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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Is It Dangerous To Use Drugs In Morocco?

The first time I visited Morocco, in 1969, it was my first trip to the Third World... or anyplace really exotic. It made me realize that Europe was not all that different from America, at least by comparison. I fell in love with the country, the food, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the way of life. And I stopped counting the number of times I've been back once I hit the dozen mark.

That first time I went, I had a bit on an ulterior motive: drugs. I wanted to buy a kilo of cheap kif (their version of hash) in the Rif Mountains around Ketama, smuggle the stuff back to London where I could pack it up well and send it to America, where an accomplice could sell it and help me finance a trip I was about to take to India. That worked out fine-- not just because the deal was smooth all around but also because Ketama and the Rif were pretty different from the rest of Morocco and really interesting. But I've never been back in the 40 years since. I'm more attracted to the urban experiences in Fez, Marrakech, Tangier, even Taroundant and Essaouira. And I don't use drugs any longer; my drug karma is all over now. Inshallah!

Kif is widely available in Morocco-- and one of the country's biggest sources of income-- and sometimes it seems that everyone is smoking it. But it's illegal, if, more or less, tolerated. Although less so than even a decade ago, it's hard to take a walk around without someone offering you some kif. And there are cafes in most places I've been where Moroccans are sitting around smoking kif in hookahs while sipping sugar with some mint tea in it. But if a tourist flaunts it-- like by smoking a joint while walking around a city-- it could be real trouble. The police don't come looking for tourists to bust but they do react when you wave it in their faces. (It's like homosexuality. It's illegal but no one is trying to bust any tourists for it.) However, if you do wind up being arrested, the best thing is to pay a bribe (baksheesh) fine on the spot. Otherwise, you could wind up in jail for ten years.

People ask me all the time if Morocco is a safe place to visit. I certainly think it is-- and I've written about the subject-- but when it comes to drugs, is any place "safe?" Today an American icon, 77 year old country singer Willie Nelson, was arrested in his home state, Texas, because officers at a police check point smelled pot, searched his tour bus and found 6 ounces.
"It's kind of surprising, but I mean we treat him like anybody else," [Sheriff Arvin] West said.

"He could get 180 days in county jail, which if he does, I'm going to make him cook and clean," West said.

"He can wear the stripy uniforms just like the other ones do."

Probably less likely to happen in Morocco-- a far more interesting place to visit in any case. And is this stoner music, or what?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Three Best Restaurants In Marrakesh... I've Got Two

I've always found Morocco so welcoming and so gay-friendly-- but that's only for foreign gays. The homegrown kind, like we saw when we looked at Abdellah Taïa's story last spring, have a much harder time. In fact, a much, much harder time. I'm going to Marrakesh soon and I've been meaning to post about some of my favorite restaurants there and see if I could get some suggestions from other travelers. But then Rachel Maddow pointed to the gruesome news today that Morocco was one of the 79 backward countries in the UN to have voted in the UN to reserve the right to kill gay people just because they're gay. Yes, of course Uganda voted that way too. In fact, scanning through the list it looks like every Muslim country did (other than Bosnia, which voted with the civilized world, and Mauritania, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, which were absent) -- even Oman where the Sultan, Qaboos ibn Sa‘id, is a predatory homosexual (as well as a patricide)-- did.
A new U.N. resolution condemns the arbitrary execution of whole classes of humanity, from street kids to indigenous groups. It was to have included sexual minorities, but a bunch of nations balked at protection for LGBTs. The U.N. General Assembly then approved an amendment that removed them from the list.
The vote was 79-70. Here's the list of countries that wanted to reserve the right to kill the gay:

Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belize, Benin, Botswana, Brunei Dar-Sala, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, China, Comoros, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Cuba, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Myanmar, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Suriname, Swaziland, Syrian Arab Republic, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, United Republic of Tanzania, Uzbekistan, Viet Nam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

