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8/30/09 Viva Espana!

I´ve been in Spain for about 4 hours. (I say about because with all the time zone changes and stuff, I´m genuinely confused. What time is it?)

I flew up this morning - more to come on that later, when I´m not paying European prices for a cybercafe - and have been reveling in the sun-drenched countryside.

It´s as hot here as it has been in SouqTown, but the key difference is that I don´t have to dress to Moroccan standards of modesty here.

Aaaah, tank tops. How I have missed thee.

Back to enjoy this gorgeous, too-brief taste of Europe. Tomorrow, I´ll hop through two more European cities - spending only a few hours in each - before I take a 10,000-mile flight to California. I´ll be in the US in something like 24 hours. Might be exactly 24 hours, come to think of it...drat you confusing time zones...

Hasta la vista, mis amigos!

8/29/09 Haggling

Every once in a while, I enjoy a good haggle. More often, I just want to hear a price and hand over cash. Not long ago, while wandering around SouqTown, I spotted some plump, juicy grapes. Grapes only recently came into season, and they’ve mostly been small (and rather disappointing, honestly).

These grapes, though, swelled like inch-long green balloons. I casually asked how much they were. “300 rials,” he mumbled, feigning disinterest, holding up 3 fingers.

NB: Rials are Berber units of currency, equal to 1/20 of a dirham. Everyone uses them here. It’s gotten to the point that when I hear mya-o-steen, I think 8 before I think 160.

I hadn’t heard him over the noise of the street, so asked, for clarification, “3 dirhams? 60 rials?” My eyebrows rose along with the pitch of my voice. 3 dh a kilo is a ridiculously good deal on any kind of produce, let alone delicacies like grapes. (For comparison, oranges and tomatoes are usually 4dh/kilo, most veggies are 5dh/kilo, apples are 5-10dh/kilo depending on quality and season, and avocadoes are 25dh/kilo.)

“300 rials,” he repeated, louder. That’s 15dh/kilo. That’s ridiculous.

I laughed derisively and turned to walk away. After a step and a half, he called me back.

“OK,” he said, “250.”

I shook my head. “That’s a lot,” I said ruefully, before walking away.

Again, I made it less than two meters.

“OK, OK, for you, 200.”

10 dh/kilo. Still expensive, but probably a fair price. [Note for Americans and other aliens: That works out to about fifty cents a pound. Have you *ever* gotten farmers-market grapes, sold directly from the vineyard owner, for 50 cents a pound? Yeah, I didn’t think so. I *love* how cheap produce is in Morocco. But still, I live and work on a dollars-to-dirhams budget, which means that this felt like 4 dollars a pound.]

“No, sorry,” I said, walking away once again. This time, he let me go.

And with that, I knew that 200rials/kilo was indeed a fair price. If he’s willing to forego a sale rather than reduce his price further, it means he’s hit his basement.

Armed with this knowledge, I headed to my favorite produce salesperson, Fatima. She’s the only woman shop owner in the souq, which is why I’m so loyal to her. I’m a big believer in putting my money where my principles are, and I believe in female entrepreneurialism, especially in such a massively male-dominated economy.

She was off eating l-fdor, and had left her vegetable stand in the capable hands of her adult son. I asked him what he was charging for grapes. “240 rials,” he answered calmly.

“Ooh, that’s a lot,” I said, sadly.

If his mom (or sister, who often “mans” the shop in their mom’s absence) had been there, I’d have gotten the rock-bottom price the first time I asked, but this is only the second time I’ve seen the son, and he doesn’t know me.

“OK, 220,” he said, agreeably.

I thought about fighting it down to the 200 that the guy on the street had offered, but decided to let that last dirham go. I like Fatima; I don’t need to squeeze every last dirham out of her. 11dh/kilo to Fatima is worth more to me than 10 dh to a guy on the street. So I picked out a bunch and moved to buy them. He waved me off, walked over to the grapes, picked out a better bunch (which was, yes, bigger and heavier and therefore more expensive, but which also had no dud grapes on it, as my bunch had), and rang those up. It came to a little under a kilo. I handed over the 8 dirhams he asked for and headed back to the hotel, swinging the fruit cheerfully in its plastic bag.

‘Cause sometimes, haggling isn’t about getting the best price. Sometimes it’s about getting the right price.

8/28/09 Unexpected Ramadan Host

Tonight, a friend and I ate l-fdor [the breaking-of-the-fast sunset meal] at the PCV Hotel in SouqTown. We picked an empty table at random, not knowing that the mikka [plastic] sack on the next table meant that the owner of the hotel had claimed that as his own.

Most of the tables had mikka sacks on them; the hotel restaurant provides tea, coffee, harira [the traditional l-fdor soup – think Campbell’s Tomato Soup with pieces of spaghetti, lentils, chickpeas, and chunks of melting fat], and orange juice, but if you want anything else, you have to bring it yourself. Since l-fdor often features dates, hard-boiled eggs, shebbekia [think: miniature funnel cakes, dipped in corn syrup and allowed to dry], and various types of bread, most folks had acquired one or all of these in stores around SouqTown and brought them to the meal. BYOside-dishes.

Buotel [literally, the owner of the hotel] sat down and immediately struck up a conversation with us.

“Do you speak Spanish?”

It took me a minute to dredge up, “Mui poqito.” [And I learned Spanish on the street, so I have absolutely no idea how to spell anything. Don’t mock my spelling.]

He launched into a Spanish-French-Arabic blend, explaining that he’d grown up on the northernmost tip of Morocco, so was bilingual in Spanish and Arabic. My friend speaks a little Arabic, and I speak even less, but we did our best to follow along.

Over the next ten minutes, the harried waiters brought us, at widely spaced intervals: a large bottle of water; a water glass; another water glass (totally unlike the first); two more glasses; a pot of coffee, which he poured into the glasses over my protest [I don’t drink coffee]; two bowls of soup; a plate of buttered bread. At different intervals, Buotel gave us a plate of figs, two more glasses, and a bag of milk [which we successfully prevented him from pouring into the new glasses, but which we allowed him to pour into the coffee glasses, topping them off].

Note on coffee: Ramadan coffee bears no resemblance to actual coffee. It’s pretty much milk that’s been startled by a coffee bean. It’s a pale, highly sugared, spiced glass of milk that sort of faintly smells like coffee. I’ve seen wedding dresses that were a darker shade of ivory than this so-called “coffee”. In my opinion, this is all to the good. I don’t drink coffee, and therefore have never acquired the “acquired taste”. I find it … pretty gross, really.

But with all the gifting of figs and the pouring of beverages, it had become clear that Buotel considered us his guests. And while you can wave off offerings from your host, with repeated protests, you can’t refuse them once served without being mortally offensive. So once he got it in our cups, I knew I’d have to drink it. (Shudder.) That’s why I let him add the milk – anything to further dilute the already super-weak coffee was All To The Good in my book.

The restaurant also has a giant flat-screen TV, which was showing a soccer match. My friend, riveted by the giant display, absently reached for her coffee cup. No sooner had it touched her lip than Buotel reached past me to stop her. “They haven’t called the moghreb yet!” he exclaimed.

