Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps


October 24, Teacher Meetings

This afternoon, two other PCVs and I met with some of the teachers from the collège to discuss a club we’re trying to start. It will incorporate leadership skills, assertiveness training, health lessons, environment lessons, gender relations, and suchlike. We’d love to make it available to everyone, but for logistical reasons are limiting it to third-year students (the equivalent of 9th graders).

The club will be conducted in Darija, Moroccan Arabic, just as all school classes are. Since none of the PCVs in the area speak Darija, our plan is to meet with the teachers on the day before the club meeting, review the lesson plans, and then have them teach it while we play minor supportive roles. Inshallah, this means that the club will survive beyond our tenure here – the definition of “sustainable” development.

I was late to the meeting because I was leaving another teacher, from the mdrasa, who had invited me back to her house after school. She made me coffee and set up all the fixings for kaskrut (mid-afternoon teatime). As we nibbled and munched and sipped, she explained that she never has a full dinner; she eats a large lunch and then just has kaskrut. We were speaking in French – like most of the teachers in Berberville, she’s an Arab from a big city, not a Berber, so she doesn’t speak Tam, and I don’t speak Arabic, so our mutual language is French – and she said, “Quand j’ai cassé la crût, ça suffit.” Cassé la crût – broken the bread crust – and suddenly a lightbulb went on. Kaskrut, a word I learned early on during training, is just a bastardization/ derivation of this French expression. No *wonder* it was more commonly used by our Peace Corps staff – most of whom are city Arabs – than by Berber folks here in Berberville, where the French influence is negligible.

So after we broke bread, I headed over to a café to have tea and cookies with yet more teachers. Two happy meetings, lots of sugar – I call that a successful evening!

October 23, 2008 Hailstones

I always thought hailstones were round. Perfect little spheres, actually. I have only a vague sense of how hail is formed, but I recall it involves rain falling down, getting caught by a thermal, tossed back high into the atmosphere where it freezes, then it falls some more and picks up some more water molecules, then it gets tossed back up again, ad infinitum. Well, actually, ad it-gets-too-heavy-for-the-thermal-to-mess-with-it-and-so-it-falls-down-to-the-ground-um. I think.

But I always imagined the little droplet, y’know, spinning as it got tossed around. Hence the perfect sphere.

But I was out in a hailstorm today, visiting the Berberville schools, so I had time to take a closer look. It hails pretty regularly these days…a month ago, it was raining nearly every afternoon; now, it’s raining or hailing nearly every day. No snow since that first storm, lhumdullah, and the temperatures have mostly been in the 50s. (Well, not right now. Right now, it’s 38 outside, and 47 inside. So if I had windowsills, they’d be refrigerator temperature; as it is, I don’t bother refrigerating my food. I don’t think the extra 10 degrees makes much difference, and it’s been in the 40s all day. Inside. {shiver})

So as I walked the kilometer or so back from the school, I caught several hailstones on my glove and took a good look at them. They weren’t round. They were almost perfect cones, actually. Their bottoms were rounded, not flat, but they were otherwise cone-shaped. Like an ice-cream cone whose scoops are almost licked away, except more shallow. Exactly like the Apollo re-entry vehicles, come to think of it. And maybe for the same reason? This little ice pellet was bombing its way through the atmosphere and its bottom was melted and sheared by the air pressure of terminal velocity?

Or maybe hailstones are just funny at high elevations. I live somewhere between 6500 and 8500 feet, depending which map you look at, and since I’ve spent nearly all of my life within a few hundred feet of sea level, I’m constantly surprised by the differences of life at elevation.

(If you have any insights, please feel free to post a comment or shoot me an email. I'm actually curious about this.)

October 22, 2008 School Stats

I’ve also learned some general facts about the mdrasa. The 1st and 2nd grade are conducted entirely in Arabic, so each has one teacher. Starting in 3rd grade, the students learn French, so they have two teachers: the “Arabic teacher” teaches Arabic spelling/vocabulary/grammar/etc, as well as history, geography, art, science, and Islamic studies…in two hours per day. The “French teacher” teaches French spelling/vocab/grammar/etc and math, also in two hours per day. Math classes are conducted in a blend of French and Arabic. Students attend a total of 4 hours of school per day.

The 1st grade has 62 students, 2nd grade has 49, 3rd has 41, 4th has 30, 5th has 34, and 6th has 24. (The 7th grade, at the collège up the road, has about 150 students, but that’s because it draws from dozens of mdrasas throughout the region.) Note the precipitous decline throughout elementary school. Different NGOs report conflicting statistics about school attendance, but they all agree that it’s lower than it should be. School attendance is mandatory through 6th grade, but this isn’t enforced at all.

Textbooks aren’t provided by the school. Fortunately, for millions of low-income children, they’re provided by the Fondation Mohammed V, along with backpacks and pencil-cases chock-full of pens, pencils, protractors, compasses, and other useful school tools. No one I’ve asked knows where the money comes from. Government? Tax dollars? Private contributions? Moroccan NGOs? International NGOs? The answer is out there… But the books etc didn’t arrive until September 25th, which was right before the week-long vacation for the Eid (nominally only a two-day holiday, but…), so the students didn’t actually start the curriculum until October 6th, over a month into the school year.

The school-day calendar is truly confusing, at least to the uninitiated (read: me). From 3rd grade onwards, the day is divided up into 4 blocks. Depending who you ask, the block starts at 8, or 8:30, or maybe 9. (This might also explain the high rate of tardiness, both by students and teachers.) It runs until 10 – or maybe 10:15 or 10:30 – and then the second block starts after a five-minute gap to exchange classes. Well, the teachers and the classrooms have a switch. The students only have one of these two blocks, and spend the other one either at home or hanging out around the town. The second block ends at 12:40 – or maybe 12:00 – and there’s another sea change of students. The third block begins at 12:45 – or 1:00 – and goes till 3:00 (everyone agrees on 3pm). The fourth block goes from 3:05 till 5:00/5:15/5:25. Students either attend blocks 1 & 3 or else 2 & 4. The teachers teach either blocks 1 & 2 or else 3 & 4.

Oh, and the schedule switches every other day. Almost every other day. Monday, Thursday, and Saturday, students have one schedule (e.g., blocks 1&3), but Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, they have the other one. Plus Friday’s afternoon classes are delayed 30 minutes to allow time to go to the mosque.


All the schools I’ve taught at operated on a block system, and it was usually at least this complicated, so I’m confident that the teachers and students learn it well enough to make it work smoothly. Although I’m concerned with the vagaries of the timestamps; there are no bells, so the classes begin and end basically when the teacher wants them to.

That’s at the mdrasa, anyway. At the collège and lycée, there are bells, but they’re rung manually, so there’s still a bit of vagueness.

[Update 10/23 – I visited one classroom in one of the schools (I’m leaving it ambiguous on purpose) half an hour before the presumptive end of the day, hoping to talk with the teacher whenever the class ended. The teacher wasn’t in her classroom, so I chatted with the students for a few minutes instead. At the scheduled end of the class, the students filed out, locking the classroom door behind them. The teacher had never showed. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for this, I just wish I knew what it was…]

October 21, 2008 School Challenges

I’ve been in the mdrasa (elementary school) for several visits now, and have learned a ton. One of my most compelling conclusions is that rural Morocco and urban America have more in common than you might at first guess. The teachers here in Berberville have several of the same challenges I did as a Teach For America teacher in inner-city Houston:

* Virtually nonexistent climate control. My classroom actually had a HVAC unit, but it rarely worked, and when it did function, the fan was so loud that half the classroom couldn’t hear me. Here, there’s a wood-burning stove, but there’s no chimney for it, plus the PTA hasn’t yet provided any wood. That means that it was about 50° in there all day today. The windows were open, in hopes of inviting sun-warmed air, but all the breezes were cold ones.

