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After Kagoshima, I activated my Japan Rail Pass, and took the (relatively) newly opened Kyushu Shinkansen up to Fukuoka. The main purpose of stopping over in Fukuoka was to see a procession scroll held by the Fukuoka City Museum. I do wish that I had planned a bit better, gone over to visit Kyushu University, checked out their library, maybe met up with a friend/colleague or two. But, everything was just so up in the air. I focused on getting permission and arranging an appointment to see this one scroll, and then just figured I would take the opportunity to see the rest of the City Museum, the Kyushu National Museum, and whatever else I might happen upon.

The only other time I’d been to Fukuoka (visiting a friend for a weekend in 2008), I made the mistake of trying to visit the Kyushu National Museum on a Monday. I had forgotten that National Museums (and a lot of other places) are closed on Mondays. And I had heard such amazing things about this then very newly opened national museum, which supposedly had such new and innovative approaches to the way its displays were organized. So, I was glad to get to finally go and check it out.

The Kyushu National Museum.

Sadly, the Kyushu National Museum turned out to be quite the disappointment. Firstly, because unlike the Tokyo National Museum they don’t allow photography, meaning I couldn’t capture anything of the really incredible artifacts on display, which can’t be seen anywhere else.

These included a 1591 letter from Nguyen Hoang to the “Ruler of Japan” (i.e. Toyotomi Hideyoshi), which I actually blogged about a short while back. The earliest extant communication between Vietnamese and Japanese rulers, ten years older than what was until very recently believed to have marked the earliest such exchange, this letter was designated an Important Cultural Property in 2018. I researched and wrote about late 16th – early 17th century Japan-SE Asia relations in my first MA thesis, and for more than ten years now have been excited to eventually get to see some of these letters. But now that I finally have, I wasn’t permitted to take photos for my personal enjoyment, or to post here. I guess the best I can hope for is either that Kyûhaku will eventually change their policies, or that the object will eventually go on exhibit somewhere else, that does allow photographs.

A series of seals from Korea were also of great interest. Coming from the collection of the Sô clan, samurai lords of Tsushima, these seals have a rather special historical pedigree. By which I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of Korean seals out there created for all different purposes and which made their way around the world for all kinds of reasons. But these are some of the very seals which the Sô clan lords were given directly by the Korean court to use as authorization to trade. These are not simply examples of something sort of similar, these are the very objects I have read so much about, in discussions of Tsushima’s special position in the history of Japan-Korea trade relationships. The Korean court granted seals or tallies to certain groups and individuals, which they could then use to identify themselves as authorized merchants. The Ming court gave tallies to various samurai warlords for similar purposes, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Tokugawa shoguns later gave “red seal letters” (shuinjo) to authorized merchants in a similar fashion. In fact, the 1601 letter which I mentioned above, exchanged between Nguyen Hoang and Tokugawa Ieyasu, discusses just such trade concerns and red seal authorization papers. Of course, any such system is going to lead to the creation of forgeries – fake authorization documents (or seals). Such forgeries appear prominently in discussions of Korea-Tsushima interactions, and so to see them on display as well was fantastic. No photos, though. Boo.

One more I’ll mention is a scroll painting by Sesshû, one of the most celebrated Japanese ink painters of all time, depicting “peoples of various countries” 国々人物図巻 and including beautiful and detailed depictions of Qing/Chinese individuals of a great many ranks or social positions, from King to monk to peasant.

Entrance to the “Cultural Exchange” permanent exhibits gallery at the Kyushu National Museum.

Sadly, the organization and design of the exhibition overall was quite the disappointment as well. I had heard wonderful things, that it was going to be so innovative. But unfortunately it feels little different from any “international contacts” and “cultural exchange” section of any other museum, just expanded somewhat.

The exhibits are organized only very roughly into any semblance of chronological order or by geographical or cultural logic. There is not much of a coordinated narrative, but rather just a splash of many different examples of exchanged. A few items related to red seal ships and Vietnam, a few related to the Sô/Tsushima and Korea, a model of a Chinese temple in Nagasaki. But no discussion of Korean or Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, or of Dejima or the Nagasaki Chinatown. At least not in as clear and explicit a way as in the British Museum, for example. And no sense of the overall history of interactions between Japan and any one other culture or country. Things aren’t really placed in a context. We get some Ryukyuan ceramics but no discussion of the embassies. Some items related to interactions with Vietnam, but no models or paintings of the red seal trading ships that constituted one of the central forms of interactions in the 16th-17th centuries, and no discussion of Ayutthaya or anywhere else in SE Asia at that particular time.

