Homage to the City of Flowers

As a newcomer to a city whose best days are at least ten years gone, it’s not quite nostalgia that you feel. There is longing, of course, but for something you can only imagine. It’s unlike what I feel for the humanity of the Kasba or the calm radiance of Sablettes Beach, experiences stolen by Lockdown. Then again, memory and imagination are both acrobatics of the mind in the present, so maybe the nostalgia is the same.

This morning, I woke up early feeling unusually energized – first I went to the roof to greet the day, but found it insufficient to impart the fullness of the morning’s beauty, so I put on shoes, a mask, and snatched my citywide hall-pass. On the street, I made it all the way to the Ali Ben mosque, but walking felt inadequate too, so I went back for my bike, the Greenway AKA the Black Bullet. Gliding silently down Boulevard d’Oujda on the Bullet, wearing my knock-off Adidas tracksuit as camouflage, everyone but me snoozed through the first hours of the day’s fast. The streets possessed a numinous tranquility beneath the dual effect of the pandemic and  Ramadan; it felt like skiing alone through virgin snow.

The winds carried me first to La Falaise, the Cliffs, where lovers meet by day and thieves scheme by night, or so I’m warned. Closed for quarantine, but open enough for my bike to slip past for the first time since mid-March, I rode along with my attention divided between the potholes and the magnificent Atlantic that slammed unseen on the rocks below. Memories stirred of how the Greenway’s maiden voyage was to the Cliffs with Ken, shortly after we’d bargained the price down from 3000 to 1700 D’s at a mechanic’s shop up in Hassania – a steal for a single-speed racing bike that was clipped off the streets of Europe and shipped south. That was a glorious day. This morning, the air was clear enough that the Casa skyline easily rose into view across the curve of the coast. In the middle of the urban sprawl, gargantuan Hassan II Mosque stood arrogantly in the waves, taunting Nature to contend with the symbols of man’s religion, as if his book of proof were more powerful than the ocean that constantly erodes the mosque’s foundation. 

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La Falaise
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The Greenway’s maiden voyage

Through the streets near the port, I cruise past all the fish restaurants with their identical blue awnings, menus, and signs saying Fermé. Ahead is the Catholic Church for the city’s many Résidents Français, a petit morceau of Europe where boys and girls wear shorts and play together beneath the old churchyard trees. Perhaps reluctantly, a police officer stands outside guarding the tiny French planet behind the gate.

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Port Restaurants
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The Park

I swerve to the left onto a narrow street edged with dust and debris from the construction of titanic buildings that will house glitzy new apartments. The height of these brick and mortar skeletons, draped with cranes and scaffolding, makes this street chillier and darker than the rest except for at midday. Maybe they’ll restore some of Mohammedia’s faint pulse when they’re decorated and inhabited.

At the top of the wide esplanade known simply as Le Parc, is the old Miramar Hotel (built in 1927) that belonged to King Hassan II and then later his son, the current ruler. It was Mohammedia’s only 5-star hotel, and in 1942 General Patton headquartered there when American troops landed at Mohammedia in Operation Torch. Owing to mismanagement, it was closed some years ago. At present, the hotel looks like a mirage, a crusty edifice crowded in by a jungle of trees and plants, and swarming with birds for whom Mohammedia was historically a trucker stop along the Great Migration. It ought to be restored if only because a whole city goes to seed when a main landmark is empty and dilapidated. 

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The Hotel, overgrown and off limits

My morning tour doesn’t ascend out of the flatlands of the centre ville with its humidity, higher prices, and government buildings. It doesn’t pass the train station whose massive panneau d’information can now display all the day’s departures at once because there are so few. It doesn’t climb up to Al-Alia, the Heights, where first impressions were made and where the price is right. Instead, it weaves through the confusing French streets of this industrial beach town, back through my building’s door which is always ajar, marches up the stairs and leans at rest against the wall before 8 a.m. 

I cannot speak for whatever bureaucratic vendetta drained Mohammedia’s parks and beaches of their funding, and thus their greenery and liveliness, in the years before I came. When my parents were visiting, they recognized the near-total vacuum of art and culture in Mohammedia, and mused that this is what Oneonta could become: pretty enough and livable, but lacking in vitality. “It is a quiet, comfortable city,” I was told at the Casablanca hostel where I stayed after landing with my backpack, suitcase and sitar. 

That it is! and I do love Mohammedia even though it doesn’t have the charm of Essaouira or the storied past of Salé, the pirate haven of olden days; even if there’s not one cinema for its population of 200,000; even if I feel like a foreign observer after eight months; even as I grow nostalgic for it while I’m still here. It’s one of the only places I’ve lived where my drive to move on has evaporated into the striking blue sky. 

