Chaouen and the Petra Effect

There are some places that you come across that feature on almost everybody’s wish list. The pyramids of Giza, the lost city of Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China, the name a few of the standout examples. Ask for more and you might encounter a few more classics, like New York’s Central Park and the bustling canals of Venice. Extend the list a little further and you’ll probably find a small Moroccan town nestled deep in the Rif mountains of some forty thousand inhabitants. Why? Because a large part of the old town is painted powder blue. Introducing Chefchaouen, the blue pearl of Morocco.

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I should point out, it’s currently under scaffolding in anticipation of its upcoming designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Just like the Fes tanneries last year, that’s another visit hamstrung by the UNESCO beetles. Fortunately, I’ll be a mere hour away all summer, so I’ll be back when they’re done. It promises to be spectacular.

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It’s a strange experience, wandering along an entirely blue street. The whole medina looks like something out of a picture book. You can almost hear the suspicious mutterings of the locals when the first travelers stumbled upon the town a century or so ago; a four hundred-year old refuge from the zealous rage of Castile. There are some doorways and passages that are instantly recognizable from the travel guides and Instagram accounts, and with good reason: they practically scream out for a photo.

And that’s where the trouble begins.

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Chefchaouen is, at the same time, a photographer’s dream and nightmare. Not only have you got some of the most beautiful colours to play around with that architecture can provide, but the villagers themselves are extremely photogenic and set off any street scene like saffron – if you feel like risking it.

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Chaouen has been in the mainstream tourist trade for some five years now and it’s inhabitants have had plenty of time to develop their own opinions about being posted all over the global social media on a daily basis. Being the cautious type, I’d rather avoid trouble and settle for those unoriginal empty street shots, taking proper dioramas only when all backs are turned. But even that, it seems, is sometimes a little too much to ask.

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‘No photos! No photos!’ cries an old woman, rounding a corner just as I press down the shutter on what was mere seconds previously an empty street. I hastily stow away my camera as she grumbles to herself in Arabic about the likelihood of it cropping up on Facebook tomorrow morning. True to self, I’m left feeling so guilty for taking that snap one second too late that I end up doing the rest of Chaouen sans apareil. Thanks for that, jaddatii.

A common joke bandied about by Moroccans – aimed almost exclusively at people like me, I shouldn’t doubt – is the ‘no paranoia’ jibe, reserved for all those travelers who assume indifference when hailed in the street. I had this two or three times after my run-in with the camera-shy abuela, when I bemused a few stallholders by passing by a gorgeous Chaoueni door without reaching for my camera.

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I tried my luck again the following morning, having recovered from that little stumble, only to run into exactly the same problem when I was quite innocently photographing a lantern. ‘No! No!’ says a villager, climbing the stairs towards me. ‘No photos!’. Jesus, Chaouen, what am I allowed to photograph?

The result? I spent the entire day sketching instead.

Sketching appears to be harmless. I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between a sketch and a photograph – a true craftsman puts just as much work into both – but people don’t seem to mind you standing on a street corner and scribbling away for twenty minutes or so. You’d think after a couple of minutes that it’s fairly obvious that you’re the subject of a doodle when the artist in question keeps stealing a casual glance over your shoulder to the mountains behind, and that that might bother some folks… but apparently not. It even has curious passers-by stop and talk to you.

Perhaps that easily-offended old Chaoueni did me a good turn after all. It’s all too easy to become lost behind a camera.

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I have mixed feelings about Chaouen. On the one hand I do admit that it is rather gorgeous, as Moroccan towns go. For me it’s not a scratch on the more authentic Taroudant or Imoulas, but that has more to do with the thriving tourist traffic than the town itself. My main problem with it, it must be said, is what I term the Petra effect: when something receives so much hype that the reality can’t help but disappoint. It’s unfair to say that you shouldn’t rave about an especially beautiful place, but sometimes I’d rather make my own discovery than find the path trodden down before me by the world entire and the locals already soured by thousands of camera-toting holiday-makers. One almost misses the hippies.

