just different ones. In particular, we were looking for the Marrakech location of Café Clock, the hip café we had so enjoyed in Fes. Sadly, they turned out to be closed for Eid as well. But, we found some random guy who was apparently a big musician back in the day, with a little shop (don’t know if he was selling anything at all?) or just front room filled with his own personal musical instruments, photos of him performing, and so forth. He and my gf talked for a long time about music, and they each played a little, and it was just fun. Sadly, I did not catch his name. Who knows, maybe if we knew his name, maybe he really is someone seriously famous – maybe my gf might even have records or CDs of him. I dunno.

On the way back to the riad, we passed by the Moulay el Yazid Mosque, another very major mosque of the city, so that was nice, to get pictures of it and just to see that particular other corner of the city. And then, after dinner, that was about it. Got up early the next morning to go to Essaouira.