* All supplementary education materials, i.e. useful wall decorations (think: Alphabet cards, pictures of the life cycle of a tree, pictures of the Presidents, art posters, you name it), books, chalkboard chalk, whiteboard markers, come out of the teacher’s pocket. And while I willingly dumped a few thousand dollars into my classroom, that’s not an option for most of the teachers here.

* Parents and teachers don’t speak the same language. Literally. In Houston, 98% of my students had Spanish-speaking parents, but very few teachers were conversational, let alone fluent, in Spanish. Here, the teachers are imported from urban areas, so they speak Darija and French, but no Berber…and none of the moms, as well as many of the dads, speak anything but Tamazight.

* The language barriers and parental illiteracy (in many, though not all, cases) mean that there is little home support for homework…which means that homework is almost never assigned. I fought this tendency in my students, and had a variety of incentive programs to encourage my kids to do their homework, but most of my fellow teachers never assigned homework, on the assumption that it would never be done.

* The language barriers mean that there is virtually no social contact between teachers and parents, leading to many mutual misunderstandings. In Houston, the secret I discovered was sports events; most of my kids’ parents didn’t come to the parent-teacher nights, but they came to soccer games. I haven’t found the secret here, nor do I know if there are cultural factors reinforcing the teacher-parent gulf. In Houston, the problem was exacerbated by geography – the teachers, as a rule, lived in wealthier parts of town than the families they served. Here in Berberville, everyone lives with a few blocks of each other…but geography plays a different role. Because the teachers are imported from distant cities, they tend to travel back to their families for holidays, which leads to:

* Vacation days and snow days have their own vicious cycles of non-attendance: teachers assume kids won’t attend school on the day before or after a vacation day…so they figure there’s no point in holding class…so they go ahead and take those days off, often using them to visit their far-distant families. Of course, once this pattern is established, then the “vacation” is defined as the official holiday plus whatever days the teacher has said, and the whole thing begins all over again. The result of this is that one-day holidays, like the Green March Day on November 5, can lead to an entire missed week of school.

…this begs the conclusion that American urban schools really are operating at a third-world (or at least second-world) level, just as some soapbox politicians claim. I’d kind of imagined that was hyperbole…

October 20, 2008 Family Wedding, aka Bedtimus Interruptus

Tonight I went to my first family wedding. I’ve attended almost a dozen different weddings, and walked past many more, but they were always for people I didn’t know. Tonight, my cousin Fatima* got married. Fatima’s sister N* is one of my best friends in Berberville, so not only was I invited, but I got to spend lots of time behind the scenes.

…but I almost missed the whole thing.

See, N* wasn’t sure when the wedding would be. I’m still not clear as to why, but for some reason, the wedding date was uncertain. On Saturday morning, though, she told me that it would be on Thursday. Three days from now. So I didn’t anticipate any problems when I decided to go to bed early. (The power was out, as it had been for most of the day, so I didn’t see much point in staying up long after sunset, anyway.)

So sometime after dark, I’m nestled all snug in my bed, and I hear banging on my door. I’m half-asleep, and it occurs to me that I’ve had middle-of-the-night “visitors” before. They usually bang on my door, holler a few times, bang again, and then wander off to bother somebody else. I consider it the price I pay for living a block from the center of town, on one of the two main streets.

But then I check my watch. It’s only 6:15pm. These aren’t drunken carousers; it’s waaay too early for that. It must be somebody who knows me…?

So I get up, stumble over to my door, and pull it open. There’s a young man on a motorbike, looking concerned. With urgency in his voice, he says, “N* says you have to come now. Come on!”

I blink at him for a second.

He tries again. “The wedding. You have to come to Fatima’s wedding.”

Fatima’s wedding?”

He nods.

“Is now?”

He nods again, his whole upper body moving from the effort he’s putting into bobbing his head up and down.

“But N* said that it was Thursday.”

He looks at me, still stressed, but clearly not sure what to do with that piece of information. Or maybe he just couldn’t understand me. That happens a lot, and I’m never sure if it’s my accent, or if I’m saying something wrongly. “Are you coming?” he finally asks.

This entire interchange has taken something less than 30 seconds. I don’t know why the wedding date has moved up three days, but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I’m in PJs. PJs that cover me from neck to wrist to ankle, which is why I was willing to open the door in them, but I’m still not going out in public like this.

“Hang on a second.”

I close the door, then put on outside clothes, including wool socks and a fleece jacket. It’s chilly out. Not cold, but chilly. Probably 50ish.

When I re-emerge, he guns the motorbike.

Naturally, I explain that Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to ride motorbikes, motorcycles, or anything similar, and that I will therefore have to walk to the wedding (which is only about a kilometer away) instead of whizzing through the streets of Berberville while clinging to a stranger’s back.

But I do get there.

And am promptly grabbed by my sister A* and my cousin N*, who are dancing up a storm. They’re in gorgeous satiny caftans, hip belts, and jewelry. I’m in jeans and a polar fleece. But they don’t hesitate, so I don’t, and there we are in the middle of the circle of clapping and stamping wedding guests, shimmying and wiggling and boogying Morocco-style. (Or maybe it’s just Berber style. After I visit an Arab wedding, I’ll let you know if there’s a difference.)

There’s a halogen-bright bulb in the middle of the circle with us, as well as a floodlight perched up on the roof, which is why we can all see each other. The blinding light down with us is attached to a butagaz tank, but I can’t see how the floodlight is powered. Either the electricity has come back on or else my aunt’s family has solar cells on their roof. (That’s not unlikely. Electricity only came to Berberville last spring, so anybody who wanted power before that bought a solar panel.)

After our dance, Ama grabs me and drags me back into the house. She goes into a storeroom, where by the light of my LED flashlight she digs out a caftan for me to wear. It’s nowhere near as elaborate as the ones my cousins/sisters are gussied up in, but it’s vastly more appropriate than my lumpy fleece. Ama offers to put it on over the fleece, but I know I’ll stay warm from the dancing, plus I know that the caftan would look ludicrous over all the lumps of my oversized jacket. So I strip it off – emptying out the pockets first, since Ama is worried about theft, with so many people in and around the house – and pull the caftan over my head. It comes down to within a few inches of the floor, which is pretty remarkable, given that I’m about six inches taller than 90% of Moroccan women.

Properly attired, I head back out. I take a place in the clapping-and-stamping ring, leaving the center circle for the lovely unmarried ladies of my Bernerville family. It’s not too long before they pull me back in, though. :) And when they do, a little girl – can’t have been more than 10 – tugs on my caftan and points out that I’m not wearing a hip belt, and am therefore utterly unequipped to be in the middle of the circle. But she pulls off the one she’s wearing, ties it around my hips – which are about shoulder-level for her! – and sends me back into the fray. As I’m shimmying and swaying, it occurs to me that I have no idea who the little girl is, and am not sure I’d recognize her again to return the belt to her. I know she’s wearing a blue caftan, but so are lots of girls.

Fortunately, when I again leave the spotlight (literally) for the clap-stamp ring, she finds me, unties whatever complicated knots she’d used to keep it clamped onto me, and reappropriates it. :)

One more thing about dancing – there’s a Berber tradition that relates to hair-swinging to music. I don’t understand it at all, but I can describe it: towards the end of some songs, the musicians (five drummers and a guy playing an oboe-like instrument) suddenly switch to an almost drumroll-like tempo, the oboe-guy stops, and that’s the cue for two or three women to start flinging their hair around.

