Rome in Africa

Perhaps because Rome is in now Italy, and we associate the Roman Empire most closely with the Italian peninsula and Rome’s other European possessions (e.g., Caesar in Gaul, the German frontier, Hadrian’s Wall), we are often tempted to think of the Roman Empire as a sort of European power, an empire whose relevance is limited to its significance in “Western” history. But of course the Roman Empire well exceeded the bounds of geographical Europe, well into Asian Anatolia and the Levant, and the North African coast, and its successor, the Byzantine Empire is as much as part of Middle Eastern history as European history. Bottom line, thinking about history in exclusively “Western,” “Eastern” or “African” compartments is a simplification that cannot give a full picture, even for those ancient periods in which communication and transportation were extremely primitive compared to what we have today. In almost all historical periods, there was usually more interregional cultural and economic exchange than we usually credit, some of the most consequential events in world history are precisely those in which powers transcended easy geography (whether Alexander in Asia or the Mongols in the Near East), and it is at the fringes and borders or different world spheres, such as the Levant, where some of the most interesting historical events or trends have taken place.

I have already written several posts on the Roman presence in the Levant and Near East, the eastern limits of the Roman world (see posts of 08.11.16, 08.11.10, 08.10.29, 08.10.03, 08.05.11, 08.05.02), and so I thought that this complementary post on the Southwestern limits of Roman rule was in order. At its height, the Roman Empire controlled the entire North African coast from the Suez to beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. Roman Egypt, of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, is somewhat familiar to us, but the Roman presence in the rest of North Africa feels somewhat more distant, largely because those regions have become less significant to us in comparison to the former parts of the Roman Empire that are north of the Mediterranean Sea (perhaps in part due to climate change and a resulting economic and population decline in the region). But, back in their day, Cyrene in now Libya was an ancient and significant Greek port not far from Alexandria and Crete, Leptis Magna in now Libya home to some of the most magnificent architecture in the Empire and, of course, Carthage at one point Rome’s greatest foe. North African Romans (generally Berber in ethnicity, see post of 09.01.13) included the founders of the Donatist and Arian religious controversies, St. Augustine and an Emperor (Septimius Severus).

The Southwestern limit of the Roman Empire is in now Morocco, and the greatest Roman ruins are that of Volubilis, located near the Moroccan imperial cities of Meknes and Fez. Above and below, some photographs from Volubilis.

Waterworks, including baths and fountains, are common features of any Roman city, but I wondered if the especially elaborate fountains of Volubilis were a result of a fondness for indoor water still evidenced by Morocco’s living hammam culture.

Some of the decorative motifs in Volubilis reminded me not much of classical Roman patterns but of the stylized natural designs found in Egypt or even what would be considered geometric “Arabesques”.

The Arch of Caracalla and a detail of publicly featured bust, not unlike those found in Palmyra thousands of miles away (see post of 08.05.02).

Dacamanus Maximus, or Main Street

Drug Use around the World

There are certain human phenomena that are often described as unhealthy or unnatural yet are so universal as to be undeniably a part of the human experience, within the set of behaviors that describes us as homo sapiens, at a naturalistic level. As much as some anthropologists may have tried in the last century to find counterexamples, to prove things an aspect of particular cultures rather than of us as a species, traveling far and wide identifies many things that are indeed universal, are patterns that arise over and over again, across cultures thousands of miles apart, of vastly different traditions. One example of such a human phenomenon is drug use.

We have encountered drugs of one kind or another in almost all the countries we have visited–even in the relatively abstemious Muslim world–and it is fascinating to see how cultures have incorporated or tamed the human impulse to chemically alter our consciousness. In this post, I thought I would go over some of the substances we have come across, along with some thoughts on each.


Pouring tea, Mauritania

Tea is what triggered the idea for this particular post. While East Asians may now drink tea largely as a water substitute, and many in the West as a sort of warm, calming drink, tea still features prominently in Chinese medicine and the pharmaceutical properties of tea were promoted heavily when tea was first imported into the West at great cost. The caffeine content of tea is, of course, relatively modest, especially compared to coffee (see below), but that tea is still used for its caffeine content–to keep us alert and social–is undeniable. The most street drug-like use of tea we have encountered was in Mauritania. The tea culture of Mauritania (similar to that of northern Mali and Morocco) is one of the most unusual we have seen. Mauritanians take huge amounts of Chinese green tea (“the vert de chine,” as it is called) and boil it down over a fire, to produce a highly concentrated form of tea sweetened with a great deal of sugar. Given that it is customary to drink at least three (albeit small) glasses at each sitting, the caffeine and sugar jolt is no less than jarring; a few days into Mauritania we realized that it was the bumps of tea that were preventing us from having solid nights of sleep. While waiting for our Iron Ore Train (see post of 12.31.08), one youth stayed up almost the whole night boiling tea, and trying to nudge his friends awake to join him for more hits. Tea drinking is so essential, so ubiquitous to Mauritanian culture that men will often travel with the essential equipment to make tea, including a fuel canister in the case of the Iron Ore Train. (Men also often travel with a whisk, for mixing milk with water, see post of 08.12.21.)