Overall, the entire thing is very scattered, very bara bara as they say in Japanese. Outside of large numbers 1,2,3,4, on the walls, there’s no real structure guiding you through the galleries – it’s all open plan and you’re left to wander around in no particular order, and thus within no particular structure of narrative order or context.

As cool as it is to have so many SE Asian artifacts on display, it doesn’t feel so revolutionary so much as it just feels like the Asia galleries of the Tokyo National Museum.

In some sections, objects from all over Asia are displayed together, with no context or framing device at all. In one room, they have a Gandhara Buddha, a Buddha head from Afghanistan, Goryeo & Sui Buddhas from Tsushima (very cool examples of very early cultural interaction), and a large bronze Bishamonten that’s apparently the only surviving bronze of its kind by the Ashiya 芦屋 foundry. But no labels saying “Buddhism appears differently around the world,” or “each culture’s Buddhist sculpture was influenced by others, including from as far away as Afghanistan.”. Nor anything about the history of Chinese and Korean Buddhist sculptures entering Japan.

I can see why they didn’t have a catalog of their regular exhibit, but only catalogs of “treasures of the collection”: because there is no real logic, no real narrative.

Portraits of the Kuroda lords and other artworks, at the Fukuoka City Museum.

By contrast, the Fukuoka City Museum was excellent. They allowed photos throughout most of the exhibits, if I’m remembering correctly, had lots of fantastic stuff on display, and followed a clear and structured chronological narrative.

Easily one of the most famous objects in the Fukuoka City Museum collection is a golden seal from the year 57 CE. The oldest object with writing on it ever found in Japan, it was a formal royal seal granted by the Emperor of the Han Dynasty to the ruler of a small kingdom called Na, based at that time somewhere in the general vicinity of what is today the city of Fukuoka. Who knows what happened to the seal for 1700 years, but sometime in the 1700s, a farmer found it (!?!?) on a tiny little island just off in the bay, near the castle-town of Fukuoka. In the museum today, the tiny seal, only about one or two inches square, is dramatically displayed in its own small room. Immediately afterwards are displays including 18th-19th century manuscripts writing about this discovery.

From there, the museum goes on to tell a thorough but not too overly-detailed narrative of the history of the area, in a very well-organized and engaging way, with lots of wonderful objects on display and good thematic divisions, gallery labels, etc.

They allowed photos of much of the exhibits but not everything, and for whatever reason I never really wrote down any notes while I was there. So I have nothing too deep to say, except that it seems a very well-done museum. I really love local history museums like this one, where they have a really grand worthwhile story to tell – the history of one of Japan’s greatest and most intercultural port cities throughout the pre-modern period, the home of a most ancient kingdom, and later of various palaces and castles of great historical significance, including becoming home in the 17th-19th century of the Kuroda clan, one of the great samurai families, who left behind tons of great treasures. We don’t learn nearly enough about any of this in, say, the National Museum of Japanese History or the Tokyo National Museum, let alone in our survey histories (or even our much more in-depth seminars or the like), and so it’s wonderful that here it is, a museum telling this story.

The Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, was another exciting stop. I had never actually heard of this museum before, but as it turned out it was just down the street from the place I was staying at.*

Once I learned that there was an “Asian Art Museum” specializing in modern art from across Asia, I got excited that it might be some Nihonga, Yôga, Guohua, and the equivalents across the region. Maybe it’s just purely because I had an MA advisor who specializes in such things, but I’ve really grown quite interested in that period towards the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th when Japan, China, and I presume Okinawa, Korea, and elsewhere as well, began engaging with “modernity” in art, wrestling with whether to make their own traditional modes of art “modern” in some way, either making them into “national arts” or “national traditions,” or ditching them in favor of Western styles and modes of art (which were seen at the time as obviously more “modern”) and adopting that as the new national art. And all at right around the same time as much of Europe was in fact leaving behind such expert masterful realism in favor of various modes of “modernism”, beginning with Impressionism.