Sure enough, all the food on our table – and everyone else’s – remained untouched. The sunset call to prayer hadn’t yet echoed across SouqTown, so we were all still (officially) fasting.

My friend blinked, apologized profusely, and told me sotto voce that she’d genuinely forgotten. Our food and drink remained pristine for a few minutes more, and then the moghreb wafted through the window.

As we ate, our host continued his tireless stream of chatter, by now almost entirely in Arabic. I followed a little of it – enough words have been borrowed by Tam that I recognized a lot of what he said, plus he spoke slowly and used expressive hand gestures – but I still had to admit, “Mafhmsh” (Arabic for “I don’t understand”) every couple minutes. We understood enough to answer some of his basic questions, like which villages we worked in, and that no, we don’t live together. He asked if we were staying in his hotel. I answered that I was, because I was bound for the Big Airport-Having City in the morning, but that my friend wasn’t, because she lives nearby. That was all in Arabic, so it was ungrammatical to the extreme, but I was still proud I could communicate even that much. I’d explained that I don’t know Arabic, and my friend had assured him that she knew very little – she’s a Tam speaker, but has been picking up Arabic – so eventually he stopped trying to impress us with his credentials (which we couldn’t understand, but which he pulled out of his wallet nonetheless) and decided to launch into an Arabic lesson. “Water. Coffee. Bread. Soup,” he repeated slowly, pointing to each object. “Figs.” At this point, he ran out of items on the table (though he didn’t mention “plate” or “bowl” or “spoon” – I guess they’re just background and therefore invisible) and began naming other fruits. I recognized most of the names, since Tam borrowed them, but he used a couple that neither my friend nor I knew…and since we had no exemplars of them, the lesson proved … fruitless. (Sorry.)

Eventually, we extricated ourselves from Buotel’s extravagant hospitality, and set out into the post-l-fdor SouqTown. Many folks must still have been home eating, because the street still had the empty, shuttered feeling I remembered from last week. We walked around town for a bit, then circled back to a street that was drowsily returning to normal. Since neither the cyber nor my favorite corner shop had yet opened, I went back into the hotel to work on my trusty laptop (and type this up!). It’s now 10pm…let’s see if SouqTown has stirred...


8/28/09 Ama's America Wishes

Oh say, can you see? Iiiii'm comin' to Ame-ri-ca.

I'm leaving Morocco in two days. Eeeeek! (Don't worry, friends, I'm coming back.)

I'm heading back to the USA for my cousin's wedding. (Random tangent: I think this is the 4th Labor Day Weekend wedding I've attended. Huh.) I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to bring home a mountain of souvenirs/presents for various loved ones. Very exciting. :)

Ama is sad that I'll be gone for so long, but had lots of advice/wishes/counsel for me.

First off, she wanted to know if I'd be fasting in America--then caught herself, and said, "There is no Ramadan in America." I assured her that yes, American Muslims observe Ramadan just as faithfully as Moroccan Muslims do...but that since my entire extended family is Christian, no, I won't be fasting while there. She accepted this graciously; she knows that I fast here out of respect for the people I share my community with, so understands that when my community changes, so will my diet.

Then, she wanted to remind me to pass along her greetings to my mom, dad, and sister, all of whom she got to meet when they were here a couple months ago. (Mom, Dad, Sis: Ama wishes you peace and health.) She also gave me gifts for them (which you'll have to wait and see - no spoilers here!).

Then other family members chimed in, wanting to know how long it would take me to get to America. I explained that it would take several days, since ighzif l-abrid s'Merikan. The road to America is long. Tomorrow I'll go to SouqTown, Saturday to the Big Airport-Having City, Sunday from the City to Spain, and then Monday from Southwest Spain to Northeast Spain to Germany to America. They were very impressed. Four airplanes? Really?? FOUR airplanes!! My little brother asked if I get airsick. I assured them all that I've never been sick in any form of transport - bus, transit, car, plane, boat, train... They looked skeptical.

Then my little sister chimed in, reminding me that I'd promised to bring her a ruffled dress from America. A friend of hers has a flamenco-style dress from Spain, and my sis wants one. I pointed out that those dresses come from Spain, not America, but promised that I'd look around for one. (I actually have a lead on a ruffly dress...stay tuned.)

Next, Ama asked about the wedding itself. Will there be dancing? Food? Music? These are the key components of a Berberville wedding, and she wanted to know how similar the wedding traditions are. I said that yes, they'll all be there. She asked if I'd take lots of pictures, and maybe even some video of the wedding/reception. I agreed. (Fam: Don't let me forget!)

By this point, we'd finished l-fdor, and everyone else had scattered. Ama and I (and of course little baby M'Barak, who's never more than arm's reach from his mom) had the living room to ourselves. "So do you think you'll find a man at this wedding?" she asked seriously. I laughed. "As God wills," I answered cheerfully. "No, really, there are bound to be lots of men. And you'll be wearing your American clothes," she added, giving me a capital-L-Look.

I've shown her pictures of past weddings I've attended/been in, and she was a little startled by the amount of skin I showed. She believes me - I think - that strapless dresses are appropriate at American weddings, but she still finds it a little shocking. And she *definitely* thinks that it'll do me well for landing a man, which she devoutly wishes for me (as she would for any girl she cares about - here, there's nothing better that a woman can hope for; I've explained that my life works successfully without a man in it - in America, I had my own car, apartment, job, friends, etc, all without benefit of a husband - but she still wants what's best for me, and she's unshakable in her conviction that marriage and kids is absolutely best).

She added seriously, "You'll find a man, then you'll get married, and then you'll have kids. Just one boy and one girl - that's enough." She looked over at the other part of the house, where her two older boys and two older girls had all disappeared into. She rubbed her fifth child's back - he obligingly burped - and repeated, "One boy, one girl." I laughed again, smiled broadly, and repeated, "As God wills."

She added sadly, "You'll find a man, and settle down in America." I suddenly realized where this was going, and headed it off at the pass.

"Whether I find a man or not, I'll come back to Morocco." She looked up, eyes brightening.

"If you find a man, bring him back with you," she instructed.

"OK," I promised.

"Kawtar and her husband, coming to Morocco," she crooned to the baby. "Kawtar and her husband and her two children, all coming to see you." I smiled at the image of a ready-sprouted family. Hard to imagine it all happening in the 9 days I'll be in the US, but, hey - as God wills.

PS: If you want me to call you while I'm Stateside, email me with your phone number.

8/27/09 Ramadan Exceptions

From what I've been told, there are certain exemptions to the requirement to fast during Ramadan. If you've had a baby in the past 40 days, you're allowed to eat and drink. If you're traveling, you get to eat and drink. If you're ill, you're allowed food and medicine. If you're menstruating, you're unclean anyway, so fasting won't count - might as well eat and drink. If you vomit, you're unclean, plus presumably ill, so go ahead and replenish your body.

(NB: Yes, medicine is also forbidden during daylight hours of Ramadan. Nothing can cross your lips and be consumed. I wonder how modern Muslim scholars address the question of IV medication?)