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Like Petra before it, I’d heard so very many enticing anecdotes and seen so many beautiful photos of Chaouen that I wasn’t as bowled over as I probably should have been. I will, however, be back. There’s more to the town than I had time to see… and I have all summer. BB x

Jekyll and Hyde

One week from today, I’ll be sitting on the beach at Aqaba with term over and my labours temporarily at an end. Two weeks from today, I’ll be waking up in the comfort of my own bed once again, looking out over the Sussex Downs. Three weeks from today I’ll probably be back in Kent with the family, to see my brother in especial before he leaves for University. And one month from today, I’ll be sitting in the bus station in the sunblasted Plaza de Armas in Seville, waiting for the coach that will take me northwards to what is to be my home for the next nine months.

It’s all moving thick and fast roundabout now. I’m taking some time out in Ali Baba to work on the novel for a bit. Most everyone else has gone off in different directions: some to Wadi Mujib, some to grab a falafel lunch, others to one of the nearby cafes for some quiet study. I’m here in search of my voice, which I seem to have lost whilst I’ve been out here. I spoke to Andrew for quite a bit about this last night, reading back over some of my notes that I penned last year, in various states of emotion. Andrew gave me quite a jolt when he opined that my writing was a great deal better back then. Those aren’t easy words to take for somebody who’s set himself on the path to bettering his writing… How could this be, I wonder? Is it because I’m writing every other day, so I’m drip-feeding my thoughts rather than saving them up for a grand oeuvre? Or maybe it’s because I’m not finding enough time for myself to think properly out here in the city? I think there’s a bit of truth in both of those. My writing has become rather acerbic of late. Compared to all the self-help greenie moralising I used to throw about, my later work comes across as bitter, over-excitable, and above all else more than a little opinionated. I hope it’s not a lasting trend. I took the time to read over my notes a second time after I’d discussed them with Andrew and I’m a lot happier with them, though I know I wasn’t at the time. Maybe I’ll look back on these blog posts in the same way, and maybe not. My saving grace is that there was a victory achieved last night, however small; after comparing my writing, Andrew conceded that maybe sticking it out in a city really isn’t good for me at all. Because if there’s anything that might be described as a true window into the soul, it’s the way we express ourselves, poetry, paint or prose.

My summary of Amman a week ago was misinterpreted by some as an all-out attack on Jordan. I’d like to come clean on that point and confess that it’s really not that. In many ways, I’ve loved Jordan. The dizzying views up into the Golan Heights from across the river, the crashing waterfalls of Wadi Mujib and the stars stretched out like glittering velvet over the desert. Dana in all her majesty. Jordan is beautiful. And capital city though it may be, even Amman has its bright sides. In my melancholy, I’ve been unable to see it; largely, I guess, because I didn’t want to see it. It eludes me still. Picture this: you’re at the cinema, and the guy in the row in front of you turns around and asks you to stop kicking the back of his chair. You didn’t even realise you were doing it. Of course, you then spend the next five minutes wanting the kick the chair even harder – or is that just me? There’s a window into my mind and a half.

What I’m trying to say is that I have a bad stubborn streak, and this city – or any city, for that matter – brings it out of me like never before. When somebody tells me to stop doing something, or that I’m going to like something, my first instinct is to disobey. Watch Mean Girls, they say, ‘because it’s unavoidable… it’s part of our culture’. Instinct tells me therefore I cannot, under any circumstances, be made to watch it. Wait it out in Amman, they say, and try to learn to love it ‘because city life is just something you have to get used to… and Amman is actually a really cool place once you get to know it.’ Sod’s law dictates that it cannot be. It’s the old ‘I’ve come this far, I can’t turn back now’ line.

When you set it down in writing, it’s really quite pathetic…

What’s a guy to do? I reckon the thing that I’m missing most of all, perhaps even more than escaping the metropolis, is time. Time to think, to write, and to be myself. It’s not just my writing that got bitter out here, it’s my personality. It sure is helpful having people around to point that out before it gets rotten. The year abroad is such an important part of your degree that it can feel criminal to ‘waste’ even an hour of it. As such, the last two months have been almost non-stop. Wake up, class, study, go downtown, shopping, sightseeing, studying, repeat. I rarely have more than an hour or so to get my head straight and that’s seldom in the solitary silence that I crave. Maybe I’ve made myself too dependant on ‘me time’; if there’s one common feature in all of my notes from last year, it’s a heavy emphasis on the importance of ‘me time’. I was busy then, too, rushing from class to rehearsal to gig after gig – and yet, I still managed to find time to wind down every week or so and defuse. Not so here. And it shows, right?

