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September 23, 2008 Stars, in their multitudes…

Today was my “Site Visit”, which means that I got an Official Visit from my program staff. It was wonderful to see my Program Assistant again; she’s not only a highly qualified Peace Corps staff member, she’s also a great person who I genuinely enjoy spending time with, and consider one of my closest Moroccan friends.

After taking care of all of our official business, ie talking about my projects, visiting my house (freshly cleaned this morning!), etc, we paid a visit to my host family’s house for tea. My PA and Ama hit it off immediately, and spent an hour chatting in Darija, which meant that I didn’t understand pretty much anything they said. (Yes, Ama is bilingual in Darija – Moroccan Arabic – and Tamazight. She grew up in a Darija-speaking region but belongs to one of the nearby tribes, Ait Brahim.)

When I walked my PA back to her hotel, we paused in a particularly dark section of town to turn off the flashlight and admire the stars. She lives in a big city, full of lights and pollution, plus she almost never goes out after dark (like most Moroccan women), so seeing the Berberville night sky was a real treat for her.

…and for me, too. I still haven’t gotten blasé about how gorgeous the stars are here. With our naked eyes, we could see the Milky Way as a broad swath painted from one horizon to the other. Cassiopaeia looked like she was doing the backstroke through a river of stars. The planets looked as bright as a full moon, though they didn’t cast a shadow like the full moon would on a night this clear.

Clear, cold mountain skies...the observing doesn't get any better than this. Hey, space-minded friends, would you do me a favor and give me a week or two heads' up on the next big meteor shower? I can't imagine anything more fun than spending a night up on my roof, snugged up in my down sleeping bag, watching the stars shoot across the Berberville sky.

(OK, yes, I can think of *some* things that would be more fun. But not many.)

PS: Yes, the title is a quote from Les Mis. So I’m cheesy. I admit it, I like musicals. Sue me. ;)

September 22, 2008 Perfect weather

Berberville gets its share of cloudy days – yesterday was one – but most of the time, we’ve been having radiant blue skies, interrupted by an hour or three of rain in mid-afternoon. Today was absolutely perfect fall weather – appropriate for the autumnal equinox, come to think of it. The warm sun baked down on us, but the breezes blew cool – almost chilly – air in sporadic puffs and gusts. The air tasted like winter, and the smell wafting from the orchards put visions of apple cider dancing in my head. Under my flannel shirt and long-sleeved teeshirt, I was comfortable without being warm. The sky shimmered with that electric blue that makes me believe that UV rays are visible. When I was younger I called it “Massachusetts blue”, because it was the color I saw behind red maple leaves in a New England autumn, but I now know that it’s the color of autumn sky all around the planet.

I can never decide whether fall or winter is my favorite season; I love them both for different reasons. And I fall in love with spring every time it springs upon me, but that’s just a passing infatuation; my true love is the cold that puts apples in my cheeks and a sparkle in my eye, that I can taste on the back of my tongue and celebrate from behind flannels and steaming mugs of hot sugary beverages.

Hot sugary beverage count for today: 8. In my defense, the cups here are *really* small. But yeah, that’s a lot of hot beverages. Chai this morning (one packet spread over two cupfuls), hot milk at l-fdrt (three cups), and tea at Ama’s house (three cups).

September 21, 2008 Equinox

I feel like the equinox should have a 6am sunrise and 6pm sunset, but somehow it doesn’t work that way; the sunset call to prayer (aka the dinner bell!) came ~6:45pm. Although since I live in a valley surrounded by mountains, I don’t actually know when sunrise and sunset are; the sun falls below the mountains long before it would fall below a flat horizon, and vice-versa for sunrise. I suppose this means that the days here are always shorter than they’d be in a flat landscape; I wonder how short they’ll be on the winter solstice. To be sure, I’ll have to wake up for sunrise, which I failed to do this morning, but if it’s enough later, that won’t be hard. :)

September 20, 2008 Recipe #9 Fatbread

(Disclaimer: There were three of us contributing to this dish, and I was concentrating on mincing up everything into tiny chunks, so I wasn’t able to estimate amounts. Sorry.)

Fat (tadoont n aksum) – should be opaque white, texture when chopped similar to a crumbly blue cheese

Vegetables – Ama says use ayna tufit, meaning whatever you find (except tomatoes). We used onions (azalim), carrots (xezu), turnips* (luft or tlft), potatoes (batata), peppers (flfla or tiflflt) or even a hard boiled egg (tiglay n waman), which isn’t a vegetable last time I checked, but which can be tossed into the mix.

Spices – use whatever you like. Ama used pepper (lubsa), saffron (safran), cilantro (m3dnus), cumin (camoon), and salt (tisnt).

Butter (zbda)

Flour (ourH)

water (aman)

yeast (khmira)

Mince the fat and vegetables into teeny-tiny pieces, pea-sized or smaller. Then mince the cilantro and any other fresh herbs into shreds the size of a BB pellet. Toss all together.

Make the bread just like in recipe # whatever the bread was, except that after you pat the dough into pie-sized rounds, cover the surface with melted butter.** Cover one with the fat-veggie mixture, leaving ~1” of dough on the edges. It should look a lot like a medium-sized pizza at this point. Put another bread round on top, and then pinch the edges together. (Ama, ever conscious of not wasting any food, rubbed her hands on the upper round, to make sure all the herbs and food particles that had stuck to her fingers when she’d patted them into the bottom round were going to end up in the meal. She rubbed her hands on the underside – the buttered side – of the upper round, so that it all ended up on the inside of this dough sandwich.) Watching Ama pinch the edges of the dough together, it occurred to me that this is the Moroccan version of a pie, but with bread dough instead of pie crust dough. It’s kind of the intersection of a chicken pot pie with a calzone.

Coat the entire exposed surface – top and bottom – with melted butter. It not only adds flavor, but it brings out the color in the final baking, much like an egg wash does on Put it on a nonstick surface, then set a plate over it, with a blanket/towel above that, to let it rise. (Usually bread dough can sit right on the blanket/towel, but all the melted butter on this would be lost, plus it would gett your cloth greasy.)

Let it rise for half an hour to an hour, then bake. It’s done when golden and firm to the touch.

**Variation: My host brothers don’t like vegetables, so Ama makes them a version without any filling. After she coats the bread with butter, she folds it into thirds, then into thirds the other direction, so that she ends up with nine layers of butter. Then she pats it back into the shape of a bread loaf. The finished product ends up tasting a lot like a croissant.

* Turnips, tlft, are to be peeled like a potato before chopping. I realized today that while I’ve always known that turnips are veggies, I’m pretty sure I’ve never handled or eaten one before today, and never knew that they were root vegetables. The giveaway there was the little thready roots coming off, like carrots sometimes have.

September 19, 2008 Souq in Berberville

Though I usually go into SouqTown to go to souq (the weekly market), Berberville does have its own small souq as well. I went there today in hopes of picking up some ikshushan (housewares), but they didn’t have what I was looking for: mixing bowls. I’ll look around next time I’m in SouqTown. I did find some blankets, a new handle for my somewhat-broken broom, and some big kettles (for taking bucket baths). I didn’t buy any of these, though I did price them out. I’ll check the prices in SouqTown and see how they compare.

