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


July 23, 2008 Dishwashing Disaster

The only household chore that I hadn’t undertaken before this morning was washing dishes in the little kitchen.

See, the house has two kitchens: the little one that the family uses just for themselves, and the big kitchen that is used when entertaining large numbers of guests. The family bathroom is off of the small kitchen, and that’s the nearest place to the small kitchen with running water (sometimes), and so that’s where the family usually washes their dishes.

I decided early on that I would cheerfully help in every other household chore, but washing dishes next to the pit toilet was simply something I couldn’t bring myself to want to do. And since Ama has never asked me to do it, I never have. In the big kitchen, where there’s running water in the sink, I’ve done the dishes many times. I may never have done laundry by hand before coming to Morocco, but I’ve handwashed dishes a thousand times.

But I’ve never done it without running water.

And this morning, when Ama wasn’t feeling well, I decided to do the dishes for her. We were in the small kitchen, but there were buckets of clean water around, so I didn’t need to go into the bathroom. I put the teacups into the water to soak, and started scrubbing the bigger plates and pots. The plates have chipped enamel and dried-on food from dinner, which makes it hard to know uneven bits can be profitably scrubbed at, but I was giving it my all.

I was making decent progress, I think, but Xalti kept coming and going from the kitchen, and every time she passed by, she pointed out something I was doing wrong. Her tone was always so harshly accusatory that I got increasingly nervous whenever she entered the kitchen, and when she sat against the wall and just stared at me, my nerves were tight as a drum. I kept thinking to myself, “I’m doing fine. I’m sure I’m not doing it the way you’d do it, but that doesn’t make it wrong, just different. The dishes are getting clean, so can you please stop staring with that basilisk glare, storing up details of the tarumit’s idiocy that you can share with your neighbors? I know I’m your favorite topic of conversation – the fact that everyone in town was asking about my homesickness after the one time I cried in the living room is proof enough of that – but I’d really not be branded as the town idiot just because I’ve never washed dishes in a bucket before.”

But my telepathy didn’t work, and she kept staring, with obviously increasing levels of frustration. Finally, she shouted, “No, no, no!! You’re doing it wrong! Stop!” I looked at her, waiting for something constructive. Nothing came. I said, “OK, how should I be washing them?” She responded with a shouted stream of language that she must have known I wouldn’t understand, since I rarely understand her anyway, and never when she talks fast. I kept staring at her for a second, wondering if I was going to get information I could use, and when it was clear that I wasn’t, I turned back to the dishes. I changed my approach, but apparently not enough, because Xalti stormed over, pulled the bucket away, and took over the job. She was finished in moments – I uncharitably took credit for that on the fact that everything had been scrubbed or soaked already – and said, more or less, “See? It’s easy. Sheesh.”

Apparently my huge flaw was in using the bucket of clean water like it was a sink, instead of using it as the rinse-water. (I’d been intending to get more water to rinse the dishes with, but Xalti couldn’t have known that.) Her method is to pile up the dishes, let the wash water from each one drip down onto the one beneath it, down to the floor, and thereby keep all the scrubbed-off foodstuffs out of the clean water, which is used only as the final resting place of the cleaned dishes, before they’re dried.

So yes, by her lights, I was doing it All Wrong. But her contemptuous criticism still stung, as does the knowledge that Kawtar’s incompetence will be talked of over teapots for the next week.
This is part of the imbalance between goals 2 and 3 of the Peace Corps (which deal with improving American understanding of Moroccan culture and Moroccan understanding of American culture). When I see things that seem “wrong” to me, I can appreciate the context in which they arose, and make allowances. But when I do things that seem “wrong” to Moroccans, I just look egregiously stupid. Like last night, with the plate incident...

July 22, 2008 The Plate Incident

The scene: All the women of the household, from the 32-year-old Ama to the 5-year-old Little Sis, were baking cookies. At first I thought that this was just a fun activity, but eventually I learned that these will be served after the birth of Xalti’s baby (any day now!), when family and friends drop by with congratulations and baby presents.

We were baking pretty elaborate cookies (see Recipe #3), and at a high-tension moment, when Ama was pulling fried cookies out of the boiling oil, and Cuz was falling behind in coating them with powdered sugar, they realized that they needed another plate, to set the dangerously hot fried cookies onto.

Ama said, “Kawtar, get a TbSil.”

But I didn’t know what a TbSil was.

She was pointing in the right direction, but that’s where all the kitchenware is, so that wasn’t much help. Xalti echoed, “The TbSil, the TbSil!” Even my little cousin was saying, “Just get the TbSil, come on!” I finally dragged her over to the corner of the room with me and pointed at implements—a strainer? A bowl? A spoon?—until I finally touched a plate, which got her approval. I brought it back to the cooking women, long after they’d reached the point of utter frustration, saying quietly, in English, “I’m not stupid, I’m American.” This tipped the balance of Xalti’s frustration, and she screamed at me, “Speak Tamazight!!”

I understand why she’s frustrated – not only is she dealing with the stupid tarumit, she’s also preparing for the birth of her baby, which will be disruptive on many levels, not least of which she’ll have to leave our home and move in with her father. (She and her husband split up about a month ago, so she’s been living with us…but after the baby is born, it will no longer be culturally appropriate for Baba to be living with two sisters.) So she’ll be leaving our lovely home in the well-appointed village of Berberville and moving into BaHallu’s home, which has neither electricity nor running water, in a tiny village without a post office or hospital. Her ex-husband was been ordered by the court to pay a large sum of alimony and child support each month, but he’s refusing to, and since he’s a cash-paid day laborer, there are no garnish-able wages. So when she moves in with BaHallu, she’ll go out to find work, probably cooking or cleaning houses, the only socially acceptable sources of income for illiterate women, and leave the baby at home with my 8-year-old cousin, who will therefore have to quit school.

So I understand that she’s under stress.

And when she loses patience with me or her daughter, I remind myself that she’s going through a very difficult time right now.

But it was still a pretty hard moment.

July 22, 2008 Recipe #3: Helawa shbbekia

Helawa shbbekia are fried and sugar-coated pastry knot cookies, from the verb shbbk, to tangle. If I ever open my own pastry shop, these will be the Why Not Fried Knots.
As always, the amounts are an approximation.

1 ½ C milk (hleeb)
2 C butter (a 1-lb brick) (zbda)
6-8 C flour (awrH)
¾ C sugar (samida)
Oil for deep-frying (zitoon)
Coat with your choice of:
Confectioners’ sugar (sukkar glasay)
Shredded coconut (koko)
Honey (tamimt)
Sesame seeds (gnglan)

Bring milk to full boil, then pour into broad, flat dish. Melt butter. While the butter is melting, add the sugar and 3 C of flour to the milk. Combine them slowly and carefully. Add in the melted butter and the rest of the flour, a little bit at a time. Knead them all together. Ultimately, the dough should have the consistency of heavy pie crust. Shape it into four balls. Set three aside, and roll out the fourth on a floured surface.

Roll it thin – about the thickness of pie crust – and then use a cookie-cutter to cut it into shapes. We used a cookie cutter that created a sort of lattice shape, which was then twisted into a knot. (Only Xalti knew how to do this at first, but Ama and I got it after several tries and many many demonstrations.) Repeat with the other balls of dough.

Heat the oil to almost boiling. Drop in the cookies. They are done when golden-brown and puffy. Lift out with a slotted spoon or spatula. Set on paper towels*. Coat with powdered sugar, shredded coconut, or honey. If honey, sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Serves dozens, inshallah.

* OK, they didn’t do this, but I will if I ever make these again. There’s already plenty of fat in them – might as well let a little get absorbed off.

July 22, 2008 Embarrassment of Riches

After a long quiet spell, I’m suddenly faced with tons of potential activities. Some are purely social, like J&P’s joint birthday party; others are purely work-related, like the Environmental Education Week being planned in SouqTown; and the others are a blend, like the hike across the park, which would let me survey my worksite with friends. And there’s a high school group visiting BerberVille from the US; working with them sort of defies categorization.

It’s a shame that these all overlap, since I’d love to be involved in all of them. As it is, I get to work out which will give me the best opportunity to help and/or teach me the most.

I’ve waffled every which way on this…hopefully I’ll make a good decision.

July 21, 2008 Recipe #2: Bread

Ama or her sister bake bread every morning. The recipe is straightforward, but those pros make it look easy. When I finally got my fingers into the dough, I discovered that just because it looks effortless doesn’t mean it’s not hard… Again, all amounts are estimations, since there are no measuring cups in the house.

3 cups wheat flour
1 cup white flour
3 T yeast
2 T salt
1 T oil
Warm water

Sift together the flours; set aside. In a broad, flat dish, combine yeast with warm water. Once well mixed, add about half the flour. Work them together with your hands. Once well incorporated, keep adding the flour mixture, a cup or so at a time. Pour in additional water as needed.