Remember, these women keep their hair tightly knotted up in complicated buns, under at least one and usually two layers of telkusht (head scarves), all the time. Even when they’re hanging out in groups of only women, just because there’s always a chance that some man might show up at the door. The only time I’ve seen the hair of Moroccan women, other than during momentary re-adjustments of the telkusht, is in the hammam…and during these wedding dances. It only happens a half-dozen or so times in the course of an entire Hey Deuce wedding-dance-party, but when it happens…

The girls (and they would call themselves girls, because they’re unmarried) were shimmying and dancing without telkusht on, but in the poor light and with their tightly knotted black buns, I actually hadn’t noticed. But when the music changes, they reach up, pull out the one bobby pin that magically holds all of their hair in place, and start flinging their heads around. It’s a bit like the head-banging of the 80s and early 90s, but more circular than just up-and-down. The buns quickly surrender to the force of the motion, and the hair first slips out into a twisted rope (the first step of bun-making is to twist up all the hair) and then separates into a mass of black hair. Since I’ve only ever seen them with their hair knotted, I’d never realized how much hair A* and N* have. N’s is longer, reaching to the backs of her thighs, but A’s is thicker, and still reaches below her waist.

I marvel for a minute at how they can force such a volume of hair into such a tidy knot every day, then take a step backwards to avoid getting whipped in the face by it. The hair is flying in enormous swings, and I gain a new appreciation for the amount of space the clap-stamp ring has left for the few dancers in the middle.

The hair-swinging goes on for probably a minute, and then the music winds down and there’s a short break between dances. A* quickly reties her hair and pins it back under control; N* leaves it swinging free for the moment.

About that time, I decide to see what’s happening inside.

The bride and groom are sitting in a large room that’s lavishly decorated. This well be the most expensive-looking room I’ve seen in Morocco. I don’t know if my aunt and uncle own all of this, or if it’s borrowed for the wedding – I’ve never been in this room before – but it’s clear that they’ve gone all-out for the wedding of their 18-year-old daughter.

I sit down with them and make conversation. That’s made more difficult by the fact that the groom doesn’t speak any Tamazight; the bride translates for us. N* comes in and joins us for a while. I ask her when Fatima met her groom. “She didn’t,” she answers in English. (N* just completed her baccalaureate – meaning that she graduated high school with honors – and was/is a fervent student of English.) I must have looked confused, because she added, “Never before.” In Tam, I ask, “They never saw each other before now?” N* smiles at my comprehension. Then she adds, in Tam, “He is a friend of my friend.” She uses the word “asmun” both times, which could just mean male friend, but can also mean boyfriend, so I don’t know if she’s saying that the groom is a buddy of her boyfriend or just that there’s one degree of separation between N* and the groom.

About this time, some other wedding guests – cousins I’ve never met before – come into the bride room. (Oh, I should mention that the bride and groom spend the entire wedding in this room. They don’t go out and dance, let alone help with any of the work; they just sit next to each other, under a gorgeously decorated cape and in front of the pile of presents they’ve received, for hours and hours.) I’m still trying to make awkward small talk. I ask how old the groom is. He’s 28. For the record, Fatima (the bride) is 18. I successfully mask my shock, but don’t say anything, so N* hastens to add that that’s normal. One of the cousins who just came in chimes in that he’s 30 and his wife is 20, and it’s great. They married five years ago, he adds. So when he was 25, he married a 15-year-old. I take a second to let that sink in. Then he mentions that the reason she's not at the wedding is that she's very pregnant with their third child.

I’m trying to digest this when the platters of food are brought in. Fortunately, I have months of practice dealing with Berber food, even if I still get thrown by some Berber cultural mores. So we eat the plate of tagine (chicken and stewed prunes) and then the couscous (lamb and carrot). After those of us in the bride room eat, the guests in the other rooms of the house are fed. I’m glad that I was told by about four different people to stay in the bride room, because otherwise I’d be wondering if I were doing something inappropriate by sitting at the Berber equivalent of an American wedding reception’s head table.

After the feasting, all the women crowd into the bride room. They paint henna on her feet (her hands are already gorgeously decorated with henna zuaq), then sing songs for a few hours. Somewhere in here, my long day caught up with me, and I began dozing off. After the third or fourth time Ama (who was sitting across from me) jolted me awake, she said that I should go home and sleep. I apologized to everyone in earshot, then headed out. I’d been at the wedding for something over six hours, and I’d both gotten there late and left early. I don’t know how long it went on, or exactly when it started, but clearly my Berber family knows how to throw a party. :)

* I’m not even kidding. Yes, Fatima is the most common girl’s name in Morocco, but I’m not faking it – that’s really the bride’s name.

October 19, 2008 Berberville Beautification

Rumors have been flying for months now, but people really believe it this time… The king is coming to Berberville!

And in preparation for his arrival, the town is getting all dressed up.

* I’m seeing REGULAR TRASH COLLECTION for the first time since my arrival. That is, not only are there otherwise-unemployed old men going along the main streets with buckets, gathering the ubiquitous litter (inevitable when people tend to drop their trash wherever they are), but there are even people putting out bags of trash on the curb and having them collected, carted off, and burned outside of town. This is fairly revolutionary.

* The BOSTA (post office) is getting a major face-lift, complete with decorative architectural elements, a new stone wall around the building, a fresh coat of paint, and a whole new foyer.

* The ROADS – yes, that’s right, Berberville has not one but two roads – have been freshly macadamized**. This first entailed stripping off the six inches or so of dirt that had been dropped on them by the recent flooding (that had made the paved roads, of which we’re so proud, look like dirt roads). Then they were given a fresh coat of tar and a nice, even layer of gravel, so they’re all smooth and pretty.

* The SCHOOL building, which has been under construction for months, is being rapidly completed, much to the delight of my teacher friends, who have been sharing classrooms since the beginning of the school year.

* The new DORMITORY for the nearby collège (junior high school) and lycée (high school) is almost finished, which means that many more students will be able to attend secondary education. There are no school buses in this part of Morocco, and besides, students come from villages two and three hours away, so dorms are the only way that students in the region can attend school beyond 6th grade, which is the limit of the mdrasa (elementary school).

So everything’s coming up roses in Berberville. :)

[Update 10/25: It's not just Berberville. SouqTown is getting on the beautification ritual too, doing everything from widening roads to planting trees, patching cracks in cement curbs and streets, painting buildings, etc.]

**No, I didn’t make up this word. Apparently, some dude named Mr. MacAdams figured out that tar and gravel make a cheap and effective replacement for pavement. Yes, it needs to be replaced annually, but it’s enough cheaper than blacktop that many communities – including my parents’ village back in the USA – macadamize their roads every year.

October 18, 2008 Recipe #11 Stuffed Fish

I haven’t actually made this one, but Ama described it in enough detail, and it’s so simple and delicious, that I wanted to share it with y’all. If I trusted that I had access to good fish here, I’d make it…but I’m far enough away from the oceans that I’d rather not. :) Ama has made it for us a couple times, and it’s been fantastic, but I'm confident that she knows better than I do where and how to buy trustworthy fish.

whole fish, gutted (head not necessary)

medium onion

cilantro, large bunch





Mince the onions. Ama’s favorite way is to hold the onion in one hand and the knife in the other. Cut downwards into the onion, making many parallel cuts. Turn it 90° and repeat, so that you have a bunch of tiny squares. (Yes, math teachers of my past, I mean rectangular prisms with a square cross section.) It’ll look pretty much the way New York City does from outer space. Turn it again, rotating it towards you, and make another batch of tiny parallel cuts. This results in a very fine dice, all without use of a cutting board. It’s also a lot less complicated than I’m making it sound; Ama does it in about 10 seconds. Cutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcut – turn – cutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcut – turn – cutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcut – done.

Mince the cilantro. Ama’s method: separate the bunch, stem by stem. Organize them so that the leaf-stem changeovers are all in the same place. (If you’ve ever arranged flowers, it’s pretty much the same idea.) Then, with one stroke, you can slice off all the stems, leaving only the leafy bits. Hold these together as tightly as possible, then make a series of narrow cuts, starting at the base (ie, where you just chopped the stems) and working your way to the tips.

Toss the onions and cilantro together with the salt and pepper (to taste – Ama uses a couple generous pinches of the mild salt that's available here, and a quick sprinkling of pepper and cumin, probably about ½ tsp - 1 tsp each).