Oh, there’ll be one last big reflection on everything that’s gone down out here in the Middle East before I go. I hope that will be a better read, too. A blog in itself is a funny old thing, pasting your thoughts and feelings for the world to see. But that’s what writers do, paper or pixels. Some of my best writing was set down when I was in the throes of a hopeless crush, some time ago. Or maybe it’s just because we’re human, and we all love a good gossip. I don’t know. I’m going to keep looking for my voice, and I hope that I can find it again before I leave this place, if just to leave you with Jekyll’s view on Amman rather than Hyde’s. I think that would be fair. (Oh look, I’ve gone and done a JK Rowling, leaving the explanation of the title to the very last line of the chapter. Now I really do need to get reading some more!) BB x

  

Tick Tock

Blimey, we’re on our fifty-fifth day already. Another two weeks and it’ll be almost time to head for home. In some ways it’s felt like every day of fifty-five, in others it’s flown by. I think it’s safe to say that we’re all ready to pack up and head for home, though. It’s been fun, but it’s been hard work too, and factoring in all of those post-exam rehearsals, I haven’t really had a decent respite since… Well, come to think of it, since the Christmas holidays. Ouch!

We had a lot of fun in class this morning acting out two or three of Nasreddin’s tales. You might also know him as Juha (جحا او نصر الدين). Plenty of opportunities to lark about. For counterpoint, we spent the second hour discussing the wonderfully British tradition of the stiff upper lip; that is, suffering in silence rather than causing anybody problems. Quite a world apart from the very hands-on Arab approach! Even though I’m not planning on returning to the Middle East in the near future, the 3amia classes (the local Arabic dialect) have been useful, if just for learning all the expressions and idioms which I adore. Here’s to the vain hope that some carry across into the Moroccan darija dialect, or even Egyptian.

Proof that I’ve been here too long is that I found myself slipping in and out of Arabic whilst trying to talk to my mum in Spanish over FaceTime. I’ve never had that problem before, not even with French. That’s probably a good thing for my Arabic, which has definitely improved since being here, but it’s doing no wonders for my mental state vis-a-vis my Spanish. Now that I’ve booked my flight it all feels a lot closer, a month and more away though it may yet be. A couple of days with my mega-drawing and it’ll all be over in an instant. I don’t know whether I’ll ever catch up at this rate; I’m already two years in arrears, so to speak. I’m going to have bite my lip pretty damn hard to stop myself from taking it out with me. But a promise is a promise: I’ll give it unti Christmas to get a feel for my new home in Villafranca de los Barros, wherever that may be, before I lug the monster out to Spain with me.

No, I haven’t started house-hunting yet. I’m kind of hoping to do that on foot when I get there. At the very least, I’m not making the same mistake I made out here in settling for a ridiculously expensive option for speed and safety’s sake. And no, I haven’t given up on my dreams of running into Lady Luck with flowing dark hair when I get there either. Or should that be Señora Suerte? Whatever. Miracles can happen. I’m not banking on it, knowing my luck, but it’d sure be a deal sweetener.

Ach, would you look at that, I’m setting myself up for a fall already! I’ve been rambling for a little longer than I intended to. I’ll love you and leave you for now. I need my afternoon nap as much as anybody. Andrew, in his wisdom, went straight home after class to take his. I think it’s time I followed suit. BB x

On the Brink

Twenty-one in a few hours. Blimey, did that come around quick! Rolling out the monster-drawing on the table in front of me, it feels like I only started it yesterday. In actual fact, I first put pen to paper just over a year ago – a year which has, what with a summer job, rehearsals almost every night and the trip of a lifetime to Morocco and back, come and gone before you can say Tinariwen. It’s set to be a boiler, too – a whopping twenty degrees, even high up here in the frozen north. Pity it isn’t predicted to go that one degree higher, to tally up with the twenty-one guests at my birthday party and the twenty-one hours I intend to be awake. Almost twenty-one and I’m still ridiculous about fateful minutiae like that. Something to work on over the next few years.

