Sunday, February 18, 2007

Bou Inania Medersa - Fez, Morocco

[The Minaret of the Bou Inania Medersa rises above its courtyard in Fes, Morocco]

Morocco is one of the few majority-Muslim countries in the world where non-Muslims are consistently not allowed into mosques. Folks there will tell you this is an Islamic religious stricture, and they genuinely believe it. However, the historical reality is that the restriction stems from the French colonial period. The French came in and built Ville Nouvelles (new cities) alongside the existing Moroccan towns and then generally kept French and Moroccan populations separate. Part of that separation was to codify a rule that non-Muslims could not enter mosques. The rule has lasted until the present day. [UPDATE: Commentor taamarbuuta states that I am incorrect and that this is actually a religious prohibition under the Maliki school of law. Given that I am pretty unfamiliar with this school of law which predominates in the Maghrib, I could well be off on this. If anyone would like to chime in with further details, please do.]

Because of the restriction, non-Muslim foreigners are generally not able to see a great deal of the wonderful Islamic art, architecture and scholarly history of the country (the inability to enter the millenium-old Karaouyine mosque and university stands in marked contrast to the ability to go see the similarly-aged and resplendent Al-Azhar in Cairo for example).

There are a few exceptions though. One is the modern Hasan II Mosque in Casablanca: a giant, ridiculously expensive project which every citizen got a pound of financial flesh extracted to build, but which is nonetheless a point of national pride -- expensive yes, but also the largest mosque in the Islamic west (and one of the largest in the world) and a display case for some of the finest modern examples of Islamic craftsmanship (especially in tilework and geometry) in the world. Another example are the Riad's, generally older upper middle class homes centered around an open courtyard which have been restored to their artistic and architectural glory and often serve as bed and breakfast type guesthouses. The other main examples are the Medersa's (francophone transliteration - Madrasa's in an anglicized version) or Islamic religious schools. Most are no longer in use, many had fallen into a dilapidated state, but the government has stepped in to restore some major ones and has done a beautiful job in some cases. My recent trip to Fes was my first time in Morocco and we were on a very tight schedule, so I was only able to go see one Medersa, but it is reportedly one of the best: The Bou Inania Medersa.

So, the following description of this Medersa is taken from the Morocco Blue Guide (Fourth Edition, 2002, pp. 204-205), with my corresponding pictures taken last year. Bracketed [] comments are my own additions. Click on any picture to see a larger version.

You will soon come to an impressive entrance (on your right), which is the way into the Bou Inania Medersa. This was built as a lodging-house for students of the Karaouyine by the Merinide sultan Abou Inan in 1355. Generally considered to be the finest of all Moroccan medersas, this beautifully restored example of Islamic architecture at its best should not be missed. You go through a small entrance-hall, with its own splended stalactitic (muqarnas) dome, into the glory of the building, which is the court. The walls are quite breathtaking; it seems that not a centimetre has been left undecorated, and yet because the colours are so muted and the proportions so near perfect the overall effect is not confusing. The whole is framed from above by a layer of finely carved cedarwood, while below is a terrace of delicate stucco. Stuccowork like fine threads of lace outlines the simple openings of the tiny, cell-like students' rooms. These were still in use by students until 1956, but are now seriously decayed. (It is worth climbing one of the flights of stairs, which ascend from the entrance hall to the terrace, for an exceptional view of the court and nearby buildings.) Below the stucco on three sides of the court is a horizontal band of black Kufic script painted on wood. The columns beneath it are covered with minutely worked zelliges, which form the only point of colour, other than browns and creams, in the whole complex structure. Between the columns are elegant wooden grilles, and behind these are the rooms which would have served as lecture halls.

In the centre of the court is the small ablutions fountain, fed by waters from the river Fes, a spot of perfect peace in its natural surround of plain flagstones, an acceptable contrast to the contrived perfection around it. At the far end of the court, opposite the finely proportioned dor through which you entered, is the oratory, with its delicately sculpted mihrab, where the imam stands facing Mecca to lead the prayers. This part of the medersa is still in use and, depending on the good nature of your guide, it may or may not be possible to peer in. The green-tiled minaret is one of the most elegant in Fes.