After a futile search of the ikshushan vendors, I was idly wandering around, and came upon a guy selling notebooks, for the students starting their new semester. I ended up buying two, a big one for writing Tam stories in and a small one to keep in my pocket and write down new vocabulary.

As I walked away from him, it occurred to me that, for all the times I’ve walked through Berberville’s souq, I’ve never bought anything there before. I had to laugh when I realized that my first souq purchase was about as far inside my comfort zone as exists in Berberville: something for reading and writing. :)

Then I headed up to the fruit and veggie vendors and picked up some tomatoes and bananas. I looked at the pomegranates, but was put off by how pale they are. They were mostly beige…does this mean that we’re still at the beginning of pomegranate season, or just that Moroccan fruits don’t always match their American counterparts? (The honeydew melons sure don’t match – here they’re bright yellow with ridges. They look more like watermelons than anything else, but they’re green and sweet on the inside, and taste like the honeydew I’m used to.)

Then a swing past the hanut (dry goods store, open almost 24/7) for some baking supplies – bread, butter, baking powder, vanilla powder – and I was ready to head home.

My first Berberville souq shopping trip. Lhumdullah! :)

September 18, 2008 Fading fast…

The front wall of my house faces south, which means that the large pink face is rapidly fading in the sunlight, lhumdullah. It’s still not a particularly attractive color, but now it’s more of a creamy salmon than a baby’s-bower pink. Actually, it’s a dead match for the Crayola crayon that used to be called “flesh” and is now, I think, “peach”.

But really, anything is better than the color it used to be, so I’m thrilled. :)

September 17, 2008 Brotherhood

This morning I got to chat with a Moroccan businessman for about half an hour. He had seen me with “Kareem”, another PCV, and asked if he was my boyfriend.

(Tangent: I used to see these kinds of questions as prying and personal, but the more I learn about the centrality of family and relationships in the lives of Moroccans, the more I accept them. The people who ask if I’m married, or how many kids I have, or if [insert male here] is my boyfriend, are just trying to fit me into the only framework that is meaningful to them.)

I laughed and explained that we work together. As the conversation progressed, though, we came back to the topic of Peace Corps Volunteers, and I mentioned that they’re like family. My new family. And that Kareem is like a brother to me.

I hadn’t really put it that way before, even to myself, but it’s pretty much true. I grew up with a sister, so this whole “brother” thing is kinda new to me, let alone having about 30 brothers, but … I like it.

September 16, 2008 Recipe #8 Fried rice

I made this with “Kareem”, a fellow PCV. I’ve never been a huge fan of fried rice, but I think that I like the one we made better than any I’ve gotten from Chinese takeout. It also looks to be an easy source of a balanced meal, so that’s all to the good.

Without further ado:

1 C rice

2 ½ C water

1 large onion

3 medium-sized peppers (we used one red, one green, and one halfway inbetween, which was very aesthetically pleasing)

2 carrots

½ C butter

Soy sauce (to taste)

2 eggs

Put the rice into the water to soak. (You ordinarily only need twice as much water as rice, not 2.5 times as much, but because water boils faster up here at high elevations, we decided to add extra, and it worked out for us.)

Dice the onion, peppers, and carrots.

Put the rice and water on medium heat.

Melt a couple tablespoons of butter in a frying pan. Sauté the onions. When they are translucent, add the peppers and carrots. Sauté/stir-fry them in ever-increasing amounts of butter and soy sauce. (Just keep tossing in chunks of butter and splashing in the soy sauce.)

When the vegetables and rice are both mostly al denté, pour any remaining water off the rice and add in the veggies. Toss together over low heat. Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring vigorously. Add more soy sauce, butter, or whatever other spices come to hand (Kareem had some dried pepper flakes that were great) to taste. When it’s all soft to the tooth, you’re done.

Serve immediately.

This amount served only the two of us, but we’d been fasting and were huuuungry. I think it should serve three or four people with normal-sized appetites.

September 15, 2008 My new sack

I’ve been staying with “Karima”, a Volunteer who lives down south. Today, we visited the weaving cooperative she works with. They had some truly gorgeous rugs, as well as handbags, scarves, and even shoes. I’ve been meaning to get myself a smallish bag to serve as a purse/backpack/whatever sack. I have a small black backpack that I’ve been using, but I’ve been keeping an eye out for something a little less hello-I’m-a-foreigner. Today I found a bag that makes me happy, plus I got to give my money to a women’s group, which always makes me happy. I even know the name of the woman who wove my bag, although she wasn’t there today so I didn’t get to meet her: Khadija IghablinSaf. It was a successful purchase all around. Oh, and I also wove part of a row on the rug of one of the women there, and she knocked 10% off the price. So I’m happy on about six different levels… :)Pictures coming soon!

September 14, 2008 Ramadan update

I’ve tried different ways of getting my three meals a day during Ramadan, none hugely successful. I think I’m settling in on having a dinner-sized meal at l-fdrt, the fast-breaking sunset meal, some light food or snacks just before bedtime, and then breakfast-y foods (bread, yogurt, fruit) at saghor, the 3am pre-dawn meal. A couple of times I found myself really gorging at l-fdrt, but I think that was a phase. And some days it’s easier than others to get up for saghor, but I’ve only completely skipped it (I think) twice.

Oh, and I’ve learned more about the travelers’ exemption: apparently, the Prophet said that people who walk 18 km or more in a day can eat or drink as needed, but there is no universal agreement as to how that applies to travel in the 21st century. Some people think that anyone who is away from home is exempt from fasting, others interpret it much more strictly. But everyone agrees that any days you don’t fast during Ramadan, whatever your excuse/exemption, you need to make up later. Some make them up immediately after the 3id al-Fitr, others wait and make them up over the course of the next year. But it’s pretty universally agreed that everyone owes God 28 fasting days per year.


September 10, 2008 Cross-talk

I’m understanding cross-talk!

Tonight, while I was having l-fdrt with my host family (or “drinking soup”, as they’d call it, since harira – soup – is the centerpiece of the Ramadan fast-breaking meal), I asked them about the fasting exception for travelers, which Moroccans seem to ignore.

This led to a debate between Ama and Baba; Baba was arguing that anyone traveling on foot is allowed to eat or drink as much as they need, but Ama was saying that they can only drink water. But both agreed that it only applies to people who are walking, not folks riding in a car/bus/etc.

I loved the debate, not only because I like learning the subtleties of the intersection of religion and culture in Morocco, but because I COULD UNDERSTAND IT! Ama and Baba were talking to each other, at full velocity, using all the contractions and slurs of regular conversation…and I followed it! After they’d settled it between them (well, really, after Baba decided to stop arguing his point, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t convinced), Ama turned to me and explained, slowly and clearly, with hand gestures, that People. Who. Are. Walking. Can. Drink. Water. This is the way she’s always spoken to me (for which I’m deeply grateful, because it’s sooo much easier to understand that way) but what thrilled me was that I didn’t need it! I didn’t tell her that, though – I’m not ready to fly without a net just yet.