An addict on the streets of Harar, Ethiopia

Generally speaking, most of the “traditional” drugs we have seen around the world seem to cause few apparent significant social disruptions, of the kind that we associate with street drugs in the western world such as crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. Perhaps the greatest exception to this rule is qat. Chewed from Yemen to Kenya, and in some expatriate communities elsewhere, the stimulant and hallucinogen is famously harvested around the walled city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. The ladies selling the leaves in the market may seem jolly and friendly, not like the deadly drug pushers of Hollywood movies, but the ill effects of the drug can be readily seen in the numerous men who lay in the gutters in and around Harar, teeth rotten or missing and mouths foaming with green leaf, unable to control their addiction to the drug. We saw one man using a mortar and pestle to ground the drug, because his teeth had all rotted away, and another fighting with a goat for scraps of leaves on the ground of the local market. Seeing the addicts of Harar certainly made me think through the possibly horrible outcomes of greater drug legalization, at least in a society without proper education, addiction prevention and rehabilitation of addicts.


Nearly every traveler to the Andes chews a few coca leaves or sips some mate de coca, not only for the novelty and the experience of traditional culture, but also to combat altitude sickness. And, perhaps disappointingly, the tourist discovers that a small quantity of coca leaves seems to have little effect at all, on altitude sickness or anything else. To a liberal South American, coca is also a battle cry, an example of modern first world cultures misusing a traditional product (by chemically creating a deadly concentrate from a relatively harmless plant) and then imposing their own resulting social problems on third world economies (or so the coca growers, perhaps in part dependent on first world addicts for income, may argue). Of all the drugs on this list, coca is perhaps the most controversial, a drug whose social and political profiles vary extremely widely with geography and whose economic profile has the power to move nations. (Opium/Heroin has a similar geopolitical dimension.)

Betel nut

For sale at a convenience store, Yap, Federal States of Micronesia

Traveling in Micronesia, or the coastal edges of Asia (particularly Taiwan and India), one encounters betel nut all the time; locals’ mouths seem to be constantly stuffed with one and the streets red with dried spit. Like many other “traditional” drugs, it all seems harmless enough, but the lime with which the active substance is released from the nut does substantial harm to the user’s teeth, which alone seems objectionable. Betel nut does serve to demonstrate the social nature of drug use. Just like the elaborate ritual of making Mauritanian tea, betel nut chewing requires a certain set of ingredients and tools (lime, a leaf, the nut itself, something to crack the nut with and often tobacco), of which at a given point in time a person may lack one or two elements. By getting together to prepare the drug, people bond–much like the occasionally flirty act of asking for or offering a light for a cigarette. One long-time expat in Yap told us that preparing a fix of betel nut together can act as the equivalent of breaking bread, a joint activity that tells its participants (and those witnessing) that all is well and square between them.

Kola nuts

When we first saw kola nuts in Mali, we couldn’t even recognize them. Only later did we learn that this was the kola of Coca-Cola fame, and similar to cacao, tea and coffee in its pharmacological properties. For the tourist in West Africa, especially the Dogon Country (see posts of 08.12.16), kola nuts serve as a sort of alternative currency, a way of currying favor with at-times grumpy locals without outright cash bribery. We were amazed at how responsive people were to the simple gift–which probably reveals not avarice on the part of the old men but the symbolic significance of the gift, perhaps not dissimilar from the act of sharing a betel nut.

And, finally, the big three, which I will touch on only briefly, since you, dear reader, are no doubt extremely familiar with them:


Lighting up in Zhaoxing, Guizhou, China

Smoking the sheesha, Buraimi, Oman

Cigarettes may be dying out in America, with the imposition of high taxes and laws eradicating them from nearly all public places, but they are alive and well in many parts of the world. But, perhaps more interesting than cigarettes are the various more exotic forms of tobacco consumption, including beautiful tiny pipes found in the deserts of Mauritania, the sheesha or hookah found all over the Muslim world, the Chinese pipes featured above and fragrant clove kretek in the Indonesian isles. The sheesha is not only “traditional,” but a very popular and trendy social activity among the young in the more fashionable parts of the Levant (such as hip cafes in Beirut, Damascus and Amman) as well as New York’s Lower East Side (where a hookah can cost upwards of USD 30). If it tastes like apple, how could it possibly be bad for you?


