The Law of Unexpected Consequences, Exhibit B, for “A Poet’s Progress,” Newtopia Magazine #2

The Law of Unexpected Consequences, Exhibit B

King Mohammed VI had a problem. Most rural and nomad women were illiterate, they were restricted to the home, and they were often pledged to arranged marriages even before they “became a woman.” They would be auctioned off, sometimes not meeting their husbands–often decades older—until the wedding. These marriages were usually consummated by the age of sixteen, and often as young as fourteen, because it was thought that a woman was only pure until she began menstruating. And these unions almost immediately began having babies—commonly twelve or more live births as recently as thirty years ago.

The king decided to put an end to this oppression, as well as he could. First, he made it illegal for anyone to marry under the age of eighteen—even those with the consent of both parties and their parents. Then he made it necessary for both of the betrothed to swear separately three times in public that they were marrying of their own free wills. Then the couple had to take a family planning course and learn about the proper use of contraceptives, go through marriage and individual counseling, take classes on home economics and good nutrition and hygiene. They were taught their legal rights as husband and wife and the social benefits they qualified for.

Then the king set up a series of rural “cooperatives” that would employ only women. At the Cooperative Marjana, on the road to Essaouria, they grow, harvest, and process argan berries—all by hand, with a technology built of stones, the way it has been for millennia. Argan oil is 100% organic and used to make massage and cooking oils (it lowers cholesterol and has a pleasant smoky taste). What the government gives them is free land, no taxes, and support and education in building their enterprises.

In the three years of its existence, the Cooperative Marjane has grown from a small farm that harvested a few hundred gallons of argan oil a year—sold as massage and cooking oil—into a major manufacturer of cosmetics, candles, massage oil, health products, seasonings and cooking oil. It employs over thirty-six rural women (their photos are on display in the communal work area). They accept credit cards (not common in rural areas in Morocco) and have plans to open a webstore. The business is run by a young college-educated woman named Shira who wears a black Led Zeppelin t-shirt and a paisley headscarf and speaks expert English. When she’s not negotiating international distribution deals or keeping informed about the production details of over four dozen products, Shira is proud to give guided tours for the tourists ending in the gift shop who arrive on buses every fifteen minutes.

Women from the village now go to work five days a week (there is a communal bus that picks them up and drops them off at their houses), at a business that they own. And everyone—from the CEO to the field laborers—has an equal voice in how the business is run. Plus, most husbands now realize that they are better off when the power is shared between them, and it also turns out that these husbands are being nicer to their wives. Even if it’s just because they know they’ll be asking to borrow money on Saturday night, their children are seeing their mother being treated with respect and consideration by their fathers, whereas only a generation ago only the eldest male in the family was able to handle money.

Marjana Argan Cooperative

Midnight, Twisting Like a Snake

Walking through shadows
and out again, a full moon
and tall alabaster clouds,

walking with determination
from beginning to the end,
wide awake in the dark.

Tonight the winds are from the west,
whitened by moonlight, moving up the slope
and massaging the pines and eucalyptus,

holly and heather,
turning hillsides into designs
bobbing up and down

one way and then the other,
as sand slips over sand,
pausing for an instant, then nothing

happens and I catch myself walking
just to be doing something
with no reason at all.

Marjana Argan Cooperative

September 23, 2010: Essaouria, Morocco

I feel comfortable in the Essaouira medina and know where I’m going after a brief tour and two passes on my own through its streets. On the central avenue you are either headed for the center of town or the castle that Hendrix wrote about in “Spanish Castle Magic.” Perpendicular to this central axis, the streets head either toward the ocean or toward the beach. When I make a wrong turn and head down a deadend street, it is obvious I am lost, and the locals point me in direction of the “exit.”