Later on, Little Bro asked Ama for permission to go hang out with his friends, and she put some conditions on it – and again, I understood it! This “cross-talk” – conversation between other people – is something I’ve been listening to for three months now, and which has been an ongoing struggle, because I usually can’t pick out more than a word per sentence or so. Or so it’s always felt. But tonight, for whatever reason, the veil was lifted, and I understood!


September 10, 2008 Time and Temperature

I have a new toy: an indoor-outdoor thermometer. I’m still figuring out how to get the outdoor part set up, since all of my windows have screens nailed in, but hopefully it’ll soon be up and going.

I’d thought that I wanted this, both as an environmental scientist and because I’ve been curious, but I’m now thinking that it might just depress me. Right now, it’s 11am on a sunny day in early September, and it’s 61.7° in my bedroom.

I’ve enjoyed feeling the fall tang in the air – and it makes me happy that fall is actually coming in September, instead of, say, December (as it did when I lived in Houston), but I admit to being a little apprehensive about winter. If it’s already chilly now, January and February are going to be cooold. Which I knew. Everyone I talk to says that Berberville gets really stinkin’ cold in the wintertime.

One of the clichés of Morocco is that it’s a cold country with a hot sun. And like many clichés, it’s based in truth. There’s so little humidity that the difference between sunlight and shade is huge. It can be HOT in direct sunlight, but chilly in a patch of shade a foot away. And my big cement house with the small windows doesn’t get a lot of direct sunlight. I do have a skylight, which I’m very grateful for (except when it rains, because it leaks like crazy), but the thick glass lets in more light than heat.

Well, I’ll now be able to quantify my coldness. Instead of just thinking, wow it’s chilly in here (as I thought an hour ago), now I know it’s sixty degrees indoors. OK, 62. :)

What I’m trying to remember now is why I thought it would be good to know this…

August, 2008 Testament of Dom Christian de Chergé

A Catholic monk, who had devoted his adult life to North Africa, lived in a monastery that was under siege during a period of unrest in Algeria. Some of his brothers chose to flee the massacre they all foresaw. Some chose to stay, and continue their ministry. One, Dom Christian de Chergé, wrote a public letter of forgiveness for his murderer. He published it on December 1st, 1993. He was martyred a few months later. His order was re-established in Morocco; I visited their monastery last month, which is where I learned this story. Here is his letter:

Facing a GOODBYE…

If it should happen one day – and it could be today –
that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf
all the foreigners living in Algera,
I would like my community, my Church and my family
to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would ask them to pray for me:
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones
which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other.
Nor any less value.
In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.
I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil
which seems to prevail so terribly in the world,
even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.
I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death.
It seems to me important to state this.
I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice
if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay
for what will perhaps be called the “grace of martyrdom”
to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be,
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters.
It is too easy to soothe one’s conscience
by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.
For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it.
I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel
which I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church,
precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm
those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic:
“Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, God willing:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely
for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on,
I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,
and you, my friends of this place,
along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,
you are the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD BLESS” for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.


September 9, 2008 Red Tape

Local officials have requested yet more copies of documents I’ve already provided them. I gave them four copies of each of these, about three months ago. When I repeatedly asked why they wanted four new copies of each, the only answer I got was that other officials, higher up the food chain, wanted them.

This is red tape. There’s no point in trying to apply logic; it’s paperwork for the sake of paperwork. Part of me wants to rail against the system, the ludicrous inefficiency of repeating my work of three months ago, but most of me just wants to shrug, say red tape is red tape, in Morocco as in America, and let it go.

September 7, 2008 Ramadan Day 6

First things first: The fasting is getting easier. :)

Now that that’s out of the way…

Tonight, I had l-fdrt at 3mti Moqaddim’s house.

Let me unpack that sentence for you.

L-fdrt is the fast-breaking meal, eaten at sunset. It’s also referred to as t-harirt, which is the Berberized version of harira, aka the soup traditionally eaten at l-fdrt. Sometimes, people call this meal maghreb. I’m still trying to work out why. Maghreb means west, and is also the Arabic/Berber name for Morocco (because it’s the westernmost country of North Africa). So it could be referring to the fact that it’s a national celebration, or because the sun sets in the west, and the meal is eaten shortly after sunset…? Or maybe they’re saying something that just sounds like maghreb and I’m hearing it wrong. I’ll get back to you on that one…

3mti means uncle, and more specifically “the brother of my father”. Yes, Tamazight has different words for the different kinds of uncles. You conjugate everything else, why not conjugate family members. ;)

Moqaddim is a position roughly corresponding to mayor. My uncle – my 3mti – is the moqaddim for Berberville, and therefore nobody calls him by his given name, but just refers to him by his title: Moqaddim.

Since I have two 3mtis (and one 3tti, aka a sister of my host dad), referring to him as 3mti Moqaddim distinguishes him from my other 3mti, his older brother.

Anyway, I ate at his house tonight. I have a standing invitation at Ama’s house to come there for l-fdrt whenever I want; she issued it after she found out that the one Ramadan night I’ve spent *not* eating with Moroccans, I ate very little. But I’ve been trying to widen the number of families I’m on terms of bread and salt with, so when my cousin invited me this afternoon to come to their house for tharirt, I was happy to accept.

My auntie, 3mti’s wife, issued a similar standing invitation when I was there. Since she’s also my next-door neighbor, eating at her house doesn’t involve a five-minute walk through dark Berberville, but walking about ten steps down a well-lit street. (Her family and I both live on the main street of Berberville. That’s why our houses had to be painted red, as I wrote about a couple weeks ago.)

I have to admit, I feel all warm and fuzzy, knowing that there are two different households that are happy to feed me every night this month. :)

Anyway, I had a nice conversation with 3mti and his wife and kids, and learned a few new vocab words from them, too. An apron is a tabrriya. The brown crumbly stuff that looks like a pile of dirt but is delicious and eaten with a spoon is called zmita and includes about a dozen different things, including nutmeg (guza), ginger (skinjbir), sesame seeds (gnglan), oil (zzit), butter (zbda), flour (ourH), ground almonds (luz) and peanuts (kawkaw), and a few other words that I missed. “Fatbread”, aka bread baked with vegetables and oil cooked inside – kinda like a vegan calzone – is called msmn or bshaHmah. I’d thought that the thinner bread, sort of like Indian naan, was msmn, but auntie says no. That has a different name, which now escapes me. In my notes I have tfrnut and bTbut, but neither is the word auntie used. I also ate two kinds of dates (tigni), two kinds of olives (zitoon), juice (aSSir), honeyed crumbly cookies that sort of remind me of baklava (shbkkia), and of course harira, the traditional Ramadan soup. Auntie’s harira is chock-full of chickpeas. I never thought I liked chickpeas until I had them in harira. Also, this auntie runs a café/restaurant, which means that she’s a fabulous cook. (I’m still loyal to Ama’s cooking, but Auntie’s is darned good.)