Once all the flour is incorporated, begin kneading*. Work the dough for several minutes. Combine the salt with warm water, then pour the saltwater into the side of the dish, and incorporate it through kneading. Once all the salt is kneaded in, and the dough is at the desired consistency, shape it into a broad circle (filling the dish). Pour the oil over the dough and distribute it evenly by lightly tapping the surface all over.

Let it sit ~30 minutes.

Pull out a lump about the size of two fists. Shape it into a flattened ball coated in flour. (This is one of the parts that Ama and Xalti make look incredibly easy, but which I never got right. They sort of tug the sides and slap it against the flour, and suddenly it’s a white ball. Mine…not so much.)

Using the flat of your hand, press the ball into a larger and larger circle. Once it’s about the size of a medium pizza, transfer it onto the “breadcovers” (a large, heavy cloth woven specifically for this purpose; I imagine a heavy teatowel would work just as well). Repeat until you have shaped 4 loaves.

Let it sit ~30 minutes.

Turn the loaf onto a bread paddle, stab it 10 times with a fork, and slide it into the oven. (Again, Ama makes this look effortless. Turns out there’s a knack to it which I haven’t mastered yet.) These are gas ovens, and only sort-of convection ovens, so the bread is put into the top half, above the gas; once the bottom is cooked through, slide it out and put it onto the bottom shelf, so the top can brown. The bread is done when it’s evenly brown. (It may need to be rotated a few times to accomplish this, depending on how evenly your oven heats.)

Once finished, return it to the breadcover and wrap it, so it will cool slowly. Warm bread (aghrom irghan) is a wooonderful thing, so you want it to be warm as long as possible.
Serves a family of 8 for five bread-intensive meals. (Ama pointed out repeatedly that I will not want to make this much when I’m living alone. There are no preservatives, so the bread goes stale overnight, and it would take me a week to eat it all.)

* Ama’s kneading is different from the kneading I’ve done before. I’m used to having my hands slightly separated (much like they are on the computer keyboard, come to think of it), and pressing with the heels of both hands. I use my fingers to work the dough backwards. I periodically rotate it, knead it down, rotate it, etc, until finished. Ama’s kneading is done with the two hands on top of each other. Your right hand makes a fist, knuckles down. Your left hand wraps over it, with your arms as close together as possible. You push down with both hands evenly, in a front-to-back rocking motion, so the dough is pressed with your knuckles, fingers, and heels, in that order. I was kneading Ama’s way, since it was her kitchen and her bread recipe, but when she asked, I demonstrated “American kneading”. Since it felt so much more natural, I kept doing it for about 30 seconds, and finished incorporating the last of the salt water that had eluded me for the previous five minutes. I’m not claiming that “American kneading” is better, just that I’m better at it, so it was more effective for me.

July 17, 2008 Spring Cleaning

OK, so Spring ended a long time ago. But “Zahra” moved out even longer ago, which meant that her apartment – soon to be my apartment – was in desperate need of an overhaul. My auntie, little sister, and little cousin went over one fine morning to see what could be done. Armed only with brooms, squeegees, and the all-purpose cleaning agent Tide, we launched a full-frontal assault on The Dirt.

Xalti tackled the main floor of the apartment, the little girls were on dustpan duty, and I took on the stairs to the roof.

I’m willing to bet that those stairs weren’t swept any time in the past two years. They were gross.

Over time, the mixture of dirt and dust had conquered on the edges of the stairs and steadily encroached inwards, until there was only a narrow corridor that was even walkable. I started at the top landing and worked my way down, letting gravity help me as much as possible. At each step, I’d start by stabbing the broom into a corner, heaving forwards, and seeing how much of the dirt I could get all the way to the bottom of the stairs. I’d repeat this stab-and-shove across the breadth of the step, then do a few lateral swipes to make sure it was cleared off. Go down six inches, and lather-rinse-repeat.

The cloud of dust in the staircase was pretty intense; Xalti wisely closed the bottom door so that the dirt didn’t flood the kitchen, and I found a small window which helped air flow.
When I finally got down to the bottom of the flight, the mounded dirt and dust was several inches thick across the entire landing. {shudder}

I’d originally planned to sweep the dirt across the kitchen, down the front steps, and into the street, but this mountain of grime made that plan unworkable. After thinking for a bit, I took a shallow plastic basin – about the size of a Great Dane’s food dish – and filled it with dirt, using the dustpan as a shovel. Once it was heaped high, I carried it up to the roof to shake it down into the alley. I nearly hit a neighbor with the waterfall of dirt (sorry!), so I changed tactics. I carried the now-half-full dish down the flights of stairs and scattered it in the alley from two feet up, instead of 40. Success.

It took another three trips—filling the basin with dirt each time—to clear out of the landing, but when I was done, I was seriously proud. The roof stairs are now inviting. I actually look forward to walking up them and enjoying my roof balcony…whereas before, I dreaded trying to pick a path through the muck.

By the time I’d finished the stairs, Xalti had cleaned every corner of the kitchen, plus swept and squeegee’d the big rooms. We finished up the lower stairs together, and the job was safi.
We got the Peace Corps approval of the apartment that night, so my inshallah apartment is now officially mine! :)

Now as soon as I can bring myself to say goodbye to my host family, or on August 1st, whichever comes first, I can move in.

July 16, 2008 Blanket Boogie

The dozens upon dozens of people who came to pay their respects after MaHallu’s funeral put a lot of wear and tear (and dirt) on the rugs and blankets of my host family’s house, but now that the condolence visits have come to a finish, it’s time to clean up. When you wash king-sized blankets or rugs without a washing machine, you need to go through several … steps.
And if you’re me, those might turn into dance steps. :)

First you get the blanket soaked through. That takes pouring bucketful after bucketful of water over it. Then you pour over it a concentrated mixture of Tide and water, which you pound into the fibers of the blanket. Literally pound. Ama uses a blunt bat-shaped stick and just whales on the poor thing. Once the Tide is enmeshed in the blanket threads, it needs to be agitated a bit. If this were a small item of clothing, you could just rub it between your fists for a moment. But it’s a blanket. So you step on it.

The first several blankets, I just watched the process and poured bucketfuls of water where and when I was told to. Bucket brigade, that was me. But once I knew the drill, I suggested a slight change: instead of just walking on the blankets to churn the soap into suds, why not dance on it?
Xalti never really got into it, but Ama and I were gettin’ down. And the blankets were getting suds’d, so it was a win-win situation.

When the blanket has been stepp’d enough, you pour another few dozen bucketfuls of water over it to rinse it, then roll it tightly, pouring more water with each roll, to wring out as much of the soapy water as possible.

Hang them on the line to dry, and safi!

I was a little amazed by how much effort went into all this, but Ama reassured me that this is a once-a-year chore. And besides, it was an excuse to dance, so you know I was having a good time.

Ama commented that I dance like the women of Morocco; I told her that my first host family loved to dance in the evenings, and invited me to participate, plus, in the States, I took belly dancing classes. (Well, since I have no idea how to say “belly dancing” in Tamazight, literally what I said was, “I danced with a teacher who knew the dances of Egypt.” And then I did a shimmy, so she’d know what I was talking about. She said, “Yes, that’s how they dance in Egypt. And this is how we dance in Morocco…”)

Laundry has never been so much fun. :)


July 20, 2008 Pronoun lesson

This will only be interesting to the language nerds in the crowd…the rest of you, feel free to skip on to the next blog entry. :)

This evening, I was delighted when I understood two object pronouns at once: Ama said “Where’s the teapot? Go into the kitchen and bring it here to me.” Bring it here to me. What we take five words to say in English is done in one in Tam: adtiawid. The verb is awi, bring. The d on the end makes it “bring here,” as opposed to awin, bring there. The ad at the front puts it in the future tense. The t is the direct object pronoun, it. The i in the middle is the indirect object pronoun, me. So, fully broken out, it’s ad-t-i-awi-d, in-the-future-you-will—it—to-me—bring—here. In four quick syllables that sounds more or less like ah-tee-uh-weed. And I figured it out! Yeah!

Celebrate the small victories. Don’t despair when the only word you catch in an entire half-hour conversation is the word “woman”. Progress is progress. Be grateful for each onward step.

I keep telling myself that…I hope I start listening to myself soon.

July 20, 2008 Language update

I’m making progress. Really and truly. I need to keep reminding myself of that, but it’s true.

I continue to be frustrated with how little I understand in every conversation I hear, but when I compare myself now to how I was when I first came to my village two months ago – let alone when I entered the country! – I remind myself that I really am getting better.

My tutor and friend H* came to visit this week. She was here on official Peace Corps business – she was inspecting my inshallah apartment to make sure it meets PC safety and security criteria – but I got permission from my host family to have her stay the night with us. :) I begged my cousin N* to come over; I hadn’t seen her in weeks, and reeeeally wanted her to meet H*, who I think is a role model for all young Moroccan women: she’s educated, multilingual, successful…I don’t know if N* had ever met any Berber women who have gone to college, but she knows one now. :)

Anyway, H* got to see me attempting to participate in the conversations she had with Ama, N*, and others, and afterwards I asked her how she thought I was doing. She said that I’m doing well, which I disagreed with. She pointed out that I’m able to express myself and be understood, which I countered with the fact that I don’t understand others expressing themselves. She reminded me that the accent here is significantly different than the one I heard when I was learning the language – the k/sh thing she’s used to, since her town is only a few mountains away, but the g/j and r/l conflations are tricky even for her – and that I need to be patient with myself. When I asked her for specific guidance on what to study, she suggested indirect and direct object pronouns, which in Tamazight are one- or two-letter suffixes on verbs. So I’ve been focusing on those, and am trying to hear them.

