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11/26/11 Some things never change (and some things do)

This evening, I ate a salad drizzled with olive oil. We continued sitting around the table after the dishes had been cleared, and I saw a small puddle of oil on the table. Without a second thought, I wiped it up with my hand and began rubbing my hands together, massaging the oil into my skin.

My visiting friend did her best not to react, but from a quick expression that flickered across her face, I suddenly realized that this is Not A Normal American Thing To Do.

But it's a perfectly normal Moroccan thing to do.

For most of my female American friends, cleaning one's hands involves warm water, soap, and then lotion. The soap and warm water strip the natural oils from one's hands, so women (and, I imagine, some men) rub lotion in to make up for it.

But during the two years I spent in my cold mountain village, we had a different custom. And nobody spent money on lotion except *maybe* some rosewater oils for use on special occasions. But in my village, the cold and dry air keeps skin constantly dry and often chapped. Hands, which get plunged into water for cleanliness and laundering and dishwashing, can get scaly with the cold. So when you encounter something oily, you take advantage of it.

Most of my American friends would never dream of putting oil directly onto their hands, unless it's mineral oil and they're about to give a massage. But olive oil? Rendered animal fat? Not a chance.

But if you think about it, lotion is really just a mechanism for delivering moisture. Most prize themselves on a "non-greasy feeling," but the fact is, they're trying to approximate chemically what natural oils produce, well, naturally.

After Americans eat a greasy meal, they head for the hot water and soap. And maybe lotion, afterwards. After Moroccans eat a greasy meal, they rub their hands together until the oil has soaked into the skin, leaving the hands smooth and soft. (Smoother and softer, anyway.)

This phenomenon was thrown into relief for me when my American family came to visit me. My oldest sister was being feted for having done well on her college entrance exam (which I believe is the International Baccalaureate, or IB). My host family insisted that my biological family join in the celebration, of course.

We all drank tea and ate various celebratory goodies, mostly cookies and pastries. At one point, my mom asked for a napkin. I translated the request (using the French word for napkin, serviette, since there's no Tam word for it that I know of), and one of the many hostesses ran off to find us some.

She came back just as we were finishing up a particularly greasy crepe-like pastry. Mom, Dad, and my sister all hastily took advantage of the chance to wipe their hands. When I was handed a napkin, though, Ama and I laughed as I realized it was too late -- I had just finished rubbing the oil into my hands. "She's not an American girl. She's an Ait Hadidou girl," Ama said proudly.

The unexpected praise caught me off-guard, and made my eyes water with emotion. I know part of it was that Ama had felt threatened by the arrival of my *other* mother, and she was trying to maintain her claim to me -- but she also meant it. I'd actually succeeded, at least in that moment, of being truly accepted by this community I'd lived in for a year.

All of this came flashing back to me tonight, as I found myself making good use of the spilled olive oil. (And by the by, olive oil and corn oil have less smell than most lotions, and are actually more effective at keeping skin moisturized. For what it's worth.)

I've been back for 18 months now. I served for 27. I've finished the re-entry process, for all intents and purposes, but I like the pieces of Kauthar that have survived my re-becoming my American self. I still say "Bismillah" before beginning anything important. I still say (or think) "Inshallah" when talking about the future. I still find hot running water truly miraculous. And, apparently, I still prefer to use oil rather than scrape it off and then have to replenish my skin's moisture.

Ama would be proud.


10/12/11 On the public display of breastfeeding boobs (PG-13)

Sorry for the long radio-silence, dear readers. Life in America just doesn't seem as exciting to share as life in Morocco did.

But I've run into another culture clash / cross-cultural moment, so thought I'd share.

It's about boobs. Breasts. Mammary organs. Whatever you call them, they belong to about half of the species, so you'd think people would stop being surprised by them. As Julia Roberts pointed out in Notting Hill, "They're just breasts. Every second person has them."

And yet.

In America, they're considered sexual objects, and have remained one of the last bastions of public decency laws. Bikinis have continued to shrink, revealing more and more flesh on beaches and pool chairs, but if you want to be completely topless, you need to be on one of a very small number of private beaches.

Facebook ran into a problem a couple years back when it announced that it wouldn't allow visible breasts in posted pictures, whether the photo showed a breastfeeding mother or was designed to "appeal to the prurient interest," as the Supreme Court would say.

