Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Interesting last couple of days

Too much has been going on and not enough time to write it all up! (I also have pics that I need to Flickr, but that takes time too.)

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be invited to a party at Dar Gnawa where members of Embryo, a Germany-based musical collective, jammed with the members of Dar Gnawa into the wee hours.

I also met a couple of Gnawi MREs (that's Marocains Resident a l'Etrangere, or Moroccans who live abroad) at the party who are holding down Gnawa knowledge in Spain. One of them recommended I get a couple of CDs by Muslim, a local Tanjawi rapper, which I did today, got the one he recommended, Bghini oula Krahni ("Love me or hate me"), as well as another.

Then today I got into the Legation Museum early for some research, found out some interesting sources, but I had to leave before noon to meet a friend for lunch at his home. We chatted afterward, found he knows some important people for me to meet, and then we started into a rambling review of, for some reason, war films... Which led us by way of The Battle of Algiers and Revolution to Platoon and Apocalypse Now...

Which reminded me of the scuttlebutt: Francis Ford Coppola was in Tangier this summer buying a home in the Madina.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Etymologies and Then Some

(This is a response to the comment on the previous posting.)

Paul, thanks for your confidence! There are still many problems with etymology, though, even within eclectic and poetic nonlinear approaches...

First, the total number of roots is probably lower than 8000--waw-waw-waw, for example, wouldn't work as a root, and there are tons of other nonsensical combinations of three consonants. On the other hand, there are some quadrilateral roots, and also some new roots that started out as nouns borrowed from Turkish, Persian, French, etc., that were then "Arabized" into a morphological standard, even though many of these haven't been accepted into formal Arabic yet. Finally, there are tons of loan words that keep getting rejected, but many have slipped through into orthodox texts after many years. Many of these are nouns, and are not Arabized and elaborated into verbs and adjectives, and thus their etymologies are a lot easier to spot.

One interesting related process is the creation of "false etymologies." Because no colloquial system that I know of reproduces all the consonants of Arabic "faithfully," many differences in written form are masked in colloquial pronunciation. For example, the dhal and tha sounds (voiced and voiceless linguadental fricatives?) turn into very strange and distinctive z and s sounds in Lebanese Arabic. In Moroccan Arabic, they much more regularly turn into simple d and t sounds, even though these already exist in formal Arabic as dal and ta. Lebanese like to argue that even though they say tha wrong (being too influenced by Aramaic), they're still less wrong than Moroccans, who would not be able to distinguish tha from ta in everyday speech, apart from context. In other words, in all spoken Arabic you find some homophones, and in everyday etymologies these distant roots are joined because they sound alike. There's a long and celebrated history of some notorious French and American scholars who worked in North Africa without bothering to learn how to read and write Arabic. They got snookered into buying whole-heartedly into some of these everyday etymologies and they went on to elaborate some really charming little theories. Over the centuries, these scholars have provided the Arabic literati with no end of amusement.

Further, for hundreds of years, Arabic linguists did not really pay much attention to the Arabian peninsula (where today pronunciation of spoken varieties continues to diverge sharply from formal Arabic), and were instead based in Baghdad (Persian influence), Damascus (Aramaic influence), and Cairo (Coptic influence). As a result, sometimes the semantic boundary lines between roots are quite obscured, and implications and textures cross back and forth. Even for Arabists, important questions remain unanswered.

For example, in Impasse of the Angels (Chicago, 1997, p. 269), linguistic anthropologist and Arabic language scholar Stefania Pandolfo comes across the Moroccan word "frag" and explains its origin. Since g does not exist in formal Arabic, we must search for the third radical in the root: F-R-?. Egyptian Arabic gets its g from jim (J), but Gulf Arabic gets its g from qaf (Q). Since in Moroccan Arabic "frag" implies "a gap, a separation," Pandolfo proposes F-R-Q, to separate, part, or divide. Since Morocco is closer to Egypt than to the Gulf, though, when I read the word I was thinking about F-R-J, which means to open, part, separate, or cleave. While FRQ and FRJ seem to be related, I thought FRJ was a more likely root, since associated derivations show the emphasis in FRQ to be on the sides that have been divided, while the associated derivations of FRJ seems to focus more on the empty space itself. But then I thought of ghayn. What about F-R-Gh?

