Geneva Diaries #18


Letters 1, 2 &3


Morocco I -The story of Boy, his Donkey and the Desert, The Spitting Camel, The Boy with the Eye of the Crane and the Wings of the Stork and The Cactus Bite

Dear Roger,

You would have barely landed in the land of the rising sun, and I am afraid you will find your inbox inundated with my numerous mails. Are you ready for the stories: – The story of Boy, his Donkey and the Desert; The story of the spitting Camel; The story of the boy with the eye of the Crane and the wings of the stork; The story of The Best Seat in Town; and finally The Story of the Cactus Bite.

I last left you in Marrakech, were we spent the first couple of wonderful days. We drove from Marrakech over the mountains and to the door of the Sahara desert along the road of a thousand casbahs, stopping at Ait Benhaddou, then onto Ouarzazate which was a giant Saharan Hollywood and a center for international filmmakers, spending the night at Skoura then onto to Tinerhir and the magnificent Gorge du Todra deeply cut into the mountains with an icy river flowing through this narrow gorge flanked by sheer mountain faces. Our journey continued to Erfoud the fossil city which was at the edge of a seemingly endless barren landscape to the door of the Sahara. 

Ait Benhaddou this 16th century Casbah was like an incredible illusion that had arisen from the desert, an immaculate apparently deserted fortified city, a UNESCO protected fortress, situated atop a hill bordered by a stream in the middle of nowhere and nothingness. See below Ait Benhaddou:

Its only occupants appeared to be the magnificent migratory storks who have built their grand nests atop towers of this old but intact settlement.

It originally was a resting stop for caravans carrying salt across the Sahara and returning with gold and slaves. Recognizing the magic of this setting numerous movies have been staged here like my favorite Indiana Jones (and the Jewel of the Nile). So, like Indiana, I jumped upon the back of a noble looking donkey with an overtly amused teenage berber boy leading the donkey and a girl with a ponytail (me of course) across this raging stream (puddle). However, I noticed that when I dismounted that the boy released an audible long deep sigh. Then again upon my return trip across the puddle, upon dismounting he did the same! I looked him squarely in the eye and he averted his gaze turning crimson. I then sensed that I was witnessing something special, this boy was completely in sync with his donkey, one with the beast. So, when I dismounted, perhaps he sensed a burden off his shoulders or perhaps he sensed my body pressed against his donkey upon dismounting, obliquely experiencing the sensation. Well, I thought to myself that unless I was leaping dragon, there was no other way of getting off the donkeys back. So I returned a little more connected having shared a piece of the story between a Berber boy, his donkey and the demanding desert. See Below The Berber Boy his Donkey and The Raging Stream (puddle) ferrying the kids to get to Ait Benhaddou:

Erfoud, the fossil city was at the edge of the great desert, and from here it was all dirt track requiring a change of car (4×4 landrover), we of course got a bandit, an intense driver who insisted  on keeping his windows down and face wrapped up driving at break neck speed over dirt and dunes. After a while Dhruvum and I got into the swing of things and started mirroring his moves like a wii game but reality hit with the grit and sore behind, it was AWESOME! We then reached the protected area of Erg Chebbi, and the Sahara. The adventure continued. At this point, we found four camels waiting for us (we were late) they appeared to look away pooh poohing us as these “wanna be” adventurers as they pouted their lips and disdainfully continued to chew gum/cud. We mounted our camels and embarked upon the second phase of our adventure over the sand dunes into the Sahara to our desert camp. As we waited for our signal to move, Mirko made the fatal mistake of peering my camel in the eye (true story, i promise), and saying to him ” Hey, I used to smoke you for 20 years”! My camel came back with a fitting response, straight from Tintin and the Prisoners of the Sun (where the Llama kept spitting on Captain Haddocks face), and spat right into Mirkos face. The kids and I almost fell off the camels laughing but had to quickly regain composure as Mirko DID NOT LOOK AMUSED. 