Coffee-husk tea, served to us by the Hamer tribe of the Omo, Ethiopia

Coffee Shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

Coffee has perhaps the largest number of addicts in the world, if alcohol is more often used to disastrous effect. And traveling with something of an addict myself (Derek always travels with packets of 3-in-1, dissolvable in room temperature water), I’m well aware of individuals’ need for a coffee fix. Morocco, where we are now, has perhaps the highest public coffee consumption we’ve seen outside of the American workplace (where, in a most sinister fashion, coffee is the only beverage offered to employees for free). Ethiopia, the home of coffee, fittingly has the most developed brewing ritual. One legend apparently has it that coffee was first brewed by an Ethiopian monk, who had met a goatherd that followed his goats in trying the berries, and came to discover their energy-giving power. The monk, believing the fruit to be evil, threw the fruit in the fire. Upon smelling the delicious roast, he was tempted to try it himself, and eventually grew to appreciate the drink’s ability to focus and prolong his prayers!


British woman enjoying a cocktail

An ever-common site–drunk Asian businessmen, Hong Kong

A very wise Touareg explained to us in Timbuktu that the Islamic prohibition against alcohol was something for man’s own good. “It doesn’t affect or harm God if you drink–it isn’t personally important to him–he just says you shouldn’t drink for your own benefit.” Indeed, many of the rules of Islam and other religions can be explained this way, that they are designed to create a harmonious and peaceful society, rather than to delineate what constitutes a sort of cosmic evil, or sin.

The absence of alcohol is perhaps one of the greatest easily noticeable differences between the Muslim world and the West or Far East. By avoiding alcohol, the Muslim world certainly avoids some of the greatest social ills of other, alcohol-laden parts of the world. Almost all cities in the Muslim world feel incredibly safe, especially at night, relative to American or European cities, largely because they are free of drunks whose erratic behavior can result in conflict and violence. In the major East Asian cities after sundown, drunken office workers are a common sight; in the West, so much of adult social life revolves around bars and inebriation. I will never forget the first “festival” we attended in the Arab world, and how family-friendly it was, largely due to the absence of alcohol. On the other hand, I also understand the role of alcohol as social lubrication, in places such as East Asia where workplace relations can otherwise be very hierarchical and tense, or in the promotion of the mixing of genders (or single-sex pairings, in the case of homosexuals), that most natural human activity. Is trying to ban alcohol from adult social life perhaps as futile and senseless as banning other natural behaviors, such as sexuality? But, of course, many parts of the Muslim world also attempt this, to greater or lesser success.

Route of the Kasbahs

Away from the expat hubbub of Marrakech, and the campervans and cities of the Moroccan coast, is perhaps the Morocco of the greatest romance, a land of high mountains, deep canyons, sandy dunes and innumerable kasbahs and ksars, the fortified homes and villages lining strategic approaches from the African interior to the Arab coast. An itinerary exploring some of these places, what one might term “inner” Morocco, could be called the Route of the Kasbahs. Our trail took us from the inland hub of Ouarzazate, a city most famous for its role in the Moroccan film industry, down through the Draa Valley to Zagora, and then out to the Dades Valley and Todra Gorge, passing through on our way back to Ouarzazate the memorable oasis of Skoura.

Near Ouarzazate, the ksar (or fortified city) of Ait Benhaddou, which guarded the way to Marrakech

Driving down into the Draa Valley, preferably in a rental car, a few things become apparent. One is the wildness of the terrain. With the relative developedness of Morocco, and its terrific infrastructure, it’s easy to forget that it is a country that was not under full central control until the 19th or 20th centuries, a place where local chieftains were able to defend themselves in small enclaves thanks to topography. This is not the Morocco of the great walled cities, such as Marrakech and Fes and Meknes, but the countryside of trade routes and fortifications, where houses and even entire villages had their own walls for protection.

That the Draa Valley is the route into Africa’s interior makes itself apparent in one dramatic but perhaps unexpected way–the presence of black Africans. It’s not clear how long they have been here, but in this land of Arabs and Berbers the darker residents of Morocco stand out. Whether their ancestors were black traders involved in commerce or the objects of trade themselves–slaves–I do not know, but the residents of the Draa are largely sub-Saharan black African Moroccans, whose ancestors at some point made the trek up from cities such as Timbuktu on the other side of the great desert. Even coming from America, where race is still closely tied with economic class, we were still interested to note that the residents of the Draa seemed relatively impoverished compared to even those in other parts of rural Morocco–men flagged our car down to expend great effort to sell us dates, for less than a dollar and not much more for a handmade woven basket in which to carry them.