I think I’ve gotten so used to not understanding what people say that I’ve stopped pushing myself to tease out what I can, so I’ve been working on listening. So what if I can’t figure out the topic of conversation. The more words I can identify in context, the closer I’m coming to being able to participate in my community.

July 19, 2008 Tea Time

How teatime appears to you depends entirely on where you are for it. If you’re in the big, well-appointed visitors’ room, it’s a delightfully appointed array of beverages and food. If you’re in the kitchen, it’s a frenzy of activity.

Whether you’re the first guest to show up for tea or the 41st, you’ll be presented with a pot of tea and a cup. Depending on the size of the crowd, it may or may not be a freshly-washed cup. (Communal drinking is entirely normal in my village; there’s never more than one or two water glasses on the table, so sharing a teacup doesn’t strike anyone as particularly odd.) Though my family has dozens of teacups in the big kitchen, there are usually no more than 6 or 8 in use; these keep getting rewashed and sent back out for new guests.

Groups of women typically come and go throughout the afternoon, so later arrivals may find the spread a bit picked over…unless the later arrivals are Special Guests, in which case the spread will be sent back to the kitchen, tidied up, supplemented and rearranged as needed, and then brought out (in state) to be placed in front of the Special Guest.

Also, mid-afternoon tea is almost a meal; in addition to tea, several kinds of bread and/or cakes and cookies, several varieties of jam, honey, etc – which comprise the most basic tea – there’s usually a second course of aHrir.

The hostess may or may not eat with the guests, depending how many kitchen helpers (read: sisters, daughters, female cousins, etc) she has on hand. If the kitchen is safely in a sister’s or daughter’s hands, she’ll spend her time chatting with the company. If she’s on her own, the guests entertain each other while she shuttles back and forth to the kitchen.

July 19, 2008 Recipe #1: aHrir

Hopefully, Moroccan recipes will become a regular feature of the blog; only time will tell. Note: there are no measuring cups in my host family’s kitchen. All amounts are guesstimations.

aHrir (ah! REE r)

¼ C salt

4 C water

2 C aHrir or other small pasta

½ C powdered milk

Bring salted water to boil. Add pasta. When the pasta is soft, don’t strain it – you want the excess water to make the milk with – but scoop out the floating starch. In a small bowl, combine the powdered milk with a bit of water. Mix to the right consistency (somewhere between whole milk and condensed milk). Add to pasta. Stir. Bring to full boil. When well blended, serve in individual bowls or ladle into one large dish. Eat with spoons.


July 19, 2008 New skills

Things I do now that I didn’t do before I came to Morocco:

  • Handwash laundry
  • Use Tide as dishwashing detergent
  • Cut my fingernails with a paring knife
  • Cover my hair with a scarf (when it’s dirty, not for any cultural or religious reasons)
  • Use shampoo as bath soap
  • Gasp when I see women in shorts or tank tops
  • Carry my passport whenever I leave home
  • Put on bug repellent before I go to sleep
  • Peel tomatoes
  • Shower only once a week
  • Keep my nails as short as possible
  • Speak a Berber dialect
  • Dice an onion while holding it
  • Tolerate flies (usually)
  • Speak French at least twice a week
  • Sweep daily

Things that I used to think I couldn’t live without (but check it out! I’m still here):

  • Daily email access
  • Running water
  • Western toilets
  • Washing machines
  • TV
  • Dependable cell phone coverage
  • Unlimited contact with friends and family

July 18, 2008 Freeze Frame Funny

I was walking from Fatima’s house to mine, through streets frequented by sheep, goats, mules, donkeys and chickens, so I was watching my step. A group of children called to me. I raised a hand in response. One called my name. I looked over, smiled, and offered them the usual hello-and-goodbye greeting of someone walking past: Llah y 3awn. (It sounds like “Lie down” without the “d”.)

And then I felt my Teva squish.

In the few seconds I’d looked over at the kids, I’d managed to walk right through … something squishy.

July 17, 2008 Word of the day: Shweeya

Two words that everyone who visits Morocco should know are shweeya and bzzef. They are antonyms, usually translated as “a little” and “a lot”. But like many Moroccan words, they have many possible meanings, depending on their context.

Shweeya can be used to mean “a little bit of”, as in “I only have shweeya money, so can you lower the price?” (a useful line when bargaining) or “Shweeya sugar in my tea, please”. It also works where Americans would say “semi” or “sort of” or “more or less”, as in “There’s shweeya-regular public transportation between my village and the town up the hill; it doesn’t really follow a schedule, and it doesn’t run every day, but it’s there.”

My Peace Corps friends and I even use it when we’re speaking English to each other, just because it’s so versatile. “I was shweeya frustrated when…” or “I’ll be shweeya late” or “The hotel rooms were shweeya, so you might look somewhere else next time.” (In that one, it means dicey or sketchy, not small.) "How are you today?" "Shweeya." "Ooh, sorry."

It’s also part of the phrase “little by little”, which we Volunteers heard several times a day during training, when we were frustrated with our slow progress: “Shweeya b shweeya.” (Literally, “little with little”, or “a little bit and a little bit” – “b” means both “with” and “and” in Darija; “d” means those things in Tamazight.)

July 16, 2008 Go West, Young Volunteer, Go West*

Note to new readers: the asterix in the title means that this blog entry is religious in tone and content; if you’d rather not read about prayer or religion, feel free to scroll down to the next one. :)

This weekend I got to take the “back route” out of my mountain village. I usually go east to SouqTown and then venture outwards from there, but since my destination this time (a popular tourist city that I’ll call TouristTown) lay west of me, going out east seemed silly. The western route is less frequently traveled and less well-known to my neighboring Volunteers, mostly because it only got paved a year ago, and prior to that it was a slow and often treacherous route.

I got to see dozens of examples of God’s goodness. The day started when Ama came into my room to tell me that my ride was waiting for me. Aba had gone into the center of town to confirm its departure time, which we’d thought was half an hour away, and the driver was already shouting out the name of the destination, usually the last thing he does before leaving. Ama fed me tea and bread (hospitality is a Code, not a guideline), and rushed me out the door.

What I didn’t know was that unlike the tranzit to SouqTown, or indeed every other tranzit I’ve ever heard of – this tranzit didn’t leave until every seat was full. Basically, it’s an overgrown grand taxi. But in grand taxis, you only need to fill six seats. This bus-van hybrid had seats for at least 15 or 20, and I got to chill (well, it was hot, so maybe that’s the wrong word) until every one was filled. After an hour, I was running short on patience. After an hour and a half, the driver tried to start the engine. It spun and growled for a while, then coughed and gave up. He pulled out a wrench and popped the hood. Eventually, he started the engine, which promptly began smoking. He stepped back out of the tranzit, started smoking himself, and went back to work on it. Watching the plumes of smoke curl under the dashboard into the body of the car, I realized that I’d begun this trip on the wrong note. I had been thinking a rattling, ancient tranzit would carry me safely though the 115 km of steep, winding mountain roads to the village on my route. (To get from Berberville to TouristTown takes four separate journeys, one in a tranzit, two in grands taxis, and one on a bus.)

If I was going to get through a solid day of traveling harmoniously, I was going to need to change my perspective. My safety wasn’t in the engine block, or the quality of the road (paved less than a year), or the skill of the driver. My trip was in God’s hands, not those of the driver or his rattling tranzit.

I thought about walks I’d taken with my Dad when I was small. I almost always ended up riding on his shoulders, since my little legs never lasted as long as his big ones. The mental image of being carried on my Dad’s physical shoulders lent itself to the image of being carried by my Father-Mother Love; just as I’d never worried about my safety when I was with Dad, I knew I didn’t need to worry about my trip with my Father.

Soon afterwards, we started rolling. I watched the countryside and let my mind wander. Less than half a mile down the road, the engine coughed, turned over, and stopped. It occurred to me that maybe I should pray some more.

I decided to look for proofs that God was with me on this voyage. What divinely inspired acts or objects had I seen already? Half an hour after Aba had waved goodbye, he came down to the tranzit stand to make sure that I’d gotten off safely. I was still there, waiting, and so he talked with the driver. He was acting with Principle, diligently fulfilling his role as my guardian. It was also principled of the driver to want to provide transportation for everyone who wanted to go north; even though I’d have preferred that he leave on time, he stayed commited to the people of our village.