That said... let's eat! There are quite a few Google searches for "3 best restaurants in Marrakesh." I've been there over a dozen times-- starting in 1969-- and the last time was about 4 years ago. I thought it was miraculous that this morning I remembered the names of my two favorite restaurants from that trip... and then found that I had posted about them from Morocco at the time.
The only restaurant in Guéliz (the new city) we went to is the justifiably famous Al Fassia. The 2 unique things about it is that it is entirely run by women and that they revel in the concept of a la carte, never an easy thing for foreigners to find. The food was superb and expensive but not over the moon. And, like many Moroccan eateries, if you give them enough notice, they'll prepare things for you to order. The menu has all the best Moroccan standards and you can pick the ones you want and not have to bother with the ones you don't. It was sold out when we went and they said we'd have to come another time but begging and pleading helped and we were seated in an hour... For our big night out the El Cadi's manager suggested we go to the Dar Zellij deep in the heart of the medina. I was intrigued because it isn't in any of the tourist guide books, although it is very much for tourists. We got there considerably before they were ready to serve so we spent some time talking with the very friendly and accommodating owner. The restaurant is simply one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The food, although the typical tourist menu (unless you call in advance and order what you want, which we did), is PERFECTION. Everything was beyond delicious. And the servings were not gargantuan (as is typical in Morocco), although if you're a glutton, have no fear: they're happy to serve seconds on any dish you want more of.

So I'm looking for some suggestions along these lines, restaurants where the chefs are out to impress the customers with the best that they can do. Please let me know if you've found any along those lines. (I've already got Le Tobsil and Yacout on my list, so what I'm looking for is something delicious but not grand.) I also hear that there's a vegan restaurant in town now! Earth Cafe Marrakesh is also organic; it opened in 2007 (and they have a version opening, or just opened, in Essaouira too).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Madagascar Might Be A Great Place To Visit... But Not This Month

There aren't that many places left in the world that Roland and I both haven't been to and both want to go see. This summer we're going to Russia, which took me over a decade to convince him was "worth seeing." And the following Christmas we're planning on Syria now they he's convinced me that you can rent a riad in Damascus. But we're revisiting an awful lot of places-- Marrakech in a few weeks, which I've been to more than a dozen times and trips to London and Amsterdam where I not only visted but lived in. And he want to go back to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia. In the never visited category, I'm pushing for Antarctica, Brazil, South Africa, and the Silk Road towns of Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, and Kashgar and Roland wants to go to Mysore and Kerala in India, Tibet, and Algeria. We're both leaning towards Madagascar. Why Madagascar?

Well aside from the fact that neither of us has ever been there, Madagascar is one of the more unique places on the planet, in some ways a world unto itself. Because the gigantic island, 4th largest in the world, isn't really near anyplace else, it's flora and fauna developed on its own and the biodiversity is spectacular with endemic species from birds to lemurs.

Unfortunately, there was another coup d’état last week, which, among other things, is having an unfortunate impact on the recently thriving tourism industry. Yesterday's NY Times seemed to signal the insurrectiuon is over, or almost over, although I'm glad we're going there in 2 years, not 2 weeks.
Hundreds of soldiers loyal to Madagascar’s High Transitional Authority-- the internationally isolated government formed by Andry Rajoelina, who became president with the military’s backing last year-- converged on a base here near the airport, where about 20 mutinous officers had been staying since Wednesday. Officials said talks were planned, but shots could be heard inside the base.

Col. Julien Ravelomihary, a high-ranking member of the High Transitional Authority’s military, told reporters that the officers were “ready to hand themselves over, but junior officers are resisting.”

On Wednesday, the officers declared they were taking over from Mr. Rajoelina, who toppled an elected president in 2009 after months of violent protest. Western powers and Madagascar’s African neighbors have accused Mr. Rajoelina of trampling on democracy, and some in the military have grown disenchanted with him.

After a brief warning about the lack of political stability, the Lonely Planet waxes enthusiastic in the extreme about Madagascar, pointing out that there's no place like it on earth.
In fact, all things considered, it barely qualifies as part of Africa: the two are separated by hundreds of kilometres of sea and 165 million years of evolution-- long enough for Madagascar’s plants and animals to evolve into some of the weirdest forms on the planet. Nowhere else can you see over 70 varieties of lemur, including one that sounds like a police siren, the world’s biggest and smallest chameleons, and the last stomping ground of the elephant bird, the largest bird that ever lived. Near Ifaty in Southern Madagascar you will see forests of twisted, spiny ‘octopus’ trees and in the west, marvel at the bottle-shaped baobabs, especially the Avenue du Boabab near Morondava. And be on the look out for the carnivorous pitcher plant found around Ranomafana, there are over 60 varieties of them. Not for nothing is Madagascar regarded as the world’s number one conservation priority.