Some women considered the conflation of sex with motherhood offensive, and responded by making their profile picture one that showed them nursing a baby.

Now, in 2011, as more and more of my friends become mothers, I see breastfeeding more often -- and that creates moments of culture clash inside my head.

First, some Moroccan background.

In Morocco, most women cover their bodies from neck to wrist to ankle. Many also wear veils over their hair and necks, though some urban women choose not to. Given this cultural expectation of extreme modesty, it surprises many westerners to see the casual attitude towards public breastfeeding.

Most young mothers wear V-necked dresses that allow them to reach in, pull out a boob, and present it to their hungry baby. In colder areas, they'll wear a turtleneck under the dress, which they'll pull up and out of the way to get the boob out. This allows them to remain fully covered -- except for the fully exposed breast.

Once the baby latches on, the breast is somewhat covered, by the child's head, but it's still plenty visible.

Even more surprising to me, when I first arrived in Morocco, is that the young mothers don't expect you to look away.

I figured that some sort of principle of "averted gaze" must exist, to allow for at least the illusion of modesty -- something like the principle operating in gym showers in America, where women all bathe together, quickly, without making eye contact, and without any acknowledgement that they might actually see each other's bodies.

On the contrary, Moroccan mothers would ask my opinion of the babies latched onto their breasts.

Eventually I figured out that infants spend the vast majority of their tiny lives completely swaddled, wrapped from head to toe and tied onto their mothers' backs. Meal times -- that is, while nursing -- is the only chance you'll ever have to see the baby.

So young mothers *expect* you to gather around, coo at the baby, exclaim over its cuteness / handsomeness / resemblance to (insert family member here) / etc. All the things that mothers everywhere expect you to do with their babies, but in Morocco, it could only happen while the infants in question were attached to the organ that I'd been raised to consider private, sexual, and inappropriate-in-public.

Moroccan women have limited (but growing, alhumdulillah) access to birth control, which means that babies are everywhere. And nursing mothers are everywhere.

In my first, temporary host family, my sister-in-law had a nursing baby that she wanted me to admire. In my second, permanent host family, I attended the birth of my nephew and then my little brother, plus I saw dozens -- hundreds? -- of other babies and mothers around town.

I saw mothers breastfeeding on the tranzit, both to feed a hungry baby and to quiet a fussy child on the long ride. I saw mothers breastfeeding at community events like weddings and other celebrations.

And eventually I learned to get over my Western attitude of embarrassment, and celebrate the tiny new life as I was expected to. I found a mental trick: I created a mental equivalence between the boob and a bottle. After all, if I saw a mom bottle-feeding a baby, I wouldn't get weird and evasive and try to look away. Similarly, in Morocco, if I saw a mom breastfeeding a baby, I shouldn't have any reaction other than smiling at the child. When a boob appeared, I treated it exactly as I would have if a bottle had appeared.

When my replacement (Hassan) showed up in my village, I warned Ama that he might be embarrassed when she fed our little brother. ("Our" because he lived with the same family I did, so he became my brother and adopted all my brothers and sisters.) I explained that in America, women don't commonly breastfeed in public -- I skipped discussion of the controversy, for simplicity's sake -- and so he might react in ways she would find odd if she pulled out a boob in front of him.

I mostly wanted Ama to understand that if Hassan suddenly began staring at his shoes, or refusing to make eye contact with her, or in any other way acted like she was doing something odd, it was really because he was just having an American reaction to a Moroccan scene.

I also warned him that she would breastfeed in front of him, and that he should not react, if he could help it.

They both agreed to make allowances for the culture of the other, which I thought was very gracious on both sides, and I prepared for my return to America.

Where I spent more than a year without seeing any breasts in public.

And then, a few weeks ago, I saw a mom comforting her fussy infant by bringing the tiny head to the edge of her sweater. She was wearing loose clothes and had turned away from the bulk of the people in the room, but made no move to drape a cloth over herself or the baby.

And I found myself having a classic Moroccan reaction: wanting to coo at the baby and smile down at the breastfeeding scene.

I caught myself in time, alhumdulillah. While many moms -- apparently including this one -- have been asserting their right to breastfeed in public, I'm pretty sure it's still not acceptable in America for people to act like they're watching.