Press the herb/onion mixture into the gap made by the gutting of the fish. Then close the fish skin back up as well as you can. Put a few pats of butter in the bottom of a baking dish. Set the fish in it, then roast in the oven until the fish flesh is flaky and opaque. (Ama has neither an oven thermometer nor a clock, so I’m not sure of the time or temperature – if I had to guess, I’d say 20-30 minutes at 375°, depending on the size of the fish.)

If you want to economize, you can make this with a fish fillet. Just use a sharp knife to cut it in half, not quite all the way through, and stuff the herb/onion mixture into that gap.

October 14, 2008 Sitting Cat

Sheba, the feline I’ve been catsitting for almost a week, likes to sit in the most bizarre places. I’ve gotten used to the top-of-a-door perch, but it’s the way she drapes herself *on me* that are crazy. Right now, as I’m leaning against the wall with my laptop on my lap, she’s got her feet bunched up on my ribcage and her head is on my breastbone. When I’m lying down, to read or watch a DVD, she often flops herself across my neck, so her hindquarters are on my collarbone and her head is under my ear. It doesn’t really interfere with my breathing, but it does feel a bit like strangulation. At night, when I’m nestled into my sleeping bag, she nestles in with me; sometimes she curls up around my feet, sometimes behind my knees (if I’m sleeping on my side), and often she likes to have her head poking out the top, which puts her inside the curl of my arms. It’s like sleeping with a warm, breathing teddy bear.

October 13, 2008 Tourist Tea Talk

I’d planned to go for a walk through town around teatime, as a bald-faced ploy to get invited in somewhere for tea. But I got caught up in what I was working on, and teatime slipped away from me. I thought about giving up and just staying in for the night, but convinced myself that at the *very* least, I should try to buy some apples or bananas. (Both figure largely in recipes I’m thinking of trying.)

So out I went, into the approaching twilight.

As I walked up Main Street, I got the usual number of “Hello!”s and “How are you?”s, in the usual variety of languages (French, English, Tamaizight, and Arabic).

When I’m greeted by a child or a female, I always respond, and often pause to go through the full greeting ritual. (Peace be upon you! And upon you! Are you well? I’m well. Are you fine? I’m fine. Is everything fine? Everything’s fine. Praise be to God. Praise be to God. And you, are things well with you? Yes, things are well. Everything is well? Everything is well. Praise be to God. Praise be to God.) …or at least some substantive subset.

But when I’m greeted by a male between the ages of 15 and 50, if I’m not related to him, I usually give a one-word response without breaking stride, or just ignore it entirely.

I made an exception to that tonight, mostly because the guy in question, a middle-aged business owner, knew my name. He called out, “Kawtar! Come drink tea!” In the gathering gloom I mistook him for my host uncle, so I stopped. (It’s becoming more and more common that people I don’t know, know who I am.) When I recognized my mistake and started to head back for the fruit stand, he repeated the invitation, with a little more urgency. “Come in and drink tea!!” I reminded myself that I’d been hoping for a tea invitation, though I’d expected it to come from one of the dozen or so women in town who I’m related to. With no less urgency in his voice, he added, “Please, there are foreigners inside who speak English!” It occurred to me that this might be a face-saving way for him to ask for help to communicate with the tourists.

(Tangent: This isn’t the first time I’ve chatted up tourists. It’s not something I go out of my way to do, because I don’t want to be “The American Who Only Speaks To Foreigners”, but from time to time, it’s fun. For one thing, it’s *relaxing* to get to speak in my native language, and for another, it’s a wonderful opportunity to share what I’ve learned about Morocco. The third goal of the Peace Corps is that Volunteers will share with Americans back home what they’ve learned about the culture they live(d) in. That’s one of the reasons I keep this blog. The tourists I’ve met haven’t been Americans – they’ve been Dutch, German, Swiss, French, and now English – but I think that “Goal 3” can embrace them, too.)

So I entered his shop, for the very first time. It’s full of lovely jewelry and souvenirs, as well as two Caucasians who were sitting down and drinking tea. There were three Moroccans in the room as well, one of whom immediately pressed a teacup into my hand.

Having no idea of the nationality of these tourists, I decided to start with English. That’s what my host had suggested was their native language, although that’s nothing like failsafe. (I’ve encountered Dutch and German both described as “English”.) If that didn’t work, I could try another language I don’t know as well, but it couldn’t hurt to start from sure footing.

“Hello! Welcome to Morocco!”

The couple turned, and responded in English. Lhumdullah! Turns out they’re from England, somewhere down in the area around London (I forgot to ask, but that’s what it sounded like). They were involved in negotiations for some jewelry. I admitted that, since I’ve bought very few souvenirs since coming to Morocco, I really have no idea what constitutes a fair price. I’d’ve been happy to help them bargain if I could, but I was as ignorant as they were when it came to the value of enameled bracelets.

But I sat and talked with them for a while, sharing our experiences in Morocco, discussing local hiking routes (they were going out the next day), pros and cons of the different kinds of transportation available, etc. I learned that 40% of the Moroccan population is under the age of 14 (according to the Rough Guide guidebook, anyway); they learned how ownership of the fields works.

The shop owner and guide had a laptop up with photos from his expeditions to some popular Moroccan destinations (the deserts of Merzouga; the summits of Toubkal and Jbel Mgoun – the highest mountains in North Africa, and the second and third highest on the continent, after Kilimanjaro; Lakes Tislit and Isli; the tanneries of Fes; Place Jm3a al-Fna in Marrakech). He called our attention to some of them, then just let the slideshow run while we chatted. I was dazzled by the presence of Powerpoint, and found myself wondering if he had a website to advertise his guide services.

By the time we left, it was almost dark, and the fruit stands were closed. We went to a café for half an hour or so, then said goodnight. As I walked home from the café, I passed the shop where I’d met them. The owners, both the one who’d pulled me in off the street and the guide who I’d met inside, were both eager to talk. They introduced me to an Israeli tourist, whose English was actually weaker than my Tamazight, but who I was still able to help them engage in smalltalk with.

Then I headed to my favorite buHanoot (shopowner), to pick up some eggs for an omelet. The buHanoot next door said, “Hey, Kawtar, you speak English, right? Help me out here.” More Israeli tourists were hanging out there – apparently there’s a busload of them in town, filling up all of the hotel rooms in my little tourist-friendly village – and one of them had lived in America for about a year, so we chatted easily, with me occasionally translating for the curious buHanoots. The question that they’d originally wanted me to translate was where they could find couscous for dinner (answer: on a Monday night, nowhere; it’s a Friday dish in people’s homes, and a common lunch dish in restaurants, but because it takes hours to prepare, these guys were out of luck if they tried to just show up and request it). One of the two guys had heard of Peace Corps, but neither was familiar with it. I kind of fumbled my explanation of our government relationship – Peace Corps pretty much functions like a development organization NGO, but yes, we are technically part of the US Government…we’re not part of the State Department or any other department, but the head of PC reports directly to the President…no, I have no idea how often the President gets briefed on Peace Corps activities, though I doubt it’s “Every Sunday in the Oval Office”, as one of them suggested… Yeah, I should have handled that better. Oh, well.

Interesting note: All of the Israelis I met were men, as were all the shop owners – the English girl was the only other female outside at such an hour – making this the first time I've chatted up groups of men. My buHanoot friends were grateful to me for helping them answer the guys’ questions, and no one appeared to think it was particularly Hshuma of me to be out. Maybe I’ve absorbed too many of my shy host mother’s attitudes. There’s certainly a line I don’t want to cross, but maybe it’s further away than I’d realized…

October 11, 2008 Winter Provisions

I’ve decided to buy 5 pounds (2 kg, actually) of potatoes and onions every week for the next month or so. I don’t eat nearly that many, but I have no idea how long potato or onion season goes (onions, in particular, peaked a while ago), and I want to have enough to last me for the winter. (Fries and mashed potatoes, here I come.) I could just buy a 20-kilo sack and get it over with, but I’m not sure how I’d carry twenty kilograms – almost fifty pounds – of lumpy vegetables from souq to my house. Hence the incremental approach.