In any case, there was not to be found any such discussion or display of issues of modernity or modernism at this museum. Here, “modern” really means “contemporary,” as in contemporary art of the last decade or two or three, meaning a very different set of types or styles of artwork than Nihonga or Yôga. Which isn’t a problem – it was still very cool.

Still from Yamashiro Chikako’s video piece, “Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat” (2009).

In fact, to my surprise, the very first work in the gallery was by an Okinawan artist. Yamashiro Chikako (b. 1976) is an Okinawan video artist. In her 2009 piece 「あなたの声私の喉を通った」(“Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat”) – I’m sorry I haven’t been able to find the video online – a survivor of the Battle of Okinawa tells of his experience, and his voice is heard even as we watch Yamashiro’s face, mouthing (seemingly speaking) the words. Complete with her tears and facial expressions. At one point, she stops talking and just cries, losing her composure at the thought of these horrors, as the voice continues describing them.

I really appreciated the way that Yamashiro’s work was displayed. I had been in Okinawa just a few days earlier, and I really felt – really got the feeling – that this is pretty much just how it would have been shown in Okinawa too. Catalogs for key recent exhibits of Okinawan contemporary art, including Okinawa Prismed and Okinawa Bunka no Kiseki, were placed for visitors to read, alongside catalogs specifically about Okinawan women artists. Yamashiro’s work was displayed very straightforwardly, without exoticization, I felt.

And the Asian Art Museum allowed photos! Very surprising for a modern art museum, and especially for one in Japan. Truly, a most welcome thing.

Modern art from across Asia is shown, not country by country, but by periods and themes. I was a bit disappointed to not see more Nihonga and Yoga, but the great range of stuff from across Asia is pretty great in a different way.

Still lots to see in Fukuoka, though. I’ve got to go back sometime.


*Incidentally, a nice place worth staying at. Sadly, I didn’t remember to get photos of this place, or to take good notes either. But from what I can remember it was extremely clean – that white, bright, new aesthetic that I just don’t understand why the business hotels with all their brown don’t aim for. I had a small room all to myself – bunk beds, if I remember correctly, but I guess you can book the room rather than only booking by the bed. Small but perfectly clean, good showers/bathrooms down the hall. The whole place had a slightly funny nautical theme, like you’re staying in a modified spaceship or cruise ship or something. I dunno. But in any case, they also had a nice sunny common room on the top floor. I’m not super into socializing with other hostel-stayers; I’m a bit too old for that partying backpackers sort of vibe. Or maybe I’m not too old and it was just never my thing to begin with. But, free wifi, plenty of tables, a nice big kitchen up there. And just a good, bright, clean, aesthetic. Not gloomy or claustrophobic like the business hotels. Plus, WeBase Hakata is pretty conveniently located – only a couple blocks from the subway, the Asian Art Museum, and a major theatre venue.

All photos my own.

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Just someone’s bike parked at the Kagoshima University Dept of Agriculture

Continuing my way-behind recounting of my summer adventures:

One of the really wonderful things about being back in Japan is the feeling of infinite possibilities. Especially when I’m in Okinawa, I feel like if I had ten lifetimes, I could research and write about such an incredible variety of topics. Really explore a diversity of aspects of Okinawan history and culture. Not to mention trying out countless cafes and restaurants, going to shows, getting to know performers/scholars/activists, etc.

Back in Naha for the first time after living (nearby) there for six months, and I just kept thinking, I love this town. Part of it, I think, is just the self-reinforcement of how familiar it’s become. The more you get to know a place, the closer you get to it emotionally, just from familiarity. But I think a lot of it also just has to do with the city itself. I love the feel, the culture, the food. Of course sometimes it’s brutally hot out but even then, much like in Hawaiʻi, the sun just makes everything so beautiful. The colors pop, the sky is so blue and those buildings and whatever that are white are so white, and when there’s a breeze, or even when there isn’t, it just feels so open and airy. Maybe that’s just the difference of coming to Naha from Tokyo and NY – anywhere is going to feel open and airy compared to the “canyons” of Manhattan.

The view of Kokusai-dôri in Naha from my guesthouse, AbestCube Naha.