[Entrance to the Medersa including large brass doors]

[Detail of Zellige tilework from the medersa's courtyard.]

[The Bouinania's minaret is one of the most beautiful and distinctive in Fes.]

[Courtyard of the Medersa, showing the ablution fountain and in the background the oratory area which is still used as a mosque.]

[The Mihrab - prayer niche pointing towards Mecca - within the oratory.]

[Detail of stuccowork from walls of the medersa's courtyard.]

[Medieval graffiti? :) The name of the Sultan who had the Medersa built, "Sultan Abi Annan"]

[Archway stucco Muqarnas work.]

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Friday, February 16, 2007

"...when the Arabs will love their children..."

Golda Meir stands out as one of the more blatantly racist of Israel's leaders over the years (a contest in which she has stiff competition to this day). One of her more famous quotes was that "Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us". Because you see, clearly anyone who fights for their very survival after and while being ethnically cleansed simply has misplaced blind rage towards some innocent other and doesn't truly love their children. No really, it's true, why don't you believe me? I mean look at all those Bosnians, making all their lame excuses about being upset over being ethnically cleansed, starved, raped, gunned down in mass graves. Everyone knows the *real* problem was that they just hated Serbs and didn't love their children. And the blacks in South Africa, they could have brought peace so much easier if they would have just given in to their benevolent, loving Apartheid overlords. But noooooooo, they just clearly hated Afrikaners more than they loved their own children.

Which is why the following is so perplexing...a letter...from a Palestinian father to his children in 1938...expressing what appears to genuine, heartfelt love for his children. Almost 20 years *before* Golda Meir showed the world that Arabs had not yet learned to love their children like the rest of us! How can this be?! An Arab, loving his children??? "Impossible!" the Israeli government informs us, "they FORCE us to shoot their unarmed children and destroy their houses over their heads and torture their fathers and rip up the olive groves that feed their families and steal the water that is supposed to nourish their babies. Clearly THEY don't love their children when they force US to do these things to them." (Really, it's true, Israeli soldiers never shoot innocent civilians of their own free will and choice, there is always an invisible Palestinian who sneaks up behind Israeli soldiers, pulls his finger down to the trigger and as the Israeli soldier screams "no, no, don't make me shoot that terrorist baby" the invisible Palestinian forces the Israeli soldier to pull the trigger against his will. It's true, ask any Israeli soldier, they will all tell you between their tears how pained and anguished they are by it and how they need billions of dollars in annual American aid to pay for psychological treatment and ammunition resupply.)

I don't understand, it is so perplexing, can someone please explain this apparently loving letter from an Arab (gasp!) father to his children me? It must be a forgery right? It can't possibly be the Golda Meir was promoting racist ideas that Arabs are sub-humans who don't love their children like everyone else...can it?

[Click image to see in detail: May 1938 letter by Fuad Saba, member of the Arab Higher Committee in Palestine, to his children from British-imposed exile in the Seychelles.]

[Fuad Saba pictured with other members of the Arab Higher Committee, he is standing top right. Background: by the late 1930s the Arab population of Palestine had seen the writing on the wall that the Zionist movement was determined to colonize and steal their country and had not come to live in peace as neighbors as the native Jewish population of the Holy Land had done for millenia before the overwhelmingly-European Zionists arrived. The British occupiers were ineptly maneuvering back and forth trying to please one side then the other and in the process bungling everything but ultimately allowing Zionist plans to march forward and disposses the native inhabitants of their homeland. An Arab uprising broke out which the British brutally crushed, flattening entire neighborhoods, arresting anyone even suspected of any political activity whatsoever, and exiling many Palestinian leaders. Fuad Saba, as a member of the Arab Higher Committee whose goal was independence and putting a stop to foreign plans to colonize his country, was exiled to the Seychelles from where he wrote the letter above to his children.]

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