I thought of ghayn because I have found that many French speakers, including Moroccans, tend to mispronounce this velar fricative as a uvular fricative ("The French R"), pushing it farther and farther back from g. This tendency has had direct implications on my little field of Gnawa studies, since the "uvular ghayn" obscures the relationship between "Ghana"--pronounced in Arabic the way it's written, "ghana"--and Gnawa. For that matter, such arguments also separate the spelling of Ghana from the way it is currently pronounced by its citizens: "gana." In other words, French speakers tend to discount a relationship between gh and g, because they see a closer relationship between gh and r. Which is pretty far-fetched from a strictly Arabic perspective, where the ra is a rolled r, as in Spanish.

But F-R-Gh is also related in meaning to FRQ and FRJ: to be empty, void, to be vacant, used up, exhausted. Here, the focus is exclusively on the empty space, and its condition upon being emptied.

So there appears to be some relationship between the three roots, and moreover it appears to progress from fullness to emptiness or from wholeness to fragmentation, FRQ to FRJ to FRGh. Now I'm wondering whether F-R-G wasn't some original root in another language, perhaps Coptic, which was mispronounced by subsequent Arabic speakers who created FRQ, FRJ, and FRGh as ways to compensate for their inability to reproduce the g sound. Or maybe, horror of horrors, the origin is the Latin fragmentere... (And this is not out of the question, since of course most Medieval Arabic linguists were conversant in Greek and Latin, and many of the people who became Mediterranean Arabs had contact in one way or another with speakers of these languages.)

Friday, August 25, 2006

To Express or Communicate

"An unjust decree was promulgated in the 'Moriscos' law, which ordered the eviction of the last remaining Andalucians and compelled them to cross the sea and emigrate to the lands of North Africa [after 1492]."

(From al-Bukhlakhi, Amhannad, in Mafkharat al-Rif: Al-Mujahid al-Maghribi Muhammad 'Abd al-Karim al-Khatabi [“The Pride of the Rif: The Moroccan Mujahid Muhammad Abdelkrim al-Khatabi”], Tangier: Matabi' al-Shamal, 2005, p. 12.)

A common Arabic word for "express," "declare," "voice," or "state clearly" is 'abbara / yu'abbiru. The form (morphology) is "Form 2," fa''ala, which has often been considered to express active intention or intensification. The root is 'ain-ba-ra, which in the simple form 'abara / ya'buru (or "Form 1") most commonly refers to fording a river, crossing a strait, or passing over or traversing an obstacle. This was the word I found in the passage above.

Thus, due to the striking harmony and elegant symmetry of Formal Arabic, in Form 2 the concept of "to cross" intensifies to yield something like "to make an object cross over an obstacle"—in a sense, to express an idea across a void.

We should not understand this crudely as yet another version of the idea that communication is successfully achieved by crossing boundaries between similar individuals: that once encoded carefully, a message can be sent across the abyss that divides each of us from one another, whereupon it is appropriately decoded by the receiver, with the result of perfect understanding.

Instead, I want to stress the tentative and partial connotations suggested by the image of fording a river or crossing a straight. Everyone knows such crossings are dangerous. When we see a friend off on a crossing, we can’t know for sure that everything will go smoothly.

Moreover, from the point of view of the mediator, the form and content of the message are really not that important. In this example, the ferry captain and crew are responsible for mediating, for making sure the cargo or passenger makes it across safely. Sometimes the ride is rough or the course is diverted, the ferry seeking any port in a storm. Occasionally, the boat sinks. But the key factors in the success of such an expression are not content, but rather medium and context. No matter how priceless the objects, no matter how well secured the cargo, the success of the crossing depends on the soundness of the vessel and the severity of winds and currents.

In fact, there is no perfect communication model. There is no discrete chain of "sender-message-receiver." Rather, there is a sender, a message, and mediation—and the media here could range from spoken words to texts to DVDs to online chat to video chat (which is at least triply mediated). On the other side, there are media, a message, and a receiver. Not only do these two sides inhabit different planes, but they also completely interlace and shift and interface with one another, and there is usually a lot of static, framing, and multitasking involved.

