Hi, Lorna. This is Arthur. Do you want to go to Morocco?
Call this number. Do it now.
It was that simple. Three weeks after my return from Iraq on March 20, I received a call from Arthur Romano, a young, deeply committed peace activist who has been doing community outreach for the World Peace Prayer Society in Amenia since 1998. The mission to Morocco centered on the invitation that Arthur's band, The Peace Project, received to play at the 39th National Festival of Public Arts, historically a showcase for Moroccan-only troupes and artists. This was only the second year internationals had been invited to perform. More important, this was the first year that Americans were invited. The Mid-Hudson Valley-based Peace Project was America's sole ambassador.
The invitation came via The Friendship Caravan, a non-profit organization founded by Michael Kirtley, a former photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Life, and Geo and who has spent the last 30 years living and working in Africa. Deeply affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing tension and fear generated between Americans and Arab Muslims, Kirtley created Caravan in an attempt to build a bridge of understanding between the two cultures. Through his deep ties to Morocco, he contacted the government there and began to work out a series of "bridge building" delegations. The first occurred in February when Kirtley brought eight members of a non-proselytizing Christian evangelical association to Marrakech. The eight-day visit was so successful that it spawned plans for a three-day Christian music festival to be held sometime next spring.
"The Moroccan overture is a great beginning," said Rev. Richard Cizik, of the National Evangelical Association. "It's a bold step by both faith communities to showcase cooperation and mutual respect in a conflict-weary world."
A ROAD TO MOROCCO
For me, this was what is known as a press junket: all expenses-airfare, hotel, two meals daily, and in some cases ground transportation-paid for by the host country. It was not without trepidation that I accepted this invitation, as the host typically assumes that the invitee will write positive articles about the country and the event. But I was clear with Kirtley of my intention-to explore this new cultural territory located in the western-most edge of the Arabic world, a 90-percent Muslim country where, according to a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, 73 percent of Moroccans had "unfavorable attitudes" toward Christians; to write about the festival in relation to the Peace Project; and, bottom line, to write about whatever I wanted.
Morocco is a lusher, greener, cleaner, and much more relaxed version of Iraq. The similarities between the two in architecture and roadways are striking, but there is none of the fatigue, depletion, and neglect brought on by the 10 years of the Iran-Iraq war followed by 12 years of US-backed sanctions that I have seen in Iraq. The sights and smells of Morocco also remind me of Mexico with its open cooking fires filling the air and its concrete block stucco-covered construction. Many buildings are painted in cooling tones of salmon and peach. Others are white with a sea-blue trim on a door here or an archway there. I was told that at one time the blue and white motif was intentional, symbolic of the presence of Morocco's one-time flourishing Jewish population, but I could not verify this. But the touristy fortress city of Essaouira, located along Morocco's mid-Atlantic coastline, boasts the blue and white colors of the Israeli flag in its seaside tiled sidewalks and on its painted curbs and buildings.
Today's Morocco is a mixture of the original Berber peoples combined with Arab, Roman, French, Spanish, and Portuguese influences. Many languages abound, but most Moroccans can be heard speaking Arabic or French, or an easy-on-the-ear mixture of both. Most remarkable to me is the relaxed atmosphere-so relaxed that I forget I am in the Arab world. Women wear veils or pastel-colored abayas, loose robes worn from head to toe; others wear midriff-baring tank-tops and capris. Color is everywhere-exotic-tinged pointy-toed sultaness slippers and shoes in pinks, ocean blues, bright yellows, blood reds, and silky multi-color stripes, many adorned with beads and sparkles. Round-toed leather slippers, shoes, and sandals for men and women come in bright and neutral colors. All can be bought in the souks, or open-air markets, for a few dollars.
ONE THOUSAND AND ONE WILD NIGHTS
The city of Marrakech, the site of the festival, is known as the gateway to the Sahara. Its New Town is modern and cosmopolitan, with office buildings, banks, hotels, restaurants, Internet cafes, and shops of all kinds. The sights and sounds of its Old Town conjures up scenes and characters from the tales of the Thousand and One Nights. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the city's center, Jemaa El Fna, where characters seem to have stepped right out of the pages of the book and into the narrow streets. Over the ages, caravans crossing the desert to and from Algeria, Mali, and Niger would stop here to rest. Today a huge medina is surrounded by uncountable souks selling all things imaginable amid twisting alleyways and narrow paths. Tourists mingle with Moroccans, everyone shopping, eating, and seeking entertainment.