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Labels for boxes of Japanese tea for export, c. 1860s-1950s.

While in Shizuoka last month, I decided to check out the Verkehr Shimizu Port Terminal Museum, a really small local history / maritime history museum in the Shimizu area of Shizuoka City. I don’t remember how I first learned of it, but I was intrigued by their permanent exhibits of large models of different traditional Japanese ships. Not that I have ever been one to really understand anything of the fine details – this or that style of rigging, this or that style of rudder – but, nevertheless, there’s just something cool, appealing, about big sailing ships, and trying to learn just a little bit about what different types there were.

As it turns out, it’s a very nice little museum. The ship models were great; there’s also another gallery on the history of the development of the port itself, plus a tiny, slightly hidden Canning Museum in the back. Apparently Shimizu is (or was, historically) a major center of canning in Japan, and the source of much of the canned tuna, canned mandarin oranges, etc. that I ate even as a kid in the US, long before I ever had any inkling that I’d ever study Japan or travel here.

Models of various types of 16th-19th century Japanese ships.

But, as I learned, Shizuoka is also a major center of tea production, and lucky me, they had a beautiful temporary exhibit up at the time about the woodblock-printed labels used on crates of exported tea in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

Entitled “Ranji: The World of Images on Export Tea Crates” or「蘭字 Ranji 輸出用茶箱絵の世界」, the exhibit of course did not allow for photos to be taken, because god forbid. But it was nevertheless wonderful to get to see these objects in person, get a sense of their materiality, and their diversity. We don’t normally think about such materials, such ephemera; I would imagine that even those historians who work on the history of the tea trade, especially within contexts of the history of capitalism, history of empire, don’t take the bother to look at these items from an art historical point of view either. And yet, they’re actually quite beautiful.

From what little I gleaned from glancing through the gallery labels (I didn’t have the energy to actually read them word for word; normally I would have taken photos and read them later), these represent a next step in woodblock printing, which I think I’ve either never heard of at all or if so only very briefly. Hiroshige II (d. 1869), a son-in-law of the Hiroshige famous for his c. 1830s landscape prints, was apparently also known as ”Chabako Hiroshige” 茶箱広重 (“tea crate Hiroshige”), and produced images of flowers or other designs for tea boxes.

Images of birds and flowers for tea boxes (chabako-e 茶箱絵) were also produced by artists such as Utagawa Yoshitora. These early tea box images were printed on a relatively thick paper as was typical for ukiyo-e. Later in the Meiji period, a thin ganpi paper came to be more typical. While earlier boxes were made of wood, with the images or labels stuck right on them, in Meiji the boxes came to be wrapped in a reed/straw material called anpera アンペラ.

Though I suppose it makes sense once you think about it – woodblock printing was the dominant printing technology in Japan at the time – it’s interesting and somewhat surprising to realize there was such a straightforward connection between this tradition that we today consider “art” (or even “fine art” or “high art”) and the very commercial matter of labels for export crates. Then again, on the other hand, we must remember that ukiyo-e woodblock prints were, for the most part, a commercial endeavor to begin with – very much a popular art.

Standard woodblock printing techniques were used for making the images to show on these export teas, and then Western-style typeset – “Dutch letters” 蘭字 – was used for the English or French words. What I found particularly striking is the second of the two galleries, as large as the first, but dedicated solely to designs for export teas to North Africa. When we think of “export art,” or export trade at all really in Japanese history, we’re typically thinking of Japan and Europe or Japan and the US. In other words, Japan and “us.” I don’t know what to say exactly about how that functions from the Japanese point of view – something about Eurocentrism and Occidentalist aspirations, I’m sure.

Labels for Japanese tea exported to French-speaking North Africa.

