Friends, do you mind if I scribble you a little journal? I’ve done this a few times this year. There was a journal from Portugal, as I recall — chronicling a National Review cruise. And then something from the Oslo Freedom Forum. And then yet another journal from Oslo. I have been practically Norwegian this year. Later, there was a Salzburg Journal. And, as I think about it, I think I even did a brief journal from Fort Worth. Now, that was living.
This journal, as the title has indicated, will be from Marrakech. I have come for the Middle Eastern meeting of the World Economic Forum — the Davos people. In the past, this meeting has been held by the Dead Sea in Jordan and by the Red Sea in Egypt — Sharm El Sheikh.
You point out that Morocco is not in the Middle East? Oh, right you are. We are hard by the Atlantic coast — in a time zone just four hours ahead of New York (and of Kalamazoo, Mich., for that matter!). But the conference is on, about, the Middle East. Don’t give me a hard time. Thank you.
So, I think I’ll just wade in. I know we’re all consumed with the elections this week. But consider this journal a little diversion, or supplement. And may I start, not in Morocco, but in Kennedy Airport?
‐CNN is on, and you just can’t escape it. Everywhere you go, it blares. I don’t know whether it’s on in the bathroom: I don’t have to go. Wolf Blitzer is doing interviews, one after another. He talks to Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, the duo from that scandal in the previous administration. He asks them no tough questions — no difficult questions. On the contrary, he adopts their narrative, sings their song. He kind of celebrates them: It’s a conversation among friends and allies. At least, that’s the impression.
No other point of view is given, or even suggested. Of course, people can do with their own shows what they want. (And with their own columns what they want!) But two opinions are often more interesting, particularly on television.
I then see Blitzer interview Valerie Jarrett, the Obama friend and aide. He is grilling her on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The grilling comes entirely from the left: Why hasn’t the administration repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? Will the administration press the Congress to repeal it in the lameduck session? The Republicans are coming, you know: It will be harder to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell when they’re in power. Will you commit to repealing it in the lameduck session?
I realize I’m telling you that dog bites man. But I do have a point: I hadn’t been in touch with CNN in a while. And I hear conservatives say it’s just a liberal opinion network — the way Newsweek has become a liberal opinion journal. I don’t know whether this is true. I saw all of 20 minutes on CNN, something like that. And those 20 minutes may have been unrepresentative.
But I can tell you: CNN looked and sounded like a right-wing caricature of that network.
‐The Star of David is the symbol of Morocco. It’s woven into everything, including the logo of Royal Air Maroc. For some reason, I have a feeling they don’t call it the Star of David in Morocco.
‐On the plane, in the johns, there is . . . bar soap. Not liquid soap, but bar soap: one little square of it, used by all. Now, that’s old-school . . .
‐Is there a more romantic name than Casablanca? A more romantic place-name? Whatever the case, Casablanca is not a very romantic or appealing city, from what I hear. I can’t judge for myself. I merely visit its airport, before transiting to Marrakech.
‐Some locals, in the airport, ask me where I’m going. And by “locals,” I mean people from the region: Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians. When I say “Marrakech,” they all — to a man or woman — respond with glee. “Oh, Marrakech! That’s the best. You’ll love it. The people are so relaxed and interesting there. They like nothing better than to sing and dance. They let nothing worry them. They just enjoy life. You’ll love it.”
They make the Marrakechers sound like Bay Area folk — or Californians in general — at their best. (I realize the striving culture of Silicon Valley is something else. Please don’t disturb me while I stereotype.)
‐Probably the most dignified-looking man in Casablanca Airport is an American — Dr. David Satcher, the former surgeon general. He served under Clinton and a bit of Bush (43). I seem to remember his ticking me off on television. I can’t remember why now. But he must have been an improvement, a vast one, over Dr. Joycelyn Elders. (Remember “Mind your Elders”?)
A lot of people think Dr. Elders’s name was Jocelyn, as is traditional. Actually, it was Joycelyn. (I don’t know why I’m saying “was.” Just because her fame, or notoriety, was many years ago.)
Would you like to know something neat about Dr. Satcher? He introduced himself to me as “David Satcher” — no “Dr.” By the way, if you’d like to see a piece I did, long ago, on the honorific “Dr.” and its freaky place in American life, go here.
‐In the Casablanca Airport are a few cats — not mangy ones, sleek and kempt ones. A lovely touch, I think. Even civilized.
(Not used to seeing “kempt” without the un-, huh?)