Another vocab word from tonight was assa. I learned in training that it means “today”, but they were using it with my toddler cousin – an adorable little munchkin with ringlet curls, dimples, and a perpetually runny nose – whenever she was about to pick up something they didn’t want her to. So apparently it means “Put it down” or “Leave it alone” or “Stop” or “Be careful” or “Don’t touch that” or some combination thereof. I know other words/phrases that mean all of those things (srs-t, adj-t, qim/bd, xarak/shuf, and adur ttast-t, respectively), but none of them sound like assa.

September 6, 2008 Mouscapades (rated PG-13)

PG-13 Rating: Contains content that may give small children (or anyone, really) the heebie-jeebies. Consider yourself warned.

I have a mouse. Maybe more than one, but I’m going to stay optimistic and hope it’s just a single mouse. I’ve named it Stuart Little, in hopes that a name will make it less unnerving when I see him dashing across the kitchen floor.

I’m hoping to avoid poisoning him. I’m trying a environmentally friendly method of mouse killing (rice + bowl of water = mousie tummy rupture), but after three days of rice on my kitchen floor, he’s still not dead.

How do I know he’s not dead?

Because … (shudder) … OK, here’s the story.

I wanted to bake cookies. I like baking cookies. Loved ones have heard my pleas for cookie ingredients and have sent me brown sugar and chocolate chips (neither of which are available in Morocco). So I was prepared to bake cookies.

But I’ve been using my oven as a cupboard.

My kitchen doesn’t have any cupboards, and some of my food doesn’t fit into tupperwares (which *are* available here, lhumdullah), so I’ve been locking it into my latching oven.

I thought this was a clever solution to the mousie problem.

In order to bake cookies, I had to take the food out of the oven. So I pulled out the package of spaghetti, and the bag of rice, and the box of cookies. I’d bundled the brown sugar and chocolate chips and mac & cheese packages (sent by more loved ones – y’all are so awesome!) into a plastic bag, and this had been carefully wedged into the bottom half of the oven.

(I should point out that my oven is *not* a full-sized American oven. It’s more like a triple-sized toaster oven. It’s about 2 feet wide and 1.5’ deep, with a fixed shelf in the middle that divides it into a bigger top half, that’s maybe 8” tall, and a smaller bottom section, about 5” tall, which is the broiler. And since the oven has to be lit by hand, that means I have minimal clearance to get my hand under the gas jets with a candle and light each little tiny butagaz flame, one by one.)

The grocery bag of m&c etc was very full, and I didn’t want it to catch on anything and risk tearing its precious American contents, so I slid one hand under it to ease its path out of the broiler.

The bag felt lumpy in my hands, but since I knew it had several odd-shaped contents (such as the brown sugar and chocolate chips), this didn’t surprise me.

Supporting its weight with one hand under it and the other holding the handles, I carefully lifted it up to the counter top.

I set it down.

As I eased my hand out from under the bag, something registered as being a little off… And when my hand emerged, I was holding Stuart Little.

I let out noise somewhere between a gasp and a shriek, involuntarily dropped him four feet to the kitchen floor, and stood there shuddering as he scampered back to his hideyholes under the counter.

I’m still not sure whether there’s a mouse-sized hole in the oven or whether he slipped in there some time when the door was open and then got locked in, and has been biding his time waiting for a jail break.

I let my heart rate return to normal, then washed and Purell’d my hands, washed a few dishes to calm my nerves, and then set about the cookie baking.

I keep reminding myself that Stuart Little had a good 5-10 seconds when he could have bitten me, while I was easing the bag out of the oven and onto the countertop, and he didn’t. He poses no threat to society…just to any food not in Tupperware. So I’ll be getting more of that next time I’m in souq. Lots more. Big ones. Cupboard-sized, really.

Because I actually don’t mind if he eats some of my rice or couscous. Given all the baby mice I fed to my pet snake, I figure I owe a mousie karmic debt. But if that little rodent gets into any of my American food, he and I are going to have words…

September 3, 2008 Braving the Popcorn

I haven’t been out of my host family’s house for long, and I’ve so far managed to avoid lighting my stove, mostly by eating with other families, being out of town, or sticking to cold food. (Yogurt with granola makes a delicious meal any time of day.) But tonight I was in the mood for popcorn, and decided it was time to brave the butagaz (butane gas).

I opened the kitchen windows wide, to minimize the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, got out the couscous pot (the only one of Zahra’s pots I’ve found that has a lid, though admittedly I haven’t dug deeply into the kitchenware), washed it off, and took a deep breath.

I turned the knob on the butagaz tank. Rightsy tightsy, lefty loosy. It turned more easily than I’d thought, given that it hasn’t been touched in six months. Then I clutched the brika (lighter) in my right hand and turned the knob on the stove with my left. I flicked the brika next to the right front burner…and nothing happened. I tried waving it next to the other three burners, in case the stove was wired funny, and still nothing lit. I brought it back to the right front burner, sparked it again, and flinched back from the fireball.

(Mom, don’t worry. It wasn’t *really* a fireball, just a quick burst of blue flame that startled me.)

I put the freshly-washed couscous pot (brma) on the flame. The remaining water hissed off it. I reached hastily for the vegetable oil and poured it in. I covered the bottom of the brma a quarter inch deep. How much oil do you need to pop popcorn in, anyway? I poured in the popcorn – more than I meant to – and tossed it around till all the kernels were covered with oil. Is just coating the kernels enough? Maybe they need to deep-fry, like donuts. I added some more oil. I lowered the flame. Too far – flame went out. I hastily turned off the gas, grabbed the brika, and relit it. High flames would be fine. Everything was hissing and boiling, but nothing was popping. Maybe this was too much oil? I poured some off. Wait, when are you supposed to salt popcorn? While cooking or afterwards? I tossed in some salt. I lowered the flame – very slowly, to avoid making it go out entirely. I alternated between stirring the kernels with a wooden spoon, holding the handles of the brma and shaking it, and flipping through the Peace Corps Cookbook, looking for a recipe for popcorn.

(Yes, I know, this whole episode makes me look like a ninny. I’ve never made popcorn without a microwave. Wait, scratch that – I had an air popper my freshman year in college. But that still didn’t teach me anything about stovetop popcorn poppery.)

One kernel popped. I got excited. But there wasn’t a second. I tossed the pan some more, stirred the kernels some more, flipped through the cookbook some more (why doesn’t it have an index??), and frowned into the pan. Then came another pop. Lhumdullah! I tossed in another handful of salt. Then came a third. Then about seventy-two, all at once. I hastily put the top onto the brma. The inside of the pot sounded like the climax to a 4th of July celebration. I began to wonder if it would fill entirely. I lifted off the top, and sure ‘nuff, the brma was nearly full. I shook out most of the fluffy kernels into another bowl, then put it back on the flame and replaced the lid. The crazy popping fiesta continued. Dude, how much popcorn had I made?? I tossed another handful of salt into the pot of popped kernels and another one into the popping inferno.