Ama had insisted on feeding me breakfast, even while rushing me off to the tranzit. That was her way of expressing God’s love, in how much she cared for me. The goodbye hugs I’d gotten from her and from my little host sisters were an even more tangible reminder of the everlasting arms of Love that were continuing to embrace our tranzit and its still-smoking engine. I saw the strength and beauty of Soul in the mountains we wound throuth. I’d walked the first five kilometers of this route before, to my gorgeous mountain lake, but I’d never seen the following 110 km through the national park, so I was eager to explore it.

As we drove, I continued to look for evidence of all the varied expressions of God, and consciously and deliberately express gratitude for them. By the time I’d finished, we were at a major intersection, a kilometer shy of our destination.

I’d thought I would need to backtrack slightly, since the road I was on went off to the east, and my final destination was far west. But there at the intersection that I’d thought I’d be doubling back to, I saw a grand taxi heading westwards. Our driver stopped, and the two of us who were traveling west hopped out and piled into the grand taxi. (It was already full, so it was rather uncomfortable, but being squished on my side against the door and the woman next to me also meant that I was turned to face everyone in the taxi, which led to conversations with several other passengers.) It hadn’t even occurred to me that it was possible to do something like this. It was just one of the many examples of unexpected harmony that I got to bear witness to that day.

In the crowded grand taxi (seriously, there were 11 people in a station wagon designed for seven), there were several men who were delighted to practice their French and English with me. I was just as happy to practice Tamazight with them, so our conversation took place in a mix of those three languages. When I told them I was headed to TouristTown, they told me that one of them, Moha, was headed there, too. I suddenly regretted my honesty. Riding for another five to eight hours (depending on layovers) with a strange man seemed like a really bad idea.

But Moha turned out to be an angel that I was entertaining unawares. :) He helped me find the right grand taxi at our next city, and then paid for our cab ride across our third stopover town, where the bus station was several miles from the taxi station. He helped me bargain for my bus fare, and even gave me tips for avoiding pickpockets as we approached the tourist-filled city. He also told me that 10 dirhams was a fair price for the cab ride across the city to my hotel, which gave me an ironclad haggling position with a cabbie who thought I was just another clueless tourist. (“Do you go to [this big plaza near the hotel]?” “Yeah.” “How much?” “25 dirhams.” “25 dirhams?!?! Hahahaha. Thanks. Bye.” “No, wait, how much do you want to pay?” “10 dirhams.” “Come on, that’s ridiculous.” “Bye.” “OK, OK, 20 dirhams.” “10.” “15? C’mon, 15 is more than fair.” “Bye.” “OK, OK, get in.” “10 dirhams?” “10 dirhams.”)

Basically, Moha took me under his wing for six hours, with no other motive than kindness. I got to my hotel safely, met some old friends and made new ones, saw dazzling examples of Principled customer service (see July 13 entry), and in all had a glorious weekend.

July 14, 2008 …and then there were 25


The Environment sector has lost a volunteer, and I’ve lost a friend. Our group has been intact – 26 Trainees and Volunteers – since March 1, but this weekend we lost someone to a “medical separation”.

I hadn’t gotten to know her as well as I’d have liked, but we had some great conversations during stage and I was looking forward to having two years to get to know her better.

Sarah, you’ll be missed… But you’re just in the States, not dead, so I look forward to staying friends. :)

July 13, 2008 Non-random acts of kindness

I’d been warned that people in cities are prone to take advantage of tourists (or westerners who they assume are tourists). I took all the usual precautions – keeping nothing of value in my back pockets, wearing loose clothing that covered my pockets, carrying my valuables in my little day pack in front of me, etc – and experienced no pickpocketing, harassment, etc. On the contrary, I got to witness remarkable integrity from two separate people.

I was buying some earrings, both for myself and to give to my host cousin who had a birthday last week. I got two pairs for 10DH each, and one for 15DH. I paid with a 100DH note, and asked for 55DH in change. (When I did the math in my head, I’d thought that the more expensive earrings were 25, not 15.) The vendor corrected me, saying that I only owed him 35. I insisted that I owed him 45, and wondered if this was some sort of backwards scam. He walked over to the jewelry rack, pointed out the prices, and convinced me that I only owed him 35, and should take the 65 DH change he was trying to give me.

At almost any point in the several minutes it took for him to go get change, tell me what I owed, etc, he could have said, “Oh, of course, you’re right,” and pocketed an extra 10 Ds. But he refused to be dishonest, and insisted on doing the right thing. :D

A similar exchange took place at breakfast the next morning. Pastries were listed in the menu as being 4DH, so when I paid after the meal, I tried to pay the waiter accordingly. He said that I owed him 2 Ds less than I thought. We went back and forth a few times, and he finally wrote out the prices on the paper sheets that serve as napkins. When he wrote down 2 for the chocolate croissant, I understood the discrepancy, but pointed out that pastries are 4DH. He told me that those are bigger pastries – the croissants are included in the big breakfasts (like the one I’d had the day before), so they make oodles of them, so they’re less expensive than the listed price.

Again, he had several different opportunities to take advantage of my misunderstanding and pocket the difference…and he never did. He firmly maintained his integrity.

Both times, I was deeply impressed by such scrupulous, diligent honesty in the face of an easy opportunity to take advantage. Next time someone tries to tell you that tourists get scammed in the cities, tell them these stories. Two different men, on two different days, in the busiest square in the biggest tourist city in Morocco. Cynics say that only fear of getting caught stops most people from criminal activity. But these guys could have gotten away scott-free, and even had me agreeing that they’d done nothing wrong, and they still stood strong in doing what was right. Sure, there are scam artists out there. But don’t let anyone generalize about “all Moroccans” or “everybody who works with tourists” or even “crime-laden cities”. It just ain’t so. :)


July 8, 2008 Kaskrut Kidnapping ;)

I climbed off the tranzit after my visit to Ait Brahimi (not a name you’ll find on any map, but that’s the tribe who live there). I hadn’t gotten two steps, literally, before I heard, “Kawtar! Adud ad-tsut attay!” That’s the first full sentence of Tamazight I learned; it means “Come here and drink tea!” It was being offered by one of my aunties, so I decided to accept. I told her that I’d set down my things in my (inshallah) apartment, first, and then be right back. When I returned, though, her house was empty. I poked my head into the front door, and then into the two rooms that were right off the entrance hall; when no one appeared in response to my call, I stepped back outside. Her husband, the village moqaddim (like a mayor), walked by and looked puzzled to see me loitering outside their front door. I explained that his wife had invited me for tea, but I didn’t know where she’d gotten to. Apparently, where I was standing – where my auntie had been minutes before – is actually an extension onto the main part of their house (which I’ve never before visited). He went into the main section, told his wife that the tarumit (foreign girl) was hanging around waiting for tea, and she emerged quickly.

I wondered if I’d done something wrong, but my auntie looked happy, so apparently it wasn’t unforgivable. She and I drank tea and ate bread, and were quickly joined by the rest of her family and some neighbors. They wanted to hear about my trip to the big city, and I told them some stories. (They mostly wanted confirmation of how appallingly hot it was; I decided not to mention that inside the shadowy medina, it’s actually very comfortable.) After twenty minutes or so, I was wondering when I should point out that I hadn’t been back to my host family’s house since my trip to Ait Brahimi, and they were expecting me…? Auntie had run out to the main house, possibly to get refills on one of the tea supplies (bread, olive oil, jam, butter, tea, water…), so I figured I’d wait until she returned to make my goodbyes. A neighbor woman who’d been the most eager to hear about the Big Apple was asking me questions I couldn’t quite follow. I’ll call her “Fatima”, since it’s the most common name for a woman in Morocco (in my experience, anyway). “Fatima” seemed satisfied with my answers, even though they may not have quite addressed her questions. Then she said, “Do you want to come drink tea at my house?” I said sure, anytime. (Six weeks without a single tea invite and then two in one day! Woo-hoo!) She stood up and said, “OK, let’s go.” I was startled. “What, now?!” I asked. “Yes. Let’s go.” She was pulling at my wrist. “But…” I gestured towards the tea service in front of us. “Come on!” she said, still tugging at my arm. “Um, OK,” I mumbled. As we headed out, we crossed paths with my auntie. “She’s coming to my house to drink tea,” Fatima announced. Auntie looked as bewildered as I felt. “Thank you very much for the tea,” I said. As Fatima dragged me off, I added, “Blessings on your parents! And I’m sorry!”

Fatima led me through an ordinary-looking door that opened into…Eden. I suddenly had an inkling where some of the 18th-century travelers’ descriptions of “harems” might have originated. (“Harems” don’t really exist, at least not as painted by the 19th-century novels describing gauze-clad, sexually available women lounging around in secluded gardens. Enclosed courtyards where women lived secluded from men outside their families, yes, those were reasonably common.) Scantily-clad nubile women there were none, but there was an unbelievably lush sea of greenery revealed behind the door. There were apple trees, poplar trees, dozens of types of herbs and flowers carpeting the ground… I was transfixed. Not surprisingly, Fatima’s tea included sprigs of fresh mint, n3n3. (Don’t believe everything you hear about “Moroccan mint tea” being ubiquitous. Tea is, yes, but getting mint in it is an all-too-rare pleasure.) There was also more bread, more jam, and miniature cookies.

