I know exactly how I came to be in Fes- the story is over a decade old, with the first chapter being written in a light filled flat in Istanbul.
Sheepskin rugs adorned every chair, vegetable dies bubbled in copper pots atop the stove in a tiny kitchen where jars full of wooden spoons lined every shelf. Throughout the flat, looms of wool were bundled into corners amongst bookshelves stacked with books from here to infinity.
Many years ago I sat in that breezy apartment as the credits to East Enders rolled, before Michael Palin appeared on the BBC. Gazing out the window, I admired Topkapi Palace in all its glory across the Bosphorus river, and the call to prayer was in its early stages as Palin spoke of his love for Tangier and the expatriate community who have made lives there. ‘You just need to go to Morocco,’ Josephine shouted at me from across the room, her aeroplane mask sliding down her face as her hand rolled cigarette dropped ash onto her sweater. ‘It’s different you know, you’d like it- Fes in particular,’ she added, before falling back into a deep sleep.
I watched the entire Palin documentary nodding in agreement, I had to get there. As the show came to a close, I tugged on Josephines sleeve ‘wake up,’ I begged, hoping that she wasn’t dead.
When I met Josephine Powell, she was about 86 years old. Two years later she did die, and I sobbed very real tears after learning of her death when I read her obituary in one of the international newspapers.
Born in 1919 to wealthy parents, Josephine was raised in New York by her stepfather, following the death of her mother when she was very young. As soon as she could, Josephine left New York with the International Refugee Organisation where she was adopted as ‘a mother’ of the Western Mongolian Kulmuks, after her post Second World War efforts ensured that a group of Kalmuk refugees were not returned to face the wrath of Stalin, rather, resettled in New Jersey. She was the god daughter of Dame Nellie Melba, a godmother she never met, but one who sent her a pearl each birthday.
Josephine was strong willed, and I was in my early 20’s when I met her with more lines on her face than the average road map. We said our first hellos at the arrivals terminal in the Istanbul airport after I stepped off a plane from Italy, flustered because my bag kept rolling off the trolley and she was showing equal signs of bother because an official had just told her that she wasn’t to smoke in the airport. ‘They’re like a cool glass of water these Turkish people, don’t even begin to try with their language,’ she warned, dragging on a hand rolled cigarette in her bank manager’s very smart Audi, as we swept out of the airport and towards her apartment.
Initially terrified of this tiny woman with a gigantic spirit, I spent the following three months sleeping atop a chest of drawers with a goat hair rug as a mattress. For hours each day we would sift through her collection of photography and artefacts and at five thirty each afternoon, we’d religiously watch East Enders just as the fourth prayer for the day was beginning to sound from the mosque down the hill.
Prior her life in Rome, followed by Istanbul, Josephine kept a room at Hotel Kabul – making frequent trips in her Land Rover from Afghanistan’s capital to Rome, with her beloved Belgian sheepdog Sila by her side. Each night as I sipped a tea cup of red wine, Josephine would bark across the room ‘I hate that stuff, it makes me jaundice,’ before patting the edge of the sofa inviting me to ‘sit here’. She had a wit as brilliant as her memory, and her accounts would sometimes go on for hours.
I learnt of her love for photography, something she became renowned for, ‘I’m an amateur who found a camera and just started snapping. David Talbot Rice came for dinner in my flat in Rome and discovered pictures floating in my bathtub’. Before too long, she was on a mission to a Byzantine mosaic – a triptych of the Madonna and child- resulting in the first volume of many photographs which would soon be published in coffee table books that would later adorn grand homes, just like the one she’d escaped in Central Park West.
‘Early on, I learned the art of being invisible from the actor Alec Guinness at a party in Positano. He found me sitting alone, I was always alone, and he told me that you just keep being comfortable in your aloneness and no one will ever notice you’. Josephine adhered to this advice for the rest of her life.
On her travels, Josephine became loved and trusted by Anatolian women who would invite her into their homes for dinner and a bed, where she would carefully study the weft and weave of their carpets. The dyes were made from vegetable matter and the patterns were a nod to their culture. There were no words, just stories from their lives – an occasional feast here, a battle there. Josephine’s story, is not dissimilar to an Anatolian carpet.
She was proficient in many languages, ‘I’ll never speak Turkish,’ but French, Italian, Spanish, Pushtan, Farsi, Arabic, Russian and German are just a few that I can recall. ‘I collected so much along the way,’ she’d sigh, before setting me to work on more drawers full of tools, Ikats and carpets.