And in America, we have lots of other chances to coo at babies. They don't spend most of their time swaddled away, out of sight.

On the other hand, since many Americans still feel a fair amount of disapprobation for public breastfeeding, maybe the moms would appreciate it if someone showed cheerful approval.

Or maybe I've just been brainwashed by Morocco, and have lost all sense of American propriety.

So, breastfeeding moms, I ask you: How do you want me to respond? Should I engage my powers of averted vision and pretend nothing is happening? Should I smile down at the baby and boob, as I would in Morocco? Something inbetween? Something else entirely?

Comments welcome (and helpful!).


On sexual harassment and safety

The debate over the new TSA screening procedures has reached the shrillest heights of internet shrieking and blanket coverage by the major media. This morning, CNN is interviewing John Tyner, aka Mr. "Don't Touch My Junk."

I doubt my two cents will add much to the firehose, but I still want to say my piece.

I've received airport pat-downs. The American version, where I'm pulled aside and my body briskly checked for concealed items, as well as the Middle Eastern version, where I'm taken into a closet-sized room by a woman who put her hands firmly on most of my torso and legs. She knew how easy it is to hide small items inside a bra, but was able to search in a way that was professional and left me reassured that my flight was safe.

All of which is to say: I'm not morally opposed to pat-downs. In fact, after the most thorough one I got in an American airport, I made a point of stopping by the supervisor's table and saying that the (male) guard who had searched me had been professional and courteous in what couldn't have been a comfortable experience for either of us, and I wanted him to get recognition for doing a difficult job well.

Two weeks ago, I experienced one of the AIT scans while en route to DC for the Rally to Restore Sanity. Advanced Imaging Technology. Sounds so innocuous, doesn't it?

I'd never heard of them before, and had no idea what to expect - I may be a journalist, but I don't own a TV, so I still miss a lot of "what's current in America" - but as an experienced traveler, I obediently took off my shoes, emptied my pockets of everything, from keys to chapstick, stepped on the indicated squares, put my hands on my head, and waited.

I felt the strangest combination of pressure and vibration. The phrase that came to mind was that the air was ionizing around me, but I've forgotten enough chemistry that I don't even know if that makes sense. I just know that I felt the concussive force of something invisible, like I'd gotten a few-second version of standing in front of a speaker at a rock concert, combined with a buzzy, trembly, vibrating sensation that I imagine Star Trek's transporters would feel like (if someone ever invents them).

And then it was done. I took my hands down, put my keys and chapstick back into my pocket, and went off to my gate, trying to shake off the feeling that I'd walked through a wall - or that a wall had walked through me.

I now know that I'd been bombarded either by millimeter wavelength electromagnetic waves (seems likely, given the sensation) or by X-ray backscatter. Both are designed to render an image of my body under my clothes, so someone in a nearby booth or room got a view of me that I don't give to strangers.

Though I hadn't known it at the time, I'd had an alternative: if I wanted to opt out of the digital strip search, I could go for the non-digital equivalent, which the TSA euphamistically refers to as an "enhanced pat-down". This isn't the back-of-the-hand quick check of American airports in past years, nor is it the firmer palm-and-fingers search I got in Jordan and Egypt. (Morocco, interestingly, sticks to metal detectors.)

The "enhanced pat-down" gives TSA agents the right to fondle, grope, and rub my body. My whole body. Yes, that part, too. Through my clothes, true, but it's still a level of physical intimacy that I am absolutely not comfortable with.

My ACLU interviewee has observed that the sheer invasiveness seems designed to "drive" people to the AIT scan, which, given the options, does seem like the lesser of two evils. When TSA began pilot testing the AIT machines, 98 percent of passengers, presented with the choice of a big scary box and a groping, chose the big box.

But what has American passenger fear come to that we're choosing to let a stranger view us naked?

When I spoke to a Fourth Amendment scholar last night - being a journalist does have some perks, and one is that world-renowned scholars take my calls - he made a lot of points that I didn't want to hear, because I was clinging to the idea that this is an unreasonable search, performed without a warrant.