See below Tintin and The Prisoners of The Sun by Herge:

We city dwellers spent a miserable night in the desert as we, the camels, the toilets and the tents seemed to be  blown away in the most violent sandstorm. And I, of course insisted that we must all brush our teeth as we jump out of bed. After the first couple of mouthfuls of sand, I promptly abandoned the idea and discarding the dental floss having come to the realization that brushing your teeth during a sandstorm in the Sahara is just not feasible. So, devoid of water, and filled with dirt and sand, itchy and irritable we drove 10 hours to our next destination. We crossed the Sahara and the barren landscape,  traversing the Paris- Dakar rally route onto the road to Fez. Our route took us just across the spectacular Atlas mountains at first vast barren stretches and then lush greenery with cows, sheep and donkeys(no escaping donkeys in Morocco) and a congregation of the most incredible bird life. It was incredible, especially for the kids to find unique interesting birds all along our route, many of whom were long migratory European birds that wintered in North Africa. Interestingly enough, these birds seemed to have blended with their environs and settled down in complete comfort in their generously sized habitations without a seeming disturbance or threat (which as I mentioned in my last mail has reduced many long migratory birds in India to be put on the critically endangered list). It was wonderful to see the love and respect the local people had for these magnificent birds, as they would not be prospering  seemingly omnipresent across Morocco. 

See below link for White Storks (which have been salvaged from the brink):

In the early 1980s, the population had fallen to fewer than nine pairs in the entire upper Rhine River valley, an area closely identified with the white stork for centuries. Conservation efforts successfully increased the population of birds there to 270 pairs (in 2008). It has been rated as least concern by the IUCN since 1994, after being evaluated as near threatened in 1988.

Our final destination across the Atlas mountains towards the ocean was the old Roman settlement of Volubilis with its soaring pillars and arches that framed the sky. The intricate and still intact tilework depicting motifs from Roman mythology like the labors of Hercules left us all awestruck. See images of Volubilis below:

See below Tara in Volubilis- Guess who fell out of the Stork nest?

In Marrakech, the storks are found in old ruins and towers across the city. As we sat down outside to eat in a roadside stall, I grumbled as neither the seat nor the meal looked appetizing and I had been warned about eating raw salad outside. As a chair was pulled out and I was plonked upon it, I noticed that right in front of me atop the neighboring building was a large nest with a stork family, the mama, papa and babies. The juxtaposition with these long migratory birds that have been tracked from Italy all the way to Morocco, was uncanny. Our journey being even longer and more convoluted, have travelled across large oceans and numerous continents we all meet on a busy street corner outside a souk in Morocco. I certainly had the best seat in town! See pic of the stock nest in the middle of town:

And story of the stork continues…

On our road to a 1000 Kasbahs, we stopped momentarily to admire the thick foliage surrounding the oasis in the desert. It was during one of these stops that a little Moroccan boy selling handicrafts at the corner of the road peered into our car and right at Dhruvum and stared. He then threw one of the woven reed handicrafts which he had in his hand onto Dhruvums lap. It was a cigogne, a stork, a bird that the little boy had seen around him nested up on ruins and minaret tops, and this image must have captivated him year after year, which he recreated using his reed strips to make an image of that stork. When he peered into the car and looked at Dhruvum, he probably saw in him a bird from a land far far away, a long migratory bird with the eyes of the Crane and the wings of the Stork and so out of all the handicrafts he had in his hands, he threw into the car, onto Dhruvums lap his expression, his representation of the bird that must have captured his imagination. It was a beautiful poignant moment, as the two boys, from two worlds, of a similar age, looked at each other and smiled. See Dhruvum below in the traditional Shesh or headscarf for men:

Still gritty and grimy from the sand at Erg Chebbi, we wound our way to Fez. Me, being myself, I demanded that we make several pit stops and I clambered over loose rubble steep hillsides and barren ground to “go”. On one of these adventures, attempting the shortest route possible up the hillside to the highway and the car, I stumbled and fell right into the middle of the only clump of cacti (or any vegetation) for miles. Howling, I made my way back to the car and to a grumpy unsympathetic crew who did not want to stop yet again (its got to be their elastic bladders…10 hours!). 