‐Among the Moroccan people is a big racial variety — and a very attractive lot the Moroccans are. They are black-black-black, and kind of Madrid white, and many shades in between. They also speak a variety of languages: Arabic, of course, and French, of course, but also Berber, a little Spanish (we are so close), a little English, a little Italian . . . Marrakech is polyglot and alive. I’ve often had occasion to wish I had experienced Alexandria when it was really Alexandria.
Oh, did Nasser and that crowd work a wrecking. A crime against all of us, really.
‐Um, just want to tell you, once you’ve had flower petals in your toilet, you’re really reluctant to settle for anything else. (This is — must be — a record for bathroom references in an Impromptus. I’ve had more in this column than I normally do in about three years.)
‐I remember something I thought in India a few years ago, and included in a journal: “Memo to self: Don’t romanticize the Third World.” There is much that is romantic, certainly in a place like Marrakech. And much that is less so — a lot less so. Is there anything more tiresome than a Westerner who goes on about the lack of cleanliness elsewhere? I’ll go on just for a second.
In Marrakech, there are stores with open fronts: open to the street. The goods are covered in dust and grime. They look pathetic on the shelves. Does anyone buy them? They must. Are they unbothered? Do they see sort of past the dirt?
All over the place, you inhale that which is dirty — or that seems dirty, to someone who has just come from New York, which is not known, in America, for pristinity. (A word you won’t find in a dictionary — at least mine — but one that ought to exist.) People must build up an immunity, an unbotheredness.
The cars, buses, and scooters belch a terrible smoke. We American righties don’t want Draconian environmental standards; but we can all agree on standards — that we should have them, and that they should be high. Funny that America is known, in the world — in Kyoto circles, for example — as the Great Polluter. Do these critics of ours get out much?
Marrakechers like to smoke — and little boys sell cartons of Marlboros right on the street. Should Dr. Satcher give them a warning?
I’ll say one more thing, on this general subject (very general): I remember going to Egypt for the first time, and being startled at the money — I mean, at the bills. They got worn, grimy, shiny, tattered, reduced, sweaty. After some period of use, they became little rectangles of filth. You hesitated to handle them. Now, I may be the least prissy person in America where this sort of thing is concerned. I think our sense of hygiene is a little nuts — a little extreme. But still . . .
Anyway, the Moroccan currency is like the Egyptian currency, physically. How do other countries keep their currency fresh — again, physically? There must be an art, worth sharing.
(I suppose I have been guilty of “hate speech” here. I may be subject to arrest when I return to New York. All I can say is, Come and get me, copper . . .)
‐Marrakech is famed for orange juice, and it ought to be famed: This stuff really is nectar-of-the-gods quality. Florida — dear Florida — eat your heart out.
‐I want to say a little something about the media — not in Morocco, but in the region more broadly. You may have seen this story from several weeks ago. It concerns al-Ahram, the state-run daily in Egypt. Al-Ahram is the New York Times of Egypt — the leading newspaper, the “newspaper of record.” But, again, it is state-run: The editor-in-chief is appointed by the president, Mubarak.
Available to the world’s media outlets was a photo, showing several Middle Eastern leaders, plus Obama. They were striding on a red carpet. Obama was in the lead. Al-Ahram published the photo, doctored: to show Mubarak in the lead.
No big deal, just par for the course. Yet it got me to thinking about my experience with al-Ahram — that is, my knowledge of it. Years ago, I wrote something about what its editor-in-chief had done. This was shortly after 9/11. The editor wrote that, in Afghanistan, U.S. forces were dropping food for desperate people in minefields. He further suggested that this food had been “genetically treated,” with “the aim of affecting the health of the Afghan people” (for the worse, naturally). Therefore, the Americans would kill the Afghans either way: by blowing them up or poisoning them.
This was the editor-in-chief of the dominant newspaper in Egypt, mind you — Egypt, a principal American ally, the recipient of billions upon billions in aid. We were able to know what the paper and its editor were saying thanks to MEMRI — thanks to the translations of the Middle East Media Research Institute.
I also did some writing about Naguib Mahfouz, one of my favorite writers — the novelist who gave us The Cairo Trilogy. He was an honorable man, in multiple ways. Toward the end of his life, he was quoted in al-Ahram as saying rotten things about the Americans in Afghanistan: how they were just as guilty as the terrorists, etc. He was even quoted as justifying the suicide bombers in Israel.
That did not sound like the Mahfouz I knew. I have since talked to several Middle East experts about this, including a friend of the late novelist’s. I don’t believe he said those things. Don’t believe it at all. I think al-Ahram made it up — used the Arab world’s most beloved writer in a sick propaganda war.
Well, that’s a cheery note to end on, isn’t it? A long way from orange juice. But end, we should. Thanks for joining me for this first installment. Do some more Marrakech-ing later on? Meanwhile, happy electioneering.