And the people are no less interesting: arriving here some 2000 years ago along the Indian Ocean trade routes, they grow rice in terraced paddies, and speak a language that has more in common with their origins in Southeast Asia than with the African continent. Their culture is steeped in taboo and magic, imbuing caves, waterfalls, animals and even some material objects with supernatural attributes. Hill peoples live in traditional multistoried brick houses with carved balconies and, in some areas, dance with their dead ancestors in the ‘turning of the bones’ ceremony.

Throw in a soupçon of pirate history, coastlines littered with shipwrecks, great regional cooking, some of the world’s longest place names, and unfailingly polite and friendly people, and you’ll experience a refreshing take on the overused ‘unique’ tag.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

There Are Other Ways Of Getting Around Airport Security Than Being John Boehner

Roland and I fly a lot... and we like to feel safe. Roland seems to be pretty complacent about the latest TSA efforts to look like they're keeping the flying public safe with the full body scanners and intrusive, aggressive full body pat downs. Last night he told me that he read somewhere that the latest in terror tactics will be for suicide bombers to fill their stomachs with plastic explosives and we should enjoy the little inconvenience the TSA is inflicting on us now because its going to get a lot worse.

Today's NY Times laid out all the complaints about the new TSA initiative, from the serious dangers of cancer and blindness to the rapaciousness of a crook like former Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff who got this ball bouncing on behalf of one of his firm's clients, Rapiscan Systems which Chertoff recommended as the manufacturer for our airport safety and which has already benefited to the tune of a quarter billion dollars.

I still recall standing on long lines and feeling Big Brother was further dehumanizing me and I blamed it on Bush. I'm sure there were plenty of otherwise apolitical frequent flyers who turned away from the GOP because of the increasingly authoritarian nature of airport security. I remember talking with fellow passengers about how things would start to get better under Obama. But Obama seems politically tone deaf to what's going on at the airports. And it doesn't help that rich people and politically-connected people-- like John Boehner-- don't have to go through what the rest of us have to.
As he left Washington on Friday, Mr. Boehner headed across the Potomac River to Ronald Reagan National Airport, which was bustling with afternoon travelers. There was no waiting for Mr. Boehner, who was escorted around the identification-checking agents, the metal detectors and the body scanners, and whisked directly to the gate.

The Republican leader, who will become the second person in line to assume the presidency after the new Congress convenes in January, took great pride after the midterm elections in declaring his man-of-the-people plans to travel home as other Americans do. In a time of economic difficulty, it was a not-so-subtle dig at Ms. Pelosi, who has access to a military jet large enough to avoid refueling for her flights home to San Francisco.

And if you want to pay to join a Verified Identity Pass program like Clear, you can almost be treated as well as Boehner.
Members who pay the $99.95 annual fee to join and who submit to biometric and background screening are given access to a private lane, which purports to usher them through security with more predictability, greater speed and less hassle ($28.00 of that fee goes to the TSA to cover the cost of completing a security threat assessment). “Clear has made this new life of flying commercial, which has gone down the toilet, a little more bearable,” said program member Henry Morgan, regional manager of Highline Products in Orlando.

Clear [$199/year] is one example of the Registered Traveler programs that the Transportation Security Administration has developed in conjunction with private companies in order to, as the TSA puts it, “provide expedited security screening for passengers who volunteer biometric and biographic information” and who “successfully complete a security threat assessment.” To date, Verified Identity Pass and four other companies-- Unisys, Saflink, Verant and Vigilant-- have satisfied TSA’s criteria to act as providers of Registered Traveler services. As the TSA notes, "The program is market-driven and offered by the private sector with TSA largely playing a facilitating role."