Well, that was a pivotal, turning point of my life, for this was no ordinary cactus bite! The cactus had somehow mixed the earth with my blood and I could see, i could see everything, all the designs and colors that had eluded me (in my last email to you), the beautifully inlaid motifs, the intricate but unfamiliar patterns on the walls and the ceilings of the Riads, all came to life. So, when we finally reached Fez, and our Riad/hotel with (the much desired hot flowing water, food, soft beds,) a magnificent courtyard with the most intricate tile and woodwork i had seen in a home and of course with a gently flowing marble fountain in the center, I sincerely believed we had reached paradise, jannat! See images of our awesome Riad in Fez below:

But, more importantly, this time I did not find myself struggling to discern the motifs and designs or even to compare them with those from home, but after having travelled across the desert and the high Atlas mountains, and most probably because of the magic cactus bite, the patterns developed a familiar twist, and seemed to dance in front of my eyes jumping out of their encasings and transforming themselves into their original forms the plants and flowers from which they were created, as cactus flowers and wild flowers that dotted our route all the way to Fez. I know what you are thinking about cacti, Native Americans and hallucinations, it was none of that but just a kiss from the cactus that was keen to share his universe with me, to unravel his world to my curious eyes.

See below Moroccan designs:




Morocco II

Morocco – Sights and Sounds – A Europeanized Old Delhi

Dear Roger,

I am not sure where to start the story about the magnificent journey to Morocco, its sights, its sounds, its colors and contours all so intoxicating to the senses. We started our adventure in Marrakech, where we spent a couple of days just soaking in the place and the people, all the local dishes and the fabulous marketplaces. It reminded me of a Europeanized Old Delhi. The stark contrast with Old Delhi of course being the absolute cleanliness of the environs despite being in the middle of a marketplace or public square. See below my American pre-teens in the Marrakesh Souks or marketplaces with all its exotic wares and wildlife:

The parallels were overwhelming, not only were the spices we use in our food in common, but the preparation of vegetable dishes deliciously familiar, the vibrant colors and the hustle bustle of the marketplace/souks with the over eager shopkeepers, the periodic call to prayer, the meats with their kebabs and Keftas or meatballs (our koftas). Of course, the central courtyards, intricate tile work and fountains of Morocco find a parallel in our Old Delhi a part of our capital city which most distinctly represents the Islamic influence on our culture and history over the last millennium the most vivid being the Perso-Islamic influence of the Mughal dynasty(mid 16th to mid 19th century), a colorful pattern which makes up the varied hues of our nation. 

However, the one piece I found most fascinating about Morocco was the language, a language which appeared (to a lay person like me) to be an amalgamation of Berber, Arabic and French, to the extent that French had been incorporated so innately into the language that I am unsure if the people were able to distinguish it as French (as they kept saying they were speaking Berber and sometimes Arabic and I clearly heard French words). 

This was a fascinating situation which finds a striking parallel in my world where English, our colonial heritage, has also been silently absorbed into the local lingo, Hindustani, to a point where it is not recognized by the average man as an English word (of course English has reciprocally absorbed many Hindustani words). The parallel however does not end here, not only do we have the language of the colonists in common (French in the case of the Moroccans and English in our instance), but in Hindustani we also have Urdu (with its Persian and Arabic basis) which together with Hindi forms the spoken language of India (and of course the Indian diaspora through Bollywood). So, between communicating in French (my very dilapidated version), English and capturing the odd Persian/Arabic word, communication became an integral part of the adventure!

Apart from the souks, the grand square Jemaa el-F’naa, and the gardens, the great Kutubiyya mosque was a star attraction, famed for its minaret a fine example of Andalusian architecture, the construction (of native sandstone) which started with the Almohad conquest of Morocco in 1150. It’s name comes from the Arabic for book “kutub” ( again familiar as in hindustani book is “kitab”). Son nom vient du fait q’elle se situait dans le souk des marchands de manuscrits ( I was thrilled when I could read this on wiki without using “translate”, we certainly did more together than drink coffee). See below the Kutubiyya Minaret in Marrakesh:

Incredibly enough, the star attraction of my hometown Delhi is the Qutab Minar, the worlds tallest brick minaret, built around the same time (1196) by Qubud-din Aibak and this red sandstone minaret is the most prominent example of Indo islamic architecture in our neck of the woods. Am I stretching your mind with the minaret? 