But the precedents he saw were in DUI checkpoints, where drivers give an "implied consent" - that is, as I learned in my high school legal studies course, where the act of driving on the road is a choice, which includes an implicit consent to take a Breathalyzer or walk a straight line when asked. Flying, the professor said, is a similarly chosen activity that provides its own implied consent to jump through whatever hoops the government deems necessary. "You don't have to fly," he kept saying.

But I live 3000 miles away from my loved ones, I kept silently retorting. I don't have enough vacation time to drive or take the train.

Sometime in the century since the Wright Brothers worked their Kitty Hawk miracle, air travel has come to feel like a right, available to anyone who can afford it.

And now my right to see my loved ones is confronted with the public's right not to have planes blow up.

The professor talked about the "balance" between society's interest and the individual's privacy interest. The only ground he gave me was just how very invasive this search is.

The ACLU spokesman I spoke with (who was actually waiting for my call - my job is pretty awesome) pointed out that neither the scan nor the pat-down can reveal anything concealed in a body cavity, nor is it particularly good at finding liquid explosives, which are therefore the logical next steps for terrorists. And I really, really don't want to imagine what security will look like after the first time a terrorist hides a bomb inside her body.

On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, thousands of passengers (of the nearly two million who will fly that day, according to the ATA spokesman who, yes, took my call) are planning to opt out of the digital strip search in a form of not-exactly-civil-disobedience, but a show of civil obedience that will cause delays, longer lines, and, most importantly, show people who may believe that this is all just media hype that Americans are being groped in airports.

As one young mother said, after she was sexually assaulted by a TSA agent (and the agent's boss acknowledged it as assault only because the agent didn't tell the mother exactly where her hands were going to be, before putting them there), TSA agents are now freely encouraged to do things to American citizens, not charged with anything, without a shred of probable cause, that soldiers are prohibited doing to enemy combatants seized as prisoners of war.

After two years in Morocco, I've had every surface of my body fondled at least once, always by a stranger, usually in a crowd.

Not surprisingly, the regular gropings and grabbings and fondlings left me feeling remarkably unsafe.

I never thought the American government would repeat the process, in the name of my safety.


RPCV: Ragamuffin Peace Corps Volunteer

Saturday, I volunteered at Boston's Head of the Charles, the biggest regatta in the world. (Or so they claim, though I had a South African fellow-volunteer assure me that the Henley Regatta in England is still the biggest.)

Knowing that I'd be outside, on the water, exposed, for about 10 hours, I dressed carefully.

For the first time since leaving Morocco, I layered on multiple sets of long underwear, and kept layering up.

As I walked towards the subway in the chill predawn, I realized that for the first time since starting my new job (ie since buying work-appropriate clothing), I was dressed completely in clothes that I'd brought back from Morocco.

Two sets of long underwear: check
Thermal jacket: check
Polar fleece: check
Jeans: check
Hiking boots: check
SmartWool socks: check

And moreover, as I'd noticed while dressing, these clothes are RAGGED.

I wore. them. out.

Life in the Peace Corps is hard on clothes. I tended to wear them a lot of times between washings, and then to wash them, I'd soak them overnight (which is hard on the fibers) and then scrub the bejeebers out of them (which is hard on everything). But what damaged even more of my clothes than the heavy wear and tear and washing? Burns. Between sitting too close to my heater, wrapping myself around my heater, carrying my heater from one room to another, and using my sleeves as hot-mitts in the kitchen, I managed to burn virtually every piece of clothing at least once.

I'd forgotten this till I got dressed Saturday morning, and kept finding more damaged bits.

My favorite blue jacket? Hole in the forearm. Bigger than a quarter, smaller than a ChipsAhoy cookie.

My beloved green fleece? Sleeves mostly destroyed with multiple burns from (ab)use as hot mitts.

My trusty jeans? Hole near the hem from sitting too close to the fire. It used to be the size of a nickel, but it's growing.

My stalwart hiking boots? Scuffed and stained and trim-torn-off. Oh, and I'd forgotten that I have the slipperiest laces in all of creation: I have to quadruple-knot them, and they still tend to come untied every few minutes. Square knots, too.

And so on.

As I tromped in my trusty (abused) boots towards the T, I couldn't escape the conclusion that I was one raggedy-looking PCV by the end of my service.

And yet it seemed so normal at the time...


9/8/10 English is my native tongue. I mean my mother tongue. I mean ... wait ... my first language?

