(Sort of) Arabian Nights

On a recent trip to Morocco, I read the book ‘In Arabian Nights’ by Tahir Shah.

Through this remarkable book, many of the things my friends and I were noticing about the culture we found ourselves experiencing came into focus.

Marrakesh feels like an assault on the senses. Every narrow alley and bustling square is filled with market stalls, donkeys, motorbikes, and every kind of person. From gormless tourists to hippies, traditionally dressed bedouin and berber to innumerable Moroccan traders seeking to entice everyone else into their shops crammed with goods.

It can be an uncomfortable place – squeezing through impossibly tiny spaces, having menus and goods thrust at you, not to mention the catcalling my female friends experienced. In his book, Shah talks about the formidable Moroccan women who rule the roost at home, but it’s an unpleasant realisation that many men see western women as completely different.

Interestingly, the favourite name that the sellers called at me was ‘Ali Baba.’ For a rather pasty Englishman I found this quite hilarious. Ali Baba is one of the characters that we in the West associate with the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ – the collection of tales told through generations in the deserts of Arabia and North Africa.

In legend, these stories would be told around the campfire to keep the minds of shepherds and merchants alert as they travelled the trade routes and pilgrimage trails, all the way from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Each story is viewed as a vessel for some lesson or message, passed on from a time before writing.

The historical art of storytelling still holds sway over many in Morocco. You can see how the past in much closer to the surface in the crumbling, donkey-filled streets of Marrakesh. We are very good an sanitising our cities in Europe. In some ways, the markets of Morocco have not changed for a thousand years. The goods made and sold, the leather and metal and wood, have been made for generations.

‘In Arabian Nights’ is in part the search for the story ‘in the heart’ of the author. It is also a panorama of life in Morocco for an outsider, albeit one who speaks the language. You can see in its pages the way that superstition and stories permeate the streets of this ancient kingdom, like the sun streaming through the geometric roofs of the covered markets.

One of the highlights of our trip was a tour with a local guide to the local countryside. We visited the High Atlas mountains and the desert, rode on camels and wandered through abandoned villages. Talking with our guide, we learned about how Moroccans pride themselves on their religious tolerance, as well as their Muslim heritage. Our assumptions were challenged, even as we were acutely aware of our whiteness and foreignness.

Shah discusses the phenomenon of mass tourism in his book. How the locals are very happy for the money tourism brings, and thanks to the high value they place on hospitality, are wonderful hosts. Our riad had it’s own cook, who was one of the most wonderfully kind and caring people we met. She prepared us delicious food and copious amounts of refreshing mint tea.

I can’t help but worry that Morocco is being spoiled by tourism, yet at the same time something about the country seemed remarkably ancient and unchanged. Shah talks about ‘rivers of words’ flowing below the streets and the sands of the country, deep enough that they are untouched by the modern world. These rivers link Moroccans together and back in time to their ancestors.

The love that bonds the people to each other, to their community, and to their past, goes beyond our Western conception. It is tied up with obligation and family in a way that our individualism has turned away from. Undoubtedly their are negative aspects to this and it was very noticeable how different, often negatively, gender relations were on our short visit. Yet the bonds of love and community seemed so much stronger, so much deeper, than we experience. It got us thinking about how new our ‘western’ way of life is. How so much has changed so fast. What have we lost?

I can’t recommend this wonderful book highly enough, but you should be sure to read it in Morocco. Let the rivers of words and the ancient charm wash over you and see what you learn.

 

10 Books

So I was nominated to do this. Yet I thought rather than post it on Facebook, I would put it here. Maybe I’m a snob, maybe I’m proud…but hey, it got me thinking!

I have been enjoying reading significantly more in the last few years, after the burn out of studying a history degree wore off, so this post is perhaps timely.

Here are ten books which have had a lasting impact on me (whatever that quite means). Basically, ten books I’ve loved.

1. Harry Potter (them all) by J. K. Rowling – I am definitely a child of Potter, having grown up with these wonderful books. I still come back to them time and again.

2. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – I recently re-read my own annotated copy from GCSE days. A real shame if this wonderful novella is removed from the curriculum. I suffered through and came out loving it.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – Rarely have I been so moved by a book. Simply wonderful. Catch the film too.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – This classic is slow-paced but so very atmospheric.

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins – Truly gripping. Thank goodness I read them after they were all available!

6. Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill – More niche this one. A wonderful account of various Christians’ struggles with same-sex attraction. I found it profoundly touching and timely for the church today.

7. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger – Another classic worth looking up. Immersive and thought-provoking.

8. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – The most clever and devious murder mystery you’ll ever read. There isn’t even a detective in it.

9. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl – A world of pure imagination indeed. Who could fail to love a book with a chocolate river in it?

10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon – Simultaneously affecting and frustrating. A really interesting read.

The (Late) Breakfast Club

Were you a horrid teenager? You know the drill – grunting, drinking, mono-syllabic moaning, messing up your room, generally being a stereotype. Well, I think I missed most of these things in my teenage years (maybe my parents disagree?) but I have had a growing appreciation of the delights of being a teenager recently. Maybe this is further evidence of my refusal to actually grow up and I’m sure it’s rather rose-tinted as well, yet I have been enjoying nostalgically dipping my toes into being a ‘teenager’ again.

I hope you have had the joy of watching classic ‘teen movies.’ Not sparkly-vampire infested ones, but classic, quotable, bad-hair featuring ones. Movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Juno and Clueless. There’s something about the boundless opportunity and optimism of the characters, even when they are forced to spend a whole Saturday in detention, that seems to me to be the thing I miss about teenager-hood. The feeling that the world really is your oyster and that any kind of creative, random, unexpected thing could happen. Too often, this feeling is drowned out in me by jaded, perfunctory, grown-up-ness.

My renewed youth has also been fed by teen-fiction. Yes, that’s right. Sounds terrible doesn’t it. But when I think that I was eagerly awaiting the last Harry Potter book or two well into my twenties it’s not all that surprising. I was totally gripped by The Hunger Games trilogy, loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower and, damn it, was holding back tears reading The Fault in our Stars. There’s something about the intensity of feeling, the ‘universe is centred around me and how I feel right now’ perspective of these characters, as well as the ‘this friendship will never be the same again’ sadness, that makes these books so appealing in many ways. Or maybe just easier to read.

As I think about the future and the possibilities before me, are they really less vast than those I imagined (or not) when I was an actual teenager? Is it not a positive thing to seek to enjoy every moment, eager to await each surprise, rather than dreading the next hiccup? If nothing else, this teenage flashback has reminded me that God has been faithful to me up to now, so much more than I could have expected. Whatever is to come, I look forward to enjoying his goodness and the gifts, whether as big as a new job or a child, or as small as a sunny day and an ice lolly, that he generously gives. And when it’s hard, it will be OK, because time goes on and he is faithful.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Ferris Bueller

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Welcome to Moomin Valley

I was lucky enough to see the brilliantly wacky Moominland Midwinter with my family at the theatre this Christmas. Having not thought twice about the Moomins since childhood, I was struck once again by their utter randomness, complete nonsensicalness, and gentle cheerfulness (lots of nesses…).

In what other world could Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden go on a walk through the snow to see Too-Ticky and the invisible shrews? Or Little My and Snufkin run into Mrs Fillyjonk or a Hemulen?

I have to say, the names make me giggle, but in a very affectionate way. There’s little better than a silly name to bring a smile to my face. Simple things, eh.

Having sought out some of the wonderful Tove Jansson comic strips, I have enjoyed reading the gentle adventures of the residents of Moomin Valley. Perfect bedtime reading. The tone is like a Scandinavian Winnie the Pooh; colder, but no less warm somehow. Imagine the Hundred Acre Wood transplanted to Finland, with a bit of extra whimsy.

Anyhow, I’d recommend you take a look and ponder with me that age old question, ‘What is a Moonmintroll really?’

Albino hippopotamus? Giant-headed dwarf polar bear? Your guess is as good as mine….!

But it doesn’t really matter. And that’s the point I guess. Which makes me smile. Again. 🙂

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