Sunday, October 14, 2012

George Negus ~ The View from Morocco

George Negus is one of the best known faces on Australian television and the bestselling author of The World From Islam, The World from Italy and The World Downunder. For the last thirty-five years he has travelled the world, but strangely this is his first “official” visit to Morocco.  His partner, Kirsty Cockburn, is a fellow journalist, photographer, mother of their two sons and also an addicted traveller. When the The View from Fez caught up with them they had just completed a trans-Siberian rail journey from Vladivostok to St Petersburg. George and Kirsty spent time talking with The View from Fez.

Kirsty and George sampling Moroccan produce

TVFF: Why did you come to Morocco?

NEGUS: I had been to Morocco once in the early 80s. I found myself in Morocco journalistically via the Algerian border so there is no record of me being here. This time I came here through the front door so that makes this my first official visit. Morocco is one of those places that for anybody who has travelled at all has always been on their radar. So when we were looking for a post-Russia destination, we remembered Sandy McCutcheon inviting us to his home in Fez.

The first impression was disappointing, because the Ville Nouvelle appeared to be neither one thing or the other…it was sort of the hangover from French colonialism, it was a hint of the new Arabia, but it definitely wasn’t a medina.

It was only when we got out of the taxi at the bottom of the Medina at Rcif that I knew we had come to the right place. Then we plunged into the labyrinth. And I thought I am glad we didn’t walk into here ourselves, on our own.The Fez Medina has an amazing reputation as the oldest and largest of its kind in the world. Yet, even having read the profundity of the Lonely Planet, and its warnings about losing your way, it was hard not to be shocked at how easy it is to get lost. That is no bad thing because if you haven't experienced being lost in the Medina then you have missed an essential experience.

Later, we went for longer walk in the bustling Medina I realised that I didn’t really know the real difference between a medina and a souk. A medina wasn't somewhere you went to buy something for your aunty. This was somewhere real. Somewhere where people lived. One of the first things that struck me was the warmth and friendliness and sometimes open affection people expressed towards us and our host and we could feel that warmth and affection rubbing off on us. And the Medina was so alive with a feeling of humanity, excitement…productivity…the kids laughing and playing and smiling...simple things.

TVFF: From time to time people complain about being hassled...

NEGUS: Apart from one exception there was no sense of being hassled at all. Being able to say la shukran, "no thank you" was better than ignoring people. And bargaining was no problem

KIRSTY: I cannot bear bargaining at all because I cannot help but think of the trouble people have gone to making things..and cannot bear to think I haven’t bargained fairly.

TVFF: And the food?

NEGUS:  Moroccan food that I was not familiar with or haven’t tried outside of Morocco was far more appealing than Moroccan food I did know, such as tagines and couscous. My new discoveries were the Moroccan soups that I think have international potential way beyond their reputation. Harira, the traditional Berber soup of Morocco, is really interesting. At first you think it is a Moroccan steal of minestrone but it has the wonderful Moroccan not Italian spices and historically is far older than minestrone.  And as an old pea soup person I loved besara I thought it was really cute that here was a pea soup without ham hock in it. But with the cumin and oil besara is just beautiful and so ridiculously simple. Great peasant food, which of course is some of the best food in the world.

Another find was B'stilla.  I was a bit surprised by it because it looked like a filo pastry pie with icing sugar and cinnamon. Finally was the revelation about pomegranates which are derisively described as the new sun dried tomato of Australian cusine. I found it bland in Australia but it has grown in my estimation. Undoubtedly because they are better here than in Australia.

TVFF: As an experienced traveller what were your impressions of Northern Morocco?

George Negus and Youssef Abdelmoula who showed them around the north of Morocco

NEGUS:  It is a far more geographically beautiful and physically interesting place than I expected.  I know deserts and expected more of that. But I had no idea that the agriculture activity was as full on. There is certainly no shortage of fresh food and daily vegetables with people from outlying areas setting up their stalls with local produce. That is always a good sign.

We have had five days moving around the north and each day was totally different. We went with  Youssef Abdelmoula from Plan-it-Fez, who was superb and found local people to help us with the local details. For example, we found ourselves in a national park and I am not a twitcher but I was interested to learn about the birds. And it didn’t matter that I didn’t know anything about flamingos. The local ornithological expert Youssef introduced us to was enthusiastic and extremely knowledgable. He was also a strong environmentalist. I had not expected a Moroccan to express such disappointment at the pollution and the rubbish that invariably exists in any developing country. I'm not about to lecture Moroccans but they have got to get their act together on that score because they are undermining  the beauty of their country by letting that refuse pile up. Westerners are pretty simple people and some will leave Morocco and only talk about what rubbish they saw, not the natural beauty or carefully tilled land or shepherds looking after their flocks. Westerners often find the worst thing about a country - if you ask me - to give them an excuse to go to somewhere else to complain about.