"Why does that not surprise me?" I typed in a quick message to a friend.

And then I looked at it.

Something was off.

I didn't know what, quite, but definitely something.

I said it again, in my head.

One more time.

I shook it off and tried to regenerate the sentiment.

"Why am I not surprised?" floated into my head.


Nailed it.

I erased my first fumble and wrote in the correct American idiom.

You know, I worked really hard not to lose my English.

I blogged most days. I watched American-made movies and TV shows on my laptop. I talked to my fellow PCVs.

And yet.

Yesterday, in my job as a cub reporter, I was rewriting somebody else's headline. The point of the story was that life is hard in Vegas, and people are moving out in droves. I toyed with some variation on "Leaving Las Vegas" and then thought of the phrase "Las Vegas goes bust."

And then I stared at it.

Goes bust?

Things go BOOM when they explode. But do they go bust?

I knew I was thinking of that expression from that card game where you lose when you go over 21. Was that 'going bust'? No. Yes. No.

I gave up.

I turned to the cubicle next to mine and interrupted my long-suffering co-worker (long-suffering, 'cause I interrupt him a lot) to ask, "You know how when you're playing that game, with the, um, Blackjack!, when you're playing Blackjack and you keep hitting and you go over 21?" He nodded. "Is that called 'going bust'?" He nodded again. "Are you sure?" I persisted. He nodded a third time.

I thanked him, and then felt compelled to explain that the idioms are just hard. My vocabulary is mostly intact, though I still grope for esoteric words sometimes, but idioms... Idioms are all about turns of phrase, and my phrases tend to twist and writhe, these days. They never sound right, whether I've caught the American expression or not.

And to be honest, it's not just the esoteric words. It's all the ones that don't get used commonly. Today, not three hours ago, I spent a few seconds trying to come up with the word germ. I was describing Lord Jeffrey Amherst's use of smallpox as an agent of biological warfare, so the word was necessary, and I just ... couldn't ... find it. Instead, gene kept coming in its place. I knew the words looked similar, had the same general shape, but no... And of course, the right word arrived.

Which idioms still sometimes don't do.

Am I the only one who finds that odd?

Or, I mean, who thinks it's weird?

Bloody American English. ::sigh::

9/7/10 On dwindling Arabic

A moment ago, I sneezed and an acquaintance who happened to be passing by said, "Gesundheit."

I thanked him, and then murmured to myself, "Rhummikallah...humdullah."

Which are, of course, the Arabic phrases for sneezes.

I'm not even sure of the literal translation of the first one, because people only ever use it after someone sneezes. It would be like a Martian visiting America and concluding that "God bless you" means "Oh, hey, you sneezed."

Rhummikallah what somebody else should say when you sneeze. You, post-sneeze, should say humdullah, to express your gratitude for ... I don't know, still being alive or something.

(I didn't say I actually *understood* the God-phrases, I just know how and when to *use* them.)

On the whole, though, moments of involuntary Arabic have steadily dwindled.

Last night, half asleep and on the phone, I murmured, "Mashi mushkil" when I meant "It's all good." They mean the same thing, and in my somnolence, the wrong one floated to my lips.

But other than those - the sneezes and the sleepies - I don't think I've spoken Arabic (let alone Tamazight) in a few days. Well, OK, last night at dinner I was telling a friend about some Moroccan history, and referred to the Amazighn and their language Tamazight. Which gave me a chance to roll my throat a little, which it likes.

Who knew I would miss the physical experience of speaking my crazy language?? The tongue rolls and throat rolls and throat flexures and such things that simply aren't used when speaking English.

Yesterday, I said, "Guten nacht" (and yes, it fit in the context of the conversation, but it would take too long to explain how), and realized that for the first time in a lifetime of (very sporadic) attempts, I can say it correctly. I had a sudden impulse to start singing "Silent night" in German, just so I could keep using that ch-ch-ch sound.

I can't wait to start wishing people Happy Channukah. Maybe I'll start baking challah and offering it to friends at work.

Maybe it's time to find an Arabic class around here after all.


8/21/10 Welcome to Boston

Tonight, I went to a "Games Night" at a friend's house. After several hours of Metro and Apples2Apples and Rock Band, those of us taking public transportation said goodnight, and headed back into the city.