When the rate slowed, I figured it was time to take the brma off the heat. (It works for microwave popcorn, and I had nothing else to go on.) I turned the knob of the butagaz (rightsy tightsy), then, after the flame had died completely, turned the knob on the stove. (I’m not positive that’s the way to do it, but it seems to me that guarantees that you’re not leaving gas trapped in the hose from the butagaz tank to the stove.)

The bowl that had taken the first half of the popped kernels held plenty for me to eat, though, so I replaced the lid on the brma, left it on a cold burner, and took my snack into the living room to munch on.

Not having a fridge, I went ahead and left the remaining popcorn there overnight (where it taunted me throughout my next day of fasting) and then ate it the following night. When I got down to the bottom of the brma, I discovered that I’d scorched the pan pretty badly, and there was a whole layer of popped kernels burned to the bottom. Maybe I shouldn’t have poured off the extra oil…? I left it to soak overnight.

In the morning, I dumped the watery popcorn kernels and carbon traces into the alley. (I figure I’m feeding the feral cats, plus my kitchen drain isn’t capable of taking anything the size of a popped kernel of popcorn, no matter how soggy.) I scrubbed at the remaining carbon for a while, then let it soak again.

I really hope my first attempt with my stove didn’t permanently destroy a pan… But it did make for a nummy snack that fed me for two Ramadan nights, plus I used butane without exploding my kitchen, so I think I’ll count it a success regardless of the fate of the brma. :)
[update: brma has been salvaged!]

September 4, 2008 Fasting, Day 3

Day 1 of fasting was pretty easy. I ate a big breakfast before dawn and then spent the rest of the day traveling, so busy bustling from connection to connection that I didn’t really notice I hadn’t eaten. A woman sitting next to me on one of the buses was smuggling food into her mouth, and apologetically explained to me that she was en congé, getting the vacation from fasting that all women get once in the month.* Why Moroccan custom ignores the provision for travelers, I don’t know. Maybe because traveling these days is so much easier than in times past? Riding planes, trains, buses, automobiles, etc burns fewer calories than mastering a camel or horse, let alone walking. But regardless, we were on a bus and she was hiding her food from everyone except me.

When it was time to break the fast, the bus pulled into a town filled with restaurants. We were close to our destination, but apparently letting people eat now was more important than getting us to where we were going. So I ate some of the traditional fast-breaking foods, harira, eggs, and juice, and bought some peaches to enjoy later in the evening.

So Day 1 of fasting was over before I even really much noticed it.

Day 2 of fasting, I slept late, socialized through the morning, kept busy through the afternoon, and cheerfully broke my fast with my host family, munching on fat bread, harira (soup), helawa (cookies), juice, eggs, olives, another bowl of harira, some more bread, zmita, and tea. Coffee is more traditional, but Ama had made both, so I gratefully accepted the tea. (I’m not fond of either, but I *really* dislike coffee.) After I got home, I ate a couple peaches and made popcorn.

Day 3 of fasting is hard. I’ve had less to do today, and the time is inching by. Also, I have more ready access to food today than I did yesterday or the day before, and it’s taunting me. I’ve thought of all sorts of reasons to eat: I’m hungry. I’m not Muslim. I’m not feeling well. Nobody would know.

They all sound as weak to me as they must to you, and have forced me to confront the fact that I tend to be a pretty self-indulgent person. Maybe this is one of the reasons the Prophet Mohammad instigated a month of fasting: self-knowledge. I’m a generally good person, I’ve always thought, and therefore I’m pretty easy-going about indulging myself when I feel like it. I work hard, so why not drop into a movie theater on a Saturday afternoon? I eat healthy, most of the time, so why not finish off a pint of Ben & Jerry’s once in a blue moon?

The rationalizations always make sense, and this is the first time I can think of when I really want something I’m not letting myself have. I don’t tend to want bad things, so my self-indulgence has always seemed quite harmless, but I see now that it has bred within me a sorry lack of self-discipline.

And the minutes continue to drag by.

I ate this morning; Ama warned me last night that I should have breakfast at 3, because there’s no eating after 3:30. I set my alarm so that I wouldn’t sleep through breakfast, but happened to wake up naturally at 2:45, so I ate some bread then, before falling back asleep. Maybe fasting would be easier if I skipped breakfast. I’ve noticed before that I get hungry for lunch on days I eat breakfast, but can otherwise go till dinnertime without eating anything. (This habit of skipping meals effortlessly is one of the reasons I’d thought fasting would be easy.) Or maybe there’s an important difference between missing a meal, ie letting it go past without noticing, like landscape when I’m reading on a bus, and fasting, the deliberate choice to not eat.

But why am I fasting? I’m not Muslim, so why am I subjecting myself to this? Out of respect for my community? They don’t ask me to wear a head scarf, and I’m sure they’d understand if I chose not to fast. Everyone I’ve spoken to has been surprised – happily surprised – to hear that I am fasting. It would be disrespectful to walk through the streets on a hot afternoon while chugging water in front of my fasting neighbors, but eating and drinking in the privacy of my apartment wouldn’t directly upset anyone. Many Peace Corps Volunteers do just that.

But it would change my answer to the question, “Is da-ttazumt?” from a yes to a no. Or else it would make my yes a lie.

And I find that I’m not yet ready to do that. I’m fasting because my community is fasting, and I want to be a part of this community, not just a visitor to it. I’m fasting because I want to better understand the religion of submission, which is what Islam means. I’m fasting because I said I would, and I don’t want to make a liar of myself. (Rationalization kicks in: I did say I’d fast inshallah, which is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. It wasn’t a promise, it was an expressed hope. And then I respond to my inner rationalizer: Oh, shut up.)

* Exceptions to fasting: Children, the dying, the gravely ill, travelers, new mothers (but only for the first 40 days after childbirth), and menstruating women. Some women have referred to the days where they don’t fast as conge, from the French word for vacation; others just pat their lower bellies and say “I have a problem.” All of these exceptions are only temporary; you’re supposed to fast for a solid month, so if you eat on a fasting day, because you fall under one of these exempt categories, you need to make it up sometime later.

September 2, 2008 Ramadan

One of Islam’s 5 pillars is Ramadan, the month of fasting. From the pre-dawn call to prayer (at 3:30am-ish) until the sunset call to prayer (7pm-ish), there can be no eating, drinking, smoking, sexual activity, or gossiping. At the end of the month comes the 3id al-saghir, meaning the Small Festival/Feast. (The Big Festival is the one commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, and takes place 40 days after the Small Festival.) It’s also called the 3id al-Fitr.

Once upon a time, that meant that there was a month of deprivation followed by a ginormous feast. But somewhere along the way, the Breaking of the Fast meal (eaten right after sunset) became a ritualized Big Meal, and “Dinner” began to be eaten at midnight, and “Breakfast” at 3am. So folks are still getting three meals a day, they’ve just become nocturnal.

Also, the meals are elaborate and filled with snacks and goodies. I’ve been told that Moroccans spend more money on food during the month of Ramadan than any other month of the year. I’ve also been told that people gain more weight during Ramadan than any other time of year. (Americans certainly have their own month of gorging – ours goes from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, and there’s no hour of the day when eating is forbidden!)

