Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sheikh Deek en Afrique

Sheikh Deek in his palace in Fez              Foto Joa Keis
One of the many advantages of being unstuck in time is the freedom to ricochet geographically from place to place at will, in my case from France to Morocco. Another is the possibility to experience very distinct historical time periods simultaneously as I did recently in at the Necropolis de Chellah in Rabat, Morocco. I was standing in the center of a necropolis that included Roman ruins dating back to the time of Christ and Moorish structures built by Sultan Abu al-Hassan in the 1300's. They existed side by side and were surrounded by the the modern world of 2012 where cell phones and satellite dishes dominate the terrain. Such random time travel is extremely complex and requires multiple identities in order to be "culturally correct", hence the addition of my new title as "Sheikh Deek". 

Olive stall in souk - foto Joa Keis
My son Joa had a week of R&R from his Save the Children post in Mali, and we chose Morocco as a convenient halfway rendez-vous point. After meeting up in Casablanca early the morning of November 10th, we took a train directly to Meknes where we had a reservation at a friend's guest house, Dar Zidane. Andre and Khadija were our gracious hosts and despite a rainy first two days, we were able to eat very well (Khadija had a Moroccan restaurant in Lyon before returning to Meknes) and André took us to the medina there to visit some ancient sites and wander through the souk (market) at dusk. The souk was full of activity and delightful things to eat and wear. 
Meknes marketplace at dusk
There was color everywhere, and the unfamiliar bantering of Arabic added even more to the experience. It had been a long time since I had been in a culture so different and with a language I could not understand. It is good to feel uncomfortable at times, to feel helpless and dependent on others. It reminds you what it is like to be a stranger in an strange land. Since most people spoke French or English, communication was not a huge problem, but the excited Arabic syllables bouncing of the earthen walls of the medina, and the Islamic call to prayer echoing through the narrow alleyways, left no doubt that I was a guest in a foreign culture.
Fez Medina before the arrival of the tourists

Our next destination was Fez, a UNESCO World Heritage Center and site of the largest medina in the western world. It was founded by the Idrisid dynasty between 789 and 808 A.D and is over 920 square acres and has more than 9,600 small, winding streets that create a medieval labyrinth that completely disorients you in a matter of minutes.God forbid the local youth detect your lostness, because once they notice, you are fair game. It will cost you to get back home, and if you do not accept their help, you will still be wandering around helplessly in 3012!
Fez Medina after Lonely Planet and Guide des Routards ratings

Our lodging in Fez was nothing short of majestic. This trip was on Joa, and he decided to treat his Papito royally. The thought of getting his own harem did, however, cross his mind. The Riad Dar Zeffarine was a living museum with intricate Moorish motifs and Islamic designs that boggle the mind. The terrace on the rooftop overlooked the entire medina, and sunrise and sunset were truly magnificent. An abode fit for  a sultan, or a sheikh for that matter.
Deek waiting for the prophet to speak

After paying out a good portion of our travel allowance to the street youth who helped get us back home to Dar Zeffarine every night, we decided it best to move on to a less maze-like setting. So we set off for Rabat on train for the final few days of Joa's stay in Maroc. It was a good choice, a combination of the very old and the very modern. The medina there was less impressive visually than Fez, but it was frequented by the locals who did their shopping there and shopkeepers were not high pressured or aggressive as they often were in Fez. We roamed the souk peacefully,visited the colorful blue village of the Kasbah des Oudaias and enjoyed a brilliant sunset on Rabat Beach where Joa surfed that day. We even found a few places to have a cold beer, not an easy thing to find in Morocco!
Sunset on Rabat Beach

Joa in the Kasbah
Our last day together was a trip to the Necropolis de Chellah, mentioned at the beginning of this post. The beauty of the place was breathtaking, even under the heavy rain that intermittently drove us to seek shelter where ever we could find it.
Fortress walls - La Chellah, Rabat
Walls in the Chellah
And as many good things come to pass, so did this one. Joa boarded the train to Casablanca to catch his flight back to Mali, and I caught a train in the opposite direction back to Meknes to spend a few more days at Dar Zidane with André and Khadija before my return to France. It was a wonderful reunion, one that I will never forget. Merci Joa!! We will do it again soon in some new and exciting place, Inshallah.
Sudanese street musician