We peeled apart, to our separate destinations, and I found myself alone on Boston's T. (For non-Bostonians: formally known as the MBTA, or Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, the public transportation system is informally known as "the bus" for the bus and "the T" for the subway/elevated rail system.)

A few stops down the line, a group of girls in little black dresses and strappy sandals clambered on. They'd been at a bachelorette party, and were now headed back to their hotel. Some hijinx ensued, and after they got off, those of us still on the T had a rare spirit of conviviality. I got off with several of them, and said a cheery goodnight as they headed to the buses and I started walking back to my apartment.

I'd checked the route repeatedly on the map, but there was one critical decision I needed to make. I needed to walk west, NOT east, ie in the direction of Massachusetts Avenue. So when I got out onto the street, I took a minute to figure out the compass points, and then head west. But I wasn't 100% sure of my process, so asked the first car I passed (driving in the other direction on a divided road, so as to ensure that he couldn't possibly follow me afterwards - City Living 101) "Is this the way to Mass Ave?" He confirmed that it was, so I continued briskly down the road.

A few intersections later, I saw a car pulled over to the side of the road. A beefy fellow - a textbook example of a Joe Sixpack - said, "Mumblemumble Mass Ave?"

I pointed the direction I was walking. "Mass Ave is this way," I announced with confidence.

"Ih day toe ya kah?" he continued.

I stared at him. Why was Joe Sixpack suddenly speaking Japanese? As though he expected me to understand it??

But I still wanted to be helpful, and the last thing I'd understood was "Mass Ave?", so I reiterated, "Mass Ave is up that way."

He tried again, with all the tolerant patience of the village women who had needed to repeat themselves for their poor pale friend. "I easkt," and suddenly I heard the thick Boston accent, and began calibrating my ear for it, "Did day toe ya kah?" And this time I understood him. Did they tow your car?

Turns out the same skills that helped me decipher the mumbled language of my illiterate neighbors are helping me here in Beantown.

I smiled and shook my head. "I'm walking from the subway," I said, gesturing back towards the T stop, now several blocks away.

"OK, well, bee kayuhful, sweedaat," he said. Be careful, sweetheart.

I smiled and thanked him and continued on my way, with a prayer of thanksgiving in my heart for all kind-hearted souls. I made it the next few blocks peacefully, exchanging greetings with the other folks still out on the sidewalks ("Weyah's the paaty?" "There's no party,"), and then let myself in through my wrought iron gate, suddenly so reminiscent of the steel door I'd lived behind during my years in Morocco.

I pulled it locked behind me with the same sweet comfort of knowing that I was home - for however long or short this apartment remains my home.

At no point in the half-mile walk had I ever felt unsafe, despite the hour, the setting, or the presence or absence of others on the street. Instead, I'd received help when I needed it, kind words from a stranger, and friendly conversation with some folks who'd blown their tire across the street.

Welcome to your first Saturday night in Boston, little Volunteer!

8/20/10 The "Real Arabic"

I'm settling into a new neighborhood, and therefore still learning my way around, learning the local amenities, etc.

The other day, in my first walk-about, I saw a sign saying "INTERNATIONAL FOODS". At first I walked by, since I was making a beeline for a major chain grocery story I'd heard was just up the road, but I glanced in as I strode by.

It took a couple seconds to register what I'd seen: two women in head scarves.

I stopped, turned around, and retraced my steps. The two women - apparently a mother and daughter, based on resemblance and interactions - seemed relieved and thrilled to have a customer.

I started shopping, and the overeager daughter (whose English is the best in the family, and so takes on the bulk of the customer relations) followed me around the store, chattering nervously. I stocked up in the spice section, because everything was so cheap! (Americans spend waaaaay too much on spices. 4 to 8 dollars for a small jar?? Go to any international foods store and get a small plastic bag with at least as much volume - and usually more - for a DOLLAR. It's still more than spices cost me when I bought them in souq, when this amount would have set me back 2 dirhams, or about 25 cents.)

When I went to check out, the mom and daughter started squabbling about the prices. I think the mom wanted to give me a discount so I'd come back again, but the daughter wanted to drive a harder bargain now.

I didn't catch every word (but then, I never really did in Morocco, either), but I did understand the numbers.