Some local residents

Window style – Draa Valley, Morocco

Window style – Timbuktu, Mali

Another noteworthy point, at a social/cultural level: the women in the Draa Valley were some of the most covered in Morocco. Clearly, there has been some unusually conservative cultural influence here, although we don’t know what or why.

Wandering around the many ruined ksars and kasbahs can be great adventure. With the gradual depopulation of these mud-brick ksars and kasbahs, many will crumble in a matter of years, while those that are reinforced and fixed up will probably be done largely for tourism. Visit soon! (In the photograph, note the similarity between the minaret at the end of the street and that of Chinguetti–post of 08.12.25.)

To the east of the Draa Valley and Ouarzazate lie two of the most popular natural destinations of Morocco, the Dades Valley and the Todra Gorge. The latter is perhaps more remarkable for its natural drama–at one point a deep cleft in cliffs not dissimilar from spots such as Utah’s Zion Canyon–but the former is in many ways the more rewarding, with dramatic kasbahs lining the valley all the way up in to the mountains. The drive east to the Dades and the Todra is big sky country, like Central Asia in its openness and barren scenery, with snowy peaks in view.

The Todra Gorge

But perhaps the most memorable destination on this itinerary, and our vote for best place to relax in Morocco, is the Skoura oasis. Set in the middle of the Dades plain, the Skoura is a dense and broad oasis of palms in which is set quite an excellent assortment of lodging–some of the best in Morocco–ranging from budget rooms in a romantic and rustic kasbah to orientalist fantasies operated by French expats. We enjoyed staying at the Amridil, which is the kasbah featured on the fifty dirham bill. (It’s also the kasbah we nearly burned down, stupidly plugging their high voltage heater into our cheap Chinese extension cord.) We would also recommend in particular Les Jardins de Skoura, which can be reached by following the orange arrows deep deep into the palmery–from its rooftop terraces, looking out over the sea of palms and small local shrines, both the cities of home and even the cities of Morocco seem effortlessly far away.

The Skoura oasis

Kasbah Amridil

Monsieur Cadeau

It is perhaps one of the things that first world travelers dread most about the developing world–more than disease, more than red tape, more than language barriers: begging. Even if you’re used to giving to/ignoring panhandlers back home, it’s different when you’re on the road–there are often more beggars, they single you out as the rich tourist and the wealth gap between you and them has never been more apparent–all of which combine to leave you feeling guilty, stingy and bothered.

Begging comes in a wide variety of forms. Perhaps the best targets of a traveler’s generosity are the elderly and infirm, especially near places of worship. By participating in traditional forms of charity directed at those in clearest need, tourists are able to assist in a way that is consistent with local norms and does not result in an increase in the number of beggars especially targeting tourists. The most memorable group of such mendicants, for me, was a group of women outside the famous rock-hewn St. George’s in Lalibela–nowhere else have we had donations of basic foodstuffs (in our case, bread) so warmly received. Other forms of begging can be somewhat more annoying/troubling. In India, children or women with babies run up to cars at intersections thrusting the babies at windows and demanding money. In Egypt, tourist police and security guards demand tips when no services at all are performed (see post of 08.09.16). Perhaps most devious of all, and one we were most amused to have naively fallen for, young women (also usually with babies) in Shenzhen, China will pretend to eat food out of garbage cans, trying to draw sympathy and cash contributions.

Talibes in Senegal (see post of 08.11.22)

But it is a somewhat more frivolous and nagging form of begging that I want to address in my post today. The post is titled “Monsieur Cadeau” (Mister Gift) because that particular phrase is something one hears all the time in parts of West Africa. It is short for “Monsieur, donnez moi un cadeau” (Mister, give me a gift), which one also sometimes hears, but more often it is abbreviated and strung together as if “Cadeau” were your surname. Or there is “ca va, cadeau” (how are you, gift). This sort of begging by children is common in many countries around the world; children have learned to mob tourists for money or candy or whatever tourists are willing to give, often in an incredibly persistent way. Adding to the annoyance factor is that often the children who do this are not really those most in need (though admittedly still far poorer than the average tourist). In Ethiopia, for example, even seemingly middle class (for Ethiopia, that is) youth in school uniforms will ask for a birr, the local currency. The hounding establishes an undesirable begger/beggee relationship between local and guest, and makes genuine cultural exchange for travelers that much more difficult.