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Narrow Escape

 Descending to La Chatreuse, August 8, 1944
As I was plummeting back through time to Fort Saint André to mediate the battle between the French and the Holy Roman Empire (see previous entry), the mistral unexpectedly let up, and I parachuted precariously down into the courtyard of La Chartreuse. It was August 8, 1944, and yet another battle was raging. WWII was peaking in Europe, and Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, as many other towns in France, was occupied by German forces. What I observed here was a piece of the history of which few are aware. The Allied forces were preparing to launch Operation Dragoon to liberate the south of France. An American plane sent to destroy bridges and rail lines along the Rhone River was hit by German artillery above Villeneuve, splitting the plane in half and killing most of the crew. There were two survivors. One, Louis Capawana, parachuted from the plane and, much like me, came down right in the courtyard of La Chartreuse. The second survivor, R.S Hirsh, landed in a field just outside the cloister and was rescued by members of the French Resistance. Unfortunately Capawana's parachute got tangled on a chimney, and he was stuck in mid air, unable to free himself. The Germans had spotted the two men coming down and were in full pursuit as soon as the air raid sirens stopped. Both men's lives were in great danger.
Area where Capawana's parachute got stuck

But the Germans were not the only ones who had spotted Capawana and Hirsh descending toward Villeveuve. Seventeen year old Robert Zurbach, who was in an air raid shelter in the Fort Saint André at the time, and members of the the French Resistance (Maquis), had also spotted them. Robert and a few friends courageously ran back to La Chartreuse and found Capawana suspended from the roof with his feet on a window ledge, unable to undo his harness. They hurried to the window and managed to free him and bring him inside one of the cells. By then the Germans were hot on his trail. Robert and friends took Capawana to another cell occupied by a family with a young daughter. They changed his American uniform for a pair of French blue work overalls. To cover his true identity, they then put their daughter in his arms to make him look like her father, and rushed him to a back exit of La Chatreuse where he was smuggled off to Apt by members of the French Resistance. Both Capawana and Hirsh were later safely reunited with their American unit in Corsica.
In 1998, fifty four years after being rescued the French Resistance in the field outside La Chartreuse, R.S Hirsh, the only remaining survivor, came back to Villeneuve and was reunited with Robert and the other rescuers.
Robert visiting the Chartreuse 2012

 Robert Zurbach is now 85 years old and still lives within the ramparts of La Chartreuse, right down the street from my friend, Helene, on Rue des Greniers. He has his own home, simple but comfortable, and a plot of land nearby with a vegetable garden and 21 olive trees which he cares for with love. 

In this day and age, it is hard to imagine someone like Robert who still lives only a few hundred meters from the place he was born and raised. Perhaps it is the thick, stone walls of the ramparts that gave him protection so long ago that still give him comfort today. Or it might be the delicious olive oil that he presses from his olive trees down the road. But he seems perfectly happy with his life, and fondly remembers that August 8, 1944, when an American, just like me, fell from the sky and landed in his front yard.

Robert telling his story - Foto Helene Thevenet
In 1944, no monks lived in the La Chartreuse. After the French Revolution in 1789 the land was expropriated and given over to the people of France. La Chartreuse became a haven for those who had nowhere else to live. Robert and his grandparents were among those living there in 1944 when this event occurred. On November 4, 2012, My friend Helene and I took Robert back to the place that he spent the first twenty one years of his life. He had not been back inside since 1995, as it now costs 7 Euros to enter the historic monument. When we explained Robert's story, they gave him free entry for the remainder of his life. It was a pleasure to see his reaction to his return "back home", and to hear the amazing stories that being there brought back to mind. Strange how even war can bring back fond memories.
Robert's childhood home in La Chartreuse
Ft. St. André as viewed from La Chartreuse