In each of these cases, though, the exemptee is expected to "make up" the days of fasting, sometime later in the year. Many do it immediately after the holy month ends, others wait and make up their days later on. Around here, people refer to the days of fasting that they owe as "credit" (pronounced in the French manner, cray-dee), as though they've taken out a loan and must pay it back.

There's a certain amount of gray area as to the application of these exemptions. Just *how* sick do you have to be in order to be allowed to eat? At death's door? Bed-ridden? Mildly uncomfortable? A little sniffly? And how far do you have to travel to be considered a "traveler"? Here in Morocco, almost no one recognized the "traveler" exemption except for long voyages on foot. My friends who hiked Toubkal during the first days of Ramadan were universarlly encouraged to eat and drink. Folks riding around on buses and planes aren't considered to be exerting themselves overmuch, and therefore are still expected to fast. (I remember last year, sharing a bus seat with a young woman who whispered to me that she had the "problem of women" - her phrase - and therefore was eligible to eat. Even though we were riding for six hours on a bus, she didn't feel license as a traveler to get to eat or drink, so she contrived to hide her snacking from other passengers, through careful use of her headscarf and by turning in her seat to face me and the window.)

Here in Morocco, fasting is at least as much a cultural phenomenon as a religious one. Everything changes, from restaurant and business hours to the foods available in souq to TV programming. Everyone is expected to stay up most (if not all) of the night and sleep for most of the day. The Post Office in Berberville maintains its usual hours of operation, but everything else in town - shops, pharmacies, even the police station! - closes down for most of the day and opens for most of the night. For a month, the country becomes...nocturnal.


8/23/09 Ramadan Night 2 – SouqTown

Tonight, some PCV friends and I broke our fast in SouqTown. We’d ridden up on the last transit of the day, which leaves Berberville at 2:30 and gets into SouqTown between 6 and 6:30. I’d hoped that the ride would distract us from the growing rumbliness of our tummies; since we never eat on transits anyway, we might not notice that we couldn’t eat. Or something.

It worked, more or less, but we arrived in SouqTown a few minutes before 6, meaning that we had over an hour to wait before we could eat. We ended up hanging out in the hotel, not surprisingly, all the usual hangouts (cafés, restaurants, etc) being closed.

A few minutes before 7, we headed out into the street. The internet claimed that the moghreb prayer call would come at 7:05…but that’s the time for Rabat, which is over 100km west of us. So I figured the call would come sometime right around 7, but didn’t know quite when.

Our hotel has a restaurant inside it, but I rarely eat there. As we walked by, though, we were struck by the tableau: nearly every table was taken, nearly every seat filled, nearly every place served – served. Already. Every patron sat in front of a bowl of soup, a pot of tea, a basket of bread … and they just sat. No one ate. No one reached for a drink. No one clinked silverware against a dish. They just … sat. Frozen.

We continued down to my favorite sandwich guy. There, too, every patron sat in front of untouched food. After placing our orders – tea, soup, and sandwiches - we struggled to articulate what we found so bizarre. “It’s like The Truman Show, with everyone waiting for the day to begin.” “It’s like a surrealist painting.” “It’s just … weird.”

As we waited, we heard the call. Allahu akbar! echoed across the city. Faintly. “That was it, right?” we asked each other. “Yeah…? I think so.” We listened again, but a passing unmuffled motorcycle drowned out the faint call. After it passed, we heard the same faint cry. Just then, the tea and sandwiches arrived. By the time Natalie poured the tea, everyone around us had dug into their own fast-breaking food, so we dove in as well. (It’s traditional, though not – I don’t think – required, to wait until the end of the call before eating.)

The café now appeared normal, filled with happily munching folks, but the street still looked bizarre. At 7pm last week, the street overflowed with shoppers, loiter-ers, coffee-drinkers, and passersby, all going about their business in front of the dozens of shops that line the street. At 7pm tonight, the street was empty except for us. Massive steel doors shuttered the usually-bustling shops. Pharmacies, convenience stores, soda fountains, cafés, and yet more convenience stores (SouqTown has dozens) all sat silent. It felt post-apocalyptic…abandoned.

At least until everyone broke their fast and the night came to life.


August 22, 2009 Ramadan Day 1 – Berberville

I woke up this morning when I heard the water come on. I started the usual oh-hey-the-water’s-running chores – washing yesterday’s dishes, boiling water for tea, scrubbing another load of laundry – but stopped halfway through, when I realized that Ramadan may have started, and thus there’d be no need for tea.

May have started. Or may not have. It all depended on whether or not the local imams had seen a sliver of a crescent of the newborn moon last night. My friends and I had checked the skies ourselves, before turning in, but either the moon hadn’t yet risen or else it was still an invisible new moon. Not knowing which, I didn’t know whether or not we were supposed to fast today.

When in doubt – hit teh intarwebs. Blogspot may be iffy these days, but Google still works, so a quick check of Ramadan 2009 Morocco led to … a lot of speculation published earlier in the month. Eventually, I found an announcement from Abu Dhabi that Ramadan had begun. I found a blogger from Fes confirming it…and so it’s on!

No food.

Or water.

All day.

Until l-fdor, the breaking of the fast. Yes, like in English, fdor usually refers to breakfast, the morning meal of the day. But technically, it’s just the first meal of the day, ie the meal that breaks the fast of the previous hours…usually overnight hours, but for this month, the daytime fasting hours. Fdor is eaten after the moghreb, the sunset call to prayer. (All 5 prayers have their own names.) Just to make things even more confusing, this meal is sometimes known as the moghreb.

According to a handy website, this meal – our first meal since a midnight snack before turning in last night – will come at 7:07 tonight.

After a long, stomach-rumbling day, we baked chocolate chip cookies – a true test of our commitment to maintaining the fast – and brought the still-warm cookies over to my host family’s house. Ama had invited us to fdor yesterday, when we joined them for lunch.

She’d actually said, “If Ramadan starts tomorrow, come for fdor. If not, no problem.”

When we arrived, the main room was empty. Ama was sitting over a table covered in three kinds of bread and a tea pot, in the kitchen, and my little siblings were running around the compound. I wondered where fdor would be served – in the main room or one of the fancy entertaining rooms on the other side of the compound? – but we were ushered into the main room, so I assumed it’d be in there.

After helping Ama put the finishing touches on the preparations, and assuring her that the moghreb would be called in just a few minutes, I carried the bread-laden table into the room where my friends still sat. I brought out the tea set, too, and then the tea and coffee pots. Soon, Ama and Baba and the baby joined my friends and me at the table. We heard the first peals of the Allahu akbar – God is the greatest! – coming from Berberville’s only mosque, on the far side of town. One of us (who shall remain nameless) went ahead and broke fast with a date. The rest of us followed Ama’s example of waiting until the call to prayer had completed, then reaching for dates of our own. Mmm, dates.