Coming back to “mainland” Japan from Okinawa, I always feel the cultural difference pretty strongly. It’s not a difference like one would get culture shock, like going from the US to Japan or the US to England or something like that. But, just that Japanese food and Japanese traditional architecture and certain other things like that are, basically, foreign in Okinawa, or at least they’re a minority cultural presence. When you go to a “Japanese restaurant” in Okinawa, it stands out, it feels like you’ve entered a different space, much like for example a Japanese restaurant in the US. You’ve stepped out of Okinawan cultural space into Japanese space, where the food is different, the aesthetics are different…. And, one does get a sense or a feeling that this is the culture that conquered and annexed and sought to assimilate Okinawa. I don’t mean that in an overly political, fist-shaking, crying for revolution, kind of way; I don’t mean it in an anti-Japanese kind of way; but just that I do get a little bit of a sense of that. And it is tied into a certain ignorance – which, again, I don’t mean in an overly political way, but just that it’s interesting to go from somewhere where the tension between Okinawanness and Japaneseness is ever-present, to somewhere where there is (more or less) only Japaneseness, and thus no tension – whether in Tokyo or in Kagoshima, Okinawa is just not at all on the forefront of the vast majority of people’s attention, just as Hawaii or Guam or Okinawa for that matter are not at the forefront of people’s attention or awareness in LA or DC or NY.

Okinawa University of the Arts as seen from Shuri castle.

In any case, on a separate subject, for my first few nights in Kagoshima I was staying in a real proper hotel for the first time on this trip, and was seriously wondering why. I got it for quite cheap, if I remember correctly, so that’s good. But, honestly, I stayed with my dad in a motel on the side of the highway in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey, and the place was nicer than this. I guess I should have expected it – I’ve stayed in enough Japanese hotels in my life. But it’s just funny, it’s weird, you know? Here I am, moving from what’s ostensibly a lower-class of establishment, hostels and cabin hotels, youth backpackers’ sorts of places which are kind of, in a certain sense, on the margins of the hotel industry (insofar as they are not the big chains which dominate the industry). And yet, both the &AND HOSTEL AKIHABARA that I stayed in for a few nights at the beginning of my trip, and the Abest Cube Kokusai-dori place where I stayed in Naha, had a much brighter, cleaner, nicer, newer aesthetic, and, really, in a certain sense, better facilities. I mean, having your own private bathroom should of course count as a plus over having a shared bathroom down the hall. But, actually, I just really don’t like these tiny in-suite box bathrooms. The hotel room itself is so small that you’re literally sleeping just two or three feet away from the bathroom door, just two or three feet away from the toilet, albeit with a wall in between. And it’s just gross. Plus, these box bathrooms always feel cramped, and quite often you have to switch over the water from the sink to the shower – I don’t know why that bothers me, but it does. It feels cheap, low quality, to me.

And while the room, and the hotel overall, certainly look clean enough and don’t have an overtly run-down sort of feeling like so many hostels do, still, in comparison to the very bright, clean, white sort of aesthetic of the nicer, newer, hostels, I don’t understand why it seems so standard in mainstream hotels for everything to be brown / tan / cream. Not that I think it’s genuinely less clean, but it feels less clean. It feels darker, smaller, more closed-in. It lacks that sunny, airy, open feeling that you get at places like Abest Cube and &AND HOSTEL. Why do they do that?

Halls at Abest Cube Naha.

Sure, they’ve got some funny stuff, like how you can’t control your AC individually, and how they don’t want you talking on the phone in your room (because I guess the walls are too thin, and the noise carries?). But outside of those two things, I have absolutely no complaints at all about Abest Cube Kokusai-dori. Everything looks perfectly clean and sleek like it’s brand new. Not just recently cleaned, but honestly like-new perfect. There isn’t even the tiniest hint of the place being rundown or “discount” or lesser-than. It’s no glitzy five-star hotel, but who needs that honestly? The bathrooms and showers are perfectly clean. The water pressure and temperature in the showers is excellent. The beds are nothing super amazing (memory foam or anything) but they’re big, and more than comfortable enough. The common rooms are nice, and offer a nice view overlooking Kokusai-dori. The breakfast is small and basic, but it’s freshly made and it’s included. A slice of toast, half a hard boiled egg, a little salad, a little fruit, and a little soup.