This year I’ve decided not to find myself another year older in Klute in the early hours of the morning. I did that last year. To be precise, I seem to remember not only spending the early hours of the 11th in Klute, but the final hours of the day in the same establishment. Hardly the grandest of venues for a birthday party – but it is Klute, and it’s kind of a local treasure zealously guarded by the student body on a Friday night, so I didn’t exactly see it that way at the time. This year I intend to turn twenty-one in the comfort of my own room. I’ll probably be working on the picture when the clock turns and the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban audiobook I’m listening to will be nearing its conclusion. I predict the beginning of the time-turner escapade when the clock strikes midnight. How appropriate. I’ll try to get an earlyish night, I suppose. Lord knows I could do with one, after all these recent two o’clock finishes. It’s not the portraits that take so long, it’s the sitting, thinking and planning that occurs whenever I’ve finished one detail. That’s where all the lost hours have gone, I reckon.

So, since it’ll be another busy day tomorrow, I’d better make my plans tonight. And to kick them off, how’s about twenty-one things to do over the next few years?

  1. Learn to drive
  2. Learn to play bass guitar
  3. Teach yourself ki-Swahili
  4. Teach yourself German
  5. Visit every Spanish communidad autonoma
  6. Go to a music festival
  7. Finish that picture
  8. Find a palatable alcoholic drink
  9. Get into a new genre of music
  10. Get a girlfriend
  11. Decide on a new adventure
  12. Cut chocolate from the diet
  13. Find a new hobby
  14. Learn a martial art
  15. Go for a real all-nighter in Spain
  16. Set foot in the Sahara
  17. Give an animal-related job a try
  18. Set foot in the Americas
  19. Be more like my younger brother
  20. Learn to be happy with who and what I am
  21. Rewrite the book ONE LAST TIME and take it to a publisher’s

I think that’s a nice little set of tasks. Not exactly Herculean, but there’s a few worthy challenges in there. These last twenty-one years have been amazing, but for Pete’s sake, I’ll be spending most of the coming year in Spain. It could hardly get any better than that. Here’s to another spectacular, adventure-filled twenty-one years. I should be so lucky! BB x

Clear the Runway

That’s it! No more exams this year! And none for another two years, come to think of it. How’s that for a load off the mind? I guess only time will tell how they went – three weeks’ time, to be precise, by which time I’ll be home. Blimey, but this year has drawn to a close quickly… I’m really not expecting an awesome turnover as far as the language exams are concerned. These last few weeks more than ever I’ve heard people liken language to Maths – the beauty, apparently, being that there’s a logic, and there’s a right and a wrong. Great news if you’ve got the kind of brain that can crunch logic like a harvester, but devastating if your mathematical competence is on par with a freshly-picked beetroot. The highest I ever achieved in a regular Maths paper at school was a paltry 28%. How I got this far – to Durham, of all places – with such a pitiful weakness for numbers is nothing short of a miracle. For me, there’s nothing better than a good, old-fashioned essay, so this last week has been an absolute breeze in comparison with the previous three weeks of grammar-busting. There’s no denying the importance of grammar – it’s the bedrock of any and every language – but it doesn’t exactly make for entertaining reading. Especially when you have to tread the line between what is right and what is wrong. Thank goodness for Arts, where it becomes one big grey area. A difficult place to excel, but a far better environment for the mathematically inept, like me.

Away with the musing. The Morocco/Jordan debate came to a sudden and decisive end yesterday with the booking of return flights from Amman at the end of June. Done! Expensive, but that’s the price you have to pay for visiting wealthy countries. It’s not as though I had much of a choice with my department either, the way things have gone of late. We’re banding together as a year to prevent the following years being plagued by the same problems we faced. Hopefully they don’t have to go through with all that chaos. But that’s that! So I’m going to Jordan. I’ll be there for just over two months before zipping back for a short stop at home before jetting straight back out to Spain, by which point I’ll have much more of an idea as to where it is they’re sending me. Exciting stuff. Now all I’ve left to do is to wait a couple of days for my monstrous portrait to arrive and I can get straight back to work on that, and let’s not forget all the gigs and rehearsals set to swamp me over the coming weeks. And paperwork. Christ, the paperwork. Will it never end?

If you’re after an alternative point of view over the next two months in Jordan, give my friends over at Langlesby travels a browse (https://langlesbytravels.wordpress.com/). It’s highly entertaining reading and a great deal less greenie-pontificating than me! I’m working on that… BB x

Summer's here and the lane is as dark as night again

Freedom!