See below The Qutab Minar in New Delhi India a part of the UNESCO World Heritage List:

Then of course there was the visit to the Saadian tombs and the Bahia Palace, I was left breathless by the beautiful craftsmanship, fascinating motifs, representing the flora and fauna from their environs; an expression of a people so unique and distinctive. I realized then that I had slipped into a parallel universe, one which in so very many ways was similar to the world I was familiar with, the central and south asian cultures and their Islamic heritage with their unique expression, detailed tilework, precious inlays in marble, fountains and courtyards, Quranic verses interspersed with detailed motifs and yet the details of the designs upon a closer look were from a universe apart, as distinct as the flora and the fauna that surrounded these two worlds several continents apart. I struggled to find the familiar pomegranate, the amla, mango seed, the creepers, the rounded outlines of the flowers perhaps a familiar beak, but none was in sight. Despite the familiar outlines, the core represented another world, another continent, North Africa, the  with its unique habitat, flowers, fruits and life reduced to its unrecognizable geometric skeleton. Brilliant, fascinating but indiscernible to my eye, used to a vision from a distant land…

To be continued.

Good night.


Dear Purnima,

Just a quick note.  We’ve had a whirlwind two days in Tokyo – it’s so great to be back in such a civilized and fascinating country – and we’re leaving this morning early for Kyoto.

Loved your two installments on Morocco.  It’s really intriguing the many points in common that you have outlined between that and your own Indian culture.  Keep them coming !  I’ll have more to say once we are in Kyoto.

In spite of the sometimes overwhelming numbers of people in the streets, subway and shops, Japan continues to fascinate me because of the wonderful sense of appreciation for all things refined and beautiful AND the innumerable practical aspects of life that they have developed PLUS the omnipresent politeness and smiles and helpfulness, not to mention the stunning beauty and gracefulness of so many of the Japanese women!

Hope you’re well and that the demons that seem to plague you so much have gone into hibernation (it’s almost wintery cold here, and we didn’t bring our warm coats).

More from Kyoto and points further south (Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Unzen)



Morocco III

Morocco – From Casbah to Castle-Prisoner Of Chillon – Nature Of Man 

Dear Roger,

Its fabulous to hear from you, even if its a short note. On my end, the loneliness is devastating and I find myself sinking deeper and deeper into The Land of the Lost. It’s so wonderful to have someone coherent to communicate with, a voice, a pulse, some feedback echoing deep into my dungeon letting me know that there is life above, perhaps life beyond…

Encouraged by your note, I am sitting down to type the third and possibly final installment of Morocco: A Parallel Universe, at this unearthly hour where the only thing up and shining is the full moon!

I wandered around Morocco carrying Gavin Maxwell’s very enjoyable book, Lords of the Atlas, from point to point somehow hoping to absorb not just the intoxication of the surroundings but the ideas and words, power-plays and personas that had moulded its last century and a half. The book traces the rise and fall of the Glaoui family from 1900 to 1956.The Glaoui were one of the three principle caids (lords) of the High Atlas, that controlled and maintained the passes especially the caravans from the Sahara across the Atlas. The book centers around the two brothers Madani and T’hami al-Glaoui, the legendary tribal warlords who used not just their might but their diplomatic skill to become the kingmakers and the real power behind the throne by making a pivotal call to support and protect the debilitated army of the then sultan Moulay Hassan of Morocco who was returning across the Atlas after a disastrous encounter with the hostile tribe of the Sahara.  The wounded, frozen, hungry and battle weary army of the sultan was offered gracious hospitality food and shelter as they crossed the Glaoui territory over the tizi-n-tichka pass by Thami and Madani. Their hospitality was paid back by the sultan in numerous gifts of armaments, and most importantly, the much coveted Krupp cannon, this one and only state of the art weapon of war in Morocco, which gave the Glaoui the edge over their neighboring tribes and secured their position in history as the Lords of the Atlas and kingmakers. Upon the death of his brother, due to his close alliance with the French, Thami was elected as the head of the family, the Pasha of Marrakech becoming more powerful than the Sultan and ruled southern Morocco with absolute power. The horse trading and theatrics and the power plays of the history of Morocco, during the last century covering pre-protectorate, protectorate period from reign of the formidable sultan Moulay Hassan 1893 , to the Glaoui alliance with the French and rise to power, to 1956 the fall of the Glaoui abandoned by the French who reinstated the sultan Mohammed V recognizing the independence movement as inevitable.