When they said, "Tlat", meaning 3, I echoed it. The daughter looked up at me. The mom had already turned to go into the back of the store, and I don't think she heard.

"I speak a little Arabic," I said. The daughter's eyes grew wider. "Shweeya, mashi bzzef," I added. A little, not much.

"That's Moroccan," she said flatly.

"Yes, I lived in Morocco for the past two years."

"I speak the real Arabic. I can't understand Moroccan."

I admit, I was put off by her high-handedness, but smiled and said, "Yes, Darija is different from Classical Arabic. But at least you recognized it. You understand some."

She seemed to find such an implication insulting, and went back to calculating my tab. I started asking a few questions. Turns out the shop is owned by an Iraqi family who have been in America for two years. The daughter's accent is the lightest Arabic accent I've ever heard. I had to listen carefully to even realize that there *is* one, because I'm so used to listening through much thicker Arabic accents.

By the time I was done, the mom had come back to the front of the store. As I left, I said to her, "Shukran jazillan." Thank you very much.

Her daughter tossed off a careless, "Afwan." You're welcome.

But the mom's face lit up in a way I haven't seen since Morocco, with the incredulous joy of finding a fellow language-speaker. It's a widening of the eyes and a dropping of the jaw and a radiance that suffuses the features. I hadn't realized till I saw it just how much I've missed it. How much I loved surprising people by treating them as members of a shared community, when they expected the condescension of the high-handed tourist to the local peasant (or, in this case, of the citizen to the immigrant).

As I walked out the door, the mom rushed forward a few steps to call, "Salaam-u alaykum!" Peace be upon you! With a big smile, I called back, "Wa alaykum as-salaam." And also with you.

Welcome to the neighborhood, Kauthar. :D


8/18/10 Employment

The continuing adventures of your favorite RPCV [that's Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, to those of you just tuning in]...

Emerging from the Peace Corps into America is daunting enough under the best of circumstances, as I've outlined in these posts. Emerging into the worst economy since the Great Depression ... has been its own challenge.

Virtually none of the RPCVs who finished with me, 3 months ago yesterday, have a job right now. Some are about to start graduate/nursing/business/medical school. Many, actually. But many others are caught in the same joblessness as 10-25% (depending whose numbers you believe) of Americans.

Which makes it kind of remarkable that I have found a job. Alhumdulillah! I'm so very grateful.

But that means that future posts are likely to be about issues facing me at work and at home. My home here in America. Since I created this blog to write about Peace Corps, I feel like I'm bait-and-switch-ing y'all.

I considered starting a new blog, for my new career...but all my friends and relatives [[and some loyal fans who are neither, but who I hope I'll get to meet someday. Seriously, people, introduce yourselves]] know this address and it seems unnecessary to abandon it just to start over.


You'll be hearing about my new adventures, as a journalist in Boston. I haven't yet decided whether I'll link to any stories I write (for publication). That would mean surrendering the anonymity I've clung to for three years.

But for now, let me just say how much I've appreciated all my readers. I don't know who you are (unless you've told me), but thanks to Google Analytics, I know how many of you there are. Knowing that y'all were reading me helped my service immensely. I can't tell you what it meant to know that I had a connection, however tenuous, to the world beyond my mountain village. That people cared about my ongoing experience.

But if you only signed on to hear Morocco and/or Peace Corps stories, I understand. Feel free to go on your way. No hard feelings. I hope you've gotten what you wanted out of my ramblings.

And for those of you sticking around...thanks for sharing my journey.

In the words of the immortal philosophers Calvin & Hobbes:

It's a big world out there. Let's go exploring!


8/19/10 Kalima

When I moved to Berberville, 27 months ago, one of the first people I met was a tiny little girl that Ama introduced as Kalima (left, with her sister and mine).

"Kalima" sounds like the word kalimo, which means word, so I figured her name was a reference to the holy scriptures in the Qur'an. It occurred to me later that our village's dialect blurs the distinction between l's and r's, and that the little girl's name might be "Karima", a common Arab name.

But since I never saw it written - her mother, like Ama, is illiterate, and even after the child started school, I never asked her to write her name - I simply had to pick a mental spelling, and I've always thought of her as Kalima.