And I can hardly imagine a more convenient location. It was cool staying in the guesthouse in Tsuboya, and it would be cool to stay *in* Heiwa Dori as well, really immersed in a neighborhood like that. But this is really the next best thing. A couple minutes walk to the monorail, a few minutes in the opposite direction to the entrance to Heiwa Dori. Sure, Kokusai-dori is crazy touristy, in some respects it’s like staying in Times Square. But even so, it puts you right in the center of everything. And I managed to get a room – a private room, not a capsule or a dorm bed – for less than $30/night.

*This* is the right way to do lodgings. I wish I could stay at Abest Cube all the time everywhere I go.

Right: Heiwa-dôri, a maze of a shopping arcade in central Naha.

“Ryûkyûjin ôrai suji nigiwai no zu,” c. 1850, Uetsuki Gyôkei, detail. Section of a handscroll depicting the hubbub in the streets of Edo just after a Ryukyuan embassy procession passed through. Small, low-quality photo found online somewhere – no thanks to Kagoshima University Library, who refuse to make such images available at all.

Turning to my time in Kagoshima, my sincere thanks to Hori-san at the Kagoshima University Library for allowing me to see two beautiful and one-of-a-kind paintings, even though the library’s website seems to suggest that as a basic policy they don’t generally show anyone the originals. No thanks to his institution’s policies, meanwhile, which do not allow researchers to take photographs, even with an application /permission form, and which insist we should satisfy ourselves with the rather poor, low quality digital images of which, even those, can only be viewed at the library and cannot be downloaded or otherwise copied to take home. I don’t know how anyone is supposed to do research like this.

No thanks, too, to the Kagoshima Prefectural Library, which on multiple occasions has shown the most obnoxiously strict interpretations of copyright law I have ever seen. Even when other institutions explicitly say you can copy one whole article out of a journal so long as you’re not copying the whole journal, only at Kagoshima Prefectural Library would they consider an article one whole and expect that anyone should be okay with only copying parts of the whole. Seriously?

Above: Model of Kagoshima castle main gate, which apparently they’re planning to rebuild by 2020.
Below: A shiden electric streetcar passing through the Tenmonkan neighborhood of Kagoshima.

All that said, though, Kagoshima is a city I could see living in. I don’t know anything about which institutions might ever hire me, but I guess thinking more along the lines of a several-month fellowship or something, I just like that it’s such a good size city. Tenmonkan is a great vibrant but cozy shôtengai neighborhood, and more or less everything else in the city is in either short walking distance or there are the shiden streetcars, which I love.

There’s something about the Tenmonkan area that just makes me feel like it’s the classic model shôtengai. After a night or two in that crappy business hotel, I found a wonderful AirBnB right in the middle of the shôtengai. I was nothing too special, not fancy at all, but for less than $35/night I got to have an entire apartment to myself – small kitchen, private bath/shower, A/C, wifi, and (oddly) three beds in the one large bedroom. I don’t know when I personally will find myself looking to stay in Kagoshima with 2+ close friends as a whole traveling group, but if Take’s apartment is available, it would be an excellent place. And the shôtengai itself is nice, too. Not particularly touristy, not particularly hipstery/gentrified, but also not too run-down or out-of-date. Just, I dunno, normal. A good, decent, assortment of shops. I imagine that if I lived there more long-term, it could be a decent place to go shopping, to find favorite stores or bars or cafés… Not as exciting as Naha’s Heiwa-dôri, but, a nice taste of the “regular” (non-touristy) Japanese shopping street experience.

Outer walls of Kagoshima castle.

All photos my own, except where noted otherwise.

model

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The musical instruments stores area of Tokyo, near Ochanomizu.
My summer adventures continue. After accompanying my gf to a conference she was presenting at, and then spending some time home in New York (and Philly) with family, I was fortunate to receive some kind and generous funding for a research trip to Japan; just for a few weeks, to grab a few more materials I hadn’t obtained in my year there, to catch up with professors again now that I have one more year of progress under my belt, and so forth. One advantage: being on a tourist visa rather than the year-long student or researcher (cultural activities) visa meant that I was able to get a JR Pass – unlimited rides on Japan Rail, anywhere in the country, including most bullet trains (shinkansen), for one week.