I’ve received a few invitations to people’s houses for Breaking of the Fast, plus Ama issued me a blanket invitation to come to her house if ever I don’t have someone else’s home to eat in. (I made the mistake of admitting that the one night I stayed home, I ate only popcorn, bread, and a couple peaches all night. I admitted that that wasn’t my best decision, but it just reinforced for Ama that she needs to feed me up.)

I’ve avoided going anywhere for midnight dinner, though, since I really don’t want to walk through the dark streets of Berberville at 1am. (We actually have streetlamps – 10 of them, along the two main streets – but all they do is blind me when I’m trying to pick a path anywhere else in town. After the streetlamps shut off, around 3am, it’s actually easier to see, just by starlight and moonlight.)

This means that I need to make myself midnight dinner…but it feels truly weird to prepare an actual meal in the middle of the night. I’m all about the midnight snack – cereal, ice cream, popcorn – but making, like, stir-fried veggies or pasta primavera at midnight just feels bizarre. I guess it’s that eating in the middle of the night has a long and glorious tradition, but cooking in the middle of the night…less so. But I guess I’ll get over it. I have several more weeks of fasting to go, after all… I said I’d fast all month, inshallah, and I meant it. :)

September 1, 2008 …and the living is easy

I met some Japanese tourists the other day, who asked me which is better, Morocco or America. I’d already given them my stock response – I love them both – but they were pushing the point. When I’ve had this conversation in Berber, I stick to “I like them both the same” (which is expressed with the very simple, “Kif-kif, ghori”). But this conversation was in English, and I felt compelled to explain myself more fully…

“I can’t say which is better. They’re too different.” I looked at them to see if they understood me. “It’s not even like comparing apples and oranges; it’s like comparing apples and…pine trees. Which is better? Well, do you want a snack or some shade? Do you want the tang of mountain air or something that crunches between your teeth? If you’re hungry, take the apple. If you want to think of Christmas, take the pine tree. Which is better?” I shook my head. “I honestly can’t answer that.”

As I’ve thought about it in the days since, it has occurred to me that, while I really can’t make a value judgment either way, I can say that living in America was easier than living in Morocco.

I don’t mean to over-generalize; there are certainly people living in luxury in Morocco, especially in wealthy cities like Rabat and Azrou, while there are millions of people struggling in America. I’ve spent years working with impoverished American children and families, and would never dare to say that I know how hard or easy they find their lives. But *my* life in America is significantly easier than *my* life in the Moroccan bled.

For example…

Hot water available 24 hours a day vs cold water available for a few hours each morning.
Nearly unlimited steaming hot water at the turn of a knob vs heating water in a 3L teakettle (which entails lighting the butagaz stove) or 2L hotpot (which blows my circuit breaker every 20 seconds).
Hot food available with the push of a microwave button vs cooking over butane gas.
Laundry cleaned by machine vs scrubbed by hand.
Transportation whenever, wherever in my car/on Metro vs waiting for buses & grand taxis.
Central heating vs wood stoves and butagaz heaters.
Central air-conditioning vs open windows.
Sterilized, hyper-cleaned everywhere vs walking through manure and endless flies.
Showers daily, with high-water-pressure spray and (nearly) endless hot water vs showers weekly (or less), from a faucet with hose-like water pressure. (And the hot water has lasted for an entire shower exactly three times.)
Nearly unlimited communication with all loved ones via cell phone and internet vs $5/minute phone calls and weekly (or less) internet access.
Pre-packaged frozen meals vs cooking everything from scratch.

…But Ramadan is beginning, and with it the tangible lesson that what is right is not always easy, and that what is easy is not always right.

August 27, 2008 Travelicious

Cross-country travel is … challenging. But not necessarily in a bad way. I’ve certainly become more patient as my expectations have shifted. Tourists expect that everything will work out the way they want it to. “Ugly Americans,” too. But traveling isn’t always about the destination; sometimes it’s about the journey.

This one started with me waiting to fill a grand taxi. That can take minutes or hours; this one took two hours, almost to the minute. If I’d known, I could have stayed home long enough to fill up my water containers so that I wouldn’t be coming back to a mostly-dry house (since I did some last-minute laundry last night, which used up most of the water I had on hand). But I didn’t know, so I just sat in a café, sipping sweet hot milk* and chatting with folks. My sitemate came by, as did a tourist-philanthropist from Austria who I met a few days ago. When there was no one in the other chair at my table, I read. Books are fabulous for filling time, especially when you don’t know if it’ll be minutes or hours.

But eventually another 5 folks heading my way assembled themselves, and we set off on the first leg of a long journey. I got to see lots of interesting landscape and a new city, and then I made the switch to another grand taxi. My layover was so short that I had to cancel the order I’d placed at the café there, for an egg sandwich. (There are always cafés at transportation hubs. Always. Doesn’t matter how big or small…if there are people waiting to go somewhere, there’s someone who will sell them a pot of tea.) Then we were off on the second leg. My stop at Hub 2 was longer, and I enjoyed an egg-and-latke sandwich (not that the fried potato cakes were called latkes, but that’s pretty much what they were). Only 3.5 Dirhams – less than fifty cents – and it filled me up. :) Hub 2 is rare, though not quite unique, in that there’s a central desk where you state your destination and pay the kurti, the head taxi honcho, who will call your destination once your taxi is full. In most cities, you deal directly with the driver. I prefer the kurti system, myself, because it minimizes the risk of being ripped off (or “given the tourist price”, as it’s called). After an hour or so of enjoying my book, the kurti’s assistant called out my destination, and we were on our way. That ride was short, bringing me to Hub 3, a big enough city that it has multiple grand taxi stations.

When I got out at Hub 3, I didn’t see anyone who looked like a kurti, so I walked over to a clump of people and asked them how to get to Hub 4. “Go to the bus station,” I was told. I was disappointed; the day was wearing on faster than I’d hoped, and I still had quite a ways to go, and grand taxis are usually faster than buses.

To get to the bus station, I’d need a petit taxi. The bus station would otherwise be a 45 minute walk away, and I had big, heavy bags. As I headed up out of the grand taxi station to the main road, where I could flag down a petit taxi, I passed by a fruit stand…and nearly swooned.

He had peaches. Big ones. They smelled heavenly, and looked gorgeous. I asked him to give me half a kilo, but when he started reaching for the peaches closest to him, over-ripe and spotted, I protested. I set down my giant bags and picked my own. They didn’t feel quite ripe, but they smelled wonderful, so I plunked down the usurious fees and took them with me to the road, where I quickly flagged a petit taxi.

I found out much later – as in, hours after it would have done me any good – that there’s another grand taxi station next to the bus station, and that’s where I would have needed to go to get a grand taxi to Hub 4. Oh, well. Not knowing that at the time, I went straight to the bus station, where I found out that the bus wasn’t leaving for another couple hours.

I pulled out the trusty book. I downed most of a 1.5 L bottle of water and all the peaches (which were perfectly ripe, despite being firm to the touch, and were the best peaches I think I’ve ever eaten) and finished the book while waiting for the bus to pull in.

