Writing in Tetouan: The Residency

IMG_6104This is the studio where I’ve been working for the past two weeks. You can see the long windows with shutters; I’ve loved the sounds of the Tetouanis chatting as they pass on the street below and the sing-song chants of the fruit and vegetable sellers.

The street beneath the window as seen through the balcony rails
Shoppers in the crowded markets

Green Olive Arts (GOA) is a relatively new organization started in 2013 that promotes the arts in Morocco and provides space for working artists and writers from around the world. It became a writers’ residency (no visual artists) by coincidence rather than design for a few weeks in May. The writers — only three of us — have had dinner together almost every night and talked shop. Gretchen flies back to Cairo the same day I leave; Annie remains for another two weeks. Two visual artists will arrive plus another writer for several weeks.

GOA is situated near the walking streets just outside the medina. It’s a very cool space on the second floor of an old building.

The entrance hallway — the closed doors on the left are studios
The co-directors of GOA Jeff McRobbie and Rachel Pearsey in their office
The lounging room for reading and conversation
The dining room where we ate lunch, usually around 2 PM. “Moroccan time” is later — businesses open around 9:30 and lunch is eaten mid-afternoon; most evenings we ate dinner around 8:30 or 9 PM.

Last Wednesday we had a public reading of our stories from the residency with about 25 people in attendance. They were a marvelous audience, attentive and engaged. I read slowly to accommodate those who are still learning English. While I stood at the podium, I looked out at a crowd with many women wearing the hijab. Even after two weeks, my reaction is a mix of interest and surprise. A Q&A followed the reading.

Bart Rawlinson Quote
One of the marketing materials created by GOA for the reading. The quote is from the novel I’m writing.

Tomorrow the grand taxi picks me up at 9 AM for the return to the Tangier Airport. I’ll fly to Paris via Madrid, stay the night then board a 10 AM flight to return home to California.

The contrast between my initial and current reaction to Tetouan is immense. When Jeff and Rachel were leading me through the medina on that first night to the apartment, I felt overwhelmed.

I thought I was prepared for being in a completely different world but I see now it’s impossible to divorce myself from my own American’ness. No matter how much I might intellectualize an experience, some of my responses are ingrained by our media and culture. Fears surfaced, something I would have sworn didn’t exist before arriving here.

I had to think through the difference between an individual Muslim and what we Americans are taught (quietly and loudly) to distrust.

In these two weeks I’ve had to confront my own bias; it shocks me to admit it. It was beyond my conscious control.

Maybe it’s in our DNA — a part of our evolution — that causes wariness of those who don’t look like us. Maybe it’s part of our interior armor to protect ourselves. There was a time in the far past when this was helpful, but now? It gets in the way of seeing individuals for who they are.

I’ve felt welcomed by the Tetouanis. My perception of their otherness has lessened. I want to come back; two weeks hasn’t been enough time. Their culture reminds me of my upbringing in southeast Texas where you’re expected to greet others warmly, share the food you have, give people the benefit of the doubt.

Living in Tetouan these few weeks has caused me to see, yet again, what we all share as human beings: the goal to improve our lives, our innate need for other people and community and our desires for acceptance, safety, and love.

When Wafae (her name means complete loyalty) came to the residency to cook the couscous for twelve of us last week, she arrived at 10 AM and cooked for four hours. The hallways were filled with these incredible aromas. She provided this delicious meal of steamed cabbage, potatoes and carrots and seasoned chicken over couscous plus a thick sauce of caramelized onions, garbanzos, cinnamon and other spices.

Everyone eats from the same bowl of couscous. The smaller bowl holds a sauce you can spoon over the portion you’re eating.

Later in the afternoon, Wafae stopped by my studio on her way out. She reached out her hand, said something in Arabic then gave me this huge smile and left.

Rachel was nearby and interpreted: “May God help you with your writing.” Her words have stayed with me all week. I don’t know why but I get a lump in my throat every time I think of it.

3 thoughts on “Writing in Tetouan: The Residency

  1. I got several lumps in my throat reading this! 😉

    It makes me so glad for you that you gifted yourself with this wonderful experience. I imagine it will continue to unfold inside you for a good time to come.

    Yay, you, Bart!

    And thanks so much for bringing us along with you. 🙂


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