Moreover, the connections between each of the constituents of this anti-model are loose and never assured: Although we know that our receivers might have believed that they understood what they thought they heard, they probably have not yet realized that what they heard couldn’t possibly have been what we meant.

Finally, no common language can be assumed. We are crossing between two sides of a gulf, two banks of a strait, and the critical point is that communication occurs across it despite the absence of a common community. Communication must precede full understanding, and thus a fully shared language. In fact, it's only through communication that a shared language can be built, just as we make friends over the course of many conversations and interactions.

So I guess my point is that the Arabic word represents the idea that "communication" implies in a way that is superior to how the English word "communication" represents it, because the English term leads us to argue that a "common" language precedes communication.

OK, I have dissembled a bit here. The Arabic equivalent of "communication" is more properly found in the family of words stemming from the root waw-sad-lam, wasala / yasilu. The meanings involve "uniting," "joining," "combining," and many others all the way up to ittisalat, or telecommunications. But wasala is also a crisp and discrete root that imagines connections and links without implying any necessary commonality of the things that are linked. It’s just that 'abara is so much more tangible and poetic and evocative.

(For my brother, who likes to bash spurious reasoning-from-etymology that pretends to establish "what a word really means" by digging up the bones of Latin and Greek roots: This is not an etymological argument. Just as it’s pretty obvious to any everyday English speaker that "communication" contains "commun," which sounds like and indexes "common," the Arabic relationships are similarly clear to an everyday Arabic speaker. Hey, if Chomsky can pose himself as the final arbiter of what an "everyday speaker" knows, so can I, right?)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Other clarity...

I've been hearing a lot of Spanish pop in Tangier. I assumed that it came from Tangier's proximity to Spain, and the fact that most of the FM stations you can pick up here are Spanish.

But then I got some mix CDs from Marrakesh, and there was a lot of Spanish music there too... And not just Spanish pop, but also hip-hop and other more interesting styles.

So here's wayne&wax, a blogger who commented on hawgblawg, and his discussion of a Puerto Rican reggaeton group called Calle 13. He has video and music samples that demonstrate its own influences from Brazilian musics...

This all suggests to me that while some of this Latin American music might be mediated through Spain (for the Rif and the north of Morocco), much is also coming more directly to the rest of Morocco through more conventional sources--namely, the Internet.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lovely Day

This is one of the nicest days I've seen yet in Tangier--the reason we have a quarter of a million tourists in town right now. Last night it got down close to 60, and I had to shut the window (that's been open since mid-July) or else get a blanket.

Today it's 79 degrees and extremely clear. One of those days when you can see not only Spain... Not only the sand of the beaches... But the white breakers on the beaches, the roads over the mountains, the little houses of Tarifa, all four ferries--all in a row--stretched between Tangier's port and Tarifa's, 8 miles away.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Tel Quel Rawks!

(OK, it’s less rock than it is a hybrid fusion of hip-hop, funk, Gnawa, raggamuffin, rai, rap, reggae, R&B, punk, bhangra, folk, shaabi, and pop... But you get the idea.)

At the end of July Tel Quel released its 116-page July-August super-edition (25 dirhams/$3), which enables the journalists to engage in the sacred Moroccan middle-class ritual of taking off the month of August. The edition included a free copy of the latest album, Sleeping System, from musical wunderkind Barry.

In 1994, Barry became one of the first Moroccan kids to rap in Darija, at the age of 14, with the rap posse Casa Muslims. He formed a reggae group called Barry and the Survivors in 2001, then launched a hard-core punk experiment, before finally settling into his current blend of Moroccan pop/reggae/raggamuffin fusion.

I already had shot video of portions of Barry’s set at Essaouira, where he opened for Algerian rai-rock-punk legend Rachid Taha. In particular, I got the entire performance sequence—including Barry’s explanations and exhortations, and the crowd’s exuberant reactions—of his hilarious, outlandish, and hard-hitting rocksteady political anthem "Johnny Walker Bush."