After the date, I ate some bread with honey, then some olives, another date, a chocolate chip cookie (which Ama broke out and served), then some more bread, then a third kind of bread, then another date…

Once the day’s hunger had been sated, Ama served the harira, aka taharirt (love how Tamazight adapts Arabic words!), the traditional Ramadan soup. It’s a thick, creamy soup, with the texture of tomato soup but including rich additions like lentils and inch-long spaghetti noodles and chickpeas. Ama makes it with meat, but always scoops around the chunks of meat for me, her favorite vegetarian. :)


8/16/09 ...the Mouths of Babes...

Despite some logistical hiccups (and yes, I'm being kind), today's SouqTown festival accomplished several of its goals.

One of those: Present anti-smoking lessons to the people of SouqTown.

Advising folks on the perils of smoking and second-hand-smoke falls under the rubric of the Health PCVs, who make up more than half of the PCVs who share SouqTown with me.

So you'd think we'd be well prepared for this.

But there's a catch.

A surprising percentage of Health Volunteers in Peace Corps Morocco are themselves smokers.

Pretty serious smokers, in fact.

Including two of this evening's presenters.

One felt the need to brace himself with a smoke before heading out. The other ducked out of the session to grab a cig.

Both recognized their own hypocrisy enough to avoid smoking right there at the Anti-Smoking Booth, at least. Both came back to the hotel that serves as Peace Corps' SouqTown base of operations and smoked indoors.

Both underestimated our SouqTown neighbors.

Mr. Smoked-Before-The-Session tried to snag a passing kid with the question, "Hey, do you smoke?"

The kid looked at him for a second before announcing, "No, but you do."

He followed this bombshell with, "You smoke a lot." He looked over at Mr. Ducked-Out-To-Smoke, then back at my gaping buddy, adding, "So does he."

As they sat there and blinked at him, he cheerfully continued, "You really shouldn't. It's bad for you. Really, really bad for you. My lungs are still white, but yours are all black now."

He turned to go, but not before tossing off a cheerful, "You're probably going to die soon."

The two smokers-cum-Health PCVs looked at each other. Then looked away, trying their best to ignore the laughter around them...

8/2/09 tbillclintont

Not long ago, I discovered that the American Secretary of State is known in Morocco not as Hillary Clinton, not as Secretary Clinton, not as Senator Clinton, not even as Mrs. Clinton.

Nope, this powerful woman is instead known as tbillclintont. [[For a truly excellent post on the subject, read my friend's blog about this - just scroll down a bit to find the relevant piece.]]

Faithful readers will recall that nearly any Tamazight word can be made feminine by adding t's to the beginning and end of it. A Berber man is an amazigh and his wife is a tamazight. A bull is an afunass and a cow is a tafunasst.

Tam speakers also tend to adopt Arabic words and render them Tam words by bookending them with t's. An Arab may wear a jelabba, known to the western world as "those hooded cloaks worn by Jedi knights and Jawas", but an Amazigh will wear a tejlabbit. If an Arab wants to dig a well, he gets a group together to dig an anu. His Berber neighbors will put their muscle into digging a tanut. This morning, I asked a shop owner for a mshtH to brush my hair with. He shook his head and said, "That's Arabic! But here, have a tamshtHit."


So when the Secretary of State is rendered tbillclintont, I wonder to myself if they're simply feminizing her more-famous husband's name, or also claiming her as Berber. I've been told each of the following at least twice - that she (1) is herself Berber, (2) was born in "Springfield" [the capital of my Berber-dominated province], (3) has a Berber brother-in-law, (4) has a Berber sister-in-law, and (5) will definitely come to Morocco to give a speech next week/month/year. No, seriously, she is/does/will.

No, seriously. Seriously!


8/14/09 Breezy bliss


I slept on my roof last night, watching the meteor shower for the third night in a row, under two blankets. Both were doubled over; I burrito'd myself in the lower blanket, wrapping myself entirely, and left both folded layers of the upper one draped over me. That's three layers of blanket pressing down on me...and when I woke up, just as dawn brightened the sky but before the sun breached the eastern mountain, I found myself curling up against the chill, unconsciously trying to warm my icy toes.

In August.

I love coming home.

I love that final stretch of the four-hour transit ride when I know that I'm finally almost there.

No matter how engrossing my book or how deeply I'm in my eye-glazed reverie, I always know when I'm near home - because of the way the air changes.

About 20 kilometers from Berberville, we drive through a narrow pass that serves as the local Continental Divide. That is, to the west (where Berberville is), all the water drains down towards the Atlantic, but to the east (where Souqtown is), everything runs southeast until it evaporates into the Sahara.

The pass marks a microclimate as well as a drainage boundary. Berberville gets rain or snow every few days throughout the year. Some weeks we'll have a storm every afternoon, other weeks might be bone-dry, but on average, we get precipitation every 3-4 days.

That changes at the pass.

My lake is so flooded right now that the road past it - which sits a good meter or so above the usual shoreline - is about a meter underwater. No one I've asked has ever seen the water this high. In a friend's village, only 20km on the other side of the pass, the water table is so low that the water pressure is failing. He lives in a second-story apartment and can't get water most of the day, while his first-story neighbor has water 24 hours.

...but I digress.

When I ride through the pass, after three and a half hours of hot, crowded, awkward travel, I abruptly trade the heavy, sticky air of the lowlands for my clean mountain breezes. The air pushing through the windows changes in character. It suddenly screams cold in a way that fast-moving hot air simply can't.

I've tried to figure out how to describe the chill promise in the air, the taste of snow it never loses, the beneficent touch of mountain grace that means home... The best I can do is compare it to car trips on hot days in the US. I usually avoid using the A/C, to spare the engine and the environment, but sometimes I just have to hit the button. The shift from cooled air blowing through the fans to air-conditioned air blowing on me....that's the change I mean. With chemically-cooled air conditioning, I always think of the liquid freon, and let the liquid cool pour over me. When I cross the pass into my high valley, I don't feel a liquid chill, I feel the hint of solid crystalline snow, the reminder that just because my mountains lost their last snowfields in June doesn't mean it's gone for long. The air tastes like it skimmed over a glacier and flirted with a blizzard before dancing down to me.

Come wintertime, I may regret living in the coldest site in Morocco, but right now, hearing friends talk about chapstick melting in their pockets and pouring bottles of water on themselves to try to sleep and feeling too hot to move most of the time...right now, I love every snow-laden promise in the air, every reminder that my aerie paradise is immune to the Sahara's reach.


8/13/09 Big Men On Campus

My PA and I stepped through the gate to the college. It hung open invitingly, but only because unknown agents ripped out the lock a while ago, so now it can't close.

I walked her around the grounds, showing her the murals we painted and the hundreds of trees we planted. I'd hoped to introduce her to some (any) administrator, but the place seemed deserted.

As we wound up our perambulations around the campus, we heard voices drifting through a window to the dormitory. I looked in and saw five men sitting around a table, laughing at each others' stories as they finished their lunch. Since I didn't recognize any of them, I assumed they were day laborers, here to continue the ongoing construction/maintenance of the large campus. I mentioned this to my PA, who asked, "So where's the construction?" Looking around, I realized that for the first time in months, I saw no ladders, power tools, steel rods, or half-finished buildings. I suggested that maybe they'd put a new coat of paint on a surprisingly sharp-looking building, but wondered.