The grandeur and excess of the Lords of the Atlas and the sultans, the ruthlessness and the heady intoxication of power, the contrivances and manipulations of the various tribal chieftains and of course the omnipresent colonial powers a parallel found in the story that unfolded in India with the maharajas their indulgences and excesses and the rivalry within which was fully exploited by the British colonists using the infamous “divide and rule”.

Since this was a physical journey, as well as an intellectual one, I was able to connect the sights and sounds I read with the physical experience of being present in the richly adorned riads, palaces with intricate zellige tile work, fountains and central courtyards with trees clustered with colorful fruit,  the all so familiar interwoven maze of floral motifs, the deeply carved ceiling with the unique stalagmite formation designs thus I was truly able to sense the grandeur of the sultans and the fierce and forceful power of the Lords of the Atlas. I sensed a people with a heightened sense of aesthetics yet battle hardened by the dry arid winds of the desert where it was all about power and survival. As I had mentioned in my last email, this was a dream, a europeanized Old Delhi, incredible infrastructure, fabulous roads, and squeaky clean, without a piece of garbage. However, as we drove into the desert, I observed barren expanses that seemed to stretch for hundreds of miles, devoid of life and habitation, seemingly untouched by man, but here in the middle of the pristine lands, billowing in the wind like some melodramatic tragic art were millions of colored plastic bags that were somehow entangled in the scattered shrubbery. This was also an expression of development but the converse side… and it certainly made me think!

Back to the Lords of the Atlas, in this, Maxwell quotes extensively from Walter Harris’s 1912 book. Walter Harris was the proverbial Englishman in Morocco, a London Times correspondent who lived and interacted with the personas through the tumultuous era of the first three decades of the 1900’s and provided a vivid and entertaining account of pre/ protectorate Morocco, royal courts Berber rebels and squabbling sultans ( like the ex sultan Moulay Hafid) who assigned to their dentist the purchase of a lion and refused to compensate until they received their dental chair throne (yes, the actual royal armchair and not the ones we mortals frequent).

In attempting to depict the ensuing intrigues, tactics and ruthlessness with which the strategy was executed Maxwell quotes Walter Harris and his depiction of events as he experienced them first hand: a description of the dreadful damp and dark dungeons under every Kasbah and the mortifying tale of two political prisoners highlighting the blackest page of sultan Abd el Azziz’s reign. 

In 1894, upon the death of the fierce Sultan Moulay Hassan, his minor son Moulay Abd El Aziz accession to the throne was completed with the help of the powerful chamberlain Bou Ahmed. As is the case with most child accessions (and we have a number of examples in India), there was intense court intrigue and two factions, one of the child sultan and chamberlain and the other of the grand Vizier and the minister of war. As soon as the new government was organized, the court left Rabat for Fez. Fez was the center of religion, learning and intrigue and its influence was great. In order to fully secure his throne, a sultan needed the support of the religious and aristocratic Fezzis. Bou Ahmed, the Chamberlain knew that for the Fezzis he was an upstart and in order to secure himself he had to asset his stance in their presence, and thus unfolded the gravest injustice and blackest page of sultan Abd el Azziz’s reign.

One morning, during the usual morning court, the Grand Vizier arrived in the city and summoned by the sultan prostrated in front of him. Upon providing an unsatisfactory answer to a question posed to him, Bou Ahmed, the Chamberlain accused him of disloyalty and political crimes and appealed to the sultan to have him arrested. The grand vizier now a disheveled creature, was jeered and taunted as he was dragged through the central public square, simultaneously his brother Si Mohammed, the Minister of War was also arrested. They were sent in chains to the Tetuan to be confined in a dungeon. 

The conditions prevalent in the dungeons of that time outlined by Maxwell in Lords of the Atlas as described by Walter Harris who often had first hand account:

In every Governors Kasbah, deep in damp dungeons, here lay and pined those who had committed or not committed a crime in such suffering and darkness receiving just sufficient nourishment to life. Men were known to have existed for years to emerge again after their long suffering. And what prisons!  What horrors of prisons they were, even those above the ground and reserved for the ordinary class of criminals. Chained neck to neck with heavy shackles on their legs, they sat or lay in filth and often the cruel iron collars were only undone to take away a  corpse.