I’m looking for a music shop I passed on my way in, when I didn’t have time to stop. I started off in the wrong direction but when I got to the center of town, I realized where I was and found the store pretty easily. The same woman’s voice was singing in the shop, which was a gift because I didn’t know how I was going to describe her to the store owner when I returned hours later. He was standing outside his shop and nodded at me before turning away, chewing on the stem of a palm frond. I stood for a moment and listened until I was certain that it was the same woman, and then I excused myself and asked the owner who was singing. He went to the front of the shop and handed me a CD by Rokia Traore. I ask him how much. Fifty dirhams, he says, about 6 dollars. Sold. Her father is very famous too, he tells me and hands me one of her father’s CDs. Can I hear? Of course, he says. Boubacar Traore looks like Howlin’ Wolf and sounds like John Lee Hooker, accompanying himself on a large acoustic guitar. I later find out that he is not Rokia’s father. Traore is a popular surname in the musician caste of Morocco, so it is a common mistake. Then he shows me a CD by Salif Keita. Yes, I say, I have everything. He shows me a CD by Ali Farka Toure. Oh, yes, I have everything. Tinariwen. Ah, yes! I shout. The best! But I have everything. He reaches over and pushes a button on his shop’s CD player and I hear the opening bars of “Ammassakoul.” Ah, yes, I say. I have been singing this song the whole trip. Now I won’t get it out of my head all day.

I tell him I’m looking for good Gnawa music and he hands me a recording of the 2010 Gnawa Festival in Essouria. I have 190 dirhams and I pour it all on the counter. “What can I get with this?” I walk out with Rokia and Boubacar Traore, the Gnawa anthology, and a CD by a local female percussionist, Amina Alaoui. As I pick up my package he reaches out and grabs my hand, shakes it vigorously. “You will like these,” he assures me.

I go to the cash machine and take out $200 in dirhams and walk to another music store I passed on the way in. He too is playing something interesting. He leans against the speaker on the street, his arms crossed. He returns my gaze and we both nod to each other. Then he turns and continues to look out into the street. I say, “Excuse me, who is this singing?” He slowly straightens up and goes to the shelf, puts a CD on the counter by Boubacar Traore. “Oh,” I say, “I just bought that one.” “No you didn’t,” he says. “Yes I did,” and I go digging in my bag. “I can see what you bought” and I look and see that my bag is transparent. “Oh, okay. Here is what I just bought. For dance hall I like Amadou and Mariam. For women singers I like Oumou Sangare, for male singers I like Salif Keita and Issa Bagayoyo, for blues-based music I like Ali Farka Toure, and my favorite is the desert blues of Tinariwen. What would you recommend for me?”

“Ah,” he says, dismissing Tinariwen with a wave of his hand. “Everything they know they learned from him,” jabbing at the Boubacar CD. He is quickly losing patience with the whole desert blues thing. “Listen,” he says, turning around. “If you like Tinariwen, you will like these”—he pulls out a two-CD set called “Desert Music Volume III” and puts it on the counter. “But I know you,” he says. “You like blues, right? Do you like jazz?” “Yes,” I say, “some jazz, sure.” He pulls out a CD by a local oud player, Anouar Brahem. “Here he is playing with….” “Dave Holland” I shout, reading the CD cover. “Yes” he says, “and John Surman. Do you know Surman?” “No, I don’t.” “He played with Miles, he plays with John McLaughlin. He is very good. Do you know Jan Garbarek?” “Oh, yeah, sure, and his daughter Anja, who’s a musician too.” “Here take this.” He hands me “Madar” on ECM from 1994. “This is Anouar with Garbarek and Ustad Shaukat Hussain, a very good tabla player.” “So it’s northern Europe, northern Africa, and Asia.” “Yes,” he smiles. “It is very good.” He puts on a CD by Ismail Ko which he says is hard to describe. It’s a duet with Marianne Faithfull. I put the other Boubacar CD on the counter, the one that was playing when I entered the store. “How much for these six CDs?” He points to my bag. “How much did you pay him?” “Fifty dirhams each.” “Are you happy with that price?” “These cost me $6.00 apiece. If I could find these in the U.S.—and I doubt it—I’d probably pay $60.00 for the four of them. So, yeah, I’m happy.” “Then 50 dirhams for these too.” I stuff them into my bag and reach out to shake his hand. “Thank you. You have been a great help.” “You will like,” he says, nodding, refusing to look at me.

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