President Obama may think working out "free" trade agreements with China and Colombia that ship more American jobs overseas are better uses of his time but some American voters are boiling that this airport screening mess is being handled so poorly and they're not going to blame faceless bureaucrats, Joe Lieberman or Michael Chertoff. They're going to blame Barack Obama.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Bacha Bazi-- Tales Of Afghanistan

When I first got to Afghanistan in 1969, having driven in my VW van from London, my strongest immediate thought-- other than how unbelievably strong the hash is-- was that no matter how far I had traveled in space I had traveled much further in time-- straight backward. I was thousands of miles from my parents' home in Brooklyn... and what felt like as many thousands of years back in time. I remember writing to a friend that I was feeling like I was living in the Bible (Old Testament).

Things have changed a little since then. I lived in a "village" (two family compounds off a barely demarcated dirt track) for a winter up in the Hindu Kush where no one had ever heard of the United States (and no one had ever experienced electricity). I'm not sure if they've experienced electricity some 4 decades later but I'd bet you they've heard of the United States.

When you travel to, let's say "exotic" places like Afghanistan, you're better off leaving your cultural judgments in check. There's no way to reasonably compare our cultural standards to the ones that govern their lives. I got used to the concept, for example, of two good cleanings a year-- one in the spring and one in the fall, something very different from the swim, jacuzzi, steam bath and shower I do in some combination everyday here in L.A. Better to just roll with the punches. However, there was something I experienced a couple times in Afghanistan that I just couldn't swing with. It was pretty horrifying. They call it Bacha Bazi and my experience of it came at two weddings, one in Ghazni southwest of Kabul, which I believe was the 4th biggest town in the country, and one up in the Hindu Kush, the land time forgot. Bachas are young dancing boys. We'll come back to this cultural artifact in a moment, but this is what Wikipedia says about it.

You don't ever see the womenfolk in Afghanistan. My closest friend got married while I was there and I lived in his house and spent virtually all of my time with him for several months. Everyone used to joke that we were brothers. I never saw the girl he married, not once. In the same house! Nor was she-- or his mother or sisters-- at the wedding. Well, that isn't exactly accurate. They had their own party in the women's part of the house. But it wasn't exactly separate-but-equal; just separate.

Big steaming platters of rice with meat and vegetables were brought out by male servants-- actually slaves but no one called them that-- and everyone dug in with their fingers, food rolling down everyone's beards back onto the platters. Yum, yum. When the men were done eating, the leftovers were fed to the servants and dogs, although I don't remember in what order, and then what was left from that was sent to the women. Meanwhile we had song and dance-- the young boys. There was a troupe of them from somewhere who are hired to entertain at parties. They looked like they were between 12 and 16 and they were wearing women's dancing clothes, more or less; they all had big heavy farmer boots on. And they all had their eyes smeared with kohl and some kind of rouge substitute. Everyone was hootin' and hollerin' when they were dancing, kind of alluringly, truth be told. No one was drunk but everyone-- every single person-- was high on hash. At one point the groom's grandfather suddenly jumped up-- apparently unable to restrain himself for another second-- grabbed the youngest, smallest bacha and dragged him behind a building and raped him.

It was gruesome to hear... but it didn't seem to put any kind of a damper on the party at all. The rest of the troupe kept dancing and everyone else just ignored the commotion and just enjoyed the festivities. It's part of their culture. Ten minutes later grandpa and the 12 year old came back from around the building, straightening their clothes. The bacha seemed to have felt his dignity was affronted but he jumped right back into the line and danced away the rest of the evening as though nothing had happened. I'm not sure what happened afterwards but from what I heard, all the boys were raped (more or less).

And although these people definitely have heard of America now, they still enjoy a little bacha bazi as part of their cultural heritage, especially the wealthy men, although wealth is a relative thing and whomever is exercising power gets himself a young bacha or two (or a half dozen) to keep as sex slaves. Frontline did a special on the phenomena by journalist Najibullah Qurasishi. You may find it difficult to watch but it will certainly give you an idea about a not uncommon aspect of Afghanistan, a country the U.S. military is occupying for no apparent purpose and with no apparent positive effect.