I am always fascinated by the paradoxes in life. How things that appear so opposing turn out to be one and the same.
In central Australia there are a number of gaps in the ranges, spaces where the water flows in fertile times. They are known as just that – a Gap. Heavitree Gap, Simpsons Gap, Emily Gap, Jessie Gap, Honeymoon Gap. A friend was telling me that years ago, when the Australian government introduced the ‘Close the Gap’ campaign – aimed at bringing the huge differences in life expectancy of Australian Aboriginals closer to the rest of the Australian population, there was a great uproar in the Aboriginal community. “You can’t close the Gap!” No one had explained what the campaign was about, and whoever thought of the name obviously didn’t know the significance of a gap to the locals. Closing the main Gap in Alice Springs would mean a long walk around to the next one, not to mention its cultural significance!
Sitting in Standley chasm one day – a very tall and narrow rocky gap in the ranges, I was really struck by these two walls creating light and shadow and how they represented two sides, opposites, and how full of paradoxes and opposites this country is, just as it is full of Gaps. Thomas Moore writes about the space between opposites as where the soul and magic of life lies. To fill it in or to not appreciate both sides is like death. Life is the interplay of the opposites, of yin and yang, feminine and masculine.
It is one of these beautiful paradoxes that I noticed in Fez, Morocco.
The Fez medina is the largest in the world and dates back to the 9th century. It is a place where it appears things are still done organically by hand and where no cars pass. You can still watch copper pots being made, the rhythmical banging echoing through the narrow cobbled streets, or mosaic tiles being chipped into shape by hand, carpets being weaved on giant looms, where fruit and vegetables are picked and sold fresh that day at the market, where beauty products are made of natural unrefined materials such as clay, kohl and poppyseed rather than the western chemical equivalents. Where buying meat is not for the fainthearted, a chicken is bought live and its neck wrung in front of you while a table of goats heads sits opposite freshly killed. This is a place where you know where your food comes from. It is real. You can’t bury your head in the sand and pretend that the meat you eat just comes from a supermarket fridge with no previous history, or that peas come in a plastic packet from the freezer already shelled. While in the medina things may run in ancient ways, still in a nature based and sustainable way and comparatively more respectful to the earth, technology has crept in and lives alongside it – mobile phone shops sit next to handmade ceramics, long djellaba robes seem to be now frequently made of synthetic material and are sold next to nike shoes, and shops of cheap chemical shampoos and sprays lay hiding in the back streets.
We unknowingly, happened to arrive in Fez the week of the Sufi festival, and sinking in to the repetitive, mesmerising Sufi chants one night I was suddenly captured by a vision of moving through a Moroccan doorway into the rich heavy curtained and beautifully decorated lush world within as a metaphor and symbol for the feminine. These beautifully decorated doorways or gateways are a distinctive keyhole shape and seem to acknowledge the transition through a door as something significant and powerful. Having worked as a midwife whose daily life is filled with vaginas as the doorway between the inner and outer worlds, and knowing the power that crosses this threshold I appreciate the emphasis of a door as the recognition of crossing a threshold. Whether it is subtle or profound, it signifies a shift in consciousness. From the tiny winding streets of the Fez medina, no house looks pretty, tiny doorways or corridors seem to lead into darkness. However I know that many of these doors lead to riads containing beautiful inner gardens that open up within, ancient family harems still existing in some form or another, enclosed in secret beyond view. Our own apartment was richly decorated with archways, beautiful heavy curtains separating the rooms, thick carpets and cushions, colourful windows and tiled basins, but none of this could be seen from the outside.
Even the medina itself appears to have been created in this flowing organic fashion, with two main arteries or streets running through it. Like a giant circulatory system, these two main vessels carry the bulk of shops and people. The alleys running off these become progressively more capillary-like the further away they get – becoming narrow and more convoluted, with few shops and populated mainly only by those who live there. It is as if it formed itself from the inside out, slowly spreading out like the roots of a tree, in a feminine earthy watery sort of way, rather than a more masculine geometrically planned and designed city.
And it is full of cats. Not just pet cats, but street cats – sleeping, begging meat from the meat market, going through the garbage, eating a rat under a chair…… And if there was ever a symbol for the feminine, it is the cat. If you want to learn about the feminine, develop a relationship with a cat. You can’t order or train a cat to love and obey you, you have to tune in and listen to its subtleties. A cat can teach you the art of receptivity.
Somehow ingrained into this culture is the recognition of the feminine power and beauty held within. This seemed a paradox to me in a country where women continue to cover up their bodies and do not have the freedom to do as they wish like I am accustomed to. Where men appear to hold the power. Interestingly enough, as recently as 2004 Morocco introduced progressive laws for women – a woman can no longer be married off if she does not agree, men cannot take second wives unless the first wife agrees, women can file for divorce if they suffer violence from their husband are just a few. But do the men really hold the power?
Maybe it isn’t a paradox. Maybe it is due to this recognition of the power and beauty of the feminine that a woman must cover up here, must remain the mysterious, unseen, to cover the beauty within lest the male should be seduced by it (that’s the going story anyway). In a way it is a celebration of the feminine mystery, the feminine which can’t be defined and labelled clearly like the masculine can. Men when they know the power of the feminine often get scared and seek to control it, hide it. In Western culture, the feminine was suppressed over years and years of murder and torture killing those who had knowledge of the earth’s power, midwives and those who could harness the healing power of herbs and the land were called witches and heretics and burned at the stake. Famed females were written out of the literature, books burned to rewrite history. While in the West, religion and the powers that be succeeded in making feminine and nature based power so underground as to be invisible, here the feminine is still being controlled. But the beauty of this is that the feminine is still seen (much as it is hidden) and respected for its true nature. And as East and West connect more and more, those in the west can remember the feminine, and those in the east can regain some hope for freedom (women can integrate their masculine more). Both have been out of balance and need redressing in different ways.
In Western culture we still struggle with openly acknowledging the feminine mystery and beauty. Women, having attained equal rights and embraced their masculine sides are only now starting to rediscover the feminine. Society, having learned to train and refine the earth for its own benefits, is only now beginning to get an inkling that it is destroying the thing that its survival and birth rests upon. Honouring the feminine is something both men and women are starting to relearn. To honour a space of being and presence, of organic growth and heart spaced connection, of nurturing, of touch, of the little things, of flowing with intuition, of the earth – the ultimate mother. That is not to say that we don’t need the masculine to give shape and contour, boundaries and direction, clarity and movement and action. But our culture has become so patriarchal and focused on the masculine ‘doing’ and ‘outcomes’ it has forgotten to balance it out with the more feminine ‘being’ and enjoying the ‘journey’.
And of course this was my personal experience in Fez. Being used to the more luxurious way of living somewhere for a longer period and hence being able to sink into and get a feel for the place without having to rush around to see everything, with barely a week in Fez I was stressed for time. I was pulled between wanting to sink in and get a feel for Morocco and its scents, colours and feelings, and also not wanting to miss out on seeing some of the beautiful architecture, having a hammam, exploring the giant medina and of course attending the amazing Sufi festival we had stumbled upon. A land will always have its effect on you! The strength of the feminine seeping up from the ground with its intoxicating scents, beautiful designs and lush decorations, but also the overpowering need to do and see, to learn and grow. And coming from the West, my feminine side still struggles at times to find its place, to find a balance between being and doing. For this very reason I had planned to stay only in the Fez medina so as to have plenty of space to flow and be, but what I learnt was that a week is not long enough to soak up such a rich environment!