The volcanic cloud hovered above like the mythic hand of Vulcan, unseen and disrupting the plans of mere mortals.

I was stranded in Casablanca after a short research vacation, en route to a literary festival in London and board meeting in Paris. What does one do, stranded in Casablanca? I headed north to Tangiers and waited out the volcanic ash and waited for an open seat on an airplane. It was not hard duty.

The “doorway” to Africa, where the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans meet, is where Hercules is said to have smashed through the Isthmus and created two continents. Under blue sky with no volcanic ash in sight, I contemplated the pillars of Hercules, one in Europe—the Rock of Gibraltar—and the other in Africa. I wandered through medinas and souks, drove along the coast, visited Tetouan and Cueta, guided by a 6’2” history teacher who strode slightly in front of me in a long saffron robe, maroon fez, hands behind his back, instructing me in 3000 years of history in this region where the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Moors, pagans, Christians, Muslims and Jews all trod, where at least four colonial powers—England, France, Spain and Portugal—claimed and fought for land. I learned that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States after it gained independence, and the first foreign legation the new United States of America sent out was to Morocco.

“You understand?” the guide kept asking me as he spun through the stories of conquest and power, of cultures on the move. “I told you that, remember?” I expected an exam any moment.

In mythology Hercules features most prominently in the region, but in the days after the volcano, I also read legends of Vulcan. In one tradition he is said to be the father of Jupiter, king of the gods. In another mythology he is the son of Jupiter and Juno, who threw their ugly baby off Mount Olympus. Vulcan fell for a day and a night and broke a leg when he finally landed in the sea. There he sunk to the bottom where a sea nymph found him and raised him as her son. According to legend, he spent a happy childhood playing with dolphins and the fish and all the wonders under the sea.

On land Vulcan eventually discovered fire and its properties, including fire’s ability to draw out from stones the iron, silver and gold which Vulcan then hammered into swords and shields and into jewelry for the woman he thought was his mother. In myths as in history, events come back on themselves. Juno, admiring the woman’s jewelry, discovered that the talented blacksmith who’d fashioned it was Juno’s own son. Juno demanded that Vulcan return; he refused. The plot thickened….

In myth the eruptions attributed to Vulcan and the volcanoes he inspired relate more to his unfaithful wife Venus than to his rapacious mother, but let me stop here with myth and history swirling on the shoreline, with blue ocean in front and blue skies above, the coast of another continent in view and a big immoveable rock with caves beneath on the opposite shore.

8 Comments

  1. Kathy on April 29, 2010 at 8:38 am

    Thanks for the blog.  I haven’t been many places in Africa, but I have been to Morocco.  It’s a beautiful country and I love the French influence there.  Sounds like you’ve been having an interesting time and you certainly made the most of your extra days in Morocco. 
                                                                                –Kathy

  2. Mary L on April 29, 2010 at 8:39 am

    No, no, don’t stop there.  Tell us about Vulcan and Venus.
                                              –Mary L

  3. Kate B on April 29, 2010 at 10:46 am

    I enjoyed reading your account of how you spent your volcanic-ash-enhanced stay in north Africa. Amazing earth! Amazing history. –Kate B

  4. Sally Howell on April 30, 2010 at 10:01 am

    It was delicious to read your past 3 posts, one after the other, serious though there were.
    As always, I appreciate your thoughtfully addressing important issues with your colleagues.
    –Sally Howell

  5. Amy T. on May 5, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    I loved reading your account of being stranded in Casablanca (and where did you find such a marvelous guide?) but was particularly moved by your synopsis of International Pen’s (WIPC’s) work over the years and over the continents. I could feel the crowd wilt with sadness outside the Nigerian Embassy in 1995 when the news of Ken Saro Wiwa’s execution came through. What vitally important work at International Pen and other agencies.
    –Amy T.

  6. Raymon Mashni on July 31, 2010 at 9:19 pm

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  7. Graciela Schutzman on October 8, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Well done. I will certainly share this post with my colleagues. Thank you for the 411.

  8. Wes Armson on February 5, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    I thought this blog was superb and everything that you referenced to was quite relevant to the cause. Cheers.

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