But, now, in addition to the designs marketed to the English-speaking world, we have all these designs aimed at a French + Arabic world. Japanese prints on Japanese tea, with sometimes very Japanese designs (eg a geisha), and other times Arab / North African scenes of mosques, camels, and so forth. Text in French and Arabic. I’m not really sure what to say except that it was a surprise, and quite striking. It’s romantic,* if that’s the right word, inspiring all sorts of thoughts and images of a stereotypical imagined North Africa… I have to wonder how this functioned in North Africa itself; was this a matter of appealing to the (white) French colonial community, and somehow making the tea feel more authentically part of the experience of being in North Africa? It’s interesting to see that on many of these labels, if not all of them, references to Japan or to any sort of Japanese motifs are largely or completely absent. If these designs were designed with the (Black/Arab/native) African consumer in mind, then the question of the design choices becomes a little less obvious. Is there an effort to make the tea seem like a normal part of local goods, not off-puttingly exotic/foreign? Perhaps. To a Moroccan or Algerian or Tunisian eye, do these images appear Orientalist, or just normal, typical of the motifs that are prominent/prevalent in their own culture? The fact that many of these labels are labeled not only in French but also in Arabic would seem to suggest to me that it’s not being marketed solely to a French (white) audience. But, then again, I’m in no way an expert on North Africa, the Middle East, French Empire, so I could be totally wrong.

Meanwhile, we read in the gallery labels that someone from the Japan Black Tea Corporation 日本紅茶株式会社, based in Shizuoka, brought back from Morocco some kind of guidebook for producing “Dutch” lettering (described in the gallery labels as 蘭字制作の指示書). Offset Ranji type 平板印刷=オフセット印刷の蘭字 was then used until 1960. It was stuck onto 貼る either Manila hemp マニラ麻 or veneer ベニヤ板. So, the connections with North Africa weren’t just one way – this wasn’t merely one of many places that tea was exported to. The connections were a bit stronger, and more complex.

As we learn from a fascinating lecture given by Japan historian Dr. Robert Hellyer (below) at the Kyushu National Museum in 2017 as part of the Ishibashi Lecture series, in the late 19th century up into the 1900s-1910s, as much as 80% of the tea grown for sale in Japan was exported to North America, and something like 90% of the tea consumed in the US was imported from Japan. So the ties were extremely strong. Hellyer suggests that such a high proportion of high-quality sencha was exported that the vast majority of Japanese people at the time had to content themselves with a lower-quality bancha tea. Of course, not everyone in the US could afford the top-quality sencha either, and so Prussian blue – the artificial pigment used to make the blue in Hokusai’s “Great Wave” and so many other ukiyo-e prints – was added to help make poor-quality tea look greener. How about that.

What’s really interesting, and I think would be surprising for most US viewers, is that according to Hellyer (and I’ve heard this before, perhaps from Prof. Erika Rappaport), it was green tea and not black tea that really dominated in the 19th century United States. Yes, Japanese at tea pavilions at the World’s Fairs tried (largely unsuccessfully in the end) to convince Americans to stop putting milk and sugar in their green tea, but nevertheless, it was Japanese green tea that they were drinking. This, up until around 1920, when the British finally won out, tipping the scales of general American opinion and preference in favor of black tea grown in India or Ceylon.

As a result of such shifts, at some point in the early-to-mid 20th century, the main destination for shipping Japanese tea shifted from North America to North Africa and the Middle East.

It was kind of on a lark that I went out to this small museum in Shimizu, but I am so glad that I did. In addition to the ship models, this Ranji exhibit was fascinating, and the woodblock-printed labels themselves gorgeous. I wonder if any major art museums – the Met, the MFA, the Asian Art Museum in SF, LACMA – have bothered to collect any of these tea labels, or would ever think of doing so, or of hosting a temporary exhibition. I think American audiences would find it rather captivating.

Ranji: The World of Images on Export Tea Crates is open until Sept 6, at the Verkehr Museum, 2-8-11 Minato-machi, Shimizu-ku, Shizuoka City.

*Romantic: 2. of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality.
“a romantic attitude to the past”.
**The East India Company tea dumped into Boston Harbor in 1773 was black tea, though.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. And we scarcely if ever learn any of this in our World History classes. I mean, understandably, one can’t teach, or learn, or cover, everything. There will always be things that have to be dropped out. But, even so. Let’s see where we can make it fit. Because those stories should be told, just as much as any others. For the sake of the Moroccans I’ve met, and the ones I haven’t met, who deserve to have their story told. For the sake of American knowledge and attitudes towards Morocco, should anything politically significant or otherwise newsworthy come up that should call upon people to have some small degree of informed understanding. For the students who meet Moroccans or end up travelling to Morocco; and for the students who are themselves Moroccan and would benefit from having their story told (or from learning more or differently about it than they have otherwise).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Not only was I impressed with the Brooklyn Museum’s American/modern/contemporary showings, but furthermore, their African exhibit was, at least in some small but very key ways, truly excellent. I can’t say I exactly picked it apart for every single aspect of how there might be problems, or room for improvement, but at least I will say that a few things really stood out at me.