Both the Grand Vizier and the Minister of War were chained together with iron clamps around their necks and feet, and they remained so chained for ten long years. Then the Grand Vizier died. The governor of the Tetuan afraid to bury the body in case he was accused of letting the prisoner escape, left the dead prisoners corpse rot in the summer heat of the dungeon still chained to his brother Si Mohammed Sorier. Si Mohammed Sorier lived, He was finally let go after fourteen years and he emerged from the dungeon blind and lame from the cruel fetters he had worn to find his properties confiscated and his wife and children dead. Such was the cruelty and ruthlessness unleashed by the sultans and tribal warlords in the pursuit of power.

As I lay tucked in my cosy covers reading this tale halfway through to the Moroccan desert, I was jolted back to a tale closer to home. No, not India this time, but Geneva! The Prisoner of Chillon, a poem composed by Byron (one I have read and re-read and mentioned in every passing note) during a boat trip on Lake Geneva with Percy and Mary Shelley  while visiting the Chateau of Chillon on the edge of Lake Geneva. The story of Francois de Bonnivard, the Swiss patriot and historian, the prior of St. Victor near Geneva, who supported the cause of liberty and the revolt of Geneva against Charles III, duke of Savoy. Bonnivard was imprisoned in the castle of Chillon from 1530-1536 and this saga was romanticized and immortalized in Byrons poem, The Prisoner of Chillon.

See below Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva:

The poem champions the cause of liberty by highlighting the cruel and tragic circumstances of Bonnivard incarceration who  was fettered by his neck in the damp dark dungeon (finding a parallel with the Moroccan story of incarceration in the dungeon above) of a majestic castle in the middle of a magical lake.

My hair is grey, but not with years

My limbs are bow’d, though not with toil,

For they have been a dungeon’s spoil

Three were in a dungeon cast,

Of whom this wreck is left the last. 

There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,

In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old,

And in each pillar there is a ring,

And in each ring there is a chain;

That iron is a cankering thing,

For in these limbs its teeth remain,

With marks that will not wear away,

When my last brother droop’d and died,

And I lay living by his side. 

That iron is a cankering thing,

For in these limbs its teeth remain,

With marks that will not wear away,

When my last brother droop’d and died,

And I lay living by his side. 

 Here, the poem romanticizes the historical facts by depicting Bonnivard as being chained by the neck in the dark and damp dungeon along with his two brothers whom he sees perish in front of his eyes when he was the sole captive, actually bears a closer parallel to the real life story of the events mentioned above that unfolded in Morocco with Si Mohammed and the Grand Vizier, where Si Mohammed spent 10 long years in that damp dark dungeon chained to his brother and eventually to his brothers corpse. I wonder how much Walter Harris took from the poem (which he was undoubtedly familiar with) to describe the horrifying facts of this story of Si Mohammed.

They chain’d us each to a column stone,

And we were three — yet, each alone;

We could not move a single pace,

We could not see each other’s face,

But with that pale and livid light

That made us strangers in our sight;

And thus together — yet apart,

Fetter’d in hand, but joined in heart,

To hearken to each other’s speech,

And each turn comforter to each

With some new hope, or legend old,

Or song heroically bold;

Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls:

A thousand feet in depth below

Its massy waters meet and flow;

A double dungeon wall and wave

Have made — and like a living grave.

Though hard I strove, but strove in vain,

To rend and gnash my bonds in twain.

He died, and they unlock’d his chain,

And scoop’d for him a shallow grave

Even from the cold earth of our cave.

The parallels however do exist and Byron through the poem does a brilliant job of depicting the unrelenting captivity, the imposition of unbridled power, the merciless cruelty and torture. I suspect, many universes removed, here too, on the banks of this magical lake, such traits were taken as signs of strength and mercy as evidence of weakness. I wonder, if in some way these traits are inherent in the nature of man stretching from the Alps to the Atlas, from the East, to the West. Si Mohammed Sorier survived, so did our Bonnivard, will we???

It’s early morning, I should go to bed.

Hope to hear from you soon!


Disclaimer : P

All persons, places, events are fictitious; all imputed relationships purely aspirational. There were no men harmed during the penning of the Feminist Manifesto.

Purnima Viswanathan 

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