After twenty minutes there, I began to plan my departure strategy. I went with a straightforward, “My host mother will be worried about me.” That did it, and Fatima packed me out the door with repeated invitations to come visit her as soon as I move into my inshallah apartment.

I headed up the hill towards my host family’s house. I got in, dropped my bag, and was immediately besieged with requests to “Adud ad-tsut attay.” I sighed, accepted the inevitable, and headed into the public room. I got away with half a glass of tea and a corner of a crepe (Ama had made crepes!), explaining the story of my three-tea afternoon. When I mentioned “tamtot yadnin” (another woman) who showed up to drag me away from Auntie’s house, Ama interrupted the story to say, “Was her name, by any chance, Fatima?” I burst out laughing. “You know her! Does she do this a lot??” Ama just laughed and said not to worry about it. She still urged me to take a second cup of tea – cultural obligations of hospitality don’t just disappear – but didn’t seem upset when I refused it, laughing that I was “completely full”.

July 10, 2008 Fossil hash

The aHli (naked mountain) behind our house is a rock hound’s dream come true. I’ve climbed around on it several times now, and every time I find rocks that make me happy. The last few times, my little siblings have come with me, and they’ve all gotten into the business of finding iHla (good) rocks for me. At first, I was afraid to reject any of their offerings, lest I hurt their feelings, but when I had several kilos of rocks in front of me, I began getting more selective.

I have vermetids, mudcracks, tiny clams that remind me of my thesis fieldwork on the Florida coast, big brachiopods that remind me of Geo 20, and enough fossil hash specimens to start my own gallery. :) I also have several soft-sediment fossils that remind me of the Ediacrin Fauna (sp?). I can’t identify most of what I see in the soft seds, but I plan to take them to the Geology department of The Professor’s university next time I’m in Springfield. Hopefully someone there will know what I’ve got. :)

July 10, 2008 Hammam II: Return of the Bucket

Today I took my second trip to the hammam. This time, the place was crowded. Overflowing. I don’t know why it was so different from before, when Ama, little sis and I had the whole place to ourselves. That was a Wednesday noon, this was a Thursday midafternoon…go figure.

When Erma Bombeck visited a hammam, her response was, “All women are NOT created equal.” I disagree. There were women of every shape, size, and color in the hammam with us, at every stage of life (including infant, pregnant mother, and elderly woman), but even though some were convex where others were concave, what I noticed was the joy that filled the room. This was an enclave away from the eyes of men – even family members – and it was a cheerful, cooperative place. Women scrubbed each other’s backs, girls carried buckets for their mothers and friends, sisters shaved each other’s armpits… There was an almost tangible spirit of mutual support and… I can’t think of the word I want, but it’s something like community/cooperation/conviviality/coherence/communion… I admit, I never completely lost my self-consciousness, but I did realize that nudity really wasn’t the point.

At one point, while I was waiting for my bucket to fill with hot water, a woman I’ve never met before stood up, walked over to me, and invited me to share her water and her mat.

“Parlez-vous francais?” Do you speak French? (French)
“Shwiya, eyya.” A little, yeah. (Tam)
“Shwiya?” A little? (Tam)
“Gigh merikani. Da-tsawalgh s ingleez.” I’m American. I speak English. (Tam)
Voulez-vous $%^&*( ghori l-kes i3mmrn aman?” Do you want [something] I have a bucket full of water? (Mix of Tam and French, gesturing to her mat)

Ama intervened (almost territorially!) but I appreciated the invitation. I think it was the first time where I was approached by a stranger but it didn’t feel like she wanted anything from me, or that I had some sort of rock-star status because of my blue eyes or freckles. She just saw a woman standing alone, and wanted me to share in the sense of community of the hammam. :)

July 10, 2008 Visitors!

Last night and this morning, I got to see my host father in his other role, tour guide. We had a Dutch family come for the evening. They’re a few days into a month-long stay in Morocco, and this morning they set out for a five-day trek around Berberville. Aba was speaking French with them, which I started to do, too, until they told me that English is much easier for them than French is. Lhumdullah! So I had dinner and breakfast with them, sharing our observations and studies of this country we love. (It turns out that the father did his PhD dissertation on Moroccan expatriates in Holland!) After breakfast this morning, they left with my host dad’s partner on their trip. I’ll be gone when they return – off in SouqTown – but I hope they stay in touch. :)

July 9, 2008 Family Finances

I’ve run into some technical difficulties with cashing my mandates, the postal money orders Peace Corps uses to pay me, reimburse me, supply my settling-in-allowance (a BIG chunk of change to be used to stock my apartment – it’s more than the sum total of my Peace Corps living allowance to date), etc.

Last week, I told my host family about my challenges, and my host mother came up with a creative solution: I could get the money I need for now from my host father, and then repay him when my mandate finally gets paid. I’m grateful for her offer, but don’t want to take her up on it because I don’t want to mix money with family. Yes, I know that Peace Corps is paying my host family (well) for their hospitality to me, but I’m not involved with that transaction, and I don’t want to be.

Today, I was reiterating my challenges with the mandate, because I still haven’t been able to get it cashed, and Ama repeated her offer. She added something new: the reason I’d need to go to my host father is that she doesn’t have access to large amounts of money. She has a few dirhams for incidentals, but he handles all the money and does all the shopping for the family. Her only source of independent money comes from the traditional crafts she works and sells to the tourists who Aba guides around. She showed me some of her products, and they’re genuinely beautiful. She mentioned how much she got for an aHrandir she had made – they’re sort of like woolen cloaks, with embroidery that is unique to each tribe – and my jaw dropped. Then I realized that she was talking in rials, and I filed it away until I could do the math. (There are 20 rials to a dirham, and seven dirhams to a dollar, so it helps to focus, and not try to do the calculations while speaking in Tamazight.) It worked out to about US$100, which is perfectly reasonable for a handmade coat, but which is a huge amount of money in a country where you can buy a loaf of bread for 25 cents. For reference, my monthly living allowance (read: salary) for July is about US$130.

July 9, 2008 Tigni

My little host sister and little cousin just came in, shouting that it’s raining outside (which I know, since I’ve been listening to it for the past half hour). Cuz was holding a handful of what looked like those chubby pretzel bites you sometimes find. That excited me – I’ve never seen pretzels in Morocco (though admittedly I didn’t look for them at Marjane) – and I asked what they were. “Tigni,” said my cousin. The word sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember it, so that didn’t really help. I popped one in my mouth, and discovered that it was a date. That’s when I recognized the word – they use the same word to refer to whole dates, like these, or a mashed-up concoction of dates and raisins (zbib, but pronounce it carefully – the first syllable is a profanity).

When my sis and cuz saw me chewing a date whole, their eyes bugged out. They began exclaiming, in overlapping voices, that I needed to be careful. I didn’t recognize the word they were using for the threat I faced, but quickly figured out that they meant the date pit, which is about the size and shape of a peanut, and hard as a rock. These girls (and presumably most Moroccans) bite dates in half, pick out the pit, and then eat the second half. They were alarmed lest I crack a tooth or otherwise harm myself with my tigni snack. :)

July 6, 2008 Marjane

I’ve heard about “Marjane” for the last four months. Apparently, whatever you want in Morocco can be found in Marjane. Anything. (Except brown sugar, chocolate chips, or molasses.) It’s often described as “The Moroccan Target.” Every major city has one, and I went to the Marjane outside of Big Apple.

When I first walked in, I thought it was more like a rural mall than a Target. There were a series of small stores lining the walls, most with names I’d never heard of (although Lacoste did have a store of its own). But after the first hallway, it opens up into the superstore I’ve heard so much about.

There are housewares. Clothes. Major electronics. Food. An entire array of cheeses. Fish, nearly all with the heads still on. A butcher section, with hanging carcasses. I walked through the toiletries aisle, and thought I was back in America: an entire aisle full of shampoo. Garnier Fructise. Pantene Pro-V. It’s all here. Not long after the dizzying array of haircare products was the pasta aisle. After I passed 15 linear feet of Barilla pasta, in the blue boxes I always reach for at grocery stores in the States, I had a moment of genuine disorientation*. It was surreal, in the most literal meaning of the word: I didn’t know if I was dreaming, or if the past four months had been a dream and I was really back in the Safeway in Silver Spring, Maryland. I was talking in English to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed friend, walking past box after box of Barilla pasta. Was I in Morocco at all?? J** sensed my confusion and turned me around, pointing me towards the cans of tomato sauce, labels printed in Arabic and English. The Arabic characters regrounded me, and with a rush, I realized that I really am in Morocco. Whew.

