A long time ago–an embarassing number of years–more than you need to know, I worked at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Boston in the United States. Their specialization was woody plants.
They have four hundred named cultivars, varieties and species of lilac (Syringa). Each spring they have a massive public event that huge crowds attend–Lilac Sunday. The event timing varied as climate related events do. Early warm spring meant early lilacs could be mid-late April. Cold and a late spring meant late lilacs could be mid May.
So we watched carefully each year to determine accurately when would Lilac Sunday be.
All that crossed my mind as I was looking and enjoying lilac fragrance everywhere in my home town today. So if I was to call Lilac Sunday, I’d call it this week–Mother’s Day in the USA.
And the climate? A normal average year.
Go out and find a lilac. Enjoy the blooms and their fragrance. They go by rather quickly as May warms the earth.
In my novel, Tangier Gardens, CJ completed his term abroad design study by assembling a series of short stories documenting his unusual Moroccan landscape interactions. He learned about marabouts from at least three different sources. Trying to understand marabouts began CJ’s downward spiral. This is how he describes his learning experience. This is not a fantasy. It was CJ’s real life in Tangier.
For CJ the landscape had always been his muse…until he settled in to Tangier and the north west African landscape. The shape shifting began when he first learned about marabouts. It wasn’t marabout shape shifting, it was landscape shape shifting. Where was CJ’s landscape muse?
But according to Wikipedia, marabout definition is a bit short of the breadth I learned in my over two years living in northern Morocco. Wikipedia says:
Marabout means “saint” in the Berber languages, and refers to Sufi Muslim teachers who head a lodge or school called a zāwiya, associated with a specific school or tradition, called a ṭarīqah “way, path”. A marabout may also refer to a tomb (Arabic: قُبّة qubba “dome”) of a venerated saint, and such places have become holy centers and places of pious reflection.
But what I learned is that each marabout has its own story that changes over time. Let’s let CJ recall his first marabout story.
It was almost the end of July when I visited again. I was preparing to go to Casablanca for the Darija Stage–a one-week intensive course on local Arabic language basics–primarily for Peace Corps volunteers, but Erik had kindly given me a place. Looking for a basic Darija book, I stopped into the Piliers Culturels bookstore to talk with Mme Zsófia. While there, I talked more about my landscape design study. She took an interest in my landscape architecture focus and invited me to sit and talk with her in the bookstore back room.
The room was small, no window, and books stacked higgledy-piggledy from floor to ceiling everywhere. There were two chairs and she offered me one and excused herself for a moment. I was quietly looking around when I heard some rustling behind a couple book stacks.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hallo, qui est-ce,” replied an older woman’s voice in a heavy Eastern European accent.
“Parlez-vous Anglais?” I asked.
She wormed her way through the stacks to see who she was speaking with. The heavy set 70ish woman with stringy grey hair looked like she had been 24 hours straight researching her way through this jumble of books.
She asked me in English who I was and I repeated all about landscape architecture and my university design study.
“Landscape architecture? Not many around here. What brings you to this store?”
“Looking for books on language and local culture.”
“Local culture? What do you want to know?”
“Why is the mood of the medina so intense and why are the youths on the street so aggressive?”
“You do get right to the core of it with that question. First you should know that my name is Olga and I am a longtime Tangerine friend, of Mme Zsófia. We arrived here in the early 50s and have been part of local culture since.”
I told her my name was Christopher Janus.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said. Then she sat down and carried on. She talked about how the two of them shared times in the 50s at Merkala Beach Café, with fascinating stories of keef, drink and rough life, with names like Lachen and Idir.
I liked hearing her perspectives on Tangier. She talked about the International Zone and relationships with strict Muslims.
She said, “The Zone had a reputation for diversity of culture and religion, which concerned the pious Moroccan population who saw it as ‘a plague zone as much infested with cockroaches as infested, nay, infected by infidels’. But it has its own ways to ‘clean’ itself.”
“What do you mean by ‘clean’ itself?” I was perplexed.
She began, “It is difficult to define…the cleansing…some people like to call it a superstition…some like to call it a curse. It is both and more. Here you can find it as a disease, bad dream and misfortune in daily life. It is a storm cloud, it is a bad taste and it is a burdensome possession. All are here. You can’t control it. I can’t control it. We can’t control it. Maybe you can say it is like bad weather or an earthquake or hurricane. But for some it lasts their entire life, every day and every night.”