We finished our walkabout and turned to head back to the car (bliss-inducing side-effect of site visit: getting to take the 2-km trip from downtown to the campus in an air-conditioned, fully sprung, cushion-seated car instead of walking in the blistering heat of a cloudless summer afternoon). Two figures appeared at the door of the dormitory and called to us. We walked back to say hi.

Long story short(er) - they're members of an association based in Springfield, here for 15 days to prepare the campus for the new school year and provide activities for the students who have mountains of empty time on their hands during the summer hiatus.

They spoke with my PA in rapid Darija, so I followed almost none of the conversation. I therefore don't know who first proposed having the kids put rings of white stones around all of our fledgling saplings...but I know that my PA was thrilled, and eagerly volunteered us to help out. When they explained their materiel shortages, I volunteered white paint and brushes.

We hadn't yet visited the gendarmes or the caid, so we agreed to come back in a few hours. The students wouldn't show up for another half hour anyway - we'd gone to the campus during siesta - so we said we'd bring the materials right away and then return to help out after running our other errands.

We returned to my house for the leftover muraling supplies. My PA looked at the cans of white paint and explained that jiH, which the guys wanted to use to paint the rocks with, is ... something else. Made from dust and rocks. I offered plaster, but she shook her head. A trip to my ever-dependable buHanoot got us connected with the local version of Home Depot (which is apparently across the street from my house! I knew it was an industrial space, but never knew what was in there!) and we were soon the proud owners of a 30kg bag of ... white dust and rocks.

We dropped that, along with brushes and sponges, at the college, then returned to our daily rounds.

When we returned, an hour or two later, everyone was asleep. Apparently, siesta runs really long on hot summer days. (I mean, seriously, it was almost 5pm by this point.)

But when one of the association guys met us at the dormitory door - after repeated knocking - he showed us three nearly-overflowing buckets of ... white stuff.

The rest of the team soon roused, and together we carried the sloshy buckets out to the field.

The first order of business, I discovered, was gathering rocks with which to encircle the tiny saplings. I'd imagined that we'd paint a bunch of rocks first, then arrange them around the trees...don't know why I thought it'd be a good idea to carry rocks dripping with wet paint...

One by one, and then clump by clump, kids emerged from their siestas to join in the effort. We pillaged all the decent-sized rocks from the gravelly soil, then went further afield, to the piles next to the newly-constructed buildings, in order to find enough stones to create half-meter-diameter circles around a hundred or so trees.

Why only ~100 when there are 250 on campus? Because the main goal of this is to help would-be tree-waterers to find the trees. Most of the fragile saplings run along the front wall of the campus, in front of buildings, or lining the edges of the exercise courtyard, but we scattered a batch of 100 or so just north of the soccer field, and since they reach only about 6 inches tall, they're awfully hard to spot. Lhumdullah, Berberville has gotten a rainy summer, so the trees have mostly fended for themselves, but a few good-hearted folks have watered them during the dry weeks. At least, they've watered all the trees they've found. 5 overlooked trees have completely vanished, and another 5 or so are dead, leaving behind only brown stalks. There are another 10-15 that are, in the immortal words of The Princess Bride, "Mostly dead." With enough water and TLC, they'll pull through, but not if their would-be caretakers keep missing them.

So we created rock rings, and then painted/sponged them with what I finally identified as whitewash. I've never actually seen it before. In fact, I only know it from Tom Sawyer and its modern, metaphorical usage, referring to glossing over unpleasant truths. And from the stories about how the White House got its name. But it's a real substance, and apparently still in active use, at least here in the developing world.

So while small boys and the association guys whitewashed the rings of stones, I kept wandering the field, looking for little lost saplings. Every time I found one, I started its rock ring, then called over a kid (or three) to finish it up while I kept walking. The further afield I went, the more dead or dying saplings I found, underlining the importance of our work. If the trees were fully dead, I didn't bother memorializing them with stones or whitewash, but the mostly-dead ones were my favorite finds, because I knew that these were the most likely to be saved by our efforts.

After a few hours, my PA and I had to cut out, for our last errand, but first we ran down to my buHanoot and picked up sodas and snack cakes for the kids. Delivering them brought out the worst in our little helpers - when I saw the fights that broke out between kids trying to steal the food before we could give it away, I understood how greed earned a spot on the list of 7 deadly sins - but eventually, everyone was happily slurping and munching, plus I got to give a mini-lesson on the evils of littering (as the kids dropped their bottlecaps and snack wrappers where they stood).

Looking over the future forest, planted by children and teens and parents and a handful of PCVs just five months ago, every tree now highlighted by a bright white bulls-eye of stone, I felt again the glow I'd felt when we first planted the field. Though the tiny saplings barely hint at their future majesty, the dozens of trees scattered across an acre of scrubground point to a greener, shadier, healthier, ecologically exciting future.

Am I naive to hope so much? Or just willing to believe that change can come?


8/12/09 Site Visit Ventures

Yesterday was my site visit from my Program Assistant.

In non-Peace-Corps-Speak, that translates to "Yesterday, the second-in-command of Team Environment paid a visit to my little Berberville in order to meet folks, chat up the Powers That Be, and give me ideas as to next steps on my work."

We paid the requisite visits to the gendarmes, the caid, and the host family, plus popped out to my beautiful lake, my mdrasa, and my college.

Everywhere we went, something unexpected happened. The college is the best story, which is why I'm saving it for tomorrow. :)

But here are some of the others.

At the gendarmes, I discovered that the itinerary I'd given to them for the month of August, spelling out my travels in a hastily sketched-out note on a ripped-out-sheet of notebook paper, had been typed up and faxed to ... somebody further up the food chain. Since I sort of imagined that these itineraries I give them whenever I leave Berberville just get ignored and then lost, this came as a bit of a shock.

At the caid, my well-intentioned and well-spoken governor-type reiterated, in a blend of French and Arabic that I mostly followed, just how much he supports the work that PCVs do. My PA and I left the meeting in smiles, and she spent the next few hours coming up with ways that he could be helpful in my future work. 'Cause he's just that cool.

At the host family, we drank tea and ate bread and jam. I made the tea, since Ama was having a rough time with the baby, and was reminded once again just how useless I feel in a Moroccan kitchen. (I put in too much tea for the small pot, so it came out bitter. Sigh.) Ama felt the need to point out to my PA and to my 3tti (who dropped by) that I'd made the tea, which might have been her attempt to say Look, she makes tea! but felt more like Don't blame me for this nasty stuff. Double sigh. But Ama and my PA had a great conversation about energy usage (read: burning fuelwood) and capacity building (read: creating a grassroots organization to help) that left me wondering about future plans here in my village. My mental teapot is now bubbling away...let's hope more successfully than the physical one I poured from this evening.