Cell phones are another good way to fill time – especially short spans of time – but mine was nearly dead. I’d forgotten to charge it, and didn’t see a vacant plug anywhere around the bus station. I turned it off, to save what battery was left for when I met up with the friend I was meeting at my final destination of the day.

When my bus finally pulled up, I schlepped my bags over to it, stuffed them into the baggage space, and then got into a five minute fight with the baggage guy, who wanted to be paid. It’s common, though not required, to give a guy 5 Ds if he stows your bag, especially if he has to lug it up to the top of the bus/taxi/tranzit and strap it down for you. But since he hadn’t done anything for me, I didn’t owe him a dime. He disagreed, which led to the fight. He won, by threatening to pull my bags off the bus. :( I convinced myself that he and his family need the money more than I do, but I still wasn’t happy about it.

I got to Hub 4 without further ado, caught a magic taxi to Hub 5, spent the night with a friend (whose power was out, so my cell phone stayed uncharged and we ate dinner by candlelight), caught a providential tranzit back to Hub 4, got a taxi to Hub 6, then a train to Hub 7, then another train to my final destination.

{big sigh}

And in a few days, I get to do the whole thing in reverse…

* Cafés are wonderful if you love coffee or tea. I don’t (but don’t get me started on chai…I *miss* chai), but I’m a big fan of cocoa and steamed milk. Cocoa is often available in Moroccan cafés, but not always, and today it wasn’t, so I settled for a steamed milk with a couple of sugar cubes. Sugar is always available in Morocco. :D Of course, since I showed up early – 7 in the morning, local time – the owner had to run over to a cow-owning neighbor and get his day’s supply of milk. Must have been milked last night, since doesn’t it take some number of hours for the cream to rise…? But regardless, I eventually got my milk. And when I’d finished it, I got another one. It’s even cheaper here than at my favorite café in SouqTown. Maybe I should start patronizing it more often…

August 24, 2008 Sib3, aka What’s In a Name?

A week after a baby is born, it is named, during a festival known as a sib3. A sheep is slaughtered and then cooked for all the family and friends. Today was the sib3 for my newest baby cousin, Xalti’s baby.

We drove to the village where she’ll be living with her father and some cousins. It’s only about 20 km away, but it took an hour to get there, since the road isn’t paved for much of the way.

In addition to the huge meals with dozens of people, there was a small ceremony where all the family members (including me) got to suggest names for the munchkin. I’d offered several, mostly names of male Moroccans I know (since I don’t know many Arabic or Berber names), but the one Xalti liked best was SalaH Adin, known to most westerners as Saladin, the Muslim hero of the Crusades. (By which I mean, he was the guy that kicked the Crusaders’ butts, on behalf of the Muslims. He totally schooled Richard the Lionheart, along with all the assembled force of Western Europe.)

Xalti had someone write down one name from each family member, mix them all together, and then closed her eyes, reached into the folded papers, and picked her baby’s name. She ended up with a name that, like “Kawtar”, is found in the Qur’an but is not hugely common in Berber villages: Yusf (the Arabic version of Joseph).

Then came the feasting, gift-giving, and socializing, which lasted well into the night. My Berber family sure knows how to throw a party!

August 26, 2008 Dinner with a new family

So that was my first dinner in Berberville without Ama. Almost my first one not in Ama’s house, but not quite – the family matriarch has thrown two dinner parties since I’ve been here. Those were elaborate, multi-course feasts for the entire extended family of four siblings, their spouses, and all the kids. Tonight I ate my first family-style dinner in someone else’s house.

I’d picked up some spaghetti and tomato sauce from the market, and was planning a simple, all-American meal, but as I walked home, I passed my neighbor, who invited me to go to her place for dinner. I said yes, and am so glad I did! I got a snapshot of a new family, got to know some of the neighbors, and met yet more cousins, all in one evening. :)

August 23, 2008 On my own…

I stayed in “homestay” for 3 full months. We’re only expected to do two. Only supposed to do two, two and a half, really. But a couple days before I’d planned to leave, Ama and Xalti asked me to stay until the baby was born. Apparently, you’re more likely to get good medical care if you show up at the sbitar with a tarumit – or so they believe, anyway.

But the baby is here, and everyone is doing well, so it’s time for the little birdie to fly the nest. :) I would have left a few days ago, but I was planning a trip into SouqTown for some work meetings, and Ama said that I should stay until I went to town. Or until next week. Or until the new year. (“Really, it’s no problem, you don’t eat very much, and you don’t even eat meat, so it’s cheap to feed you! Stay longer.”) I did stay up through my trip into town, but I got back from SouqTown this morning and am officially Moved In to my new apartment.

No longer the inshallah apartment, my new house is spacious and airy and smells like the Imilchil mud (even though it’s made of cement – the stairs are mudbrick, as is the house next door) and is now cotton-candy pink. Only on the outside, lhumdullah. The inside is still in yellows and earth tones.

Yes, pink. Of all the shades of red now filling the village, my house is the one most likely to show up on a color swatch as “pink”. When I walk up to my front door, I keep thinking things like, “Congratulations! It’s a girl!” But I’m sure I’ll get used to it…

Anyway, I’d moved my stuff in over the past week, so today all I had to do was unpack and settle in. The well-stocked but oddly organized kitchen is still a bit of a mystery to me – did Zahra really leave me 10 tupperwares and no silverware?? – but I’ll sort that out later.

Unpacking was a blast. About 80% of what was in my big hiking pack hadn’t seen the light of day since it was packed 6 months ago. Opening the compression sacks felt like tearing into Christmas presents. Also, I packed a little oddly… Part of it was to use every bit of space (that’s why the knives – the only kitchenwares I brought with me – were tucked into my tennis shoes) but I can’t for the life of me remember why I thought it was a good idea to package food in the middle of clothes. Did I really think ants or mice would eat their way through the backpack? But when I unrolled my bedsheet-turned-sleepsack and discovered the chai I’d made from scratch, I was far too happy to care. So I’m a little nuts. I have chai. :)

I haven’t unpacked my last bag yet. That one is mostly books, but also has a few maps and other wall decorations. For now, the walls are pretty naked…

But it’s enough that I’m in my chai-scented sleepsack, on my bed, under my blankets, in my room, in my apartment, in my village in Morocco. I love my hostfamily, and am so grateful to them for all that they’ve done for me over the past three months…but it’s good to be here. :)

August 19, 2008 Conversations

The last few days, I’ve been having more and more conversations with Ama. I mean, we talk every day, but often we don’t get far beyond “How do you feel?” and “Drink more tea.”

But in the past couple of days, we’ve talked about more and more topics, and I’ve been delighted to discover a growing facility with the language. I’d hoped to see this months ago, but I’m grateful that it’s here now.