I hesitated before asking, “It sounds like you are talking about the evileye or something?” She said nothing.
Then, after taking a sip of tea, Mme Olga said, “Let me tell you a cleansing story.”
She paused, before beginning, “There was a guy in the early 1960s–lots of guys trying to get attention of Paul Bowles. This guy was American. Not like you. He was very big, bolshie and beautiful. Emphasis on the bolshie. This guy had hubris. There wasn’t a pretty girl or pretty boy that he didn’t think was his. You could see it in his eyes. He was around for a couple weeks and we could all see what was going on. The Magreb does not tolerate such a fool running loose.
“He had a thing against camels–always talking about camel jockeys. One day, he was after a beautiful, but tender, brother and sister–orphans–for his own pleasure as was his normal way. These young kids lived on a farm just past the edge of town, toward Cap Malabata. They kept camels for tourist rides. The bolshie American followed them home, planning to have his way with them. They, offering shelter to the kaffir, invited him in.
“But his attitude gave him away when he, making sex eyes at both of them, demanded a drink. Well, they gave him a drink and he fell into a stupor. That area had an unusual marabout, an absolute rock pile of a shelter, filled with scorpions and the boy and girl tied him down and left him there for days.
“Somehow he managed to free himself and was last seen being led around by a donkey and offering donkey rides for tourists. His sexual fantasy became satisfied only with the donkeys. Everybody thought he had met his due. But there was more.
“He had a couple American relatives who came looking for him, cousins or something. Just like him. They also fell under the donkey spell; and as the story goes all three Americans were given “shelter” by a Pasha from the Levant, never to be seen again.”
I listened to it all, then said, “This story sounds a lot like stories I heard from a strange West African guy…”
Mme Olga interrupted, “Not a story! This happened. I knew the neighbors. They told me.”
“Is this about human enviousness or evileye?” I asked.
Mme Zsófia returned to the room, listened, said nothing, looking like she did not want any part of this conversation.
Mme Olga said, “Ok, my friend, there is and there isn’t. We are on the African continent–a landscape of hidden power. That is life here.”
We heard a customer enter the store. Mme Zsófia excused herself and left the back room to serve the new customer.
Then Olga and I sat quietly alone, saying nothing. I thought, she said “that is life here”. I’ve heard something like this before at David’s in the Kasbah. What is this “evileye” stuff? Misfortune? Bad karma? Or the influence of the devil himself? Everybody was oh so cautious when speaking of it. Could it explain all my misfortunes to this point? Could it explain the dream I had when Sidi Hamete pulled “something” out of my ear? Will I have this evileye cloud around me for the rest of my study time here? Study? I still didn’t have my study going yet!
My anxiety was raising my pulse. Sweat was forming on my forehead.
Not everyone sees portals in the landscape. Tangier Gardens is the self-told story of an American, Christopher Janus. His friends called him CJ. He was a university student, who discovered portals during his term abroad design study in Morocco.
How did he discover portals? Plant portals in gardens, in the landscape? Tangier Gardens is CJ’s journey of discovery.
It all began when he crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. And it continued as he journeyed around northern Morocco. But it wasn’t until after months in Tangier, CJ would uncover the mysteries of Tangier Gardens. Get into his story.
If you would like to be kept up to date about discounts on CJ’s portal adventures in the Middle East and North Africa as he becomes an expatriate landscape architect, sign up here on CJ’s mailing list.
Becoming a landscape architect is like walking an unknown path in a strange forest.
You know someone has walked it before, so you have some confidence. Then the path disappears. You have to make your own path and you don’t really know where you are going.
You must decide—forge ahead or go back.
Universities try to prepare you with programs, such as term abroad plus help through internships and mentoring… but in the end you must confront the unknown and make your own path.
That is what Christopher Janus, CJ, does in Tangier Gardens. He finds himself in unknown circumstances surrounded by botanists, horticulturists all in a fog of foreign culture. He has to define landscape, landscape architecture, gardens and his own career path. It is a path into the unknown.