The Rough Guide to West Africa says that the children of the Francophone West African countries are some of the worst offenders, in terms of begging; the children of the English-speaking West African countries to the south apparently have not adopted this behavior so wholeheartedly. So are the French to blame? Perhaps. French tourists did seem more likely to engage in hand-outs–one young French woman we saw in the Dogon had pre-prepared a bag of small toys to hand out. Visiting Haiti in the 80s, Derek was surprised to regularly hear “boom boom?” from young children. He later realized that “boom boom” was not a sexual reference but “bonbon” or candy in french. Part of it may be Lonely Planet’s fault. In the past, Lonely Planet used to suggest that travelers hand out school supplies instead of money or candy, the logic being that you don’t want to turn kids into beggars or encourage tooth decay. But handing out pens only resulted in children begging for pens instead of money, and a large secondary market in pens. The fact is, children will ask for whatever they can get their hands on, whether it be coins (for a “foreign coin collection”) or candy or pens, unless their parents or other local adults stop them. There are plenty of charities/NGOs to which effective donations can be made, and succumbing to children’s requests unfortunately turns the kids into beggars.

What do we like to do? Admittedly, sometimes we have given money (though not to children), or even candy if we happened to have some on hand and were so moved, but what we prefer is to give either photographs of ourselves (we took a picture of you, and now have it on our camera; here’s a little picture of us for you to have) or postcards from back home. This of course takes some preparation–having printed photographs or postcards ready–but it’s definitely worthwhile, because it allows us to share a bit of ourselves and where we come from with people who don’t own cameras and will likely never have a chance to visit the U.S. On the back of the postcards, Derek usually writes a funny little note, which the recipient generally can’t read but may have translated some day.

An elderly Dogon examining the New York skyline, Mali

Some of Derek’s masterpieces, give to children among the baobabs in Madagascar

One story about giving, or trying to give, that may appeal to the cynical traveler, from the city of Gonder in Ethiopia. I do not know what Gonder is like these days, but when we were there, there were quite a few young children in town who made it their business to provide various “travel agent”-type services to tourists. For example, one small boy with a bum eye helped set up a taxi for us to get to the airport. Others would help carry bags or provide directions. Of all these boys, there was one that we grew to despise, because he was clearly more troublesome and deceptive than the others. He was also overweight, an obvious sign of his relative wealth or success. Well, from Gonder we went on a trip to the nearby Simien Mountains, a high altitude range that is one of the many spectacular sights of Ethiopia. We were waiting outside of the park proper trying to hitch a ride to the trailhead, when a minivan drove up, with some tourists. We asked if we could get a ride, and they said sure. When we got in, we saw that the bad kid was also in the minibus. The other tourists had not noticed, as we had, what a rotten kid he was, and “hired” him to arrange their visit to the Simiens. Anyway, we gratefully accepted the lift, and after a visit cut short by Derek’s severe altitude sickness, returned to Gonder. A couple days later, as we were leaving Gonder, we ran into the young woman who had hired the kid and the van. She related to us how the kid had had his mother throw her a birthday party, and then billed her for all sorts of food and beverages that they didn’t even consume. Not having learned her lesson, she bought the kid an Amharic-English dictionary worth $30, even writing a note on the first page to prevent the kid from reselling it. The good kid with the bum eye told us that the other kid had returned it to the bookstore for $10 anyway.

Faces of Mauritania

As I mentioned in my post of 08.12.12, Mauritania is about 30% Moor, 40% mixed Moor/black African and 30% black African. As one might expect of a country with such a complicated and evenly balanced racial makeup, identity politics is complicated in Mauritania: while the country’s leadership, at least since the 70s, has identified itself with the Arab world (becoming a member of the Arab League in 1973), a significant part of the country essentially forms a continuation of black French West Africa. Aside from the by-color black population that has been integrated into the now-dominant Moorish, Arabic-speaking culture, there are also sub-Saharan black Africans, especially in the bigger cities.

For all of the mixedness of the country, the riots of 1989 (when the Moorish and sub-Saharan black African populations came into violent conflict, leading to the forced migration of many Moors from Senegal and black Africans from Mauritania) and the August 2008 coup, Mauritania seemed quite peaceful and stable to us, a sparsely-populated desert country with room for all.

Some of the black African residents of Mauritania

Some of the Moorish residents of Mauritania

By skin color, black, but, as far as we could tell, individuals whose families have long been culturally integrated into the Hassaniya-Arabic speaking culture of the Moors