At the lake, my PA gazed rapturously at the Carribean-green waters...while I winced inwardly. Maybe Carribean seas flourish when green, but my little lake is showing the effects of Tide in the rivers, contributing to algal blooms and ultimately eutrophication - a five-syllable word for death by choking, at least when it comes to lakes. We also observed that the water, which was over the road back on the 4th of July, is now even higher. It's over a meter higher than the usual shoreline. Lake-margin trees are now submerged up to their middles. How long can trees survive this before their trunks decay and roots rot?? We couldn't even see the road leading deeper into the park; the trees that line it waved their upper branches at us, while the road itself hid under a meter or more of standing water.

At the mdrasa, I discovered that about a third of the trees we planted there in March have been uprooted by construction (grr), but that the construction guys lavish water and care on the other 2/3, at the direct request of the caid. So as sad as I felt to see the waste of two dozen saplings, I had to be grateful for the caid's ongoing commitment to our project.

At the college... As promised, this story takes the cake. So you'll get to hear it ... next time I visit blogspot. Tomorrow, inshallah. :)


8/7/9 My “Success Story”

Today I submitted my second-quarter report (April – June), and agonized over the “success story” they always ask us to include. I can’t figure out how to encapsulate three months of work, growth, struggle, and change into a cute little anecdote. For the first-quarter report, I just put in a note saying I’ve written hundreds of such stories; please feel free to browse my blog archives. My Program Manager wasn’t pleased. So this time I sat there, everything else complete, staring at a blank screen.

And after a minute of shuffling through my mental photo album, I remembered an incident that I’d meant to write up here, but which fell through the cracks. It occurred during my family’s visit to Morocco, in June, when I was too busy living to keep up with blogging.

So here’s the story, copied and pasted directly from my quarterly report:

In June, my American family came to Morocco, and met my host family. During the delicious couscous lunch my host mother had prepared for us, she told us that her stepdaughter, my host sister, had just received news that she'd passed her Baccalaureate exam. She invited us to the celebratory party that afternoon.

I delighted in the knowledge that not only had my sister succeeded in finishing her college preparation against all the odds (she lives in a remote village, she lost her mother as a young child, her teachers take holidays every few weeks, she's a *girl* in Morocco...), but that also, that my family was taking so much pride in the accomplishments of their oldest girl.

I explained to my American parents and sister what they could expect. Cookies, crepes, peanuts, incomprehensible-to-them Tamazight conversation, and gallons of tea, just to name a few. We walked over to the party and entered a room crowded with women. My host sister was not only the guest of honor but the primary hostess, so we barely saw her as she shuttled back and forth between the kitchens and the salon. I sat in a corner, with my Moroccan mom, aunt, and siblings along the wall to my right, and my American mom, dad (the only man in the room!), and sister along the wall to my left. Dad tried unsuccessfully to refuse the tea. (My sister ended up drinking his tea for him.) Mom and my sister took theirs and drank it, then ate cakes, cookies, crepes dripping with oil, and peanuts.

Our hostess/guest-of-honor asked one of her friends, helping her serve at the party, to bring napkins to the timid Americans. As soon as they got the napkins, my family eagerly scrubbed the oil from the crepes off their hands. The friend tried to place a napkin in front of me, but my host mother waved her off, saying, "She's not an American - she doesn't need one. She's a Moroccan girl, now." Since I'd already rubbed the oil into my hands and dusted the crumbs off my fingertips, I could only grin my agreement and lean over to give her a hug.

Gigh tmaghrabit dghi. I'm a Moroccan girl now. :)

8/5/09 The Newbies

Last year, when I was a newbie Environment Volunteer, I waited six months after my 11-week Pre-Service Training (PST) to see my buddies again, at our week-long IST (In-Service Training).

Thanks to the rearranging of the training schedule, this year’s newbies only got 8 weeks - not 11 - of training when they first arrived, then three months of living with their host families and working on language and integration, and now they have two weeks of “Post-PST” training. Yes, that means Post-Pre-Service Training training. Sometimes government bureaucracy just makes me smile. :)

I’m assured that they’ll end up with the same amount of training we got – either because they’ll get a 2-week IST or because I miscounted the number of weeks of PST – but the big difference is that instead of getting their “technical sessions” mixed in with their language and cultural sessions during one massive training haul, they had 8 weeks of language/culture and now, once they’re settled in-site and integrated into their communities, they’re getting all of the technical sessions in one huge batch.

As my loyal readers may remember, during PST, I shuttled regularly between my Training City and my small riverbank village. Three days in the City followed by a week in the village. A week in the City followed by two weeks in the village. Etc. We spent three months packing and repacking almost daily…but it also meant that we got to take breathers. Too many hours on learning a language that shares no roots with English? Take a week to train on how to set up EE clubs and conduct SIDA lessons. Too many PowerPoint presentations? Time to chill with your host family and bounce a baby on your knee.

I’m not sure which training model is more effective, though I do know that the newbies’ language skills are amazing. 8 solid weeks of living with their host families while getting 8 hours every day of direct instruction on language gave them a fluency and vocabulary range that I’m still working on after a year.

So why am I bringing this up now?

Because I’ve come to the newbies’ Training City to conduct some of those infamous PowerPoint presentations. I’m talking to them twice, actually. Today, I get to discuss the club that Fatima and I have run over the past year, and show them pictures of the murals, soccer tournament, tree planting, SIDA lessons, and other games and activities we all did together. Tomorrow I’ll co-lead a session on Monitoring & Evaluation. (A few months ago, a newbie & I went up to Peace Corps headquarters for a workshop on M&E, and now we get to pass along what we learned.)

I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with the newbies. For all that I call them by that slightly condescending term – newbies – I have nothing but respect for the new crop of Volunteers, a fresh group of wide-eyed innocents who have left their families, friends, and homeland for two years in hopes of bringing the world closer to peace.

When I was a wide-eyed Peace Corps Trainee, I *loved* getting visits from 2nd year Volunteers. They all seemed so confident, so blasé, so assured of things that I still found bewildering and shocking. I peppered each visitor with questions, trying to define the undefinable Peace Corps Experience. These newbies aren’t in quite the same position I was – they’ve had 3 months in their sites to knock the edges off their shiny newness, so they’re not as mystified by The World Outside of Training as I was – so I haven’t gotten as many What’s It Like?? questions. Instead, I’ve gotten to hang out with them. We’ve eaten meals, walked around town, chilled out on the hotel roof…we’ve gotten to know each other. And I’m reminded all over again what an honor it is to be a PCV.

Spending time with a room full of Volunteers…just isn’t quite like anything else. You have the full range of personality types, from fresh-out-of-undergrad-fratboy-type to retiree-calmer-and-wiser-type and everything inbetween. But young, old, goofy, serious, partier, workerbee, funny, chill…they’re all Peace Corps Volunteers. They all chose to surrender two years of their lives to live and learn and love a new country.

I can’t figure out how to say this without sounding like I’m self-aggrandizing, but please just trust that I don’t mean to be: PCVs are amazing human beings.

For most of my life, when I entered social situations full of strangers, I'd hang back, looking for the one or two folks in the room who I could connect to on a meaningful level. I’m capable of small talk, but I dislike it and prefer a friendly silence to stilted chatter. I'd nearly always find someone I'd enjoy talking with, and then spend the rest of my time with that individual.