Kalima's mother is Rebha - one of a thousand women in the area to carry that very common Tamazight name. This particular Rebha is Ama's next door neighbor, and her closest friend. Their daughters pour into and out of each other's houses, playing and giggling at all hours of the day and into the twilight. Kalima is the youngest of the girls, and tends to follow Noora and Fatima around with the eager delight that I remember following my big sister around with myself, when I was 5 or 6 like Kalima. (Ages are usually vague, too, because dates are as hazy as written words for the women in my village.)

Whenever I think of Kalima, who I haven't seen in three months, I first remember her sparkling eyes, dancing with mischief and innocence and delight. Sometimes all at once. I've never seen such bright eyes. They glowed with some inner radiance.

Next, I remember her ready smile, with its tiny white milk-teeth. Rebha is one of the better cooks in Berberville, but refined sugar is rare (except in tea!), which might explain why Kalima's teeth remain perfect, without benefit of western impositions like a toothbrush.

Many Berberville children were wary of the tall pale foreigner, but Kalima - like her older sister, Noora - accepted me immediately. After a long day of children clamoring for my attention or begging for candy, it was always restful to run into Kalima on the path by Ama's house, and relax in her undemanding presence.

Kalima and Noora could be found underfoot at Ama's house at least as often as any of my own little brothers and sisters, so she shows up in several of the pictures I shot in my host family's house. Here, she and my sister are reading (or at least looking at) books I brought back from Rabat:

I also took a few deliberate portraits of her on the day of my cousin Lucky's wedding, because she was dressed in her sparkling new caftan (and apparently trying to focus on a mote of dust a foot in front of her ):

For reasons that I never understood - despite repeated painstaking explanations using lots of words I didn't understand - one of Kalima's neighbors decided that he wanted to buy brand new caftans for Kalima and Noora, for the wedding.

Kalima in her new caftan:

Caftans are an Arab import into my Berber village, but they're hugely popular at weddings. Made of satin (or shiny polyester), embroidered with bright patterns, and often liberally sprinkled with sequins, caftans are long, tightly belted garments that manage to cover a girl or woman from neck to wrist to ankle, while still showing the general curves of her body and flowing gracefully with her movements.

Every young woman needs at least one caftan to wear to family weddings - and *somebody* gets married almost every summer evening in my little town. Of course, the entire town is always welcomed at any wedding - whatever you're wearing - but relatives of the bride or groom are expected to dress up. And in Berberville, wedding dress code = caftan. For women, anyway. For men, it's simply the white tunics they wear to pray in the mosque.

Wealthy young women own more than one caftan, plus girls tend to loan them out as freely as my friends swapped our gel bracelets in elementary school, so pretty much anyone who wants to dress up for a wedding will be able to.

The little girls aren't quite as lucky. Since little girls everywhere grow like pretty little weeds, buying custom-tailored garments that can only be worn a handful of times before they're outgrown doesn't make sense to most families. So little girls whose sisters or cousins are getting married usually have to make do with hand-me-down caftans, belted and cinched within an inch of their lives.

At our cousin Lucky's wedding, my little sister Fatima was one such cinched figure, tripping over a hem that trailed a good six inches on the floor, and nearly drowning in a garment meant for a girl at least twice as wide as my stick-thin sister.

But Kalima and Noora got brand-new, custom-fitted caftans. I think because their neighbor is related to the family of the groom, who is connected in some truly round-about manner with the mother of the bride...? Yeah, I never did figure out exactly how they scored new caftans, but that didn't stop me from beaming happily (and snapping lots of pictures) as they paraded around town in hand-tailored finery.

Here's Kalima (second from the right) and a bunch of other sleepy girls at Lucky's wedding. This picture was taken around midnight, when the festivities had been going for about 8 hours and had another 4 or 5 hours to go...

Why am I spending so much time talking about my tiny friend Kalima? Who I met when she was 4 or 5 and who I knew only two years?

Because last week, for no reason anyone could discern, Kalima lay her tiny body down, curled up into an implausibly small ball, and died.

Children die all the time in the Third World, usually from preventable illnesses. I'm truly grateful that none of my tiny friends passed on during the two years I spent in their village.

But that blessed bubble has now burst, and Kalima's shining eyes have closed for the last time.

Ajaar akom Allah.
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