I had been feeling pretty defeatist whenever I thought of working through the video of this song in addition to Barry’s chitchat with the crowd—discerning, comprehending, transcribing, then translating the dense Casablanca street darija (like members of Nass al-Ghiwane, Barry grew up in the legendary working-class quarter of Hay Mohammadi)—and I was putting off getting started until my friends at Dar Gnawa got back from their France-Germany tour and could help me out.

But one of the tracks on Sleeping System is a studio version of "Johnny Walker Bush," and the liner notes include the lyrics in Moroccan Arabic, in Arabic script. This is a first for me, for a Moroccan CD to include lyrics, and particularly lyrics in Darija. Anytime you can find Darija in commercially successful publications, it’s a major point. (It’s also lifesaver for someone like me who always feels about one language short of being bilingual...) So I was overjoyed—a lot of work has already been done, and now I also have an "official" version to test against the live one. I’m still going to need extensive help from a young Tanjawi hip enough to break through all the slang...

Last night, though, I really hit the jackpot. In July Tel Quel also published a 196-page "Le Best Of" edition (50 dirhams/$6) that reprises the editors' favorite stories from the last five years of the magazine's existence. This edition includes some tasty extras:

1. "Know Your Rights," a booklet published in collaboration with Transparency Maroc and the Ministry of the Interior, which details all the rights and responsibilities of Moroccan subjects with regard to identity cards and other bureaucratic hurdles, all written in plain, conversational French;

2. Three posters:
(A) An organizational structure of the principal branches and offices of the Moroccan secret security services,
(B) A chart of the major Moroccan Islamist movements,
And (C), my favorite, a family tree detailing the various lineages, births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and current affiliations of all 31 more-or-less active official and unofficial political parties, with such cute little tidbits as:
"Union Constitutionelle: a center-right liberal party founded in 1983 and dictated to by the palace; Leader: Muhamed Abied; Ideology: only God knows";

3. And finally, the compilation CD Stoune 2: Le Best Of de la fusion marocaine, containing 14 tracks by Barry, Dayzine, Oum, Fnaire, Hoba Hoba Spirit, and H-Kayne, as well as a bonus video to the "Dear Mama" duet by Barry and Oum.

The "Dear Mama" video features Oum channeling Rita Marley via Erykah Badu--wearing a head wrap, singing in ethereal R&B Darija and perfectly accented American English--along with Barry singing and rapping in Darija. The liner notes puff it: "Inspired by Tarantino and manga," the video is "one part Mad Max, one part Bollywood, [with] amazing special effects and dancing... You would never dream that the entire video was conceived, designed and produced by three creative young Moroccans who are, on average, only 25 years old."

I had already been scouring music shops for Stoune 2 and Stoune, last year’s compilation, so now I’m already halfway there. Plus, the liner notes have informed me that Hoba Hoba Spirit have offered their entire debut album free for download here, but the download is currently out of service. (Their sophomore effort, Bled Skizo or Blade Schizophrene, should be out later this year.)

Like Sleeping System, Stoune 2 also has lyrics to all the songs, including the reggae track "Basta Lahya" by Hoba Hoba Spirit. Lahya, meaning "beard," is a term used by impudent kids to refer to excessively religious men; I think basta means "stop it" in Spanish. The three verses to the song--in Darija, French, and Darija--mount a series of attacks on the "beards" for ruining the country. Here’s the refrain:

Ayayaye I was born in Casa (short for Casablanca)
Ifriqi miya fal-miya ("One hundred percent African")
Had al-rigi hta huwa ("This reggae is where it's at")
Ayayaye al-hamdulillah mulana ("Praise God our Lord")
Had al-blad bladna ("This country is our country")
On vous l’abandonnera pas ("You'll never be abandoned")

I.e., in six short lines, a wondrous confusion of local, national, and transnational--and specifically pan-African--identifications; including a stock invocation of God, despite the verses’ anti-religious bent; pulled through to patriotism and even nationalism; and all expressed in a heady mix of Arabic, French, and English...