My vocabulary is still limited, but I’m finding ways to express myself. Sign language always helps. :) I need to learn how to say “air” or “breathe” or both. (I’ve misplaced my Tam-English Dictionary, so I can’t just look it up.) When we were in the sbitar, Ama asked me about the oxygen machine, parked in the corner. I called it “oxygène”, figuring that that’s got to be the name the medical staff use for it (since college and graduate schools are conducted in French, most educated people think/work in French), and explained, “If there’s a problem with wind [since I had no idea of the word for air].” I then pantomimed breathing heavily and putting a mask on. Ama definitely understood me, though, because she explained it to the two women who arrived later. :)

We’ve also talked about independence, how it’s a cherished value in America – the idea of “standing on your own two feet” is pretty universally embraced, at least in my culture – and how bizarre it seems to a Moroccan woman, whose defines her life by her family relationships. (Example of the latter: As I’ve told you, “Rqiya” is one of the most common Berber names. Recently, there were three Rquiyas in my living room. Three. But a problem as common as this has to have a solution, and it does: there was “Rquiya tin Mohammed”, “Rqiya tin Said”, and “Rqiya Tamghart” – Rqiya who belongs to Mohammed, Rqiya who belongs to Said, and Rqiya the Old Lady. Nobody uses last names, but everyone knows exactly how everyone fits into a family.) An interesting side effect of this is that my Ama feels better when the PCV “Brahim” is in SouqTown the same time I am, because he’s hosted by her sister’s family (a few villages down the mountain), which makes him my cousin. More or less. And it’s always better to have family around.

So when I ran into a challenge recently, and was frustrated by my inability to resolve it myself, Ama was both mystified and a little indignant. “Why are you always trying to be strong by yourself?? You have a good family,” she said (meaning herself and my host father, not my American Mom & Dad), “So there’s no problem. No problem at all. We can help you.” She repeated, “You have a good family.”

And I do. :) More than one. :D

August 17, 2008 Welcome to the World, Baby Cuz!

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight walk of Auntie Dear…

Here’s the story as recounted in Tamazight and translated back into English. (One of my ongoing challenges for myself is to record stories – more or less blog entries – for my Tamazight tutor. I then read them to her, and she corrects them with me. Since Tam is an oral language, she doesn’t care about my spelling – there are no misspellings in an oral language! – but if there’s an important vocab word missing or if I make a mistake severe enough to impair understanding of the meaning, she’ll show me how to correct it. Little mistakes she gracefully ignores, knowing (or at least hoping) that they’ll work themselves out in time. (Like my pronunciation of the ‘ain, the letter I usually represent with a 3 when I’m typing Tamazight words. I know I say it differently than Moroccans do, which to me means that I’m still saying it wrong. She says that it’s just different, not wrong. When I say it, I sound like I’m being strangled. When she says it, it sounds like her throat is tight with anger. Those are different.)

Anyway, here’s the story. Please forgive the choppy sentence structure and limited vocabulary:

At 2:30am, I heard knocking at my door. “Yes?” I said. “Kawtar!” someone said. I woke up, stood up, and opened the door. It was Ama. “What’s going on?? What happened?” I asked her. “We’re going to the hospital!” she said. I didn’t understand. She said it to me again. “Xalti is giving birth. The baby is going to come. Put on your clothes and let’s go,” she explained.

At 2:40, we found Xalti on the path to the hospital. She was going, she was standing still. She was walking, she was stopping. She was stopping every minute and a half. It was dark, but I could see that she was in labor. There was a full moon – every month, many babies come on the full moon!

We walked to the hospital. When we arrived, it was closed. Of course. With my cell phone, I called the hospital’s phone number and the doctor’s phone number… Nothing. Ama knocked on every door and window of the hospital. Nothing.

At 3:00, everything was the same. Ama was knocking, I was calling the doctor, Xalti was in labor. Then, Nurse Fatima came to the door. LHumdullah! We went to the delivery room, but Ama and I stayed only a little bit before Fatima made us leave. We waited in the big room [the waiting room]. Later, Nurse FaHd came to the hospital, to help. Ama and I waited more. When I closed my eyes, Ama asked me, “Do you want to go back home and go to sleep?” I said to her, “No, I’m praying*.” She didn’t understand. “I’m talking to God. About Xalti,” I explained. She understood.

At a quarter to 5, she called her friend. Her friend came, with her mother. While the three women talked, I prayed a lot. Then, at 5:15, the baby came!** We waited a little more, while Fatima and FaHd cleaned the baby. Then, Ama went to the delivery room in order to help. She gathered everything that had Xalti’s blood on it. I greeted the baby.

Later, Ama and I went to the home of a taxi driver. We woke up his wife, who told us, “He’s not here.” Ama said to me, “That’s a problem!” I asked her, “Why won’t the ambulance take Xalti and the baby to our house?” “Because Berberville is bad!” she answered.

It was cold, so Ama said to me, “Go to the hospital. I’ll come back later.” So, I went to the hospital. I asked Fatima, « Pourquoi on ne peut pas utiliser l’ambulance pour prendre Xalti chez lui? » She said it was possible, if there was no taxi. I wanted to ask, “Why does she need a taxi if there’s an ambulance??” but I didn’t say anything. [Turns out that even though all hospital services are free, you have to pay for the ambulance, and it’s comparable in price to what it is in America, ie well beyond the means of nearly everyone.]

Later, Ama found a man who owns a car; he brought us to our house. When all the children had seen the baby and I knew that everything was fine, I went to my room in order to sleep. The baby is good…the mama is good…lHumdullah!

* I have since learned that there are two different words for praying. The one I used, zal, refers to the five ritualized prayers each day, and means both addressing words to God and standing, kneeling, prostrating, etc. No wonder Ama was confused; I was sitting still. There’s another word, d3u, which means talking to God (or requesting something from God) without going through the physical motions of Muslim prayer. It’s from classical Arabic, though, and when I’ve tried to use it, I haven’t been understood except by highly educated people.

** The word that my family used for this is fgh, which usually means exit or go out. And the baby was definitely exiting the womb, so it makes sense, but it still surprised my tutor when we read through this story together, so maybe it’s just a local usage.

August 15 or 16, 2008 La Vie en Rose

The caid (mayor/governor of the region) has decreed that all buildings along the main drag of Berberville should be red. Some variety of red, anyway.

Since the color wasn’t specified beyond “red”, residents and local business owners are enjoying lots of latitude in their paint jobs. One or two buildings are actually what I’d call “red” at first glance, but the vast majority aren’t. Most of the buildings are becoming a shade of pink (since colored paint is expensive, and white paint is cheaper), from a buff sort of sand-dunes-at-sunset pink to deep coral to a straight up cotton-candy-baby-girl pink to a deep lipstick-y rose pink.

Adding to the color confusion is the fact that Tamazight doesn’t have a large color vocabulary. Red, blue, green, black, white…if you want anything else, you need to borrow a word from a different language. Usually Arabic, but sometimes French.

But the result of all this is that Berberville is sprucing up dramatically. Most of town used to be the color of the mud around here, for the very logical reason that most of the buildings are made of mud bricks. There are a few red brick buildings, which I assume don’t have to be painted, several pale yellow ones, and a handful of dark grey cement structures. I’m actually really fond of the dark grey. The exterior of my house is that color, and it makes me happy. But I live on the main street of town, which means that it’ll be coming up rose-y pretty soon.
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