Like any post-colonial developing country it has stark contrasts. What I term the shock factor versus the easy experience factor. The easy factor includes places like Chefchaouen which has retained its integrity. It was painted blue before tourists started coming and it retains a genuine sense of tranquillity. And Tangier?  Tangier was as edgy as I expected and did not let me down.

At the the other end of the spectrum - the shock factor - is the tannery in the Fez Medina. I have been to many places in the world such as Cambodia, Sierra Pelada in Brazil, Calcutta and Jamaican slums, where people are victims of circumstances over which they have no control. The tannery was mind-blowing, a truly mediaeval work situation. To get to look at it, you have to walk through the leather shops to where you can snap away with your smartphone or fancy camera. And below you are these guys working.  Spielberg would spend millions recreating the tannery. It was like being on a movie set. And it is hard to believe people are actually living this way. The shock was not just the people working there. It was the passivity of the tourists, as if they didn’t connect the work with the leather goods they were happily buying. I took photos of people buying things who had made no connection between what they were buying and where it was produced.

Looking down into the extraordinary Fez Medina
TVFF: Kirsty, tell us about the shopping

KIRSTY: My shopping was quite personal because from my childhood I remember my surroundings were enlivened by my parents leather poofs, brass plates and I absolutely loved the Islamic treasure chests. They had come to Morocco in the 1940s as a young married couple and for me the experience I had evoked my slim, blonde, mother shopping in a Moroccan souk. I absolutely wanted to find my own version of those colourful additions to the family home. And I had great fun doing so. The fabric colours are distinctly more vibrant than home. And the weaving more admirable. As a craft inclined person, the skills of the artisans are more interesting to me as a shopper than simply purchasing stuff for the sake of it. So I loved being able to not only see the products but also appreciate the workmanship and meet the creators of the various items. Shopping in Morocco for me is a distinctive holistic experience, something that has vanished from virtually everywhere else in the world. I hope the Moroccans hang onto it.

Kirsty - shopping up a storm in Fez

TVFF: You were particularly struck by the Moroccan women.

KIRSTY:  Oh, yes. They seem really strong and feisty and express themselves everywhere, even in public, in the street. And, to be honest, the do so more than we have the guts to do back in Australia where such public outbursts are frowned upon. Their children are incredibly happy and playful and that is always a good sign that women are having a really good influence. I notice the young women talking, armed with books and unfazed by the men, even though the men dominate some of the coffee shops. George and I stumbled across a big football match - Real Madrid versus Barcelona  - and we only saw men sitting watching. I asked if it was okay for me to sit there. It was absolutely no problem and they sorted my chair and my mint tea and asked who I was wanting to win. They laughed when we screamed in support of the great Messi when he scored. I did not feel at all uncomfortable. In fact the only time I felt uncomfortable on the entire trip was with bargaining in the shops. That is a personal clash with local culture that just makes me uncomfortable. Yet others, including our kids, love the bargaining game!

TVFF: George, turning to geo-politics. The Arab Spring is over and as they say - winter is coming. Any sense of tensions here?

NEGUS: The short answer is no.  I have been in Islamic countries where the tension between Islam and politics is pretty obvious and you can see why the Arab Spring occurred. I have a sense  that the current monarchy is smarter than your average monarchy.  He got in before the so-called Arab Spring and made changes in the areas such as the fight against poverty and corruption and that meant a lot to people.

There is an Islamist government administering this country yet again I get no sense of a tension between politics and religion  and I get no sense of shariah law being foisted on people. You walk down any section of the medina or outside and you see absolutely traditional devout Muslims who pray five times a day. At the same time and you will see girls in tight jeans, tight as anywhere in the world, with high heels, knock-off designer tshirts, runners, smart hairstyles and hair covered - the full kaleidoscope  - but I do not sense tension between them and the more conservative members of the society.

What I would say to those people who are hesitant about visiting Morocco because it is an Islamic society is this. Quarter of the world’s population are Muslim and they are not going to go away and they are not going to wake up one morning and say oops ..we have been wrong for 1400 years I really should be a Catholic. They are Muslims by religion by culture, by geography and by identity. And we have to learn to live with them and Morocco is a good place to start understanding them better. I have written that 99.9pc of the muslims in the world are NOT terrorists …in Morocco I suspect that figure is even higher.

George Negus and Kirsty Cockburn's itinerary was organised by Plan-it-Fez
They stayed in Fez as guests of The View from Fez


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