I.e., a goldmine for your friendly neighborhood cultural analyst to go to town on...

Thank you, Tel Quel.

PS: I can’t help reproducing a few important lines from the Hoba's cover of the haunting Nass al-Ghiwane song "Fine Ghadi Biya Khouya" (Where are you going, Brother?), which celebrates and laments migrant laborers. The gentle guitar-driven acoustic ballad (a la the U2 of Joshua Tree) intersperses old-school rap verses in French and Darija with a shaabi chorus chanted Nass-style in Darija, which finally devolves into the refrain from Bob Marley’s reggae anthem "Exodus," albeit changing the lyric to speak to the “movement of harraga” (migrants)... But the lines I especially like:
Un petit peu tradition/Un petit peu science-fiction ("Part tradition/Part sci-fi")
On est des cyber berberes perdus sur la terre ("Cyber berbers are lost upon the earth")
Jabu lina Internet hna fhamna Inter-bnet ("When we heard the word ‘Internet’ we understood ‘Inter-girls’")

Monday, August 07, 2006

Blockheaded Bracegirdles from Hardbottle and Other People Without History

It's long been my opinion that J.R.R. Tolkein was something of a folklorist at heart, even an old-fashioned--or maybe not so old-fashioned--anthropologist and indigenous-rights activist. His alter ego in Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Wizard, shares Tolkein's fascination with "little people."

In Tolkein's book The Fellowship of the Ring, I believe, the other wizards universally belittle Gandalf for his interest in the Hobbits of Middle-Earth, these "amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you."

Apart from Hobbits, Elves, and Rangers, Gandalf's only true friend and ally is the wizard Radagast the Brown, who is friend to the animals, knows them and speaks to them. Radagast has taught Gandalf the animals’ languages and first introduced Gandalf to the giant eagles, who prove such useful deii ex machina in Tolkein’s plots. Just as Radegast can recite the lineages of the various animals, Gandalf avidly masters the histories and knowledges of the Hobbits--the local ideologies and practices of their everyday rural life. (I don’t think I need comment on the parallel drawn between "little people" and animals, their fellow denizens of the natural world.)

Gandalf last encounters Radagast on the way to his first meeting in The Fellowship with Saruman, then still their boss. In the novel it's striking to see how sharply the engaged interest of Radegast contrasts to the gentle but pointed ridicule of Saruman towards the great care Gandalf takes to learn about and spend time with Hobbits, beings so disregarded by the world. As Gandalf tells Frodo:

"Well, what can I tell you? Life in the wide world goes on much as it has this past Age, full of its own comings and goings, scarcely aware of the existence of Hobbits."

And then Gandalf adds:

"For which I am very thankful."

Indeed, by the end of The Return of the King, in the "The Scouring of the Shire" section--tragically, mistakenly omitted from the film--we see that the wide world does learn of the Shire and colonizes it, seeking to incorporate the Shire into the global capitalist system.

Under instructions from the imperialist colonizer Saruman, the Hobbits are transformed from subsistence farmers and small sharecroppers into factory laborers and are even enslaved to work on "pipeweed" plantations. Once put into place, this agricultural-industrial capitalist system outlives Saruman's fall from wizardry and even the destruction of Mordor, taking on its own life, as capital always does.

It takes heroic acts of tradition-reinvention and a sustained struggle of anti-progressive, counter-development, and violent guerilla action before the vanguard formed by Frodo, Sam, Pippen, and Merry--the latter two former criminals and wastrels now galvanized into capable military officers--is able to lead the Shire on back toward its backward-but-free original Edenic state.

(Now, Gandalf is of course an activist-scholar, a researcher as well as a political leader, and only his exhaustive archival efforts in the "stacks" at Minas Tirith enabled him in the beginning to identify the ring early enough to empower the Hobbits to save the world. But Tolkein’s defense of motivated scholarship is another story entirely...)

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Men Leaving the Friday Afternoon Mosque

I remember Tamale
Blazing bright light
Blinding white robes meet black hands and faces
Tall proud against brown walls and rusty red tin roofs
Polished black shoes pushing through red dust
The Walk – slow, regal, yet easy, comfortable
A head thrown back laughing
I feel proud too, and envious.