In souq, I was pleasantly surprised to run into Lalla Doctora, who I haven’t seen in a month or two. Apparently, she’s married to one of the vegetable vendors. She invited me into the back of their tent, where she shared a pomegranate with me. She and her husband were curious to know if pomegranates are sold in the US. I told her they were, but that I don’t think they grow there; I think they’re all imported. (I could be wrong – do pomegranates grow in California?) She asked if they were imported from Morocco, and I said they probably were. I added, though, that they’re both tastier and more plentiful here than in America. They’re also incredibly cheap here. Apples, bananas, and pomegranates are all only a few dirhams per kilo. That’s about 25 cents a pound. :)

There are reasons Morocco was once known as the breadbasket of Europe :)

10/10/08 Cocoa cooking

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m a cocoa junkie. I’ve consumed more cups of hot chocolate than any three normal people.

Part of it is self-defense against coffee. I really don’t like coffee. Until I came to the Middle East, I physically couldn’t drink the stuff. It made me gag. Here, I’ve managed to choke down probably four or five cups, and those only when there was no tea available. (I’m not enormously fond of the ubiquitous green tea, either, but I’ve gotten used to it. With enough sugar and mint leaves, I almost like it.) I’ve also discovered that the way they make coffee in Morocco, it’s about 80% milk, 10% sugar, 5% cinnamon and ginger (and occasionally rosemary), and only 5% coffee. Made that way, it’s actually not too bad. I won’t go so far as to say I enjoy it, but it’s drinkable.

I’ve downed hundreds of cups of tea in the past seven months because to refuse coffee AND tea, and just drink nothing, would be hugely insulting to any Moroccan hostess.*

But I digress.

I fell in love with cocoa as a small child. As an adult, I’ve developed a taste for some teas – especially chai tea – but have never forgotten my first love. Chocolate isn’t hard to find in Morocco, and hot milk is available at every café, so when my friends and I go to a café for breakfast or a coffeebreak, I give it a shot. I’ve always been able to get hot milk, and usually they’ll serve it with chocolate, if I ask. Hot cocoa itself hasn’t quite penetrated the Moroccan consciousness, but if you ask for “hleeb b shokolat”, milk with chocolate, you’ll get steamed milk with sugar cubes on the side and a teaspoon or so of chocolate powder scattered on the foam. Mix it up and it’s a decent, if weak, cup o’ cocoa.)

Today, I tried to reproduce this. I mixed up Nido (the powdered-milk brand available here) with water, then put the mixture into a coffeepot left behind by my predecessor, and set it on a burner. I sloshed it around a few times to discourage scalding, and kept the flame low. Once I’d achieved a full boil, I poured a mugfull, and added a dash of Caobel (the Moroccan version of Quik). Result: bitter and weak. I added a spoonful of sugar and another dash of Caobel. Result: mmm, cocoa. It’s nothing like the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, but I have six months to keep experimenting… :)

*My parents don’t drink either coffee or tea, and I’ve actually put a lot of thought into how to deal with that when they visit. In hotels and restaurants it won’t be a problem, but when they visit my host family and other homes, it could be. I’ll either need to tell Moroccans in advance that my parents just never drink them, which will probably make them seem insane, or else beg them to choke down just one cup per home. If I tell people the truth – it’s a religious thing – that’ll make me look like a bad person for not adhering to my parents’ faith. In point of fact, I do, but I also cherish the love behind hospitality. That’s why, for years, I’ve eaten meat when it was served to me, though I’ve been a vegetarian since high school. But they won't be here for many many moons, so that's a problem for another day...

10/10/08 Snow Day update

The precipitation hasn’t let up all day (it’s now 12:15, and I’ve been up since 6:30), but it keeps changing form. I guess it’s what a meteorologist would call a “wintery mix”. We’ve gotten freezing rain, sleet, snow, regular rain, and hail. It’s kind of a mess. :) I keep experimenting with ways to keep myself and my laptop warm enough to function. One thing that works for me is warm food. Plus, cooking it = standing in front of a gas stove and warming my hands on the gas flame.

So far today I’ve had a bowl of oatmeal, two hard-boiled eggs (but only one yolk – Sheba got the other one), two cups of tea, two cups of cocoa, and macaroni & cheese. Ah, Kraft mac & cheese. I got several boxes over the summer in a care package (love you, Jo!), and have been hoarding them carefully to make them last.

When I got the eggs, I was planning to make a tomato-and-onion omelette, but was stymied by the lack of a frying pan. Either Zahra survived two years without one, or else she took hers back to America with her, or else it broke and she didn’t replace it. Regardless, that’s on the top of my list for my next souq run. [10/13 Update: No, I'd already used it, then washed it, then put it away in an unlikely place, and then forgot all about it. Whoops. But at least I do have a frying pan, which is a good thing. Oh, and tomato-and-onion omelettes with a minced small fresh red onion and a dash of salt = mmmm.]

October 10, 2008 Catsitting

My sitemate “Fatima” is traveling, so she left her feline friend Sheba to stay with me. Sheba spent her first half hour prowling the corners of my house, then decided to tackle the doors. She’s an inveterate door-climber, Fatima warned me, but it was still awfully impressive to watch her climb up the side of a door, perch briefly on the door handle, then make the summit push. Each door she mastered, she’d sit on for a few minutes, surveying her terrain, and then hop down and explore somewhere else. Now that she is the unassailable Queen of The Mountain, she is curled up on my lap. :)

October 10, 2008 10-10-SnowDay!

Almost all my windows are frosted. I’d never really noticed this until today, and I only noticed it because I was in the one room with clear glass windows – the bathroom (go figure – fortunately, it faces a brick wall across a narrow alley) – and out the window I saw SNOW! Not just white-stuff-on-the-ground-that-was-probably-hail-anyway, but actual snow. Big chubby flakes, pouring out of the sky and sticking on the ground. A quick check of my new indoor/outdoor thermometer confirmed that it was 37 outside – perfect snow weather – and a balmy 44 inside. I was so excited that I went into the kitchen and started making oatmeal.

This might not be a normal reaction. But I’ve been saving my box of oatmeal – available only in the biggest cities – for cold weather, and today seemed like a great opportunity. :) I also made a pot of tea, some herbal stuff that the former volunteer left behind. It’s pretty fantastic, actually – Ruby Mist from Stash. Then I did the dishes, which was probably a mistake; the water is only a few degrees above freezing, and my hands have been red ever since (and that was over an hour ago).

Also, it turns out that the former volunteer left me about 30 spices, but NOT cinnamon or ginger or nutmeg or cloves, all of which I’d been planning to sprinkle on my oatmeal. They’re all available in the souq, I just hadn’t realized that I’d need to get them. [Update 10/15: She did have cinnamon and ginger and nutmeg and cloves. I just hadn't found them yet.]

Today is supposed to be a souq day here in Berberville, but apparently it’s a Snow Day instead – it’s the first Friday in the four months that I’ve been here that has no souq. Saturdays are also supposed to be souq days – Berberville is regionally important enough that we get two – so I’ll see if anything shows up tomorrow. If not, I’ll take a run into SouqTown on Monday. It’s also warmer down there. :)

Status check: I’m in my sleepsack, in my sleeping bag, wearing two pairs of socks, long underwear pants, PJ pants, a tank top, a long underwear top, a flannel shirt, and a fleece jacket, and I’m only slightly chilly. Except for my fingers. Turns out typing doesn’t keep them warm. Looks like I’m going to need to pick up some gloves at souq, then chop the tips to make hobo gloves. I tried laying a blanket over my hands. That works OK, but it feels weird, plus I miss hearing the sounds of the keys. It mostly gets in my way when reaching for the further keys, like the backspace or the HOME or END buttons.