I bought a few things that I can’t find at my local market (Snickers, peanut butter, hot cocoa powder, a bread pan, a hot pot), but held myself in check because (1) Zahara left me a mostly-furnished apartment, so there’s not a whole lot that I need, and (2) Marjane is reeeally expensive. As in, anything available there is 2-3 times the price that it would be in souq, the open-air markets, or taHanoots, the small bricks-and-mortar shops. Well, if what you’re looking for is available at a souq or a taHanoot. But the prices do make for the sharpest difference between Marjane and Target or Walmart. Those guys drive the little stores out of business by underselling them. Marjane makes no attempt to undersell anyone; its big draw is both the American/European items that expats long for, and the fact that everything is available under one roof. It’s easy to imagine cash-heavy expatriates deciding that the convenience of one-stop shopping outweighs the higher prices. Also, the prices are really pretty normal by American standards. It’s just that souqs and taHanoots are dirt-cheap.

* I learned not long ago that the word “disorientation” actually has its etymological roots in this part of the world: Westerners came to Morocco and other Middle Eastern countries looking for the “Orient” as described in 1001 Nights and Marco Polo’s notes, and they couldn’t find it. They found interesting cities and people, but nothing to match the lurid descriptions of harem girls, potentates, and sexual debauchery that they were anticipating. They literally couldn’t find “the orient”: they were “disoriented”. :)

July 5, 2008 I Want To Be A Part of B.A. Buenos Aires – Big Apple (apologies to Evita)

OK, so I didn’t go to Buenos Aires, but I did go to one of Morocco’s biggest cities. Morocco has about seven major cities (depending how you count them), and I spent the weekend in one! It was beautiful, though expensive, and I had a fantastic visit. We stayed at a backpacker-filled hostel, famous for its rooftop. We ate up on the roof a few times, and two of our group (there were five of us) slept up there, too. It’s cooler/breezier than the rooms, although it got cool enough at night that the rooms were comfortable, too. (Unlike SouqTown, which was sweltering last night.)

After arriving and settling in, we went for a tour of the medina. Medina is just the Arabic word for “city”, but it’s used in most of Morocco’s big cities to refer to the older heart of the city, usually walled and crowded, as distinct from the newer, usually French-constructed part of the city. This medina sloped steadily downwards from our hotel, so walking out was fun, and walking back was a (slight) challenge. The city was amazing. No two walls abutting each other were the same age, I suspect, and J** and I agree that we either want placards on every wall, giving the history, or else a portable carbon-14 dater, like a portable GPS, that you can carry and which will tell you how old anything nearby is. It doesn’t exist yet, but we want one anyway. Engineers, you should get on that. ;)

One of our first stops was at an escargot stand. I’ve never eaten snails, though I’ve eaten plenty of their invertebrate cousins (oysters, clams, mussels, etc), and decided that this was absolutely the moment to try them. So there, in an alley off the main drag (which was probably all of six feet wide) of the Big Apple, in the heart of Morocco, I ate snails. They were good. A little salty, and a lot chewy, but good. The most fun part was prying them out of their snails. I don’t know what implement I’d have been handed in a chichi French restaurant, but here in the medina, I was given a safety pin that had been pried almost flat. I held the round end and used the point to pierce the snail and extract it from its home. After we’d finished our snack (10 DH for a good-sized bowl, which three of us shared), the chef/snailman encouraged us to drink the broth. J** and I did (B** passed), and it tasted exactly the same as the snails themselves, except without the chewyness, naturally. :)

We also visited the tanneries that the Big Apple is famous for. I managed to avoid the temptation to buy lots of leather goods – barely – but I was fascinated by the vats where sheepskin (almost exclusively) is turned into leather and then dyed. The tanner who showed us around his family’s tannery was delighted that we spoke the local languages (we had some Darija speakers and some Berber speakers in the group), so he talked to us in his own blend of Tamazight and Darija.

The architecture of the tannery – or maybe it’s just the architecture of the Big Apple – bewildered me. In order to get from the entrance level of the tannery up to the second story (so as to have a better view), we went outside, turned three corners, went uphill, down two alleys, and then emerged upstairs. (Anyone remember “Adventure”? “You’re in a maze of twisty passages. You’re in a twisting maze of passages.”) I’m not even entirely sure it was the same tannery, but we were looking down on somebody’s vats. Then he offered to take us up another flight, which involved walking the circumference of the building, up two external staircases, and emerging on the roof level. The building is open to the air, though, so the “roof” is more-or-less a portico from which you could look down on everything. Our guide then showed us the tannery next door, which he dismissed as “Arabiya”. They looked identical to me, but J** said that she knew which one she preferred. I asked her what difference she saw that I didn’t. “This one,” she said, pointing to the Berber tanners, “has music.” Once I started listening for it, I realized she was right. :)

Our tanner-guide then offered to show us the whole of the Big Apple. We followed him trustingly through another twisting series of alleys, abruptly emerging on a hilltop from which we had a panoramic view of the city. I took dozens of pictures, naturally, and then we were ready to go. He offered (in a blend of Tam and Darija that B** and I later pieced together) that after we finished our shopping, we could bring back any clothes we’d bought and he’d dye leather to match, for us. Oh, and he never asked for a tip, and that was the closest he came to offering to sell us anything. He was just a friendly, helpful guy who wanted to show us his family’s business. :)

From the entrance to the tannery (to which he returned us, safe and sound), we headed deeper into the medina. I was tempted by the leather jackets and purses, some amazing leather candleholders (which I’m feeling nostalgic about even now, as I type this up four days later), skirts, blouses, earrings, and ice cream. I managed to resist everything but the ice cream (4 DH for a big scoop, half chocolate and half something-orange-that-was-probably-mango-but-might-have-been-apricot). We stopped for a sandwich that was shared by two of our hungrier members, and then decided to go to a sit-down restaurant for dinner. We emerged from the medina, picked a restaurant (based on the view from its roof, since the menus all looked the same), and then ate spaghetti while watching the sunset glint off the minarets and beige walls around us. Swifts (or possibly barn or cliff swallows) provided our dinner entertainment; hundreds, possibly thousands, of them were spiraling and swirling around us, eating flies and performing impossible-looking aerial acrobatics.

We’d stopped by the fruit market briefly, between the medina and dinner, and so after dinner we munched on the juiciest and sweetest peaches imaginable. Mmmmm. They were 6 DH for a kilo, which works out to about 35 cents a pound. I love the fruit here! I think after I move out of my host family’s house, I might become a fruitarian. Mmmmm.


July 4, 2008 Word of the Day: Good (iHla)

(Happy 4th of July, Americans! I don’t get it as a holiday, because I’m on the Moroccan calendar, but I hope y’all are having a great one! Light up a sparkler and think of me! :) )

IHla. He is good, or that-masculine-thing is good. Like most adjectives in Tamazight, it’s conjugatable (Hlagh, tHlat, iHla, tHla, nHla, tHlam, tHlamt, Hlan, Hlant). It’s also unbelievably versatile.

In English, “good” has many shades of meaning. Consider:

I feel good. (health)
I look good. (beauty)
I do good. (charity)
I am good. (character)
Good student. (diligence)
Good idea. (cleverness)
It’s all good.

In Tamazight, “Hla” means all of these things. All. And without any helping verb (feel, look, do, be…) to clarify which meaning the speaker intends. You just get to figure it out from context.

There’s some obvious ambiguity created by this…among other things, it becomes possible to give a compliment with many possible interpretations. “Tabratnm tHla” – Your daughter is good – could mean anything from praising her character to calling her beautiful. Which enables potential suitors to get away with saying things that might be intended in a slightly Hshuma (inappropriate, shameful, naughty, etc) way, without getting decked.

I asked my multilingual host dad how to express “good idea”. He recognized the concept of “bonne idée” in French, and thought about it for a long minute before telling me that there was no equivalent expression. “You just say it’s iHla,” he finally admitted.

The flipside of this is “ixxa”, which is bad. (Be careful with this one – the “they are bad” conjugation is identical to the word for excrement.) Earlier today, I was having a fun conversation in the kitchen with my host mom and a few aunties and cousins – all female – and one of them made a rather naughty joke. I blushed and looked away. My rule of thumb in these kind of situations, to avoid crossing the line and being Hshuma, is to either act like I don’t get the joke or else act like I’m embarrassed by it – which sometimes isn’t an act at all! After everyone had finished their chuckling, my host mom, smiling, informed me that this auntie is crazy, which got another big laugh, and then she said that she’s bad. Txxa. And I suddenly realized that ixxa must have as many shades of meaning as iHla. And I don’t know what they are. Was Ama saying that my auntie is bad-mannered? Inappropriate? Naughty? A bad example? Using bad language? All of the above? Or was it a half-admiring, “Oooh, she’s so baaad,” kind of comment? (And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony that “bad” has as many shades in English as it does in Tam. But we have more hints in English, usually, as to which shade is intended. Or maybe it’s just because I’m fluent in American culture, and can read the glint in an eye or a pursed lip, and I’m still mostly illiterate in those, here.)

The versatility of language gives me hope that I might actually learn all of the words in Tam – that, like French, there just *aren’t* as many words as in English, and therefore that much less to memorize – but also makes me realize how much more there is to learn than the vocabulary…

July 3, 2008 Word of the Day: Ghori

Here’s a widely versatile Tamazight word: ghori. (BTY, the “gh” is more or less a bottom-of-the-throat gargling sound. It’s similar to last sound in “Bach”, but deeper and has a pronounced sound, not just air, behind it. It took me a long time to get it right, and I still probably don’t.)