I remember Beirut
Warm light on tall pockmarked buildings
The south side of town
Dark hair and light faces
Walk out quickly, upset, impatient
Street and business clothes
Slacks, belts, long-sleeved shirts
I feel close to panic.

I see Tangier
Weak light in the muggy air
Traffic jam outside the Cervantes Center
Shania croons about any man of hers
East Asian, West African, Gulf Arab in red checked kufiyya
Young European with thin face and reddish blond cheek fuzz
Dads laugh joke pull along chubby toddlers
A baseball cap and a gray jellaba
Givenchy and Gauthier
T-shirt and baggy faded jeans
I feel invigorated.

Then a royal blue royal police van creeps up the street
And ends my reverie

I just got this down yesterday. It's not very subtle or polished. The first two sections are culled from my failing memory: Tamale, Northern Ghana, around the early 1980s, and Beirut in 1998. I was a little kid in Tamale going by looking out the window of the car. Beirut was on my failed attempt to get into the National Museum my third day in any Arab country ever. With no Arabic, I walked all the way from Hamra to the old race track and saw that the museum was still closed, so I started walking back through the residential parts of town. The Tangier scene is from yesterday, sitting at the Glasgow Cafe. Yes, "Any Man of Mine/Better Walk the Line" really did come on the cafe's sound system exactly as the mosque let out.

The last two lines mark my remembering that this mosque is attached to the regional headquarters of the ministry of Islamic studies, as well as a seminary and school.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Two Kings in Rabat

I was talking to an Ivoirian friend last weekend, and he mentioned that the president of Ghana was currently in Morocco. I had heard no news of this, so I nodded and smiled. Turns out he was almost right...

The king of Ashanti, Osei Tutu II, is in Morocco on a 10-day state visit to Muhammad VI of Morocco on the occasion of the Fete du Trone last Monday. The celebrations have been going on all week.

Here are stories from Morocco and Ghana.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


Just witnessed my first smugglers' panic along Rue Mexique...

Between my home at Hopital Espagnol and the main part of town where I spend most of my time lies the Msalla, a "medina outside the madina." Cars can go partway down the main street down the center ("Rue Msalla," a pedestrian-only open-air market after a few hundred feet) and on one tiny crooked lane cutting across it. Otherwise, Msalla is a densely populated maze of walkways completely impervious to motor traffic for nearly a mile, northwest to southeast. Along the northern boundary lies Rue Mexique.

So I'm walking along the wide sidewalk on the south side of Rue Mexique, doing the traditional thing of waiting for the shoppers to move out of the way so I can keep going straight. Next to the parked cars, young men have laid down tarps, on which they put clothing and other consumer goods. This is the informal economy: much of the merchandise has been smuggled in, and no taxes or fees are paid.

In In and Out of Morocco: Smuggling and Migration in a Frontier Boomtown, David McMurray describes and explains this economy working in Nador, a town on the Mediterranean coast next to the Spanish enclave of Melilia. He tells of the informal sellers coming to terms with the police. And indeed, the traffic cops are always working Rue Mexique, which is like a big carnival after 6 each evening.

But there must have been specific plainclothes customs officers today, because all the sellers started looking down toward the direction I had just come. Their tarps have knots on all four corners with ropes attached. One guy gathered two corners at one end, his friend did the same at the other, and they both raced for the nearest entrance to the nearest Qisariyya, a sort of enclosed shopping mall. These line Rue Mexique, and their back passages all lead to the narrow, twisted passages in the Msalla. After getting out of the way, I looked and looked for the cops, but I couldn't recognize them.

The fact that I've only today seen such a panic is evidence of the tolerance of the state towards this activity, which is on its way to extinction after 2010, when all import duties between the European Union and Morocco are to be lifted. I can imagine that many Moroccan industries producing for domestic consumption will fail after that. One can only hope that enough factories and other businesses are developed as well (in connection with Tanger Med, the new $2.5 billion port and free trade zone due to open in 2007) over the next four years so that the losses can be offset with some gains.