It’s different here. When I walked into this hotel full of strange PCVs, I remembered something I’d forgotten since the beginning of stage: a group of PCVs isn’t like any other group I’ve ever met. I’m already connected to them all, on a profound level. These aren’t strangers at all; they’re members of my Peace Corps family, unknown to me but bonded nonetheless. It’s like going to your ancestral homelands and meeting your distant cousins. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never seen each other before or that your accents are different; you’re still family. You’ll figure out what else you have in common soon enough, but it hardly matters, because you’ve already flown across the first social hurdle. They’re already an us, not a them.

PCVs, despite the thousands of ways that we 8000 people are so different from each other, share similarities on a level that I just haven’t found anywhere else. And of course you find exceptions. A handful joined Peace Corps because they wanted an in to graduate school, or because they were bored and confused and didn’t know what to do with themselves. But those are the exception…and they don’t usually last very long, either because they go home early or because Peace Corps Service works its magic on them, and they find themselves serving the world as PCVs, even to their own surprise.

So I’m grateful to be here, not only to get to “pay forward” the generosity of the 2nd-year Volunteers who helped my Training, but because I’ve gotten to meet 26 new friends. 26 new amazing, selfless, generous-hearted brothers and sisters.

[[Little brothers and sisters, of course, regardless of their age in calendar years, because I’ve been here a year longer and am therefore clearly entitled to play the big sister card. ;) ]]

8/11/09 Word of the Day: "Berber"

You can't read this blog without encountering the word "Berber". A lot. I call my village Berberville, talk about my Berber neighbors, my Berber dialect, and my life as a Berber girl.

But some people would have you believe that "Berber" is an insulting word, a condescending, diminishing, cruel, derogatory, and offensive term.

I hear this more often from city folk who have a Berber grandma somewhere in a mountain village than from anyone I actually encounter in daily life.

They'll point out that Amazigh - Free People - is the term that these mountain folk use to refer to themselves. Put another way, amazigh is the Berber word for Berber. ;)

The etymology of "Berber" dates back a long, long way, and isn't crystal clear. Scholars have a chicken-and-egg discussion going as to its relationship to "barbarian" and "Barbary Pirate". The words are undoubtedly related, but which came first is hotly debated.

An alternate theory for the origin of the word "Berber" is "Barba Rossa", the most famous of these pirates, the red-bearded master of the seas. Some argue that his red hair illustrates his descent from those original navigational geniuses, the Phoenicians. There are definitely plenty of red-headed Amazighn around still today, though they're a minority.

What is clear is that several hundred years ago, sea-farers from the countries of the Maghreb - Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia - wreaked havoc on Atlantic trade. Most European sea powers found it easier to buy them off than defeat them at sea. (There's a whole side tangent about the origins of American naval power and Jefferson's arguments with Washington and Adams and the creation of our navy and even the drafting of the Constitution - and yes, there really is an important and story here - but I'll save that for another time.)

So whether Europeans called the Amazighn "Berbers" because they found them to be barbarous, or whether the word "Berber" already existed for these red-bearded sons of the Phoenicians, the fact remains that Europeans used the term to refer to folks they weren't happy with.

Hence all the negative associations.

But language is complicated, and words evolve over time. I have no problem with calling the Lakota peoples by their own name for themselves instead of the French-designated Sioux (which apparently meant "smelly", I've heard??), but if I'm talking to folks who go blank-eyed at the name Lakota, I'll switch back to the more familiar expression. When I'm discussing something I learned about African-American history, I'll probably switch off between that seven-syllable mouthful and the one-syllable "Black".

But we're talking about the Free Peoples of my mountains. Who are referred to as les berberes in French, l-shlua in Arabic, and Amazighn in Tamazight. So what should I call them when speaking English?

If I believed that "Berber" were offensive, I'd stop using it. But I don't. To draw from an example my readers will relate to, it's equivalent to "Black", not the n-bomb. It's descriptive, not derogatory. In my opinion, words become offensive when they're used to offend. When they become weapons, barbed [[hey, wonder if that's etymologically relevant?]] to cause pain.

I couldn't imagine referring to my friends, neighbors, and family with anything but love and respect. OK, and sometimes frustration or impatience, but never with an intent to harm, let alone wound.

So I'll keep using the innocuous-to-me-and-to-all-the-Amazighn-I-know "Berber", mixing it up with "Amazighn" as it seems appropriate, and will trust that y'all are giving me the benefit of the doubt.


One other thing, for the grammar hounds out there - because Tamazight is fraught with conjugations, Amazighn gets its own trip through the wringer. That form is the masculine plural, and refers to "them" - the collective. A group of females would be "Tamazightn", and a single man is an "Amazigh" or single female "Tamazight". And if you think that the feminine singular bears a striking similarity to the name of the language, you're right. Because Tam (as I usually call it) is a contraction of awal Tamazight - the language of the Free People - and since awal, language, is a feminine singular noun, the modifying adjective is conjugated in the feminine singular form. Because Amazigh is both a noun and an adjective - didn't I mention that before? Ah, fun with Tam. ;)

8/4/09 Semi-Random Acts of Kindness

This morning, I stopped in my favorite pastry shop in Souqtown. It adjoins my favorite coffee shop, where I planned to camp out and work while waiting for a meeting.

When I walked in, my favorite pastry-shop-girl was behind the counter. Her face lit up when she saw me – as mine did when I saw her – but she was dealing with a difficult customer, so I waited for him to back off before I came up and went through the greetings.

As we were going through the minute-long ritual, an ancient Berber lady came in. She sported the traditional – and increasingly rare – chin tattoo that distinguishes the real, die-hard Tamazightn (Berber ladies) from the modern generation.

Just as we’d finished the greeting ritual, another customer came in, dropped money on the counter, and barked out an order. She hastily got him his bread and then turned back to me.

I took a breath to say, “Khobz b shokolat” – bread with chocolate, aka a chocolate croissant – but before I could say it, the Berber lady rushed the counter and barked out her order.

In Tam.

Which my pastry-lady doesn’t speak. Well, she speaks a little. You can’t live long in SouqTown without picking some up; it’s the street language here. (That’s one of the things I love about SouqTown, actually.) But not enough to follow what this woman had asked for.

So this tiny little old woman turned to me and said, “Explain it to her!”

I looked back at her and said, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. What did you say?”

“Explain it to her! She doesn’t know what I said!”

“Yes, but what did you say? I'm sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

And then came the moment I always dread in my Tam conversations: when my knowledge of some Tam, as well as my half-decent accent (only half, but still better than some; despite my headaches with 3in, I really am trying to pronounce this stuff correctly), makes people believe that I can understand anything they say.

Which I usually can’t, even after a year and a half.

These little old illiterate Berber ladies are the worst. I mention the illiteracy not as a dig – they never had any opportunity to learn to read, so it says nothing against them that they can’t – but because I’ve discovered that it actually makes a difference in how you speak.