Deep gratitude to the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute (Shiryôhensanjo) for allowing me affiliation for this brief period. Though I was not physically in Tokyo for most of it, it was a pleasure and a privilege to have access to walk around the stacks (rather than only searching the databases and requesting books from the desk) and to have a workspace of my own, to use at any hour of the day or night (rather than being limited to the hours and policy restrictions of the Reading Room). Not to mention having somewhere to receive mail – since I was moving around from one hostel/guesthouse to another every few days, it was wonderful to have somewhere I could order books to. In so many ways, having affiliation as a “visiting researcher” at the Hensanjo really saved me, 助かりました as they say in Japanese.

I’m still rather behind on my blog posts, so this is about two months ago already, but here are some of my thoughts from that time:

The Red Gate (Akamon) at the entrance to the University of Tokyo, in a woodblock print by Oiso Yoshihira (1903-1988).

After living here for a real amount of time now, it feels weird to come back for such a short period. Really just sort of dipping in, and then back out. Coming back to Tokyo yet again, for what I guess must be my eighth(?) time, there’s that relaxed feeling of happiness, that smile of comfort, that sigh of relief that comes with being here. But normally, or I guess I shouldn’t say normally, but last year at least, being here for the better part of a whole five months, it was such a completely different situation from this time. That excitement about being here is tempered by the knowledge that I won’t get to see very much of it at all. I’ll see a few friends, go to a few archives, then leave, that’s really about it. I mean, I suppose, over the course of the next three to four weeks in total, I’ll get to experience Japan, for sure. The food, the convenience stores, the trains, etc etc. All the little things I love about everyday (and not so everyday) life in Japan. But just not all that much in Tokyo specifically.

Coming back to the Hensanjo, also, has that same feeling. To be here, it’s so tempting to want to think I’m here for some real amount of time. To settle back into the office, and to just sit and get back to work, get back into a routine. But that’s not to be. It’s a wonderful feeling to feel familiarity with such a place, and a certain sense of belonging. But it’s so oddly temporary…

I also feel much the same feelings I do about any place I’m nostalgic for – remembering the daily routine I had and probably romanticizing it. Thinking of the life I led, or could have led. It sounds stupid perhaps, but walking past a particular Starbucks and thinking of how you could have – even though you didn’t – but could have made that a regular place you regularly studied at, for example. Or just thinking about life at the visiting researcher dorms at Oiwake, and how nice that apartment was and how nice it could be to live there again (or, how doing so would be too much of a return to the same-old, and that I might actually get kind of sad about being there, and should instead seek out new experiences!).

An early 20th century (?) hand-drawn copy of an 1832 document diagramming the Ryukyuan envoys’ ceremonial audiences with the shogun in that year. A tiny little booklet just tucked away amongst the multitudes on the shelves of the Historiographical Institute.

On a rather different train of thought, another thing that I was reminded of as I explored the many floors of shelves of books at the Hensanjo is how much my interest in History is in part informed by a love of materials and images – a love of for lack of a better word, show and tell. I want to show people what neat stuff I’ve found. But the structure, or culture, of our academia, focusing not on the materials themselves but only on what can be learned from them makes this difficult, if not impossible. There’s no good way to show in a citation the wonderful variety of documents you’re citing, and more to the point, I’m not sure anyone (officially) cares. Which I think is a terrible shame. In person, most historians would be excited to see what kinds of things you’ve found, but in citation, it’s only about the quality of the argument, which I think is a real shame.

But, then, I suppose that’s what blogs and social media are for. I’ve truly loved getting involved in Academic Twitter. People sharing their adventures and misadventures in the archive, the cool things they’ve found and so forth. And just seeing that some of the scholars who produce the most interesting work are not simply professionals, but are also simultaneously the kinds of people who might tweet about cats, about food, about all sorts of things. Makes them human. But, returning back around, while I sometimes hesitate to post photos of objects for which I was only officially permission to take photos specifically for research purposes, and while that continues to be source of frustration and disappointment for me, I am glad for the outlet where I can share at least a little of something of what I’ve found. All my photos of things I feel comfortable sharing, if they don’t appear on the blog, then on Twitter, and if not on Twitter, then at the very least they will appear on my Flickr. Though I am very far behind in both uploading and labeling, so I do apologize for that.

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

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

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

Independence Hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The interior of Independence Hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of Delacroix’s beautiful notebooks.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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