By Jacques Tocatlian.
A Dress For Zeinab.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
The meeting in Morocco had been scheduled to last three days. It was a restricted, semi-formal consultation, at the invitation of the Government of Morocco, to help finalize an important project for international assistance on the theme of: ‘A national strategy for the protection of the rural environment.’
The World Bank was represented by Mr. Larry Thompson, a very powerful man, with a huge cigar and a thick Texan accent. Mr. J. Subramaniam, originally from New Delhi, spoke for the UNDP – the United Nations Development Program. With my French accent, I answered for Unesco, while the European Community was in the Germanic hands of Helmut
Streitz. Mr. Makoto Takahashi, from Tokyo, represented The United Nations University. For three days this impressive Tower of Babel was to communicate in English with francophone Mohammed Fassi-Bekkari – the distinguished representative of His Majesty King Hassan II.
Unesco’s collaboration with Morocco had been steady and intense over the years. It included inter alia a campaign for the preservation of the city of Fez, the establishment of a regional school for library and information sciences, support to the Institute of Studies and Research for Arabization, and many projects in the fields of education, culture and science.
In Morocco, a Unesco Secretariat Member was treated as a benefactor and made to feel welcome. No wonder I felt good.
As expected, the meeting started with a fireworks of greetings, thanks, blessings and benedictions. We were told that our presence had honored the country and that we had brought sunshine with us ! The truth of the matter was that we had left rain and clouds behind us in Brussels, Paris, Tokyo and Washington and found a radiant sun in Rabat.
In the Arab world, you are often sprinkled with artful compliments, warm congratulations, poetic wishes, soft greetings and fastidious regards. The higher your position, the more excessive the civilities.
I find it most interesting to observe two Arabs meeting in the street. They shake hands several times, gently bending forward, and while holding each other’s hand and continuing to shake them, they start a ritual litany of polite invocations, praise and laudations. “How are you ? God bless you. How is your health ? Praise God. How are the children ? God bless you all. How are your parents ? Is their health good? God bless you. God bless you” ( Did anybody sneeze ?) All of this talk is usually abundantly showered with “Hamdullelah” – to thank heaven for being so good.
In the Arab culture, when you meet a friend you are expected to inquire about everyone, but never about the wife. That is considered unbecoming ! Arab modesty and decency have no room for such improper questions. After ten minutes have elapsed, after many questions are asked but few answers provided, the two friends recover their moistened hands and reluctantly part, each proceeding on his own way.
If they meet five or six more acquaintances along the way, they will reach their final destination an hour later. It does not matter at all. In any case good manners do not allow a respectable adult to run. Being in a hurry is generally considered vulgar. Etiquette demands that you take your time in walking, talking, eating, greeting a friend. The local social code says nothing about being late.
The notion of time is indeed fascinating; it constitutes an intriguing difference among people of different countries and often becomes a source of misunderstanding. Being late, being kept waiting, changing or missing appointments is not perceived the same way in different cultures.
In our international organizations, such as Unesco, which have adopted the Western way of doing business, it is essential to know how much lead time is required for each activity and how far ahead to request an appointment or schedule a meeting. Planning is crucial; schedules are sacred. This is the case for example, in Northern Europe. But as we move south, these plans and schedules take a much more flexible character. Once we cross the Mediterranean Sea, they become amorphous and rare. An appointment made several weeks in advance slips the mind. A Moroccan friend once told me that they believe Europeans and North Americans have a kind of devil inside who drives them crazy; they always hurry to get someplace, when the place would still be there, whenever they arrived.
The same friend told me that when the buses were introduced to connect major cities in Morocco, the authorities had to explain their usefulness. “You see, instead of taking three days with your donkey to travel to Marakesh, you can get there in three hours with the bus.”
“Oh, yes,” answered the Arab on the donkey “ and when I get there so early, what will I do?” But let us go back to the meeting which was only 30 minutes late to start. Once the opening greetings and civilities were over, another hour was spent puzzling over each other’s accents and in trying to decode what was really being said. When Mr. Subramaniam suddenly decided to speak French so that His Excellency Fassi-Bakkari would better grasp the point he was making, we were desperately lost. Somehow, the Indian accent does not mix well with French. (Does it mix well with Indian ?) Helmut Streitz uttered each word emphatically and managed to make everything he said sound important. However, he sometimes tended to place the verb at the end of the sentence, as it is done in German. By the time the verb made its appearance at the end of the sentence, you had forgotten what the beginning was about. German minds must function in a very special way. When Mr. Makato Takahashi spoke, on the other hand, mixing the “l’s” and the “r’s”, his Excellency Fassi-Bakkari softly asked his neighbor in what language was the statement being made.
While listening, an old French saying about the way languages are spoken in their native context came to mind. It goes something like this : English is chewed and swallowed, German is spit, Italian is sung and French is spoken. It does not say what you do with Japanese.
After a while our internationally-attuned ears gradually became accustomed to the cacophony and we proceeded fairly smoothly. In international circles that happens all the time.
Mr. Mohammed Fassi-Bekkari told us that the constant increase in population in Morocco aggravated the problem of unemployment, especially in the rural areas, where it took a chronic form. Problems related to housing, health, education, communications, trade and finance were dramatically deployed before us. The overall picture was gloomy. Very gloomy, indeed. The problems discussed, however, bluntly contrasted with the opulence of the meeting room, its rich ornamentation and fantastic arabesques. The ‘one-thousand-and-one-night’ Palace in which we were meeting made me wonder if we were actually talking of the same country.
At the end of the first day’s meeting we were taken back to the hotel. No social event had been scheduled for that first evening because we were asked to read and digest tons of documents for the next day. Larry Thompson wanted to stretch his legs and do some shopping at the big Bazaar.
I asked for directions at the Hotel reception, when the Director, Mr. Mustapha Bakri, said, “Monsieur Dupont, if you could wait five minutes, I have to go myself to the ‘Souk’ to buy a dress for my daughter, Zeinab, and both of you could come along.“ So Mr. Thompson and I waited for five Moroccan minutes – that is about 30 regular ones – and at around 6 p.m. the expedition started.
The whole Bakri family had gathered for the occasion: nine year old Zeinab, who needed a new dress, her mother, her father, the elder brother, a few sisters, a lady neighbor, Larry Thompson and me. The neighbor, Mrs. Mounira Mahjoub , was the key person of the expedition, since she was the technical expert on the matter. No one in the whole neighborhood ever bought a dress without the benefit of her advice. In the Bazaar she was known, respected and feared.
Many stores in the Souk have what you may call ‘pullers-in’ who stand outside the store and entice potential customers to enter the establishment. They inform you persuasively that the prices are low, the quality high, and the bargains exceptional. They tell you “You do not have to buy. Just come in, look around and have a Coca-Cola.” In fact, you should keep running. If you show the shadow of some vague interest, they will never let you go. As Mustapha Bakri stopped to look at one window display with some curiosity, he was a dead duck. We were all dead ducks. In no time the puller-in pulled us all in.
We were offered tea, coffee, and lemonade. Mr. Bakri explained to Larry Thompson that it was considered rude to refuse and that drinking did not mean that we had to buy from that store.
I stood in one corner to watch the scene and drank (or rather chewed) my Turkish coffee. The mother sat herself at a strategic point, next to expert Mounira, from where they could dominate the whole battlefield and direct operations. Little Zeinab stood on a raised platform having tried on a green and pink dress. Mr. Thompson asked if it was for Halloween.
While cooling herself with a palm leaf, Mounira commented on the dresses with disdain and asked questions with overtones of belligerency. It was explained to us that the bargaining tactics had been fixed ahead of time. While Mr. Mustapha Bakri and his eldest son were to remain calm and courteous, the two ladies criticized without respite. The idea was always to minimize every thing and never show the slightest enthusiasm. Everyone spoke. Little Zeinab, the only one really concerned, was told to be quiet.
The salesman helped to change dresses, to straighten them, smooth them, under a constant fire of negative remarks . The amazing thing was that the whole ceremony took place in a jovial atmosphere. Everyone smiled. All of Mounira’s critical comments were received by the salesman with a grin or laughter. He, no doubt, knew the rules of the game. I could very well imagine what would have happened to our two Moroccan ladies if – Heaven forbid – they had taken the same attitude in a Parisian boutique! But in the Bazaar the event was considered a kind of amusing ceremony with its special protocol and code of conduct.
For one thing, time did not exist. Most Moroccans carry around their wrists big gold watches. The richer the Moroccan, the bigger the watch. I suspect the watches are there for two main reasons: as a status symbol and for decorative purposes. In any case, the buying ceremony went on and on and on.
Needless to say, Thompson had no idea about what was going on. I ventured to ask him, teasingly “Is shopping the same in a U.S. mall ?”. We laughed. Everybody was smiling or laughing. Nobody was buying.
Now, Mounira had taken one dress in her knowledgeable hands and was standing at the door, holding it to the sun. She was feeling it, looking through it, pulling it, smelling it. Was she going to bite it ? You could guess that things were coming to a climax.
Trying to be as detached and nonchalant as possible, she asked for the price. Having heard the answer, they all stood up, instantaneously . Mr. Bakri and his son laughed – as if the price given by the salesman was a joke; the mother looked bewildered; Mounira acted flabbergasted, pulling the young girls out of the store; while the salesman attempted to argue and the puller-in tried to stop everyone from going out. The scene continued on the sidewalk until we turned the corner onto another street.
Similar commotions took place in two other stores. Mr. Bakri explained to Mr. Thompson that one should never buy from the first store, no matter what. By going around you establish the real market value of the merchandise you want to acquire and then you can make the right choice. Mr. Thompson asked why there were no price tags on the goods. That seemed like a very strange idea to Mr. Bakri, who looked very puzzled. “How could one do business if you have price tags on the merchandise ?” he asked.
Mr. Thompson and I were tired, but did not dare go back to the hotel on our own. We would never be able to get out of the labyrinth. One good thing was that we were not thirsty, having benefited from the hospitality of three stores. By now I was getting addicted to Turkish Coffee and I would be able to read those technical reports all night. Meanwhile we followed the party like docile sheep and gave up any thought of shopping for ourselves. After a full day’s work on Sheik Mohammed Fassi-Bakkari’s development project we could not take any more negotiation.
To our great amazement, we suddenly found ourselves back at the first store to bargain for the first green and pink dress – the Halloween one. The arguing went on and on. On three occasions the party moved towards the door and was pulled back. The salesman looked several times at the ceiling, invoking Heaven. Mr. Thompson and I instinctively looked at the ceiling as well. There was a big fan in motion , trying to cool the atmosphere. At one point Heaven must have listened since both sides eventually reached agreement. The dress was purchased. More lemonades were served and probably many jokes made, for everyone smiled and laughed. Going back to the hotel Mr. Thompson said, “You are right, Mr Bakri, you could not have all of this business with price tags !”
The next day, the meeting was uneventful. We worked hard and made great progress. Perhaps, some of us now knew how to bargain. By the end of the day the project document was in fairly good shape as far as the substantive content was concerned. Our host looked delighted. None of the Agencies present had any major problem with it, which augured well for the international financing the Morrocans were aiming at. The next day was going to be spent tightening it up and trying to rewrite it in one language. A national strategy for the protection of rural environment was born !
That evening we were to be treated and rewarded for the good work we had done. Sheik Mohammed Fassi-Bekkari invited us to a typical Moroccan restaurant to which tourists are seldom taken. Apparently it was the real thing ! As we entered the place, we were struck by the decor and the fantastic interlacing patterns of flowers, foliage and fruits, the fountains, the mirrors, the gold, the incense, the soft music. Many Hollywood movies came to mind. I could see Yvonne de Carlo dancing wrapped up in seven veils.
More than any other Middle Eastern people, the Moroccans have adopted and, so to speak, become addicted to every spice that has come their way en route to Europe from the Far East. They use them at discretion to make up some very rich combinations. The smell in the dining room was most inviting.
As soon as we were seated, a sumptuous succession of colorful dishes was paraded in front of us. The meal took place only a few inches above the ground. We crouched and squatted on lavish cushions and divans. Only the Moroccans looked relaxed and comfortable. Helmut Streitz, Larry Thompson and I seemed caught in three different, but equally uncomfortable, positions which would surely interfere with a normal digestion. Our Japanese and Indian colleagues seemed to do better than we. They must have practiced Yoga before coming to the meeting. Come to think of it, the Lotus position is particularly suitable for a Moroccan banquet.