The usual translation is “I have”, and it is used to indicate possession, as in I have tea. It can also be translated as “my place”, and that’s where the word vagues up beyond all recognition.

First off, it means “place” both literally and figuratively. You can use it to mean your home, your seat on a bus, etc. Figuratively, it more or less translates as “In my opinion” or “It seems to me,” but it’s stronger than that. There’s a regionally-used expression in the US – by which I mean that I’ve heard it, but when I used it during CBT, I discovered that folks from other parts of the country weren’t familiar with it – that goes, “…where I live…” It’s also used figuratively, not literally, and refers to something that affects you at a visceral level. You might hear, “That documentary Darfur was powerful; what got me where I live was seeing what’s happening to the women. [Or the children. Or whatever.]” It can be used to express anything with a deep personal resonance.

Ghori has that sort of meaning, too. If I say something is important ghori, it means that it’s viscerally, deep-down meaningful to me. Well, usually. Sometimes it does just mean “in my opinion.”

And, of course, it’s conjugatable. (It’s Tamazight, after all. There are virtually no words in Tam that have only one form.) Ghori, ghork, ghorm, ghors, ghorngh [which is a beast to pronounce], ghorun, ghorknt, ghorsn, ghorsnt.

There are a whole set of expressions that use it:

Ayd azad ghori = the best, IMHO
Qim ghori = stay with me (qim = sit or stay)
Ns ghori = spend the night with me [By the way, this has zero sexual connotation in Tamazight. It quite literally means spend a night sleeping in my home.]
Zri ghori = stop by my place (zri = pass by)
Illa ghori = I have in my possession, literally “There is, in my place” (also used to express ownership in the future, since “I have” has no direct future conjugation – you have to conjugate the illa, there is)
Sgh ghori = buy from me (sgh = buy)
Mnsu ghori = dine with me (mnsu = eat dinner)
Fdor ghori = have breakfast with me (fdor = eat breakfast)
Adud ghori = come here (adud = come)
Ghorm/ghork lHaq = you have the right OR you are right (funny how the same word means both things, in both English and Tam)

July 2, 2008 Bones

Food doesn’t get wasted here. I hadn’t really thought about how much waste there is in most American kitchens until I saw how efficient my host families have been.

Example: Before they wash out a tawa (cook pot / sauce pan), they take a piece of bread and sop up the leftover food. Why wash down the drain half a meal’s worth of calories and nutrients? (This is also one reason why Ama rarely eats with the guests when there’s a big meal – she’ll eat her fill as she cleans the kitchen.)

Another example: Whenever they eat meat served on the bone, as happens frequently, they’ll crack open the bones and suck out the marrow. I’ve heard that marrow is good for you, but I’ve never seen it pursued so vigorously. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of my little host sister, a delicately-built five-year-old, gnawing on a bone longer than her head with her tiny milk-teeth. (She’d scored the big thigh bone from the latest sheep.)

Intestines, too, are appreciated. I’ve seen them served a couple of ways, most memorably diced up into half-inch sections and skewered onto shish kebabs. I asked about a particularly crimson cut of meat, and was told that it was the kidneys. (It took a lot of charades to figure out what the word meant – organs weren’t covered when we studied body parts.) I haven’t seen the “man of the cow”*, at least not that I was aware, but my tutor confirms that it’s consumed just like any other meat.

The skins are treated and then used as extra rugs. They’re very comfortable to sit on, and more easily portable than the big rectangular tazrbits that line every room in the house.

* That was the translation offered by a friend’s English-speaking host brother, when she asked him what was on her plate. She told us the story the next day – this was back during CBT – and the rest of us have used that euphemism since then. If it’s not clear, I’ll try an American euphemism: Rocky Mountain Oysters. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about…you’re probably better off.

July 1, 2008 Mail!

After a bone-dry week ( :( ), I received not one, not two, but FOUR packages today. :D Two from Peace Corps, and two from the US.

And two letters, including one of the most gorgeous wedding invitations I’ve ever seen. [Update: Mail two days later included one of the most entertaining wedding invitations I’ve ever seen. I love my friends!]

I’ve been in a happy-skippy mood all afternoon. :)

There was Macaroni and Cheese, there were M&Ms (in two packages, one that I could keep for myself and one that I could share with my host family!), there were books, there were chocolate chips and brown sugar (chocolate chip cookies, here I come!!), there were colored pencils, there were toys, there were letters from loved ones… It was pretty doggoned fantastic, really.

Made my Ama’s day, too; she watched me open the packages (for the second time – I’d opened them for the first time in my apartment, where I squirreled away the M&C and cookie fixings) and it was like watching a kid at Christmas. She was so delighted to see what people had sent me! And she said she felt sorry for my friends and family back in the States, because they don’t get to see me. Awww…

June 30, 2008 Names

As I think I’ve mentioned before, there are a handful of names that appear in droves in the families of Berberville. Boys’ names, in descending order of frequency, are Mohammad, Ali, Sa3id, and variations on Mohammad like Moha and Hamo. For girls, it’s Fatima, 3isha, and the Berber names of Rebha, Rqia, and Ito. I’ve never met a Khadija, even though it’s supposed to be common, but I have met a Kalima, Habiba, Miriam, along with several Fatimas, 3ishas, Rebhas, and Itos. Just now, I was introduced to a Hajar. It took me a lot of tries to get it right – and I only just now figured out that it’s Hagar, mother of Ishmael, given the local g-to-j pronunciation and soft vowels – because it’s pretty much pronounced Ha-a.

“Tga tarbatinu. Ismins Hagar.” This is my daughter. Her name is Hagar.
“Mcharfin, Haza.” Nice to meet you, Haza.
“Oho, Hagar.” No, Hagar.
Finally, my auntie intervened, and stretched the syllables out in slow motion.
“Mcharfin, Hagar.”

The middle letter is almost inaudible, as is the final rolled r. Sort of like how “had to” in American English sounds more like “hadda”.

Just a day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer…..

June 30, 2008 Our New Pet

(Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!)

Pets come in all shapes and sizes. A childhood friend of mine had four rats that she adored. Several friends had hamsters or gerbils or rabbits, which are more or less fuzzy rats. One of my favorite teachers had a bird who rode around on her head. As a kid, I had fish, frogs, kittens, cats… I’ve even had a pet snake.

But I’ve never known anyone who had a pet hawk. Until now.

There’s a baby bird of prey living in a cardboard box in my courtyard. My little brothers feed him (I’m going to assume it’s a him, but what do I know) tiny pieces of animal flesh. Earlier today, I saw them cutting apart bits of intestine to feed him. The intestine was solidly rubbery, and the knife was dull, so this took serious effort and lots of hands. At least two would have to tug on the intestine, to put tension on the line, and then a third would saw at it until a piece gave way. Then a fourth would attempt to get the food into the baby predator’s mouth without getting bitten.

I don’t know what kind of hawk it is – it’s brown and white, with a barred tail, but aren’t they all?

When I found out about the hawk, my first response was indignation. Wild animals belong in the wild, birds don’t belong in boxes, babies should be with their mothers… I had a lot of reasons to be upset with the picture before me.

But as I thought about it, trying to see the scene from a perspective other than my own, I realized that Berbers and Touaregs (desert nomads, of whom there are many in Morocco) have been using hawks as hunting companions since time immemorial. (Then it occurred to me that Europeans did this too, at least for a time, and for all I know there are still falconers on the Queen of England’s payroll.) I don’t know how hawks are trained to hunt for a human, but it occurred to me that this might be part of the process. Catch one when it’s young, accustom it to humans, and once the relationship exists, work on the training.

Though my knee-jerk response was sympathy for a wild animal being held against its will, I had to admit that I saw no evidence of cruelty from either of my little brothers (or the friends and relatives who were part of the feeding process). Yes, the little hawklet was flailing and contorting itself, but it was being handled gently. And the boys were putting a lot of work into keeping it fed.

I still don’t know where it came from – I asked the boys, and they just said, “The mountain” – but it seems most likely that my host father, a wilderness guide, found it and brought it back to them. And if raising a baby hawk has their dad’s approval, who am I to intervene?

OK, I’m an environmental educator.

But there’s a chance that its mother was dead, or that it’s an introduced species whose numbers should be reduced… Anything is possible. And until I have more information, I’ll refrain from passing judgment.

[Update after talking to my host dad: It had fallen out of the nest, and it isn’t possible (he said) to return birds to their nests, so he brought it home to his boys to take care of. Once it’s strong enough to fly away, off it will go. Oh, and it’s a kestrel.]

June 28, 2008 Funereal Feast

I’m again tempted to paraphrase Hamlet, but the meats served for the funeral feast will not be reincarnated at a wedding banquet, so I’ll let it go.

But there was a lot of meat. Mountains of it.