First and foremost, the exhibit is entitled African Innovations, so right from the outset, they’re combatting the stereotype that Africa is somehow backwards, behind, not creative, not innovative. Identical introductory panels which bookend the exhibit (you can enter at either end, or in fact from anywhere in the middle) state that the museum’s collection “includes objects of transcendent beauty and sophistication, but many of these works were valued for more than aesthetic reasons. They were created to solve important creative, social, political, and cosmological problems.” Personally, I would have said “purposes,” not “problems,” and I do find that strange, but putting that aside, here they unequivocally state that these objects are beautiful and sophisticated, but also that they serve powerful and important culturally specific purposes. We should try to learn and understand and appreciate those particular cultural contexts; these objects do not exist purely for our (or anyone’s) aesthetic appreciation or inspiration.

Left: “Skipping Girl,” Yinka Shonibare, 2009.
Further down on the same panel, it states “The phrase ‘African art’ might suggest a continent-wide form of visual expression that is unitary and timeless, but nothing could be further from the truth. … For the first time, the Museum’s African galleries are arranged chronologically, to emphasize the continent’s long record of creativity, adaptation, and artistic achievement.” It is sad, in a way, that we are still fighting this battle, that people don’t already know, appreciate, just how large and diverse Africa is, and also that its many peoples are not stuck in the past, not unchanging, but are in fact dynamic and actively engaged with the modern world. The chronological organization of the exhibit, and in particular the final section panel, “Crossroads Africa – Today,” along with a piece by Yinka Shonibare and a handful of other very contemporary art works, help illuminate this story, highlighting that Lagos, Dakar, Nairobi, and Johannesburg are truly global cities, that African artists in these and other urban centers have actively engaged with changes and developments, addressing a wide variety of questions and concerns (including “What is Africa?” and “Who is African?”), and experimenting with a wide variety of media and forms “to express these new realities.”

Admittedly, on the individual objects’ gallery labels, many of the historical/traditional objects in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit are described pretty much as I’d expected them to be, with descriptions of their usage and meaning within the cultural context; nothing really stood out to me as particularly exciting or innovative in terms of the narrative or discourses, but neither did anything stand out as particularly problematic. Still, the emphasis on these cultures as possessing history, as being living dynamic traditional cultures, and as simultaneously being actively engaged in a globally connected, modern and cosmopolitan world, is I think of great importance and very well put forward here. And perhaps this should come as no surprise, given that the introductory panel informs us that the Brooklyn Museum was the first in the country to display African objects as works of art. Bravo!

….

By contrast, the Metropolitan Museum makes little or no overt effort to combat standard narratives in its Arts of Africa galleries. You won’t find any prominent discussion here of African innovation, of Africa’s modernity, the great size of its cities, or the dynamic and decidedly active ways in which Africans negotiate and engage with societal change and cultural challenges. You will find mention of Africa’s great size and diversity, but only in the most plain vanilla manner, by way of simply introducing the topic of African Art and describing the continent & its people.

That said, though, it is not as if the Metropolitan is being blatantly Orientalist, essentialist, or the like, let alone (god forbid) outright racist in their representation of the diverse cultures of the African continent. They’re simply taking a more conservative, standard, discursive approach. Yet, it is precisely because that approach is so standard that it makes it difficult to see through it, so to speak, to know whether or not to criticize it, and for what.

The Met’s African galleries are certainly extensive, well-lit, and well-maintained. This is not some forgotten, ill-maintained, back corner of the museum. It’s not the most dynamic or original mode of display, but neither is it too blatantly archaic. That Africa is given so much space is certainly something, and in terms of its location within the museum, it’s not located in some distant back corner, a basement, or some other lesser or lower position. The Africa galleries are immediately next to the Greco-Roman galleries, which makes them very accessible, but as for whether it is a positive association, connecting it to the “great” ancient civilizations, or a negative one, placing it somehow in contrast to, or prior to, those civilizations, as “primitive” art, I don’t know; I suppose it could be both, or neither. That they are located alongside the Arts of the Pacific and of the Pre-Columbian Americas is certainly evocative of the outdated and highly problematic categorization of “Primitive Art,” but those discourses are not prominently visible here at all, and all in all I’m not really decided on how I feel about this grouping – after all, admittedly, it’s not a very straightforward geographical grouping, as placing Chinese art next to Japanese, or Greek next to Roman, may be, but at the same time, everything has to go next to something, and every pairing or grouping can be said to imply all sorts of implications… Whether this grouping is problematic, I leave open, but at the very least, there is no single overarching categorical title, such as “primitive art,” and each of these broad geographic areas is very much given its own separate space. Though, that said, the three are grouped into a single category on the museum website’s list of galleries.

The African exhibits are organized by region, and by culture, with labels that describe individual cultures, culturally and historically, from an anthropological sort of point of view, discussing how each type of object was used, or worn, in its original “traditional” cultural context, and often includes photos of the objects in use. This is certainly a step up from exhibits which might ignore the meaning of an object, its purpose and the ways in which it was appreciated or valued in its original culture, in favor of viewing the objects solely or primarily through a Western aesthetic lens. But it is still awfully standard, categorizing and describing people rather than giving the impression of having them speak at all. The culture is a single thing, to be analyzed, examined, understood, and then described, rather than as something lived and experienced, as something dynamic and changing, as something with interiority, the members/practitioners of which question their traditions and engage or negotiate with continuation versus change.

One thing that occurred to me as I read these labels, and thought about what I was going to say in this blog post, is the question, whether it is better in gallery labels to describe a culture in the present tense by their traditions – thus denying them history, change, and modernity – or in the past tense, implying their belonging only to the past, erasing their contemporaneity, implying their non-existence in the present, and their belonging to the past as primitive, less-advanced, or otherwise non-modern?

These exhibits further make little mention of the history of colonialism, mentioning its impact chiefly in terms of the tragic consequences for the destruction, corruption, or diminishing of these essentialized cultures. The “traditional” culture, in some romanticized imagined pure form, is placed on a pedestal, elevating it, and its loss bemoaned. Now, don’t get me wrong, I mourn the loss of traditional cultural practices too, but, here it is presented almost as a matter of fact. There is no anti-colonialist or post-colonialist activist bent to these exhibits, no post-colonial critique, no intermingling of contemporary works, just a real focus on the art itself, aesthetically and in terms of craftsmanship, as well as anthropologically.

In the end, I am conflicted. On the one hand, the Met’s displays of Pacific and African art are not grossly, boldly, clearly problematic, but neither are they progressive at all. The legacy of anthropological and “primitive art” approaches is evident in the over-abundance of Papua New Guinea objects, and more to the point by the absence of any historical discussion of political or societal change over time, of histories of interaction or exchange, and thus of development of the artforms being discussed. Works are described by culture, without any individual people, events, or developments discussed. We would never describe ukiyo-e woodblock prints as simply being objects representative of traditional Japanese culture, as if there were a singular traditional Japanese culture – rather, we talk about historical periods, in the case of ukiyo-e the Edo period, under the Tokugawa shoguns, a period of particular cultural and societal developments, and of considerable shifts and changes in the development of ukiyo-e, stylistically and otherwise. So, why describe the arts of the Bamara or Ibo peoples in such a categorizing, ahistorical manner?

Perhaps there is an argument to be made for different museums taking different approaches, and evincing different priorities in their treatments of cultural objects. After all, what the Brooklyn Museum does is still but one narrative, one interpretation, one version of the story. That approach, though we might see it as wonderfully progressive, also presents a limited and biased perspective, and if every museum did the same as the Brooklyn Museum does, it would create a clear sense that there are other approaches, other narratives, other interpretations that are being silenced, and which need to be heard. And there may indeed be considerable aspects to the Met’s approach which constitute such an equally valid, equally valuable, narrative or approach, alternative and thus complementary to the Brooklyn Museum’s approach. But, even so, even while the Met’s approach is not as baldly grossly problematic as it might have once been – even while the Met has clearly made changes and made progress – I think that many problems still remain.

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