Other observations:

* I can see my breath inside, but only when I exhale really hard. (I first noticed it when I was clearing my throat.)

* My computer is being **really** sluggish. Either I’ve got a Trojan horse or else Dells aren’t optimized for functioning at 44 degrees.

* The power keeps cutting in and out. My cell phone and laptop are plugged in – batteries on both were pretty run down – but they’re plugged into a powerstrip, which I’m hoping will prevent them from getting zapped by the on-again-off-again do [electricity].

PS: When I was living in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the first snowfall of the year was almost invariably 11/11, aka Veterans’ Day. The two times it wasn’t, the snow fell on 11/22 or 11/33, aka December 3rd. My inner math geek loved it. Now that I’m in Morocco, the first unambiguous snowfall has come on 10/10. :D

October 9, 2008 My multilingual life...

I spent a few days up north, where the Berber dialect is Tarifit and everyone speaks Darija, then met with my counterpart, who speaks to me in French, and now my language centers are all scrambled.

I know “Survival Darija”, which means that I know about two useful verbs and a couple of conjunctions. Fortunately, the tourist vocab (taxi, bus, hotel, etc) is all in French or Darija anyway, so I use them enough to have them easily available. It’s the polite phrases that are tripping me up. “SmaHili” instead of “SamHi” for “Excuse me.” “Shukran” instead of “SaHa” for “Thank you.” “Dyali” instead of “winu” for “That’s mine” (useful when dealing with baggage).

Immediately after my French conversation with my counterpart, which came on the heels of several days trying to fake it in Darija, I went in to the Maroc Telecom office in SouqTown to see about getting Internet in my house in Berberville. I started the conversation in French, since that was the language I was thinking in at the time.

…and for the first time since coming to Morocco, somebody called me on it.

I’m so used to having strangers expect me to speak French – and only French – that it was jarring to hear, five minutes into the conversation, “All the other foreigners who live here speak Berber. Why don’t you?” I blinked, then answered, in Tam, “I do know Berber. A little bit.” “Well then why aren’t you speaking it?” he answered indignantly. Flummoxed, I couldn’t come up with a response. Because I expected you to expect me to speak French doesn’t flow off the tongue in Tam. I just blinked at him again, then listened to his explanation, in Tamazight, for why he couldn’t sign me up for Internet.

I insisted that my friends had done it at his office…he insisted that such a thing was impossible, and I’d need to go up to Springfield [my name for the capital of our province]…I argued that if everyone in Berberville had been signed up in his office, it must be possible…he staunchly repeated that I had no choice but to go to Springfield… It finally devolved into the Berber version of the “Yeah-huh,” “Nuh-uh” fights I used to have with my sister (“La!” “Eyyah!” “Oho!” “Eyyah!”), so I abruptly said, “OK, thank you.” Well, I meant to, anyway. But thanks to the aforementioned scrambling of my languages, I’m pretty sure that I said, “Goodbye.” Which was ruder than I’d intended to be, so I added a thank you, then smiled tightly, then walked out.

Looks like Internet-in-the-home will have to wait for my next trip to town… But I remain hopeful. :)

October 7, 2008 Infokiosk

I live in a national park; that’s one of Berberville’s better-kept secrets, unfortunately. The park includes mountains, my lake, Barbary sheep habitat, gorgeous fossils, etc, but no educational information center to inform visitors of what’s around. Yet. There’s been a sign up for a few years pointing to an empty patch of ground, and then this year, they built a lovely building to serve as the park’s info center. It’s still empty, though, so I went out to see what such a facility should offer.

On the recommendation of my program staff (aka my Peace Corps boss), I visited the site of a Peace Corps friend “Ali”. His area’s information center is called an Infokiosk – all one word – on signs and in conversation. To me, a “kiosk” is something transient, more or less following the design of Lucy’s psychiatry booth in Peanuts comics.

But not here. Ali’s Infokiosk is a stone building filled with exhibits teaching about the flora and fauna of their region, as well as a gorgeous diorama illustrating their Barbary sheep habitat. (Barbary sheep teeter on the brink of extinction, so the Moroccan government has set aside several large tracts of land to try to protect what shreds remain of their habitat.)

I took dozens or hundreds of pictures (bless my 2GB memory card!), and came back filled with ideas for ways to use my park’s info center…as soon as the exhibits are installed. That’s taking longer than I’d anticipated, for various reasons, but I’m doing what I can to help the process along.


October 1, 2008 3id Henna

I've gotten henna three times now. Once when I was leaving my training village at the end of PST, once when I was going to a friend's wedding, and once for the 3id. The first two times, I got what my host mother calls "zuaq". She uses the word to mean something like "design" or "decoration", even though my (sometimes inaccurate) Tamazight-English dictionary says "zuaq" means "multi-colored".

But as Ama explained repeatedly, she doesn't know how to do zuaq with henna. So I got the full-palm henna that is sometimes called "married woman's henna". It's not actually only for married women - obviously - but it's sometimes called that because young women tend to prefer the decorative henna to the more utilitarian full-palm henna. It's considered utilitarian because henna is a traditional aid to prevent the formation of blisters when working extensively with your hands. :)

So on the night before the 3id, Ama coated the palms of my hands with a thick layer of henna-mud. It was at least half a centimeter thick. She then had me hold my hands over a burner for a few minutes to dry the mud. I tried to keep my hands flat, but the slight curling of my fingers and subsequently re-straightening of them led to the creation of fine cracks through the mud. (Quick shoutout to the geologists in the crowd: mudcracks can form in only a few millimeters of mud! They also exist several kilometers across, in mud on Mars, but apparently the same principles apply at *all* scales!)

Ama then bound my hands in cloth and then wrapped them in plastic bags, which she knotted around my wrists.

I went off to bed; when I awoke, she untied the plastic and unwrapped the cloth, then helped me scrape off the cracked mud. The pattern of mudcracks was dyed into the skin, making me look a bit like a giraffe, with dark polygonal patches separated by pale lines. (Another PCV said I looked like I had dinosaur skin hands.)

A more charitable view is that my hands look like a mosaic, or a stained-glass window. Regardless, they're eye-catching. :)

Most of the women I visited with on the 3id also had henna'd hands. The exceptions were the close friends of our neighbor Rebha, whose mother passed away a few days ago. Apparently, it would be Hshuma for them to decorate themselves while their dear friend grieves for her mother.

Most of the men and boys in town have a small patch of henna on their right palm. It looks a bit like stigmata, but surely not deliberately. :)

October 1, 2008 L-3id!

Mbruk l-3id! Blessings for the Holiday! Or as they’ve been saying this morning, Mbruk l-3ashera! That translates as "Blessings 10". I’m not sure what that means, but I’ve heard it a bunch today.

Once we heard the announcement last night that the 3id would be today, we ate an early dinner--no need to wait till midnight, since we won’t be fasting tomorrow!--and then applied celebratory henna. (More on that in the next blog.)

I slept over in my host family’s house, back in the room where I lived for 3 months. I slept like a log despite having my hands bound (and slightly odorous), waking up a bit when Ama got up to make bread, around 5am. Around 7, Ama came into the room, announcing, "Enough sleep! Time for breakfast! Mbruk l’3ashera!" She unwrapped my hands and helped me get some of the henna mud off. Then she went back into the main part of the house, where apparently guests were already appearing. She had told me that visits would start around 9:30 or 10, but I guess folks were showing up early…

That began a long day of feasting.

The morning was glorious, with bright blue skies, a few puffy white clouds, and a baking sun. Some of Berberville’ citizens laid their prayer mats in the souq and prayed towards the rising sun for a few hours; others began making the social rounds.

The afternoon was markedly colder and rainy, but still full of delicious (and sugar-intensive) food and loving visits.

9/30/08 ‘Twas the Night Before 3id al-Fitr…Maybe

I spent tonight in my host family’s house. I go to their house most evenings for lfdrt, but tonight is special because tomorrow might be the 3id. I say might because it depends on whether the imams in Rabat can see enough of the moon tonight to decide that it’s been a full month since the beginning of Ramadan. They might decide that we need another day of fasting, in which case the 3id will be Thursday. That’s one of the several reasons that lunar holidays = two days off; not only are they major religious celebrations, there’s also always uncertainty as to when they begin.

I’m not sure why they still rely on visual observation instead of using lunar calendars – scientists can predict what the phase of the moon will be in a millennium, let alone in a month – but the unpredictability lends a certain something to the night-before expectancy. It reminds me of waiting up to see election results, or to find out if the next day will be a snow day… You *want* to be eager and excited, but there’s always the chance that tomorrow won’t be what you expect…

September 28, 2008 Snow

It occurred to me recently to start a betting pool among the PCVs on the mountain.* When will the first snow fall? My host father promised me that we never get snow before November, but that it will continue snowing till March. Jamila’s counterpart, who I chatted with on a recent tranzit ride, said that April and May snows aren’t uncommon, and June snows not unheard of. And today I was told that it can snow as early as September, but won’t ever snow past February. (This I do not believe.)

…and then the whole issue of "first snowfall" was rendered moot, because WE ALREADY GOT SNOW. Not here in Berberville, but along the road between Berberville and the next big village down the mountain, there are fields covered in about an inch of snow. When I saw the first pockets of white in shadowed crannies, I doubted myself. But as the pockets grew into patches, and then drifts, and then whole fields, I stopped doubting and started grinning. We got snow!!
IN SEPTEMBER!?!?!?!?!??!?! This winter might last longer than I want to consider.

**Update: It may not have been snow. My host mother assures me that it was hail. Can tiny, couscous-sized hail grains pile up to look like snowdrifts from five feet away? Can they blanket a countryside to an inch deep? I really don’t know much about hail. And I’m not actually sure whether I *want* it to be snow or hail. I’m emotionally invested in snow, but I’m also rather afraid of the length and intensity of the coming winter, and would rather believe that it hasn’t begun yet.

*In case I haven’t used this term before, "on the mountain" refers to all the Volunteers who share my SouqTown. Most of us are scattered in mountain villages between Berberville and SouqTown, though a few are on the far side of SouqTown, Also, while Berberville is much higher in elevation than SouqTown, there are actually several different mountains that we all live on. Nevertheless, we occasionally use the phrase to refer to the dozen Volunteers in the region, as in, "Say hi to the mountain for me," or "I invited the mountain to help out on this project."

9/26 Recipe #10 Pizza :D

Pizza crust:
3 C flour
1 packet of Alsa baking powder (you can use yeast, but then you have to wait for the dough to rise)
3 pinches of salt
2 generous T of vegetable oil
2 C water
Extra vegetable oil
¼ - ½ C harsha (semolina flour)
Measure the flour, baking powder, salt, and oil into a shallow bowl. Combine by hand, adding water splash by splash, to incorporate all dry ingredients. Be liberal with the water; wet dough is easier to handle.

Once well mixed, start to shape the dough into a ball. Pour a generous amount of vegetable oil into the bottom of the shallow bowl. Use the oil to scrape any remaining dough off the side of the dish (and off your fingers) and add it to the ball.

Finish shaping the dough into a ball that is well-coated in vegetable oil.

Scatter the harsha across a cookie sheet. Place the oil-coated dough ball onto the harsha, in middle of the cookie sheet, and use your oil-coated fingers to spread it evenly across the sheet.
Light the oven and slide in the pizza crust. Cook ~10 minutes or until about half cooked. Then remove and add your toppings.

Pizza Toppings: use as many or as few as you like!

Tomato sauce, pre-heated on stove (feel free to add spices!)
Cubed vegetables (onions, peppers, and tomatoes are the classics here in the Land Without Mushrooms, but you can’t really go wrong with any veggie) – pre-sauté them if you like ‘em soft, or just toss them on raw if you like ‘em crispy
Kefta (ground beef) – pre-cook in a frying pan. Add a few T of water to the raw meat when you start cooking it, then let it sauté in its own fat. ~ .2 kg is plenty for a large pizza
Cheese – I highly recommend coarsely grated redball cheese; ~15 Dh worth is enough to cover a large pizza

The classic approach is to take the half-baked pizza, spread tomato sauce, toss on meat & vegetables, then scatter grated cheese over everything. Put it back into the oven and bake it until the dough is fully cooked and the cheese is melted, ~ 10 more minutes.

(Since there are no oven thermometers, let alone adjustable flames, on our afrans (ovens), all cooking times are subject to wild variation.)

9/26 First Presidential Debate

Just because I’m thousands of miles away doesn’t mean I’m not invested in the race for the Presidency. My PCV friends and I devour news from Newsweek (which until now have been provided to Volunteers for free, but which are being discontinued), the Christian Science Monitor (a weekly edition of which is provided to Volunteers, albeit sporadically), and whatever online news outlets and from-home-communiqués we can get our hands on.

And tonight, the night of the first Presidential debate, we all piled into the home of "LaHcen", the only PCV around who has both (1) cable TV with CNN and (2) enough room to sleep a bunch of folks comfortably. He has a huge house and a well-aimed satellite dish, so he was the logical site for our debate-watching party.

We cooked up a bunch of pizzas (gotta have American food for such an all-American event) and even an apple pie. OK, when I say "we", I mostly mean "Jamila", the resident kitchen guru and all-star hostess. She taught the rest of us how to bake pizzas and made the apple pie pretty much single handedly (though "Fatima" sliced the 9 apples into razor-thin slivers).

Because of the time difference, the debates didn’t start until 1am, so we ate, chilled, danced, listened to music, swapped music and movies, looked at each other’s photos, played Scrabble and chess, and generally hung out until 1am finally rolled around. Then we gathered around the popcorn bowl and hung on the candidates’ every word.

Many PCVs are fairly liberal, as is probably predictable, but our group also included at least one registered Republican, an independent, and a socialist. And not all of us copped to our political leanings, so there may well have been several of each.

At 2:30am, when the candidates were hugging their families, we pulled out the ponges (big floor mats) and sleeping bags. We left CNN on, to listen to the talking heads as we drifted off to sleep.
I spent the 4th of July mostly alone (in SouqTown, in the company of strangers, to be perfectly accurate), so this evening, drenched in Americana, filled a need I hadn’t even been aware of.

9/27 Day of Power

I woke up to the smell of pancakes and the sound of CNN pundits debriefing the debates. I knew I needed to get back up the mountain to Berberville, but since there are 4 tranzits per day, I wasn’t worried. Some friends left on the 8:30 tranzit, but I was still mostly asleep, so I didn’t join them.

The next tranzit was scheduled to pass by between 11:30 and 11:45. I was outside by 11:25, and waited until 12:00, but never saw it. I figured it had gone by earlier, and resolved to catch the next one.

Tranzit #3 should have come by between 1:30 and 2pm. I was outside by 1:15, and was told that it had gone by 10 minutes earlier.

There was only one more tranzit left, so I was getting nervous. I decided to go into SouqTown, about half an hour up the road, to guarantee myself a seat on it. It should have left town at 2:30pm. I got to town at 2:15pm, and was told that it had left an *hour* before. I must have passed it on the road shortly after leaving.

I did, however, finally get an explanation for why the tranzit schedule had gone haywire. (In general, if you understand the uncertainty built into the system, which leads to things running two to twenty minutes late, the tranzits between Berberville and SouqTown are actually extremely punctual.) Because everyone wanted to be SURE to be home before sunset, so that they could spend the entire Night of Power (aka 27) with their families, they’d adjusted the tranzit departure times so that the last one could leave over an hour early and have the others evenly spaced throughout the day. Of course, they never announced that they were doing this; I don’t know if I should have guessed it, knowing how important the Night of Power is, or whether everyone else was as surprised as I was…but long story short, I was stuck in SouqTown with no way to get to my host family, who had been talking about sharing 27 with me for weeks.
I called home, apologized, explained how I’d managed to miss not one but *three* tranzits…and Ama gracious as always, just said she’d see me tomorrow.