Towards the end of what was once the Soviet Union, Josephine was camped in the middle of nowhere with Sila. A group of young boys woke her as they rifled through her bags attempting to steal her Rubles – ‘go home to your mother,’ she shouted in a dialect only too familiar to them. They sprinted into the depths of the night and she slept tight, ‘never underestimate the power of language,’ she mused one night, as we sifted through more photographs.
The door to Josephine’s flat was like a turnstile, with visitors from far and wide eager to get an audience with this unassuming anthropologist, ethnographer and photographer.
Her enormous red telephone would ring loudly and often, waking her from a deep sleep, aeroplane mask across her eyes and hand rolled cigarette hanging from her lip. She knew the power of no, but this didn’t reduce the amount of visitors. There were journalists, explorers, weavers, academics, old friends and new contemporaries. There were also very few people who were close to Josephine, she had a way of keeping her distance, but when she was in the company of someone that she admired or liked, her piercing blue eyes would twinkle in a way that I can barely describe.
I loved seeing her blue eyes light up in rare moments of complete happiness.
There were young boys who were students at the university in Istanbul who would intern for Josephine, completing tasks such as filing and work on her computer. ‘They don’t appreciate their Anatolian past, it’s all washing machines and white goods these days’. One boy, who she referred to as ‘Big Foot,’ in relation to the size of his feet, was her most frequent helper. He would arrive most days, his feet tripping over her beloved rescue cats (which she’d rescued from her balcony), fondly known as ‘C1 and C2,’ simply because one was a cat, and so was the other. ‘I have big feet as well,’ I commented one day from the top of the ladder leaning against a bookshelf, as I listened to her arguing with Big Foot. ‘Not as big as his,’ she replied, before sending him out to buy her more tobacco.
The day that C2 went missing, was also Big Foots wedding day.
I arrived home from the bazaar with an extra large garbage bag full of tobacco sourced from a man who brought it into Istanbul from a little village near the Black Sea. Josephine would roll cigarette after cigarette in the most beautiful papers decorated with Arabic watermarks, sealed with the dab of her finger.
When I walked in the door, I found her distressed because she was not only reluctant to go to the wedding (she wasn’t comfortable in large, organised crowds) but also, C2 was nowhere to be seen. We hunted through the garden calling his name at the top of our lungs, before returning inside to prepare an outfit for the wedding.
In a home full of colourful Ikats and a plethora of ceremonial costumes hanging from hooks and over doors, Josephine left for the wedding in a Hawaiian shirt given to her by a foreign correspondent friend, teamed with a pair of grey flannel trousers and her sandals.
Josephine and C2 returned home later that night, both within moments of each other.
We sat up for hours as she gave me a full account of the wedding. It had made her feel sad and she wanted to cast her mind back to a world far away from the present day.
An old tattered Kodak box sat high up on the top of a bookshelf. ‘That’s the one,’ she gasped, cigarette hanging from her lip, as I climbed the ladder and pulled the box down. For the following four hours she walked me step by step through Afghanistan, Iran, Morocco, Kashmir and the plains of Anatolia.
At one stage, a photo of a much younger Josephine appeared in the pile. ‘Ah, those were the days,’ she smiled before a little tear fell down her cheek.
Weeks later, as we waited for my taxi and said our goodbyes in her little flat, she sat beside me and flashed those beautiful blue eyes before handing me the most magnificent Ikat that she had pulled down from the doorway leading into her kitchen. ‘It’s a man’s wedding costume,’ she explained ‘silk, and the colours are set with egg whites’.
I treasure that Ikat as much as I treasure the three months I spent with her.
I began writing this piece last week in Fes and I finish at the tip of North Africa, in Tangier. Each day on this trip throughout Morocco, I have thought of Josephine. On long train journeys and frantic taxi rides, on walks through the souks and endless, ancient monuments and mosques and particularly when I’m sitting alone, I remember her words about being comfortable in ones aloneness and I smile. I remember her blocking the world out with an aeroplane mask, cigarette hanging from her lip, but in photos taken when she was younger, Josephine was just as anonymous riding a horse through Iran, or driving her car from Kabul to Rome.
‘They’d hear about me and try to find me, but I was always one step ahead’.
This one is in memory of Josephine, wherever she may be in the world.
Pictured: Josephine as I remember her, taken by Jurgen Frank and published in Cornucopia Magazine.