People who know what words are, how they can be grouped and arranged in sentences, how they can be conjugated into defined tenses – and most especially people who have studied a foreign language, which every Moroccan school kid does from 3rd Grade onwards – they speak differently from those who don’t know. Their words are slightly more deliberate, more separated from each other, just clearer. Or at least, once they realize that I didn’t understand them when they were speaking with the usual conversational slurs, they can speak deliberately and clearly.

These dear Berber ladies, when I ask them to speak slowly, will invariably respond with, “IIIIII saaaaaiiiiiiddddddd, ‘Qtyuiopogfdszxcvb,mnbvcxdfghjko9ytrewe678iokjhgvb.’” The “I said” is drawn out to the point of absurdity, and the rest remains murderously fast. Oh, and have I mentioned that most of them have only a few teeth? Which doesn’t help with the enunciation. My only strategy for these dear ones is to try to pick out key words and infer the rest.

I tried it here.

“IIIII tttttoooollllllddddd hhhheeeerrrrrr,” she drawled through her naked pink gums, “That I want FOUR ertyuiokjhgfdcvbhgfuijgfrtyuiokjhgfvbnkjhgfdtiokjh, with snow.” I totally missed the middle 2/3 of the sentence, but at least I recognized the final idiom – with snow – as being the Berber phrase for “chilled” or “from the fridge/freezer”. I was going to take a stab at it, and tell my pastry-friend that she’d asked for four chilled loaves of bread, but then the feisty little lady called my bluff.

“Did you understand? What did I say? Did you understand?”

“I understood a little,” I admitted.

She cackled a laugh. “She understands a little!” She then gave up on me entirely, and talked to the Arabic-speaking but Tam-learning pastry lady. She repeated her question, and the patissiere responded in Arabic. I have no idea how much was mutually understood, but the Berber laughed again, smiled at me, patted my arm, and walked out of the store.

Given that the pastry shop has no refrigeration, I guess she’d been told that whatever four chilled things she wanted weren’t available.

All three of us were laughing as she walked out of the shop, empty-handed but wreathed in smiles. Toothless smiles, but happy smiles.

I turned back to the counter to ask for my croissant when yet another customer barged in, threw money on the counter, and demanded a puff pastry. No, two. No, not that one, that one over there. She told him that he was a dirham short, so he dropped another one on the counter, then dropped a few more and asked for an olive loaf. (I’m serious – it’s like a loaf of Italian bread, with olive paste baked in. It’s bread that tastes like olives. I like bread and I like olives, but somehow the olive loaf doesn’t do it for me.)

I quietly slid my 2dh onto the counter and waited.

After Mr. Grumpy had swept out, she turned to me with a sigh and a smile. “The usual?” she asked.

I grinned and said, “You know me.” Then I realized that I’d said it in Tam, so I repeated it in Arabic. She probably understood both – I suspect her Tam is better than mine is, though she never speaks it – but anyway, she smiled and reached for a paper bag to put it in.

“Oh, forget the sack,” I said, gesturing to the coffeeshop next door. She set down the paper bag and wrapped my croissant in a napkin before handing it to me.

“And you forget the money,” she said with a smile.

I blinked at her, confused.

“Yup, forget it,” she repeated.

I slipped my dirhams back into my pocket, thanked her, and wished blessings on her parents.

After a few more ritual phrases, I was out the door, into the coffeeshop, another big smile on my face and a free croissant in my hand. :)

PS: I really am that predictable…I meant to ask the coffeeshop guy for a banana juice, but tripped over my tongue and ordered an orange juice. He looked at me and said, “Banana juice, right?” and I just grinned. I mean, I’ve sampled nearly everything at least once – I’m not just sticking with the first thing I tried, but, well, I like what I like. :)

8/3/09 What’s up with the 3?

A few of you have asked about the letter I represent with the number 3 when I’m transliterating Tamazight or Arabic words. And since today is the 3rd, it seemed timely to answer.

Quick background: Arabic, like English, has about two dozen consonants and a handful of vowels. The specific numbers of each aren’t the same, but they’re close. The vast majority of the letters correspond pretty directly to English/French/Latin letters. The “taa” sounds and acts just like our T, the “mim” just like our M, etc. There are a few letters that represent sounds that don’t exist in English. Most of these sounds are found in French or German, though, so if you’ve studied any of these, you’ve at least encountered them before. The “raa” is like an R, rolled Spanish-style. Then there’s the “ghain”, which I transliterate with a “gh”, which is a sort of gargly sound that’s almost identical to the R at the end of “Louvre” or “Favre” (if Brett hadn’t gone and switched to Fav-err), and there are a couple of others.

But there’s one sound that’s unique. OK, I don’t speak Chinese or Russian or any of the Indonesian languages, so I can't say for sure that it's unique to Arabic and Tam. But it’s a sound I’ve never encountered before I started studying Arabic: the “3in”. See, you can’t even say the name of the letter without using it. (But then, you can’t say T – “tee” – without a T, so I guess this shouldn’t be surprising.) In Arabic script, it’s written like a big soft cursive capital E, or like a backwards number 3. Since it doesn’t correspond to any letter in English, it makes sense to me to write it with a 3.

To pronounce an “3in”, you flatten your tongue against the bottom of your mouth, tense your throat, and say an A. I’ve heard it described this as the doctor’s-office-tongue-depressor-sound. One of my Arabic books calls it the sound of someone being strangled.

OK, enough background. The point is: it’s tricky to pronounce.

After a couple years of practice, I’m doing OK – people know what I mean when I try to say it – but it still doesn’t sound right.

This wouldn’t be as annoying if it didn’t show up in so many words. It’s in many, many Arabic words – in fact, the easiest way to tell in a second if someone is speaking Arabic or just differently-accented Tam is to listen for the sound of lots of 3ins – but since lots of Arabic words have been incorporated into Tam, I still have to say it.

And the single most common greeting phrase – llah y 3awn – May God help you – has one. I say that to every woman (and some men) I walk past, unless I have time to stop and run through the whole set of greetings with her. So I have to pronounce an 3in several times a day.

And then there are all the other words.

3awn – help
3id – Festival
w3sher – Holiday
3ayd – return
3wm – swim
3wd – arrive
3shera – 10 (ten)
rb3a – 4 (four)
rb3 – ¼ (one-fourth)
seb3a – 7 (seven)
sib3 – baby-naming feast on the 8th day of a newborn’s life (like a bris, but without the circumcision)
3arabiya – Arabic
3iraq – Iraq

…and so many more. Not a single one of which I pronounce correctly. Yet…

8/1/09 Blogger delinquency

So I’ve failed to keep my New Year’s Resolution of daily blogging.

Sorry, faithful readers.

Sometimes I’ve been busy, sometimes I’ve been traveling, sometimes blogspot has been down, sometimes I’ve just been too despondent to want to share my thoughts… But I also bit off more than I could chew, last month. If you want to know about visiting Morocco, buy a Lonely Planet. They’re great. Apparently, I’m no travel writer. The few travel-themed blogs I managed to generate were some of the most painful writing projects I’ve taken on. So…safi.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll try to sprinkle in some of the promised ruminations on various Moroccan cities, but there’s no way I’ll do it with anything like daily regularity.


And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…
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