The first dish was of Tunisian origin : ‘Brik à l’Oeuf’. Meat, onion and egg wrapped up in a thin sheet of dough and deep fried. It is delicious but it is imperative to bite the ‘Brik’ at one end, keep it tilted so that the egg will not escape, and gently bend it as you eat it. A delicate technique that develops with practice and experience. For Helmut and Larry, their first ‘brick’ was a disaster. Fortunately for Makoto Takahashi, he was too polite to quickly bite on the ‘Brik’. He observed how the Moroccans ate it and watched what went wrong on the other side of the table and managed quite well. He even seemed to have introduced some improvements of his own in handling the it. That is Japan for you !
Then we were served various tagines; A ‘Lamb, prune and honey Tagine’, which our host explained was a specialty of Fez. The sweetness of the honey was gently counterbalanced by the ginger, pepper and saffron. An amazing combination. The ‘T’faia Tagine’ which followed was a dish brought back by the Moriscos, five hundred years ago, when they had to leave Spain after the Reconquista. At that point I could only think of my stiff legs which I had decided to stretch under the low table. For some reason I could no longer move them back.
When the ‘Couscous Royal’ was served I could tell that Larry Thompson was in great pain. His husky body was ill adapted to Moroccan comfort. In answer to a question, Mohammed Fassi-Bekkari explained that this national dish of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia was made of fine ground wheat grain steamed over a stew, with lamb or chicken, a variety of vegetables, chick peas and raisins.
“Until recently”, he added “every family would send its wheat to the local mill to be ground to the degree of finesse they preferred. Then the grain was submitted to a delicate and time-consuming treatment with flour, to keep each grain separate when steamed. Nowadays it is, unfortunately, bought ready-made for the sake of expediency.”
Who would guess that industrial food processing was altering the tradition even in this part of the world. If industrialization could have only raised the level of the tables by a few inches!
At that point, I had pins and needles all over my body. When I was presented with ‘Moroccan brochettes,’ ‘Kofta and eggs’, and ‘Stuffed vegetables’ I began to panic. Some of the Moroccan guests around the table ate in the traditional fashion with their fingers, showing a dexterity which is impossible to imitate. They would hand to us between three fingers a piece of ‘mechwi’ dripping with grease. We were told that it was extremely rude to refuse.
I could no longer feel my legs. They were simply dead. Finally a Moroccan belch of satisfaction announced that we were approaching the end of the ordeal. After the sweets, the dates, the dried almonds and nuts, the mint tea ceremony, the hand-washing ritual, and a few speeches, blessings and invocations, the lavish reception came to an end.
I tried to stand up. It must have been obvious to the smart and strong servants that some of us had a serious problem. They helped everyone and, in my case, literally rescued me, as from under an avalanche. In the process, my pants split open.
Instinctively I put my hands on my buttocks to assess the damage. It was not a small crack. More like a crater. By holding my hands in that position I began to draw attention to myself. I then tried a nonchalant composure, debonairly walking out, but carefully avoiding to have anyone behind me. Impossible. Our Moroccan hosts insisted to let me go first, gently bending and gracefully calling for heavenly protection. I bent back, thanking them. The crack seemed to widen, with every salutation.
Lying in bed, that night, I thought about those two past days and recapitulated their events. We had worked hard, achieved our main objectives and had a good time. I was satisfied to realize that in the 12 or 13 years I had been with the Organization I had made headway and gained ground. I was then forty-three or forty-four years old and felt more confident and poised. I had gained enough experience to feel self-assured and relaxed. I enjoyed the international dimension of my work, disencumbered of the apprehensions of my earlier years. I relished those positive thoughts and felt happy and serene.
I wished I could share a mission with my wife and daughter. Difficult as it may be, I wanted to find some future occasion to do so. We were in the habit of taking yearly vacations with Brigitte and Françoise in France and abroad, but that was different. I wanted them to feel and share an official mission with me.
It was getting late and all that thinking on top of the ‘Couscous Royal’ was preventing me from sleeping. I suddenly remembered that outspoken lady on the plane to Senegal who had said to me, “You International Civil Servants attend too many banquets to discuss the causes of starvation in the Third World !”
Smiling, I whispered to myself, ‘Hamdullelah’ and gently drifted down the tides of sleep.
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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