Back to the Drawing Board

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The waiting game continues. The last language exam is around the corner and then it’s two essay-based exams and then I’m done on the academic front – for the time being – and it’s headlong into three weeks straight of rehearsals, gigs and parties. Isn’t that what summer’s for? As I explained earlier, there’s quite a bit of admin to get through, and I’ve already set out on that, but I can’t tackle the two most pressing until I have a vague idea exactly where it is I’ll be spending the bulk of my year abroad. So roll on Friday! I’m kind of past caring where the British Council send me now, I’m sure it’ll be an enriching experience wherever it is. How’s that for prefabricated merchandising?

So today, tired of revising Arabic grammar, I shut al-Kitaab for the first time in days, shoved it down the side of the sofa and turned my attention back to La Celestina, one of the texts I’m supposed to be writing about in next week’s exam. I’d quite forgotten how good it is. More than that; by academic standards, it’s praiseworthy to say the least, but even as regular books go, it’s really quite amusing. A lot of the gags and stitch-ups are as true-to-life today as they were then. The birth of satire, or something like that. If I can spin a yarn like that in the exam I should be alright. We’ll see. Long ways to go, really – we’re talking next Friday. When that’s over, I’ll be finished, so it ought to be at the bottom of my priorities. But it’s a heck-of-a-lot easier to revise texts because it means I can doodle and muse to my heart’s content and still call it revision. Brilliant. So I thought I’d share with you one of my revision doodles. Featured are Areusa and Elicia, two subsidiary characters from the tale. Yes, they’re quite clearly based on Margaret from the latest Poldark series. So judge me. I’m hooked. It’s a bloody good job the series ended the weekend before my exams began, or I’d really have been doomed. Small mercies! x

Bruegel under the Microscope

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Ever looked closely at Bruegel the Elder’s Massacre of the Innocents? I wouldn’t blame you if you haven’t. It’s a pretty famous painting, but it’s not the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. You might have seen it on a Christmas card, along with the more common Hunters in the Snow, another painting by Bruegel. And why not? It’s a snowy scene with plenty of animals. Perfect for Christmas. Until you look closer. On first inspection it looks like a raid – sundries strewn in the snow, soldiers carrying off sacks, livestock taken for slaughter. A far cry from Christmas. But look a little closer and you’ll see the signs that there’s something far more sinister at work. Hidden away in various corners of the painting are the ghostly remains of figures now painted over. You don’t have to look too closely to surmise that there’s something amiss; a lot of the animals depicted look messier than the figures surrounding them, as do the clothes and sacks. Look closer still and you’ll see shadowy feet beneath one of the sacks. Or a little hand reaching out from the huddle of poultry gathered before the mounted soldiers in the centre of the image. What you’re looking at is far more than just a raid. It’s a Biblical scene brought to life in the snowy Spanish Netherlands; that of Herod and the Hebrew children. It’s a genuine massacre of the innocents.

How did I stumble upon this? Good question. Revision is a tiresome thing and I found Bruegel’s painting on one of my desperate ‘productive procrastination’ sprees. I still can’t remember how. But it was one of those images that I just couldn’t stop staring at, and the more I looked, the more I wanted to know. Why the children? Why were they painted over? And why, when the painting was restored, were they not returned? It chilled me to the bone when I first saw one of the few uncensored images floating around, but I think it’s more poignant than the one we’re left with now, shocking though it may be. What would Goya have thought if the men of El Tres de Mayo had been painted over with cattle? Or is there a line that cannot be crossed, as far as children are concerned? Goya obviously didn’t think so. See Saturn devouring his Son. But what do I know? I’m just musing as usual.

What I think matters most of all is one of the few details that wasn’t amended. In the background, behind the Spanish soldiers, is a man crossing the frozen river with an infant in his arms. He has a sword at his belt but his stance, in tandem with that of the woman standing behind him, imply that his actions are protective, rather than nefarious. It’s the one detail that really sticks in my mind. Is he the father of the child, or a friend, trying to smuggle the child to safety? Did he succeed? Perhaps most poignant of all, is it something Bruegel saw? Tough questions. I wish I’d had more trips to art galleries when I was at school. You can lose yourself for hours in a painting like this. The more you look, the more you see.

Apologies for the heavy content of today’s musing. I’m thinking of writing a novella based on the painting, so I thought I’d share the image with you in case you’re interested. It sure piqued my interest! x