In Search of Spring

Silence, allow me to disturb you for 1,008 words. There’s been so much time, such full time, but so quickly it’s tomorrow, and tomorrow again. It’s an in-between time, a liminal space that gradually gives way to a new normal. Off the bus, back on the street, but this time as tourists in a city we used to live in. We don’t love it, that’s for sure, but we’re hoping the cherry blossoms of spring will redeem the heaviness of winter, and that people will lighten the hell up. When spring comes. 

As denizens of the liminal space, we ought to inspect our surroundings. First the word: the in-between. In Tibetan, it’s called the bardo. Between death and rebirth, between sleeping and waking. In the synapse between each inhale and exhale, it is that space defined only by what it is not. In the Book of Natural Liberation Through Learning of the Between, better known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the arc of a soul’s journey is mapped out from before death, to the days immediately following, and then beyond, past the shore where those monks and friends stand chanting “Take heed! take heed!” as the roar of time pushes onward. If the soul is powerless to see through the red winds of karma, powerless to WAKE UP in the phantasm of the bardo, which itself marks the end of the dream of life, then it takes another form. Animal, human, hungry-ghost, demigod… Buddhists have their categories, and each one has its obstacles.

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The Six Realms of existence in the Wheel of Becoming

Karma dictates that you choose your own fate. Or, as my favorite prof Robert Thurman says, karma is evolution. At the end of Plato’s Republic, in the Myth of Er, souls are gathered to select their rebirth, each one deciding according to the limits of their evolution through past experiences. Remembering his inferiority to Achilles, Ajax chooses the birth of a lion where he can be the most fearsome of animals if not of men. Agamemnon recalls his hatred for the human race and its misery, and picks the life of an eagle. The last to choose is Odysseus, renowned equally for his intelligence as for his suffering. He has known the emptiness of glory, so he takes the quiet life of an ordinary person and says he would have made the same choice if his lot were the first. “No photos, please.”

While perhaps heroes and hungry ghosts all have the chance to self-realize in the moments after death, Buddhists believe that only humans have that capacity all throughout life. Right now. And now. Yet we’re so distracted by our desires, our needs and even our language. It’s like trying to cut across two lanes on the Jersey Turnpike to Exit, whereas in the bardo all the traffic is stripped away. That’s where we are now, but as we cruise we’re still drawn by this vision of earthly renewal and repulsed by that of each new headline, each hard look at The Facts. Some have it much easier than others, but everyone still has their own message to hear. 

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Not the Jersey Turnpike

Between wondering what mine is and performing in the world of appearances, performing for my students whose unique energies are now sequestered within a range of pixels on my screen, a dream of the future comes to mind. We have a spring festival more glorious than any elder can recall! We taste the sweet air and decide to order more of it! The Green New Deal is mainstream policy, not the least because we’ll need a New Deal. As we patch together the tatters of the economy, maybe governments worldwide will choose to use only those strips that are lightest, most efficient, and LEED-certified. So the vision goes.

Or maybe our moment will come when the air darkens again, and this time we notice it ourselves. After all, lines on a graph, no matter how precipitous, can never stir hearts like lived suffering. Like a plague. Although, for Pharoah, it took ten of those.

We have to be realistic in this in-between. When it comes to realism, also called the Absurd, who better to ask than Albert Camus? In his novel The Plague, the citizens of Oran struggle and adjust as the Devil’s whip flails the air above their city, killing and killing. But after a year, when the disease breathes its last in a main character’s lungs, the exultation and the mourning of the masses make them forget that the bacillus never dies, it only retreats. Though reborn, they’re not quite enlightened. “Yes, the old fellow had been right; these people ‘were just the same as ever,’ but this was at once their strength and their innocence,” Camus writes.

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What we’re in is more like the impossible edge of a shadow: the penumbra. A penumbra exists, but strangely. Without an intrinsic, bounded self, it is not this, not that. We see it only in relation to everything else. Just so – no clear beginning and end dates rise to meet our grasping minds, though I will remember where I was on January 21st when I saw the NY Times notification about an “unknown virus.” At a departure gate in the Rabat Airport, about to be a tourist in a city I used to live in. 

How is this moment so different from that one? In twenty years, we’ll have markers for the life and death of this non-living virus. But now that we’re all here, can we acknowledge that they will be fake? We’re still processing WWII, which “ended” in 1945, and no date will grace the tombstone of American democracy. Every idea that is born and blow that is struck seeps through the bars of Historical Event.

We are in-between, but that’s only partially true. So, when will we change and make good our promises and visions? I imagine if you awaken in the bardo, you know yourself and simultaneously the in-between as wisps of a dream. The time is now. And now.