So that then opened the question of where to spend the Night of Power. It’s very much a family holiday, so I really didn’t want to pass the night in the hotel. I have four PCV friends who live within half an hour of SouqTown. Of them, three were planning to spend 27 with their families. One of those three immediately invited me to join her, and overrode my dithering with a brusque, "You’re coming with me. Safi."

I bowed to the inevitable, and within the hour we were crammed into her nokl (sounds exactly like "knuckle", and is identical with a tranzit, it’s just called different things in different places). Rain had come to SouqTown while we were waiting to leave, turning the dirt-covered pavement into a muddy stream, and turning the dirt roads into gack* swamps.

The rain let up somewhat while we drove, but apparently it had been raining for hours – maybe days – up the mountain. The nokl splashed through countless puddles, most no deeper than the ones that my sister, dad and I used to jump in after childhood rainstorms (is mud-puddle-jumping a family tradition for other folks, too, or is that just us?). Every so often, though, the road would be covered by water standing (or running) at least a foot deep. The driver would slow down for those, but we’d still throw splashes that reached higher than the nokl windows.
And then we came to the bridge.

On ordinary days, the bridge runs over a rivulet. Today, that rivulet, swollen into a river, ran over the bridge.

I’d never seen anything like it.

I grew up on the Mississippi River, and lived through the Flood of ’93, as well as smaller floods before and after. I’ve seen the Mighty Muddy reach a couple miles across, spreading over farmlands and through basements and even washing around first-floor furniture.
But this was a muddy torrent, foaming and dashing around trees and bridge guard rails. The water looked like chocolate milk, or else café latte poured from Paul Bunyan’s coffeepot. Moment after moment, then hour after hour, the floodwaters gushed downhill from some unseen point in the mountains.

First, we all piled out of the nokl to see the obstruction. Some of us took pictures and video of it. Then we looked at each other to see what we were going to do about it. And finally, we just watched the time tick onwards towards sunset and the Night of Power.

We waited more than two hours, and the surging waters never abated. I’d predicted that after the first thirty seconds, just based on the volume of water and everything I’ve learned about hydrology on the Earth and the even more dramatic floods on Mars. But optimism trumps knowledge more often than not, and especially on nights where the need to Be On The Other Side reigns paramount. This was apparently the Moroccan Muslim equivalent of being held away from your family on Christmas Eve. Regardless of the evidence, you *really* want to believe that something will work out to let you celebrate with your family.

Finally, however, after a few brave souls attempted to cross on their own, but (lhumdullah) thought better of it before going too far into the meter-deep torrent, the driver surrendered, and we turned around and headed back for SouqTown.

Of the three friends who had planned to spend this night with their host families, two lived in a village on the far side of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Floodwaters. We texted the third, "Kareem", and asked if we could join him and his family for the Night of Power.

While waiting to hear back from him, I spent some time thinking seriously about the situation. It seemed egregiously unfair that so many of us were being kept away from our families, and from sharing with them this sacred evening. As I searched for answers, it occurred to me that I was limiting my definition of "family" to our Peace Corps-assigned host families. As much as we love (or don’t) the families in which we’re placed, we also have a wider family, I realized; the family of fellow PCVs that I’d been so delighted to think about just a week or two ago. (See the blog on "Brotherhood.") True, several of us wouldn’t be with our host families…but we would get to be with each other, now, and that wouldn’t have been possible if we’d been in our separate villages and homes.

The nokl by now was most of the way back to SouqTown, but it suddenly pulled off the road and pulled a giant U-turn. I was curious to see what path we’d be taking now. Back to the washed-out (washed-over?) bridge? An alternate route to my friends’ village? Somewhere entirely new?
We stopped at a fork in the road. Three paths stretched away from us: one to my friends’ village, another to Kareem’s village, and the third to SouqTown. The driver said that he was giving us the option of getting out here, where we could take transportation (in the form of flagging down any passing vehicle) anywhere we wanted to go. I called Kareem, who had never responded to my text, and got an invitation for us all to join him and his host family for the night.
We three PCVs decided to try to get rides to Kareem’s village, so we piled out of the nokl, grabbed our bags, and headed to the northbound side of the road. Hitchhiking is strictly forbidden by Peace Corps, but there aren’t a lot of options when you’re abandoned on the side of the road.

Not a *lot* of options…but that doesn’t mean *none.* And sure enough, an empty grand taxi came by only a minute or two later. We’d already flagged down a small car, which stopped for us even though it was crowded with six passengers and an egg-filled trunk, where the generous-hearted driver was urging us to put our heavy packs. Lhumdullah, we didn’t have to crush his eggs or his other passengers (or violate Peace Corps policy); we rented out the grand taxi and had a spacious ride down to Kareem’s village.

As we rode, our driver informed us that there is a back route into my friends’ village. In fact, we soon overtook the nokl—which had driven off while we were piling into the grand taxi—which was headed for this back way. Apparently, *everyone* on the nokl was going to get home tonight, albeit by a circuitous route.

My friends & I discussed whether we wanted to follow the nokl (or flag it down and jump on) or else continue on the road to Kareem’s home. The driver told us that the back way was a piste, the local term for a dirt/gravel road winding up or down the side of a mountain. Given the still-heavy rainfall, we suspected that a dirt road would be a dangerous path, and thanks to the hours we’d spent at flooded bridge, we were already approaching sunset. Peace Corps also forbids traveling in the dark, but we had an even more urgent reason to get to Kareem’s village quickly: the Night of Power begins with the sunset call to prayer, and we wanted to be with Kareem’s family when that call came, plus we wanted to allow our driver to be with his family for it, too.
We decided that, as much as my friend wanted to get to her own village for the Night, there were too many factors making it a bad idea (rain, piste, approaching darkness, the total lack of 4x4 driving ability in this Mercedes Benz sedan or the nokl van, etc), so we pushed past the steep, gravelly piste trailhead and continued down to Kareem’s home.

We got there almost half an hour before sunset, so there’s a good chance that our driver was back in SouqTown (his hometown) in time for sunset prayers. We also got to be with Kareem’s family from sunset until about midnight, at which point we came back to Kareem’s own house and spent the remainder of the Night hanging out with each other. (It’s 4:55am now; the others fell asleep about an hour ago, shortly before the dawn call to prayer. Now that the new day’s prayers have begun, even though the sun isn’t yet risen, I think we’re free to sleep. Or maybe I’m supposed to wait till sunrise…but I think I’ll go ahead and call it a night. A Night, that is. A Night of Family, Friendship, and Love. Those are powers I’m happy to believe in. :)

* I don’t know if "gack" appears in any dictionary; I learned the term when working in the Florida swamps/estuaries. It refers to the stickiest, goopiest, sludgiest mud that coats your feet and legs when you walk (wade!) through it.

9/27 – 9/28 Night of Power

It’s 3am. I can’t say that I’ve been awake all night – I did doze off a couple times – but right now I’m going strong. The 27th night of Ramadan, usually translated as Night of Power, most commonly referred to just as "seb3a o asherin" – 27 – is the night that Moroccans stay up until sunrise to commemorate the night when Mohammed received communication from heaven. The men take several trips to the mosque, recite prayers, listen to readings from the Qur’an, etc. Most of the women I know stay home, although women are invited (and encouraged) to come to the mosque as well.

It’s one of the holiest nights in the Moroccan calendar, and in addition to prayer, includes the sacrifice and roasting of sheep or cows. It’s spent with family, or is supposed to be. I’m spending it with my Peace Corps family, not my host family.

Why? Long story…
Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps