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11/29/09 On Vegetarianism

"Ur da-ttagh aksum."

I don't eat meat.

I say this a lot.

How detailed my explanation becomes depends on the audience. Yesterday, speaking to a dear little old Berber lady, who's not only illiterate but probably didn't know anyone literate before her 60th birthday, I simply said, "I don't like meat." She responded, "But it's delicious!" I smiled - her entire face is mapped with smile lines, it's impossible not to love her on sight - and said, "Yes, delicious, but for me - myself - it's not good." My host mom was there, to chime in with her explanation that meat makes me violently ill (based on a misunderstanding last summer that I've never attempted to correct), and I let it go.

When I'm talking to people who have encountered other cultures and seem interested in hearing a nuanced discussion, I'm more likely to say something like, "In America, there are many vegetarians, for many different reasons. Me, I'm vegetarian because so much is wasted on animals. Animals need so much food and water and land; I want food and water and land to be used for people, not livestock. And here in Berberville, the sheep ate all the vegetation and now the mountains are naked, so they have to go far, far away to find grass - and we still grow more grasses in the fields, to feed them in the winter. I think that's a problem, so I don't eat meat."

I've been vegetarian since I was fifteen. And I'm the oldest Volunteer in my stage, so that tells you that it's been a while.

When I joined Peace Corps, my recruiter and I had a conversation about meat. He pointed out that in most Peace Corps countries, everyone who can afford to cooks meat as often as possible. Even if I were to limit myself to the vegetables served with the meal, they'd still have been cooked in the meat juices. He asked about the last time I'd had red meat. It was about six months prior, and resulted from my willingness to eat whatever I'm served when I'm in someone's home. The next day, I was sicker than I think I've ever been. It may have been a coincidence, or may have reflected that my body had gone so long without complex proteins that it viewed them as something foreign and toxic, and responded with the symptoms of extreme food poisoning. I told him something along those lines, and his advice was to re-introduce meat into my diet, a little at a time. I'd have enough challenges in starting life in a new country; I wouldn't need to worry about an inability to digest meat.

So ever since - and that was in May of 2007 - I've eaten meat every few weeks, give or take. I don't think I've gone a full month without meat since then, and I know a few times - like when I'm in the US, or when I'm in a city with great shwarma like Oujda or Essaouira - I've eaten meat up to half a dozen times in a week. Generally, it's every two to three weeks, but I don't think about it much.

I never eat meat with my host family or other Moroccan families, except on 3id al-Kebir, when I do it to show respect for the religious beliefs of my community. So I pretty much only dip a toe into the carnivorous lifestyle if PCV buddies and I go to one of the chicken houses in SouqTown or if I'm at another Volunteer's house, and they want to cook meat.

So I ate turkey at Thanksgiving (both Thanksgivings!), and meat-based chili when my PCV buddy Jamal made it - come to think of it, the last four times I ate red meat were when Jamal cooked it...hmmm - and have eaten shwarma in pretty much every major Moroccan city...but I still identify as vegetarian.

Which, I know, is inconsistent, and makes life harder for all the true vegetarians out there. (No, I really don't want meat. No, not even a little. Not even white meat. Not even fish. No, really, I *am* vegetarian. Really.)

But I like eating low on the food chain, and I know that all the animals in Morocco lead lives that a factory-farmed American animal could only ever dream of - the chickens run so free that I have to be careful not to step on them - so I'm OK with my compromise.

I eat enough meat that I don't have to be afraid of the meat-soaked potatoes and turnips I eat from Ama's tagine, but not enough to feel like a true omnivore.

So am I vegetarian? Not in any strict sense. But I identify with it for political and social and heck, even historical reasons (don't all my years of vegetarianism count for something?), and I'm OK with that.

Plus, I like not having to eat eyeball or brain or testicle - all of which are on the menu here. I eat intestine-wrapped organ meat once a year, and that's all the sheep I need. So I ate my half-dozen pieces of shishkebab'd sheep organs yesterday, will probably have the same again today (the 3id is a multi-day holiday), and then I'll get to return to saying Ur da-ttagh aksum.

11/28/09 Mbruk l'3id!

Mbruk l'3id! Mbruk l-washer!

Translation: Blessings of the Feast! Blessings of the holiday!

A more idiomatic translation would be Happy [Insert Name of Holiday]! Happy Holidays!

I went over to my host family's house yesterday evening, carrying food and gifts. I distributed the gifts - Beanie Babies, a blow-up map of the heavens, and a Jenga knock off - which were enthusiastically played with throughout the evening.

The Jenga knock-off lasted through a few rounds of Jenga-style play (as I played with each of my host brothers in turn), and then immediately got adapted, in yet another display of Moroccan creativity: my brothers realized something I never did, which is that Jenga is made up of BLOCKS. Wooden blocks. All of the same size.

So they promptly began building walls and towers and domino-style chains of blocks (which, when knocked over, would usually crash into one of the towers for maximum destructive fun) and other structures that made sense only to them. The older boy was even more into it than the younger; I really think he'll be an engineer one day.

Then I took a pre-holiday shower in their guest house - the main house doesn't have running water at all - then ate dinner and got painted up with henna. Ama wrapped up my now-immobilized hands and tucked me into bed.

In the morning, I dressed up in my zween 3id outfit - almost entirely consisting of clothes inherited from my departed sitemate, since the whole point of 3id clothes is that they be *new* (or at least new to you), then went on the usual round of 3id visits.

I stopped by the homes of two neighbors and various aunts and cousins, before winding up at my 3mmi's house for the Feast Of Meat.

We ate sheep organs wrapped in fat and intestines. Mmmm. The family has accepted that I'm a vegetarian, but they expect me to make a concession just this once per year (it's for God!), so I do, as gracefully as I can. So I ate a few shish-kebab'd pieces of barbequed organ meat For The Cause, and called it a day.

I'm stuffed to the gills, with all the tea, cookies, bread, more tea, more cookies, more tea, more cookies, and organ meat that I've eaten today...I have leftover mashed potatoes that I was planning to eat for dinner, but I'm now thinking that I may never eat again.

Today's holiday is formally known as 3id al-Adha - the Feast of the Sacrifice (referring to Abraham's almost-sacrifice of Ishmael [[that's how the Qur'an tells it - in the Old Testament, it's Isaac]] and to a lesser degree to the sacrifice of a ram that is expected from every household). Informally, it's known as 3id al-Kebir in Arabic or 3id Akhatar in Tamazight, both meaning The Big Feast.

The 3id we celebrated two months ago, at the end of Ramadan, is known as 3id al-Saghir / 3id Amzayant, both meaning The Small Feast. Formally, it's 3id al-Ftor, the Feast of Fast-Breaking.

Like Thanksgiving and Christmas in America, they're both about sharing food and good times with family and friends...and that's pretty much where the similarities end.

Organ meat, anyone?


11/27/09 3id Preparations

I went over to lunch at my host family's house today, as I do most Fridays.

Baba is out of town, showing the mountain nomads to a tourist, so Ama has been rattling around the house alone for a few days. (Well, she still has two pre-adolescent boys, a 2nd grade girl, and an infant, but she hasn't had any *adult* company in a while.) So she was eager to talk.

I learned all kinds of interesting things.

For one, the gigantic mountain of ifsi I'd noticed in the courtyard had been brought down by her cousin, who lives in her home village, a bumpy dirt-road trek about 20km off the main drag. He'd brought it in his transport-the-tourists oversized-Jeep-like-truck, which is why the mountain of ifsi reached up to the top of the (one-story) house. I estimated that it would have taken four or five donkeyloads to transport that much ifsi without the truck.

I also noticed just how *big* the shrubs were. I'm used to seeing ifsi used as a whisk broom, because it's the right size, plus it's the only use for the prickly bush during warm weather. (In cold weather, of course, it's used to supplement the expensive firewood purchased from wood poachers who in turn steal it from distant National Parks. They bribe the forest guardians to allow them to poach the wood; the higher the bribes, the more expensive the wood to my friends and neighbors. This is reason #13 as to Why Kauthar Doesn't Have A Wood Stove, But Endures The Smelly Butagaz Stove Instead.)

So from whisk-broom-sized ifsi to shrubs a solid meter in diameter...I wondered if it was actually the same species.

It is.

Up in Ama's village, there are few people and lots of mountainside, where the ifsi grows.

Here in Berberville, there are *lots* of people and the ifsi only grows out by the lake and in the cemetery, so every year, the women gather pretty much every last twig. During the spring and summer, it regrows from its stubborn roots, but gets only a foot or less in diameter before fall returns and the women come back with their scythes.

Think about the difference in volume between a one-foot sphere (not that the bushes are perfectly spherical, but it's close enough for the thought experiment) and a meter-diameter sphere. Volume goes up with the *cube* of the radius, so these remote-village-ifsi are *enormously* larger than the little bitty ones I'm used to.

Tonight, when we're all sitting around the stove, waiting for the henna to dry on our hands, I'll talk to Ama and my siblings about the implications of this. The relationship between the over-harvested ifsi and its ever-shrinking size, plus what that means for soil quality and erosion. Of course, words like "erosion" and "resource management" only exist in Arabic and French, not Tamazight, so I'm going to have to think about how to phrase it in ways that will make sense to my illiterate-but-highly-intelligent host mother.

Other highlights from lunch:
* The king is coming! The king is coming! Sometime after l-3id. [[This makes the *ninth* time people have told me this in the past 20 months. I'll believe it when I see his motorcade roll into town, and not before.]]

* My little brother interrogated the entire neighborhood to find out who had picked up my cell phone after it fell out of my pocket. ("It belongs to our tarumit!") Only after he offered a cash reward did the finder speak up, and even then he wanted to keep it. Apparently, my brother and the other kid got into a fight over it, with the result that when I returned from my recent trip to Rabat, the other kid came up to me on the street and said, "Hey, I found your phone! Come over to my house and drink tea and I'll give it to you!" I thanked him profusely, but didn't offer cash, which is why Ama was now explaining to me that I'd need to make my little bro's promise good. Which I'll do tomorrow, when I stop into that household on my round of 3id visits.

* She asked after my entire extended family, knowing that in my travels, I'd've had the chance to reach out to them on Skype. She has a phenomenal memory - I suppose you'd *have* to, if you have no way to record information for later recall - and often asks follow-up questions to anecdotes I've told her weeks or months before.

* Ama knows just how quickly the next six months will pass, and how soon I'll be gone. She grew up with four sisters, but they've all scattered; she doesn't have any family of "her own" in Berberville, she said, except me, so she'll be very sad when I leave. The silver lining that she keeps reminding herself of: Someday, I'll return with my husband and cute children - one boy, one girl. I always answer inshallah or msh irra arrbi (as God wills or if God wants it) , but I know how much it would mean to her. And I do certainly plan to come back to Berberville someday. Spouse and kids? Yeeeeah, we'll see about that.

* She's been under the weather for the past few days, so hasn't been able to make the holiday cookies that she's known for (and that are expected fare, come the morning of the 3id). So when I presented her with a box of fancy cookies from Souqtown, she was tremendously relieved. When I told her that I planned to spend the afternoon baking more, she got even happier.

* She offered to let me take a shower in their guesthouse. (The main house doesn't have running water at all, let alone a shower room.) I countered with spending the night - if that was OK. I'd been waiting for her to invite me, but I guess I was too emphatic at the last 3id, and made her think I didn't want to. When I asked if I could stay over, she lit up.

So we parted with me promising to return around sunset, cookies and shower stuff and fancy-clothes-for-tomorrow in hand.

Which means I'd better start packing...


11/16/09 Tragedy

My description of the ways to leave Peace Corps was inadvertently incomplete.

I only listed the ways to leave alive.

Today, Peace Corps lost a Volunteer...and I lost a friend.

It's so unexpected as to be ludicrous - so shocking as to leave me gasping.

Here's the official notification from our Country Director:
The Peace Corps is deeply saddened to confirm that on Monday, November 16th, 2009, Peace Corps Volunteer So-Youn Kim passed away unexpectedly after an illness. So-Youn was in a hospital in Marrakech and Dr. Hamid was by her side.

So-Youn, 23, a native of San Francisco, California, had been serving as a Youth Development Volunteer for one year in Tamagroute near Zagora.

Please contact a PCMO if you need counseling or would like someone to talk to.
Details of a memorial service to honor So-Youn will be shared soon.
Please keep So-Youn’s family and friends in your thoughts.

Update from a less stunned moment, 10 days later:

This is hardly Peace Corps' first fatality. In our fifty-year history, we've lost about 250 PCVs, out of the almost 200,000 who have served. Three-quarters of those were in the first twenty years; once Peace Corps stopped giving us motorbikes, the number of deaths from traffic accidents plummeted. (Sources: here and here and here.)

That doesn't make this any less of a tragedy. So-Youn (or soyoun, as she usually wrote it) lit the world with her radiance. She threw herself into life like a full-contact sport, with little patience for superficiality and a gift for penetrating insights. She was generous, loving, thoughtful, funny, exuberant, flamboyant... And whatever you believe happens after death, whether you hope to share her joy again or believe that she has vanished from the universe forever, we can all agree that we will miss her.

I'm grateful for the life she lived and for the time I got to spend with her.

For those who have been asking what happened - I avoided discussing it when I thought the questions were driven by sensationalism. But I know some of you are worried about me or your own loved one (because believe it or not, many of my readers are friends and family of other PCVs), so I'll say this: None of us are in danger. Soyoun died of complications from a medical procedure. Nothing contagious, nothing infectious, nothing any of us need to fear.

In short: feel free to grieve with us, but please don't be afraid for us.

11/26/09 3id al-Shokr

[[Disclaimer: Sorry for the blog absence...I've been out doing instead of inside and writing. I promise, I have tons of things to blog about. It's just that some of them are big, heavy, serious things (in addition to the usual set of entertaining sketches of life in Morocco), so I've been putting off writing them down until I had a better handle on things. So I'm going to start off with an easy blog, about food, and work my way up to the big stuff.]]

Happy Thanksgiving, friends!

As my American readers know, today is a major American holiday. For my Moroccan and other international readers: Thanksgiving is the holiday where we gather with family and loved ones to share love and warmth and reflect on all that we have to be grateful for.

Last year, when I tried to explain Thanksgiving to Moroccans, I translated it into Tamazight as l-Wess win l-Hamdullah, ie the Day of Thanks-be-to-God. I figured it was a fair translation, but when my better-educated sitemate heard about it, she bit down a laugh and explained that in classical Arabic, it should be l-3id al-Shokr, the Holiday of Thanks.

That sounds way better, so I've used it ever since.

Of course, Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday*, so it's not celebrated here.

Correction - it's not celebrated by Moroccans. Except for the ones invited to the Thanksgiving celebrations put on by nearly every American Peace Corps Volunteer, Embassy staffer, or other ex-pat cherishing a beloved holiday here in our adopted country.

I've gone to two Thanksgiving dinners this year - as I did last year, for that matter. One was this past weekend, with beloved friends up north, whose endless hospitality make their home a haven for so many of my favorite PCVs. About a dozen of us gathered together to share in the joy (and the delicious feasting).

I also went to a Thanksgiving dinner hosted two weekends ago, here on The Mountain. (Technically, it was in the next valley over, but whatever.) That one was a potluck; I contributed pumpkin muffins, a funfetti birthday cake (because while *Sunday* was all about Thanksgiving, *Saturday* was a joint birthday party for two friends), and mulled cider.

Both feasts featured honest-to-goodness TURKEY, plus mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, apple pie & pumpkin pie... That's just what I got to have twice. Deliciousness I only got once included from-scratch applesauce, stuffed mushrooms, pumpkin scones, chocolate chip pumpkin bread...and I know there's more that I'm forgetting.

At both, I got to share the day (and the feasting) with loved ones. Though my biological family live thousands of miles away, I spent Thanksgiving(s) with my Peace Corps family - the dozens of brothers and sisters (and crazy cousins) I get to share my service with.

I am truly grateful.

PS: Today, on Thanksgiving Day itself, I broke in my new pressure cooker with some phenomenal mashed potatoes. 'Cause it's not Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes. :)

* Yes, I know, Canadians have one too, but they're Americans - North Americans - too, so it counts. Besides, any holiday inspired by Pilgrims, designated by George Washington, and re-awakened by Abraham Lincoln is "quintessentially American" by any meaningful definition.

11/25/09 The Mountain

I could have sworn I'd written about this before, but can't find it in a quick search of the archives, so here goes...

My region is dense with Peace Corps Volunteers. For a relatively small region, we're flush with PCVs. For the past six months, we've had 13; we recently lost three, but we just gained five more with the newly arrived YD and SBD Volunteers, so we're up to 15. I thought we were nearly saturated, but I just got an email from our staff that says we're going to get a whole bunch more. The Mountain might have as many as 20 Volunteers.

So what is "The Mountain"? It's the shorthand that most of my local PCV buddies and I use to refer to those of us who share our Souqtown. Some people prefer "Souqtown Crew" or "The Souqtown Gang". I like "The Mountain."

Of course, it's not entirely accurate. The road from Berberville to Souqtown runs along a valley floor past several mountain ranges, and several of the Volunteers who make up "The Mountain" live in adjoining valleys, on the far side of these ranges. Some of our crew are in the flatlands on the far side of our Souqtown. They tend to prefer "Crew".

But I like The Mountain, for all its vagueness and inaccuracy.

Today, I visited my two nearest Mountain Volunteers. Our sites are close enough - evenly spaced every 20km along the road - that it's actually possible to go and return in a single day, if you time the transits carefully enough. Of course, given the vagaries of transportation on The Mountain, it's also entirely possible that you'll end up stuck in a friend's site overnight. But we all keep lots of sleeping bags and blankets and ponjs on hand, so it all works out well in the end.

I have to say, I'm going to miss these impromptu sleepovers when (if) I return to the US.

Remind me why we stopped having slumber parties after childhood?


11/8/09 Kitties

I'm cat-sitting.

I did it a year ago, and it worked out well; maybe I'm making it an annual tradition.

One is my site-mate's cat, Sheba. The other cat belonged to a friend who recently left. She bequeathed it to another neighbor, Mina, who is currently out of town. That one was originally named Moha, a common man's name around here...but it turned out to be a girl, so we've been calling her Tamohat.

(As you may recall, in Tamazight, almost any word can be rendered feminine by adding t's to its beginning and ending. T+Moha+t = Tamohat. Unfortunately, while Moha is perfectly common, Tamohat just sounds kinda ridiculous to me. I've been trying to come up with a better name for her, but haven't found one yet. Short-term favorites were Marmot and Catshepsut, but I wasn't happy with either.)

Mina has acknowledged that she has no deep love for Tamohat, and I'm a bit of a cat person, so this cat-sitting is also kind of a test run. If she and I hit it off, I may take the kitty off Mina's hands. But if she keeps knocking over my trash can, breaking into my food, and clawing me, she may go back to Mina. We shall see.

In the meantime, my small apartment is home to two kitties. They hated each other on sight, but lhumdullah, they've come to terms. They still get into the odd hissing match, but they're generally willing to spend hours in the same room, regally ignoring each other. Occasionally, they'll even play a lightning-round of catch-me-if-you-can.

As I type this, sitting cross-legged on a living-room ponj, Tamohat sprawls across my lap. She had been spiraled into a tiny, tight lump, but as the room has warmed (thanks to my invaluable little buta heater), she has loosened and loosened; now she's draped along the length of my right leg, her head on my knee and her front paws splayed in front of her like she's reaching for a hug.

Trash can habits aside, she's an awfully cute little thing...but will she be mine?

Time will tell.

11/14/09 Redball Cheese

For a country with so many goats, you'd think goat cheese would have found its way into the local diet.

Not so.

"Regular" cheese, aka cow cheese, is also a non-starter.

I don't know why.

Cheese is one of my favorite sources of protein.

But here in Morocco, cheese is rare.

If you ask for l-fromaj (borrowed directly from the French fromage), you'll get soft cheese, sold by the 1-dh triangular wedge. Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) is the most common variety, but there are a couple competitors - La Hollandaise and another whose name I don't recall.

If you want hard cheese, you have exactly one option: redball. More accurately, Gouda cheese sold in red spheres. PCVs call it redball cheese. Moroccans - Tam speakers, anyway - call it l-fromaj azugagh, red cheese.

A full sphere runs you about 150 dirhams, so I usually buy only 20-50 dh worth at a time, depending how many people I'm cooking for.

20dh of redball gets me a wedge about an inch across at its widest point. When grated, that's enough cheese for a cookie-sheet-sized pizza.

(But wait, you say, surely pizza is better with cheddar or mozzarella cheese? Of course, I reply, then smack you upside the head and point you to my earlier comment: if you want hard cheese, you have EXACTLY ONE OPTION: redball. It's impossible to find cheddar or mozzarella outside of the big cities. And since the nearest big city is 9-12 hours away, depending on transport, it means I'm leading a mostly cheese-less life. I'd love a block of cheddar, or a crumble of blue cheese, or some soft goat cheese...I'd swoon over a wheel of fresh Parmesan. Mmm...parm... But here in rural Morocco, I get redball and only redball, and I have to go into SouqTown even to find that. So I grate the gouda and am grateful for it.)

By the way, during my recent trip to the US, I was **shocked** to discover that redball is available in America. I don't know why it surprised me so much; everything is available in America, right? But somehow, the intersection of bled Peace Corps life with big-city-America life just knocked me over.

11/16/09 Redball Serendipity

A cheezy movie had the tagline, "When destiny has a sense of humor, it's called Serendipity."

That's actually a terrible definition of a great word.

Serendipity is when unexpectedly delightful things happen. When challenges suddenly work themselves out. When you have to laugh and shake your head and say, "!"

Some may attribute serendipitous moments to destiny. Others to God. Others to their own karma. But if it happened due to your own deliberate efforts to make it happen, it doesn't count as serendipity, so regardless of your belief system, it's a thing to be thankful for.

Today, I had a moment of serendipity.

The day didn't start out fabulously. I slept on a friend's floor (not uncommon, here in the Peace Corps) and peeled myself out of my chubby sleeping bag at 4:30am. Several of us were trying to catch an early-morning transit. We expected it to pass at 5:30am, but knew that it didn't adhere to a strict schedule, so we wanted to be on the side of the road at 5am.

We pretty much made it - 5:08am, according to my new phone - and spent the next hour stamping our feet, huddling for warmth, and watching shooting stars. (NB: the Leonids have begun, and are already a *great* show, and they haven't even peaked yet! Tonight should be great, and tomorrow night should be breathtaking, with more great nights throughout the week!)

After 6, our host called the transit driver...who informed him that the transit had rolled at 3am, not 5am.

We grumbled and mumbled and trooped back indoors, some to sleep, others to get coffee and/or breakfast, still others to try to work out another solution.

Nine hours later, we were back on the side of the road. The transit had been spotted heading back, having returned its round-trip into town, and our host had gotten the driver to agree to take another trip, to bring us all down the mountain. The transit had rolled up...but what goes up doesn't necessarily come down *quickly*, so we were, again, waiting. For something like an hour.

As we waited, I tried to decide my route. After getting out of my friend's site, I could either head to SouqTown or go straight up to Berberville. I really, really, really wanted to get home...but I'd promised my host mom that I'd teach her how to make pizza, which requires redball cheese, which is only available in SouqTown.

If we'd gotten off the mountain at 6am, I'd've gone into SouqTown, bought some redball, Skyped anybody awake, run various other errands, and then ridden back up the mountain on the noon or 2:30 transit. But to head into SouqTown *now* would mean having to spend the night there. The earliest I'd be home would be around noon tomorrow.

So I had a dilemma. Not a massive give-into-the-terrorist-demands-or-watch-innocent-people-die kind of dilemma, but still, a tough choice: go straight home and apologize to Ama for delaying our pizza party by another week OR spend yet another night out of site and away from my friends/neighbors/kitties/family.

I owe Ama some quality time, plus my kitties don't have enough food to last till tomorrow, so both options were unpleasant.

And then came the serendipity.

Redball serendipity.

I had found a mediocre solution to my dilemma: go home, but ask one of the friends heading into SouqTown to pick up some redball cheese and send it up on the morning transit. I don't like asking friends for favors, nor do I like exposing myself to public commentary (and "she sent cheese up the mountain on a transit" is definitely interesting to somebody), so I wasn't thrilled with the choice, but it seemed like the best one I had.

And then.

When I asked my buddy for the favor, another friend - adopted name "Mina" - overheard.

Mina clarified, "You want 20dh worth of redball cheese?"

"Yeah," I confirmed.

"I have some in my bag," she announced, as though this were a perfectly ordinary thing. As though cheese is usually tucked in shoulder bags, along with chapstick and a novel for the transit. "Want to buy it off me?"

"Yes!" I exclaimed.

"I picked it up in Marjane," she explained, pulling out the wedge of plastic-sealed gouda. "It was on sale - that's more than the usual 20dh worth."

I nodded my agreement, still grinning. "That's 30dh, maybe even 40dh worth of redball. Sweet!"

I even had exact change in my pocket.

I handed her the 20-dirham note. She handed me the wedge of cheese, which I promptly slid into my own bag, next to the chapstick and the novel.

And just like that, everything was perfect. I'm equipped for some pizza fabulousness with Ama, I'm headed home tonight, and Mina - who had gotten the cheese for the previous weekend, and had no pressing need for it now - is 20 dirhams richer.

Oh, and the transit showed up only a few minutes later.

Luck? Destiny? Karma? Divine Love meeting *every* need? I have my answer; you're welcome to yours. :D


11/13/09 Word of the Day: Dua

Dua is how I mentally spell the word pronounced doo-wa.

In training, I learned that it meant medicine, but its usage is broader than that. It probably translates best as chemical.

People use dua to mean drugs (medicinal and recreational), medicinal herbs, plus, I recently learned, herbicides and/or pesticides. A friend's host auntie offered us apples, and when we hesitated, she assured us that they were bla dua. Free from ... dua. Organic, in other words.

Whenever I would cough or have stomach challenges, my host mom would worriedly ask me, "Do you have dua?" Birth control pills are also dua. So are painkillers, antibiotics, and pretty much anything else taken orally.

Injected vaccines, though, get their own name: tesarut. Which is usually translated as "key". More on that another time...

Today we're focusing on dua.

If you put shiba (absinthe) into your tea, that's dua, because it's medicinal: it's good to "raise your temperature". Adding luisa (verbena) isn't dua, because it just makes it tasty.

Z3tr (oregano) is good for upset stomachs, I'm told, but people are more likely to use it as a flavoring than brew it as tea to make it dua.

...and so on.

Tamazight has a small vocabulary, in comparison to most modern languages, so Tam speakers either borrow words from Darija (Moroccan Arabic) or adapt existing words to fill newly discovered language gaps. Are you treating sick crops? Clearly, the chemicals you're applying to the soil serve the same purpose as the chemicals you apply to sick people, hence...dua.

And now I have an old song stuck in my head:
There she was, just a-walkin' down the street,
Singin' "DUA-ditty ditty dum ditty doo."


11/3/09 Madam Secretary

(sorry the picture is blurry - I took it without a flash, so I wouldn't distract her, but there was so little light in our basement meeting room that the exposure took a while)

Today, about 60 PCVs had the opportunity to meet the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Thank you to all who jumped the dozens of security, logistical, and bureaucratic hurdles required to make the event happen.

She spoke for about 15 minutes, addressing both the Volunteers and the Foreign Service Officers stationed here in Morocco.

She highlighted the work of a staffer who has been bringing together people from different development organizations. Secretary Clinton said that when she was the First Lady, she had attended a workshop with a dozen development NGOs...and that no one at the meeting had met each other before. She pointed out the extreme inefficiency of such a hydra-style approach, and urged State Department officials to work together with various organizations to put together and implement a unified plan for development work.

I expected her to point out what an asset PCVs can be, with first-hand knowledge of development needs and assets in communities far from the reach of most FSOs and NGOs...but she actually never addressed anything like that. She took advantage of the photo opp of posing with the oldest serving PCV in the world, our Muriel, but other than that, seemed to focus both her remarks and attention on the Foreign Service personnel.

That, combined with the enormous amount of time we wasted for the visit - we adjourned morning sessions at 9:30 to "prepare" for our 11am meeting, but she was occupied till noon, and then her motorcade had blocked in our buses, so we couldn't leave till she finished all of her other meetings onsite - makes me almost wish she hadn't arranged to meet with us. I mean, I've been looking forward to meeting her ever since I heard she was coming, three months ago... And then none of us got to "meet" her or ask her anything; a few PCVs got a limp handshake, and that was that.

Our already-overscheduled IST lost about 5 hours to get a 15-minute talk addressed to other people. We didn't even get a group photo with her, for security reasons. So...a bit anticlimactic, to say the least.

11/12/09 Climate Update

When I lived in New England, the first snowfall of the year often came on 11/11. It seems statistically unlikely, but year after year, it was the case.

Last year, Berberville got its first snowstorm on 10/10, and received heavy storms fairly regularly for the next five months. This year, October came and went without a single snowflake. Now 11/11 has passed, and we're still adfel-free.

I've been told many times that last winter was the worst one in a decade or two. I wondered if people were just saying it so I wouldn't go home before this winter, but now I'm starting to believe it.

But it is cold.

When I woke up this morning, about 7:30, my indoor-outdoor thermometer said that the indoor temperature was a balmy 42 (I live in a fridge again! I can leave out leftovers and not worry about them!) and the outdoor temperature was 35. As the sun rose, outside got steadily warmer; at this point, in direct sunlight, it feels like mid-sixties, maybe mid-seventies. Nice and warm. Inside, the air has heated up to almost 50.

So yes, my heater is on. I used it for a week or so, during a cold snap, and then let it sit cold and dark for about a month, as Berberville enjoyed a warm fall. But now, and for the past several days, it's been on for at least several hours each day.

Just the little butagaz (butane) heater. My giant buta heater won't get fired up till snow falls, inshallah.


11/9 20th Anniversary of the Berlin Wall Coming Down

One of my earliest political memories is The Day The Wall Came Down.

I was too young to notice or understand, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." To have an informed opinion on the presidential elections. To have any comprehension of perestroika or glasnost. But in Social Studies class, we had to bring in news articles on current events, and about half the class had brought in a story about The Berlin Wall.

I still had no idea what was going on, let alone what it all meant, but I knew that Something Big Was Happening.

And now, 20 years later, capitalism vs communism has all but disappeared from public discourse; the talk now skews towards Islam and The West. And here I sit, an American living in a Muslim country, heir of Washington and Payne living in a kingdom, eyeball to eyeball with cultures and customs completely different from those I grew up with.

The world shrinks daily.

20 years ago, a massive obstacle...crumbled. Was torn down, brick from brick, by a jubilant mob. Today, the biggest comparable barrier snakes through the Holy Land; another is under construction from the Rio Grande to the Pacific.

But if we learned anything 20 years ago, it was that no wall stands forever*. That any barrier, chasm, gulf, wall, ultimately permeable, because the human spirit cannot be bound by physical obstacles.

So as I stand on the conceptual frontier between Islam and the West, I'm living that. Every day, I find more things in common with my Moroccan friends and family. Yes, we hold different beliefs, attitudes, expectations...but we're still united by far more than divides us.

And the "Goal 2 and 3" work that I do - like writing this blog, for instance - I do to lay bricks in the bridge between my two communities and cultures, and to help knock down any imagined walls in the minds of my friends on either side.

And just think - simply by reading this, you're helping me in that work.

Thank you.

*OK, before you quibble about the Great Wall of China - that one's not a barrier anymore, it's architecture. It's not preventing the free movement of anyone who wants to cross it - or if it is, that's a news story that deserves some attention, 'cause I've never heard of it.

11/10 School Check-In

Today I walked down to the local middle school/high school campus with a Fulbright scholar who is researching girls' education in bled Morocco. She had a series of questions to ask the administrators; she's been in Berberville for two months now, but has had trouble getting the requisite paperwork to have admittance to the schools. I've had the paperwork for over a year, plus I've spent a year and a half building relationships with the teachers and administrators, so I accompanied her in hopes of smoothing her way.

It worked.

We had a very successful conversation with the principal, and he even gave her a copy of the school's enrollment records, complete with details about annual retention, failing students (or "redoubling", as they're called here), IB passage rates, and more, broken down by gender.

I don't know why the principal has been a stickler for the paperwork until now - he didn't ask to see mine until May, and I worked in the school from October onwards - but I was very grateful that he answered her questions fully and thoughtfully today.

I was less grateful - in fact, I was downright upset - to discover that the huge murals that we poured so much time, attention, labor, and money into last year...

...I don't even want to say it...

...have been plastered over. The king is scheduled to come to Berberville next week - and I say "scheduled to" because this is the *eighth* time that he has been expected in the past 20 months, and we haven't yet seen him - so everyone is running around, beautifying the city.

And for reasons that I cannot comprehend, the school administration decided that the buildings would look better with freshly plastered and repainted walls than with the gorgeous, professional-looking murals that the EE club students generated last year.

Honestly, it felt like a gut punch.

I didn't even notice it immediately - it's hard to see what's *not* there - but about 5 minutes into our visit, I suddenly noticed that I was looking at textured beige where a huge world ecosystem map should be. I hastily ran around to check all the other walls...all freshly plastered and painted.

It hurt.

When I asked the principal what had happened to all our work, he just shrugged and said, "You can redo them if you want."

That hurt, too.

And then we began discussing girls' education, and my spirits rallied somewhat, and I even proposed a few new mural ideas before we left...but my heart wasn't in it.

I did run into a few of the teachers we worked with last year, and talked about restarting the club for this year. We'll see how that goes...


11/1/09 The End is Nigh

So, dear friends, the end is nigh.

Not *that* nigh.

But, you know, nigh-ing.


We just got word: Our service will close* on May 19th, 2010, exactly 2 years to the day after we swore in. And we have a 72-hour checkout procedure that backdates from that, so I'll be leaving Berberville for the last time on May 14th or 15th, inshallah.

That's really not very far away.

In preparation for that, all the remaining Health and Environment PCVs from my group - I think we have 45 out of the original 60 - will meet together three months prior for our "COS Conference".

At COS Conference, we'll discuss things like how to finish off our projects in a way we can be proud of; potential job opportunities; the status of our health care /insurance /other benefits /etc after we COS; what RPCV status means in terms of fellowships and non-compete status for federal jobs; and suchlike. It's Peace Corps' official chance to point out that we're about to finish up, and how to handle that.

After 24 months in country (well, it'll be 23.5, but who's counting), it'll be a shock for most of us to think about.

Adjusting back to American culture - assuming we plan to return to America (which, honestly, is a valid assumption for the vast majority of us). Finding a job, once this guaranteed paycheck dries up. Deciding our next steps.

Of course, it has already come up. Everyone I talk to back in the US wants to know what my post-May 2010 plans are, and even PCVs here have started discussing it with each other.

A couple of us - literally 2 out of the 45 - are contemplating extending our service for a 3rd year. One has already committed to it and been approved; the other [me] is still making up her mind. Fortunately, I still have time to think about it. If I do decide I want to extend, I have to formally make a request to my Program Manager (though I've already sounded him out, and he responded positvely). If he thinks that (1) I have good reasons for wanting to extend, and (2) there's money in the budget to fund me for a third year, then he'll approve my application and pass it up to the Country Director. If the CD agrees, then it's official. The deadline for Country Director approval is COS conference, meaning that the application deadline is a month or three before mid-February. As in, I need to make up my mind before the New Year for sure, and even sooner if possible.

* Hence the acronym COS, Close Of Service


11/11/09 "So What Do You *Dislike* about Morocco?"

In my recent travels, I struck up a conversation with a young Moroccan who lives in Germany, where he works as a nurse, and where he recently married a young German woman. His family lives near Merzouga, in southeastern Morocco, and our travel paths overlapped briefly.

We talked about all kinds of things, from Secretary Clinton's imminent visit to the weather similarities between Hamburg and the High Atlas Mountains. Oh, and we met when he startled me into spilling my soda all over myself and my lap. After a "meet cute" like that, we were destined by all the laws of cheezy movies to become friends. :)

At one point, he asked me, "So what do you dislike about Morocco?"

I mis-heard him (or maybe misunderstood him - his Tam is somewhat different from mine), and thought he'd asked what I *like* about Morocco, and answered, "The people."

His eyebrows went up. "The people!?"

Nodding, I repeated, "Definitely the people. And the mountains - I love the landscape here." He looked puzzled. "Yeah, the people are so friendly, the mountains are great--"

He cut me off. "No, I asked what you *dislike* about Morocco."

I laughingly apologized, "Definitely not the people! Sorry!" He laughed, too, while I searched for an answer that could be honest without hurting his pride in his mother country.

After a minute, I said, "Well, I like tagine, but having it day after day, meal after's too much."

He agreed. "I love tagine, I love couscous," he began, "but there are other foods out there, people! That are better for you!"

We swapped food stories for a bit, and then I turned it around on him. "What do *you* dislike about our country?"

He promptly answered, "Relationships between men and women. I hate it that men and women can't be *friends* in Morocco."

I chimed in so enthusiastically, I might have actually shouted. "I know! Exactly! It makes me crazy! I have so many friends-who-are-men (amdukal), but even to use the word is to make people assume that they're my boyfriends!"

We riffed on this for quite a while.

I shared this story, which I don't think I put on my blog before:

While I was in homestay, a male friend came to visit me. I spent the week before his visit explaining to my host mom, host sister, host cousin, and all female friends that he was a ***friend***, not a boyfriend. I even insisted on using the Arabic word sadiq, in hopes that it had a more platonic connotation than the Tamazight asmun or amdakul.

I don't think they believed me, but they agreed to refer to him as my sadiq.

And then he arrived, my host mom locked me in for the night.

See, in homestay, I lived in a semi-detached part of my host family's house. The guest house, more or less. But ain't no way I could stay semi-detached from my family with a man under the same roof. So my sadiq stayed in another house they own, on the far side of town. And for the first time since I stayed with them, my host mom locked the door to my part of the house.

She literally locked me in.

(But she forgot about the back door to the "guesthouse", which leads out to an enclosed courtyard with its own easily-unlatched door. So I slipped out to join my buddy for breakfast.)

Additionally, Moroccans aren't fans of cross-gendered public displays of affection. Contact between men or between women is always fine, but men and women shouldn't even hold hands when walking down a street, let alone hug in public. So I may well travel 14 hours to visit a guy friend, and when I get there, I run up to him and ... shake his hand.

Unless I'm in a big enough city that I can assume some cosmopolitan westernism, in which case I go ahead and hug my buddy. :)

...So with these and other stories to share, I cheerfully passed a several-hour conversation with my new friend. My new male Moroccan friend. Guess it's time to dust sadiq off and bring it back into my daily conversation...


11/17 Ama's Worry

So last week (11/3, to be specific), when I was hundreds of kilometers away attending the In-Service Training of the new Environment Volunteers, I took a hard fall. From about 6 feet up. Landed with a head-to-toe faceplant. I had most of the symptoms of a concussion. And whiplash.

(See, there was this swingset, and, um, ... nevermind.)

This week, ever since my return, I've been quietly hanging out at home.

I know I *should* have gone to visit my host family, but I didn't.

After several days at home, when I happened to have a buddy over (Berberville is at the intersection of two paved roads, which means it's a stopover town for some), Ama came by, little baby Mbarak strapped to her back, to see What Was Going On.

She was upset.

Her feelings were hurt, I think. But she saw that I had company - both my sitemate and my buddy were in the house at that point - so she limited her lecture to a few angry sentences, wrapping up with, "You just didn't want to come over. Fine." I promised to come for lunch the next day - today - but she didn't seem mollified.

So today I went, played with my little siblings, helped serve lunch, and generally groveled. I also played up my injuries, to provide a face-saving explanation for why I hadn't hiked up to their house to see them.

Part of our conversation:

me: When I was in Marrakesh, I hurt myself. I fell and cracked my head.
Ama: I *knew* something was wrong.
me: Yeah; I fell off ... um ... [no idea how to say "swingset" in Tamazight]
Baba: A ladder?
me: Yeah, a ladder. I was about two meters up, and fell *splat* on the ground. Hurt my chin, my body, my knee...cracked my head. I had a - I don't know the word - in English, a "concussion". One eye was like this [fingers spread apart] and the other eye like this [close together].
Baba and Ama, to each other: She hurt herself; broke her head.
Bahallu [host grandpa]: Did you go to the hospital in Marrakesh?
me: No, there was a doctor there at the hotel, from Peace Corps. [I opted not to tell them that the Peace Corps doctor FAILED TO NOTICE MY MISMATCHED PUPILS and never diagnosed the concussion. That was done by an observant PCV buddy. Medical FAIL.]
Said: Yeah, one of my clients once fell off their bicycle and had eyes different sizes. But he was OK later.
me: And I'm OK now; but my head was killing me for a while. [Yes, Tam uses the same idiom as English for "hurt."]
[Later, in the kitchen]
Ama: I just *knew* something had happened to you. I woke up in the middle of the night and knew in my liver [we'd say "in my heart" or "in my soul" or even "in my gut" - here they say "in my liver"] that something bad had happened to you. So I went to Fatima [my PCV sitemate], but she said that nothing was wrong.
me: Yeah, I hadn't called her. I didn't want her to worry.
Ama: That's what I thought. I *knew* something was wrong. She said, no, Kauthar is fine, but I just knew.
me: You know me. :)
Ama: Yes, because you used to come by all the time, but then suddenly you didn't come at all.
Ama: When you talk to your parents, don't tell them. You're fine now, and there's no need to make them worry.
me: I won't. I haven't - just like I didn't tell Fatima. I don't like making people worry.
Ama: That's good. They'll see you in six months; that's soon enough. They don't need to worry about you in the meantime. [pause] But I was so worried...I just knew something terrible had happened.
me: But, really, I'm OK now, thanks be to God.
Ama: Thanks be to God.

Even after a day like yesterday, there are things to be grateful for.

Which is why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It's about family, and loved ones, and gratitude. Because we all have so much to be grateful for, and it helps to remember it...especially in hard times.

I may not have central heating or running water and my sitemate is gone and my friend died and I'm still getting headaches, two weeks after my concussion - but I love my host family and they love me, and I love my Peace Corps family of Volunteers, and I love you guys. Surrounded by that much love, I can't help but be grateful.


PS: Because I think she's right, I typed up this story a month ago, when it happened, and am only posting it now, and messing with the posting date to bury it in my archives. This post will probably never be read, and I'm OK with that. I just wanted to record for posterity what a sweet host mom I have. :D
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