My host father killed at least some of the sheep and goats himself, on the ground outside our courtyard; I stepped over the drying rivulet of blood when I came home.

When my blood has welled up visibly, it starts bright red, but as the drop grows, it darkens into a deep crimson shade, and is almost black before the surface tension breaks the blood drop into a smear.

I always imagined that large volumes of blood would have that deep, almost-black shade of red.

I was wrong.

The pooled sheep’s blood was almost comically bright. It looked like it should belong on Woody Woodpecker’s head, or primary school walls. It was brighter than ketchup, and with a different viscosity; it almost looked like a puddle of paint.

When I went in, I was quickly put to work in the kitchen. For fifteen minutes, I waved flies off the pile of meat on the table in front of me. Then someone* produced a giant stew pot, poured a gallon or two of water in it, transferred in the dozens of pounds of meat, and covered it securely. At that point, I was moved onto vegetable duty. Which I found easier. There’s no dried blood on vegetables. Plenty of dirt, though. I peeled countless potatoes and carrots before my round in the kitchen was done, and my place taken by another of the innumerable female relatives who are here. I also cored the carrots, which I’m not particularly good at. Did you know carrots can be cored? I didn’t. Some of the carrots have a green center, so I understand that maybe they shouldn’t be eaten, but I don’t know why the solidly orange carrots need to have their centers removed. Anyway, the trick is to cut shallowly along the side of the core, then, while the knife is still about a centimeter in, twist your wrist to pop out the carrot core. When it works, it’s pretty nifty. My host mother, aunts, and cousins were all doing carrots at a single stroke. My unpracticed hands usually needed multiple tries, and I still sometimes ended up digging it out.

Once peeled (and cored), the veggies were dropped into chlorine-treated water to soak, as is standard treatment for fruits and vegetables (since it kills off the bacteria/pesticide/whatever that is not good to eat), and then added to the stew.

They reappeared as duaz (doo-aaz) that night. After couscous. Couscous, by the way, is not only the national dish of Morocco, it’s also a really big deal. It takes hours to prepare, and is always the crown jewel of imikli n jam3a, Friday lunch, which is the Moroccan (and probably Muslim) equivalent of a Norman Rockwell Sunday dinner. So even if I’d known that a second course was possible – which hadn’t dawned on me – I would have never have dreamed that anything could come after couscous.

Prior to this week, I haven’t had any meals with more than one course. (Two courses if you count dessert.) Now I’ve had many. Well, four or five. Unfortunately, since I never expect a second course, I eat my fill during the first one. And then I have to put in a good showing for the second. Fortunately, Ama has been so busy running around, keeping the kitchen staff of nieces and cousins and sisters-in-law flowing smoothly, that she isn’t usually at whichever table I end up eating at…which means that she’s not around to tell me to eat more. :) So if I just nibble a carrot or two and a smidge of bread from the duaz course, nobody notices.

I’m also never sure when the meal is over. Dessert is sporadic. Often, but not always, tea is served after the final course. But sometimes it’s served during the meal, so even that’s not always conclusive evidence that the feast has ended. I don’t know if the ability to recognize the end of a feast is a skill I’ll acquire, or if Moroccans pride themselves on their ability to surprise guests with yet-another-course…

* The feasting that has marked the days since MaHallu’s death has provoked all kinds of thoughts, including a deep appreciation for the interdependence among the families of Berberville. I don’t know how many relatives and neighbors have been called upon to loan tables, cookware, etc. My family is quite wealthy, and many of the giant pots or piles of glassware and silverware have emerged from our own storage room, but many more have been brought by aunts or cousins or neighbors.

June 26, 2008 The Undiscovered City

After several weeks of devoted care from her children, my increasingly infirm MaHallu passed away last night. This was not at all surprising – she has been bedridden for weeks, and with steadily worsening symptoms – but maybe death always seems sudden.

In Moroccan Muslim practice, women are prohibited from funerals, because there is an expectation that they will scream and wail in paroxysms of grief that are inappropriate for religious ceremonies. When I first learned that, I was surprised; the three American funerals I’ve attended both had many women present, and while there were tears, there was no wailing or screaming. What I’d failed to consider was that there are cultural norms for grieving, just as there are for eating or marrying or bathing or any other way people interact.

As soon as MaHallu passed, just after midnight, and then throughout the night, women wailed, shrieked, moaned, and sang to themselves in an ongoing chorus of grief. It quieted some in the morning, as her body was prepared, and then crescendoed as she was carried to the tamdint*, the cemetery. She had been wrapped in several blankets and was then put into a white litter and carried by several men, including her sons and nephews, down to the grave. Because the women were not allowed in the cemetery, they filled the street between our house (which is the closest one in town to the cemetery entrance) and the gate. Some women collapsed onto the ground and were attended to by others; some stood quietly; some ran around hugging everyone; some sat against a wall… The full spectrum of grief was visible in the dozens of people who had gathered to say goodbye to my host-grandmother.

The men were quieter, almost silent. I didn’t see the graveside ceremony itself – there was a house in the way, which I was content with – but I know that funeral customs dictate that she be put in the ground, without a coffin, just wrapped in a white shroud, lying on her side so that she can face Mecca.

Once the graveside ceremony was complete, the men came back to the house, where they gathered in the back courtyard, while most of the women gathered in the largest of the formal rooms. One of my uncles gave me a handful of dates; I gave them to my littlest sister and one of my cousins, who I was holding onto both to give myself something to do and because they seemed rather adrift. (In fact, they looked as confused and uncertain as I felt.)

I hugged the family members who I’ve become close to, and said the appropriate phrase – Ajarlkomallah, which more or less translates as “May God help you through this difficulty” – to others.

…and then I fled. I’d had a scheduled trip out to SouqTown, and Ama insisted that I go ahead and take the trip. (I also got confirmation from several others, including my infallible tutor, that it wouldn’t be inappropriate to leave, and in fact might make others more comfortable.) So shortly after everyone returned to the house, I slipped out the side door and quietly headed out to the city.

* Vocabulary note: tamdint is the word for cemetery, but it could also be translated as “the little city”, hence my paraphrase of Shakespeare.

July 4, 2008 Trip to the Lake, cont

Happy 4th of July! I'm celebrating it here in SouqTown, where the sky is an implausible shade of coral-pink that perfectly matches the coral-pink buildings lining downtown. I'd take a picture, but I think this is something that a camera can't capture.

But what cameras can do...

Here are more pictures from my trip to the lake, which I didn't have time to upload during my last trip into town. And the accompanying text, which I opted not to post last time because it only makes sense with the pix. Enjoy!

...Speaking of faults and folds, check this out:

It’s not actually an anticline – though it looks like one! – it’s just eroded, vertically dipping beds. Which is geonerd speak for “Look, the whole mountain got tipped over! Wowsers!”

And lest you think I forgot the living parts of the environment, here are some flora and fauna for you:

…and before you point out how fuzzy the bird pictures are, bear in mind that these are blown up a TON. Turns out birds, unlike flowers and rocks, fly away when you try to take their picture. Even damselflies will pose demurely. See?

Well, songbirds fly away. (So these pictures - of “Yellow Wagtails”, I do believe - were taken at *quite* a distance.) Water birds just swim away. I saw at least 50 coots (I counted that many at once, and there were probably at least twice that number in the lake) but they were so far away that my pictures of them are just little fuzzy black smudges. By the way, I looked them up, and their local name is Tafulust n waman. That sounds nice, until you know that it translates as “Chicken of the water”. Turns out that’s the name for all ducks; these guys don’t appear to get their own designation.
The coots clustered at the eastern end of the lake. The southern shore was marked by muddy, marshy gentle slopes and lots of evaporites. The water level appears to have dropped by a foot or so, and given how gentle the slope is, that makes for 10-15 feet of salt-rimed stones. The northern shore has sharper relief, more like a cutbank. (Do lakes have cutbanks? I thought only streams do. But maybe if that’s where an inlet rushes in, during snowmelt?) I climbed over two large inlets, at least…

Oh, and my favorite local fauna:

I found him (and several siblings) in a sea of reeds that I’d stumbled into. I blundered through for a while before realizing that I was probably crushing the nests of all the coots I’d been admiring, at which point I took the shortest route out, instead of attempting to continue to follow the shoreline. I found their mom about half a kilometer away, apparently foraging for food.

My last big photo stop was the abrabilo* festival in the poplars. Some Moroccans I met on the path said that they were tabrabilot, which means that they’re either small or female. (Yes, they’re interchangeable concepts in Tamazight conjugation.) I’ve never heard of a tree that gets pollinated by moths, but that’s what looked to be happening: hundreds, maybe thousands, of small white (t)abribilo(t) were fluttering in and around a stand of poplar trees. I tried to photograph some in motion (left), but just got blurs. When I tried to get close enough for a good picture, they flew away. So…

* The word is generally translated as “butterfly”, but these were moths. Tamazight doesn’t draw a distinction between butterflies and moths. For that matter, I don’t know what the difference is. These guys, though, were all white, with overlapping wings and big fuzzy bodies. They *looked* like moths.
Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps