Twitter has its uses. On June 5, I ran across a tweet from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, announcing a design contest: “The Met’s 150 Years of Creating”. Voting opened today to the public and runs through August 12. Winners of the popular vote will be judge by a jury, and the winning entrant will have their design developed into products for The Met Museum Gift Shop in April 2020.
I am one of 190 entries. It’s the biggest contest I’ve ever entered and although I don’t expect to make it to the top ten, it’s a real feather in my cap just to be on The Met website. I hope you will VOTE for the Crow King!
The deadline for submission was in 6 days, so I spent an hour combing the manuscript collections and found three pieces, which I narrowed down to this one after learning its back story.
The Kalila wa-Dimna is a series of allegorical tales written in Sanskrit during the 4th century as a teaching tool for three young princes. It was translated it into Arabic 300 years later, in a style so lucid it is still considered a model of Arabic prose. Called Kalila and Dimna, after the two jackals who are the main characters, the book was written mainly for the instruction of civil servants. But it was so entertaining that it became popular with all classes. Arabs carried it to Spain, where it was translated into Old Spanish in the 13th century. In Italy it was one of the first books to appear after the invention of printing.
I was a storyteller once, with a fondness for 13th century history, and a traveler to both Spain and Italy, so this piece made an emotional connection with me. It reminded me of another allegory – the Monkey King from Journey to the West (a Chinese work). I find allegory to be not only amusing, but a powerful teaching tool as well.
Anyway … I cropped the folio and made a color copy for reference, and several black and white copies for templates. And, with time rapidly ticking down, I began.
At first, I was going to apply the birds in one piece, but I decided to apply them individually to get better spacing and more dimensional detail. The foliage lent itself well to individual ‘stalks’ as well, which wrap around the rest of the cuff.
As usual, I changed the materials several times, trying several wools before settling on a rust suede leather to mirror the background of the folio. At that point, I also decided to mount the Crow King to the crown of the hat rather than the cuff. And of course, all the materials are rescued from previously used clothing, and remnants from other costumers’ cutting room floors.
The birds are appliqued in leather which is padded to make them more dimensional, held in place with whip stitch which I covered over with couching. The leaves are ultrasuede and will become dimensional, as they will naturally curl at the edges with wearing. I added brass beads to the tips of the foliage and a gold wire crown to the King Crow, as points of difference from the original – to leave my mark on the piece rather than making a carbon copy of someone else’s work.
I finished the hat 4 days after starting it. Oddly, the very next day, as I was walking to work, I was buzzed by a crow in a part of town where I’d never seen crows. He buzzed me so close that his feathers brushed my hair, and then circled around and did it again! He landed on the closest lamp post and cawed at me until I was a block away. I’ll leave it up to those who read this, to offer their own interpretation of that event …
Descending from the mountains and the Blue City of Chefchaouen, we are soon back in olive groves, cherry orchards, and fields of wheat and lettuce. Mohamed suddenly pulls over … there’s an open air market that he thinks we should see …
We park on the side of the road and traverse a narrow foot bridge over a creek. After taking shots of this burro bit and learning about how it was used, Doug asks us to leave our cameras shuttered, since this is a ‘daily life’ activity and tourist photos would be intrusive. We spend about an hour wandering the grid that the stalls are set up along, orderly in their layout but calling out “souk” in their content, offering everything from plastic kitchenware and plumbing supplies, to detergents and cleaners, spices, raw fish and freshly butchered chicken. A man cooks kebab over a trench brazier, a ferrier shoes a burro. I walk past large tubs of fava beans, alfalfa and oranges, among stacks of cartons whose labels I could not decipher. Most of the stalls were run by men, the shoppers were equally divided between men and women, each loading their purchases onto motorcycles and burros for their respective treks home
We’re back in the car and on our way. About 3 hours later, Mohamed negotiates some fairly astounding traffic, with roundabouts at every intersection, cars interlacing through each other every which-way, with the rule of the road seeming to be dictated by a “stare-down and wave-through” technique. The chaos gives way to a wide and much calmer palm tree lined boulevard with a 12-foot wide park down the center, complete with grassed areas and park benches and filled with pedestrians. We arrive at the Hotel Volubilis in downtown Fez.
It’s a modern hotel, a very stark contrast to the riad in Rabat and the boutique mountain hotel in Chefchaouen. My room is white, spacious, unadorned, and overlooks a swimming pool. For the first time since arriving, I am wishful for my suitcase and the swimsuit contained therein. Brenda later offers me hers, but I never do take her up on that offer.
And then, a series of small unfortunate events starts to fray the edges of my else wise impressibility.
I unpack my ‘luggage’ – a heavy, white plastic laundry bag from the Hotel Barcelo in Casablanca – and the handle rips. “A bit of duct tape will patch that right up,” I say to myself as I reach for the roll I had tucked into my purse. I reach down to take off my shoes, and find that I’ve blown the side seam. “Good thing I packed that duct tape,” as I remove the insole to do a quick internal repair. In the bathroom, there’s a hole in the shower wall that I can see daylight through. “I’m going to need more duct tape” I mutter as I use up most of what I had left so I could take a shower. I take off my watch and the metal band breaks, beyond my ability to repair. There’s no bottled water or WIFI in the room, no services directory, not even a “do not disturb” sign. In the corner, there’s a broken chair…
I go down to the lobby to inquire about WIFI, and find Doug, whom I alert about the broken chair in my room so he doesn’t get charged for it. A few minutes later, Doug and the front desk manager arrive, and I show them the shower wall (now patched) and the broken chair. “We have another room” says the manager. “I don’t need a new room, I just don’t want to be charged for the broken chair,” I respond. “Please follow me,” says the manager, and he shows Doug and me to another room.
“Do you like this room?” the manager asks. I reiterate that I don’t need a new room, I was just reporting a broken chair. I’ve already unpacked and I really don’t want to make a fuss. “So this room will work for you then?” the manager asks. OMG. I walk over to a chair in the corner. “This chair is not broken. Let me take this chair to my room, and it will all be perfect. Can we do that?” The manager finally understands and insists on carrying the new chair to my old room. Such a simple fix, and yet so elusive…
I think it was later that day that we hunted down a hardware store, in part to escape the drum corps that have taken up a corner of the hotel lobby. We find a Carrefour, where I use the last of my dirhams to buy a roll of duct tape in case my shoe or luggage blow out again. Mark and Catherine stock up on wine and champagne in the grocery department downstairs, while their floor standing oscillating fan is being assembled in the hardware department. It will help them sleep at night, and will provide notes of humor at every hotel, kasbah and riad for the duration of our trip. On the way out, I notice the really nice bright green Tyvek shopping bags that Carrefour offered at their checkouts, and Doug gets one for me. New luggage! In the car, Mark and Catherine gift me with a bottle of vodka. Things are looking up!
After a dinner buffet in the hotel restaurant, Doug and I hit the boulevard in a search of an ATM and a drug store. We locate two ATM machines, which both fail (adding to the list of All the Broken Things) but do find a convenience store, where after a short discourse between Doug in Egyptian Arabic and the shopkeeper in Moroccan Arabic, with accompanying charades, I procure some necessaries, including a plastic disc that looks like a scalp massager, but which works surprisingly well as a hairbrush and is very compact.
Back on the boulevard, we see a bronze statue of a lion in the parkway, and I pose for a photo. I would later learn that it commemorates the last wild lion in Morocco, who was shot by a trophy hunter during the 1930’s. Had I known that, I would not have smiled for this photo…
We cross the street to the hotel. The drummers are now gone, so I sit in the lobby to get onto the WIFI, until the hoteliers start turning the lights out, signaling that it’s time to return to my room.
The next day, breakfast in the hotel restaurant turns out to be among the best of the entire trip. Fresh and grilled vegetables, eggs, blocks of feta, dates, olives, and folded and fried Moroccan pancake called mesmen, which I spread with honey and cream cheese. I also note a variety of cold cereals and something that looks like Cream of Wheat. At the end of the room there’s a table-top coffee dispenser, reminiscent of the vending machines I fell in love with in Florence, that serves 5-6 different styles of thick, milk-based European coffees at the push of a button.
Mmmmm…. vegetables and coffee, my two favorite food groups…
Today we visit Volubilis, the ruins of a Roman town renowned for its mosaic floors. We stop at a 3rd ATM but it doesn’t work for me either, so I give up so as not to delay our day any further. I’m concerned that my shoe repair won’t hold in the rugged terrain we are going to be walking through soon, so I break out my sewing kit and astound my traveling partners when I produce thimble, beige carpet thread and a leather needle, and begin to stitch up the side of my handmade Italian shoe.
“You carry a sewing kit – with a leather needle?” they ask. “Textile artist!” I answer. About 20 minutes later, my stitching is complete, and I pull out a black Sharpie. “I may be a bag lady but I’m still a fashionista,” I joke as I color the carpet thread so it matches my shoe. By now my traveling partners have run out of words…
Just outside the city, we reenter agricultural areas, marked by roadside produce stands with pyramids of fruits and potatoes towering over the edges of the bushel baskets that line the edge of the road. Farmland is interspersed with ruins of stone or brick walls. We arrive at the Roman ruin of Volubilis.
After leaving the parking lot, we are greeted with an expansive concrete plaza – designed no doubt to gather large groups together for orientation before heading out onto the site. We hired a local guide, who wore a long, loose, lime-green caftan over his jeans and sandals, and a conical straw hat that I had started to see on some of the older people on the outskirts of town. We head out under hot sun and a pale blue sky with just enough wispy clouds to offer a contrast to the nearly 104 acres of ruins we were about to view.
The floors are exquisite and I am in awe of their condition, in sharp contrast to the vestiges of the walls that surround them. I wonder what has prevented weeds from breaking through, when everything else is overgrown.
The guide is great, and again I wish I had brought my journal, even with the risk of it drawing my attention away from where my feet were going. There are informational placards that I photograph along the way, with information about the aqueducts that fed the city, and some of the homes which are named after images in their mosaic floors, including the “House of Venus,” the “House of Bathing Nymphs,” and the “House of Big Game” with its lions and tigers detailed in the floor.
The “House of the Rider,” (Maison av Cavalier according to the carved stone marker) named after a bronze figure discovered there in 1910, was one of the larger homes at 1700 square meters. The mosaics covered the floors of the public areas of the homes (but not the private areas like kitchens and baths), and I cannot help but think there must have been some ‘keeping up with the Jones’s” competition as the floors become more spectacular as you circle clockwise through this site.
We see the the remains of a bathing pool. Shown here is a jacuzzi – a large flat pool with a center stonework carved into backrests that would accommodate 10 people. It served as a social center in the same way that the Turkish hammams did during the Ottoman period. Our guide told us that the water for the jacuzzi was heated by underground pipes which ran under the ovens in the nearby bakery. Talk about architectural multi-tasking …
The imposing Triumphal Arch of Caracella is a popular place to have your photo taken, and guides are yelling at the too-adventurous tourists to stop climbing to the top of it, presumably for a better photo op.
Further down the avenue, our guide points out the bakery, and the King’s Palace with its huge circular mosaic floor, and a square pool larger than my entire living room, overlooking a panorama of fields and orchards, with the Atlas Mountains in the distance. I take note of a stacked stone wall, and a vomitorium with the remains of the trench which drained into the sewer.
I had seen a piece of a mosaic floor in a Roman exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, but it is entirely different to see them in context. In spite of being exposed to the elements, they are remarkably intact and vibrant. It’s a testament to the craftsmanship that went into their making.
Back at the plaza, there’s a small museum, with maps on the walls and a few cases of Roman artifacts which included bone buttons and needles, bronze pieces from horse trappings, and a foot tall bronze figure of a boy, labeled “The Genius of Abundance.” In the next building is a display and sale of local products, mostly honey and packages of herbs from the nearby farms. I am once again disappointed by the lack of a gift shop, and will have to shop for a book online.
Tasks for tonight include laundry – combining a shower with a soapy stomp on my red traveling coat, wringing it out in a towel and hanging it up to dry. With all of my clothes clean and in various stages of drying, I head back down to the lobby to read up on what I expect to see in the souk tomorrow. It’s another night of being on WIFI until the lobby lights go out. I hope I’m not annoying the hotel staff…
We drive by groves of trees that have had their bark stripped to about 8 feet up. They are cork oaks, freshly harvested. Cork can be harvested a dozen times during a tree’s lifetime; after a tree reaches 25 years old, it can be harvested by hand every 9-12 years. The harvest does not harm the tree, and because trees regenerate their bark, cork is considered a renewable resource.
We also pass hothouses where bananas are being grown, the structures are not as tall as I would expect but stretch back from the road for several acres. I also see smaller quonset shaped hothouses where strawberries are being grown. Flocks of sheep graze right along side the road while their shepherds stand nearby, almost always in traditional dress. We see cattle, but are told that these are dairy cows. Beef cows are raised in feed lots, but Morocco does not have an industrialized beef industry. Mohamed, our driver, also owns a restaurant, and explains that restaurants work directly with butchers, who buy cows directly from local ranchers. Much of local commerce is based on personal relationships here.
Further on we start to see burros pulling carts, almost as often as we see other cars. I look out at hedges of prickly pear interspersed with low growing trees, which form a green fence between the fields and the road. We pass through a small town of window manufacturers and automotive shops operating out of spaces about the size of a single car garage.
Here’s a graveyard out of seemingly nowhere…
There are carts of oranges along the side of the road, nomadic fruit stands. More burro carts, houses that are painted lavender and pink. Doug points out aqueducts running parallel to the roadway, 40-50 year old structures delivering water to the fields. The prickly pear hedges have disappeared and now the road is lined with eucalyptus trees. To the left is a sugar cane field, and to the right, pottery stands displaying piles of lanterns, pots and tagines. Craftsmen’s booths are lined up side by side for a solid two blocks.
Climbing up a winding road, nearing sunset, we turn a bend in the road and a very pale blue and white landscape comes into view. It’s Chefchaouen, a mountain community that we would explore tomorrow.
We pull into a steep drive and check into the Al Khalifa Hotel, on a hill overlooking the city. The rooms are simple but efficient, and the red painted furniture is striking against the blue-washed walls. It feels very Himalayan, but the hotel manager assures me that the motifs are indeed Arabic-Moroccan, painted by a local artist.
After a brief respite in our rooms, we walk down a winding set of stairs towards the town square, only to discover that the restaurant is above us (literally). Mohamed finds a route which backtracks upwards, and we arrive at The Lampe Magique Casa Aladin. It’s a fun place and we get a table right next to the window, which offers an excellent view of The Qasaba – a kasbah which now houses a museum. Our table is covered with tea glasses and plates of mezze, a precurser to the tagines that will arrive later. Mine is squid, delivered still boiling. I watch it continue to boil for at least two minutes before I test my bravery and my fork, spearing the succulent white meats from the broth and blowing the sizzle away so I don’t burn my tongue. Still very hot but very delicious!
Doug gives us an overview of what to see during our free time tomorrow, and to use the Plaza Uta el Hamman, the town square, as our landmark. The city is built into the side of the mountain, with a Spanish mosque overlooking the city and the reddish mud brick wall snaking up the mountain at the northern edge of town. It was built in 1471 as a stronghold against the Portuguese. After dinner we walk back to the hotel, through noisy streets where the shops are still open, under a beautiful starlit sky.
We start the next morning with breakfast in the glass-enclosed terrace of the hotel, which Doug says is new since the last time he was here. Brenda and Doug pair off, as do Catherine and Mark, and I set off down the stairs for a couple of hours of sightseeing and shopping.
I walk down the pale blue staircase towards the town square, immersed in a soundscape of rushing water, and the pastoral bleats of goats and sheep. There’s a waterfall near the Hotel Khalifa, the Ras el Maa, a water source for Chefchaouen that literally roars out of the mountains. I cross the bridge to admire the sound and the view. Further upstream are wooden structures with roofs but no sides – washing sheds where the townswomen come to do their laundry, and wash fleeces prior to processing the wool into yarns for weaving. I pass one of the community bake houses, built in the mid-1500’s. There are no ovens in the homes in town, it’s too much of a fire hazard, so women bring trays of bread dough, covered with linen towels, to be baked in the centuries-old wood fired ovens.
My first stop is The Qasaba, built in 1471 by Moulay el Ben Rashid ed Alami in the Andalusian style, complete with crenelated walls and a watch tower with a prison in the bottom. The cell reminded me of Casanova’s cell in Venice – some things are universal. The top of the watch tower affords the expected panoramic views of the countryside. I was particularly taken with the finish work of both the carpentry and the brick flooring, and wondered if the top floor doubled as a residence. See my gallery of photos at Daveno Travels.
A building across from the tower that I think was the original manor house for Moulay Ali Ben Musa, now houses an Ethnographic Museum, although apparently I missed many of the displays. There were several settees displaying tradition craft, which I have boarded on Pinterest. The expanse between the guard tower and the manor house was filled with gardens and two fountains. Gardens and fountains were very important to Islamic cultures and nearly every building of consequence had one.
Back in the town square, my eye is caught by a textile that turns out to be a rug. The young shopkeeper tells me he is the weaver, and draws back a row of shawls to show me his loom. I buy one of his striped shawls, and he puts it into a small handbag which he has also woven the fabric for. I wander off, absent in thought, when another shopkeeper shouts down at me from doorway and asks me where I’m from.
“Seattle, USA,” I shout back. “Is that near Tacoma?” he responds…
He introduces himself as Abdamin, and invites me into his antique store. He shows me a photo of his girlfriend in Tacoma, and after some social banter, I have a look around. Here’s a pile of small silk prayer rugs of the style I was looking for in Istanbul. He pulls about half a dozen from the stacks and lays them out on the floor, and then makes me circle around them until I choose one. I see another pile of square carpets, which he tells me are for laying your head on when you go to bed. I buy one of each style, not haggling over the price. While he’s fetching me a glass of coffee, I look around again, this time finding an astrolabe in a corner cabinet. I had looked all over Florence and Istanbul for one of these, after visiting the science museums in both cities. What an unexpected find! Abdamin takes it out of the case for me, and I promptly dismantle it to see if it has all its parts. It does. And now it is mine …
I finish my coffee and my transactions, and get a very friendly parting hug before setting off again. I turn right into a cobblestone alley, looking at the tailors hunched over their sewing machines in stalls that can’t be more than 6 feet wide by 10 feet deep, stuffed floor to ceiling with folded garments and stacks of fabric. Walking back towards the square, I spy what would become my second clothing purchase … a red, green and purple striped djellaba with fancy turkshead and tassel buttons. The shopkeeper helps me try it on, and accepts the $200 dirham I have in my pocket in spite of his $300 dirham asking price. His wife made it, and he was eager to make his first sale of the day.
My wanderings take me to the backside of some apartment buildings, where I find a panorama view of what I think is the reconstruction of a lower fortress wall, and what I think is the tomb that Abdamin spoke of. He told me there are several holy men buried in Chefchaouen, though I did not learn any of their names.
I also find some other things of note, like the gate to a mosque that no longer exists, and a hamam built in 1927, and a woodworkers shop across the alley from the hamam. I put my camera away at this point, but admired all of the templates that he had hanging along the walls of his shop.
I make my last shopping stop at a shoe stall, but after trying on a pair and not succeeding at the haggle, I decline the sale, and then get lost trying to get away from the salesman who is now following me. I pass some kids who greet me with “Ola.” When I relayed that later to Doug, he said that a lot of Spanish tourists come here, and the kids probably weren’t Spanish, but thought that maybe I was.
After about a half hour of upstairs and downstairs and circling around to the salesman who is still trying to sell me those shoes, I find my way back to the hotel, where I rejoin my group.
And shortly after noon, we set out for Fez.